Stolen Kisses: Iran's Sexual Revolutions
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In a country where run-of-the-mill dating and fashion are illegal, extreme practices have emerged in the private spaces occupied particularly by well-off, heterosexual Tehrani youth. Mahdavi shows up at a party, thrown by a mullah's daughter whose parents are out of town, that turns out to be a giant orgy. Smaller parties, too, frequently become occasions for group sex. Out on the heavily policed city streets, young people cruise for anonymous sex partners by passing notes into the windows of neighboring cars when they are stuck in traffic, or by driving to poor neighborhoods where nobody will recognize them as they scour the sidewalks for partners they hope never to see again. Adultery, for women, is punishable by stoning in Iran, but fully half of Mahdavi's married, female research subjects are unfaithful to their husbands; for many of them, picking up lovers is a regular form of recreation. And despite the legal requirement that women in Iran cover their hair and hide the curves of their bodies, fashion obsesses the women in Mahdavi's study. They apply layer after layer of makeup, and they find ways to make the hijab as sexy as the skimpy summer attire of Western women.
While this portrait of Iranian sexual experimentation may be shocking on its surface, it has grown familiar to most people who have visited Iran or followed cultural developments there in the past decade. Less well known is that, for all their promiscuity and seeming sophistication, many of these young Iranians suffer from a lack of sexual education and resources that fits the official culture of pious abstinence rather than the actual one of looseness and risk. The birth control method of choice among Mahdavi's informants is withdrawal. Women who take the pill frequently lack the most basic information and take it only erratically, depriving themselves of almost all of its effect. Condoms are considered so filthy and embarrassing that even people who share florid details about their sex lives with Mahdavi blush at their mention, and no one wants to be seen requesting them at a pharmacy. AIDS, educated young Iranians tell Mahdavi, is transmitted through visits to the dentist or hairdresser, and other STDs come only from a certain unsavory sort of woman. While wealthy women can obtain abortions -- illegal in most cases but common, thanks to poor contraception -- from sympathetic doctors at vast expense, poorer women acquire on the black market pills or injections meant for animals. Mahdavi went to a back street where dealers sell these medications, just to see how easily they could be acquired. A dealer sold her a vial of pills without the least instruction on what to do with them. Physicians she interviewed told her that they see a great many women seriously injured or rendered infertile by self-administered abortions meant for animals.
On its face, Iranian state ideology conflicts with the requirements of public health, given the sea change in public attitudes toward sex. Yet there is good news in Mahdavi's study. Close to the ground, where it counts, Iranian doctors, parents, educators and even institutions are bending to the forces of change. For example, since 2000 the Islamic Republic has required Iranians who seek marriage licenses to attend state-administered classes on family planning. One that Mahdavi attended in Tehran's central business district sounds perfectly appalling. A chador-clad woman shrilly lectures a room of gum-snapping, nail-filing, indifferent young women, offering the following counsel: "You must always be ready for your husband's sexual needs. If perchance he is watching a football game on television, you should be resting to prepare yourself, or else preparing your bed for the evening. If you should feel overcome by fatigue yourself, make sure always to ask your husband, 'Is there anything else you need from me?' or 'Would you like to have me later?' before retiring."