Sexy spring: How group sex will liberate Iran, China

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Katherine Frank talks to anthropologist Pardis Mahdavi on changing sexual mores in Iran and China and what it means for politics, in Salon:

[T]he new sexual culture in Iran, Mahdavi believes, is not simply an embrace of Western consumerism and morality nor merely an escapist hedonism, a “last resort.” Urban young adults, the focus of Mahdavi’s inquiry, made up about two-thirds of Iran’s population; they were mobile, highly educated, underemployed, and dissatisfied with the political regime at the time. Some were directly involved in politics. Many used the Internet to make connections, blog about their frustrations, and peer into youth cultures elsewhere around the world. Willingly taking risks with their social and sexual behavior, as these Iranian young people were doing, was viewed as a step toward social and political reform—not just a means of escape and excitement. After all, the consequences of partying in Tehran were different from in Los Angeles, despite similarities in flashy dress, electronic music, and group sex. Iranian youth had “restricted access to social freedoms, education, and resources (such as contraceptives or other harm-reduction materials)” that might minimize the risk of some of their behaviors. If caught, the punishments many young people would receive from their parents would likely be harsh. The punishments meted out by the morality police could be harsher. If caught drinking, for example, youth could be detained and sentenced to up to seventy lashes. Premarital sex could be punished by imprisonment and lashings; unmarried men and women caught in a car together could receive up to eighty-four lashings each. Although physical punishment has decreased in recent years, Mahdavi notes, young people are still detained and harassed by the morality police.

Yet stories of being apprehended and arrested by the morality police were sometimes told with pride; occasionally, even parents were pleased that their children stood up for their beliefs. Some young adults courted run-ins with the morality police in the name of activism, boredom, or both. One couple caught having sex at a party were arrested and forced to marry. When Mahdavi talked with the twenty-two-year old woman involved, the woman explained that she and her new husband were trying to annul the marriage. Despite her ruined reputation, however, the young woman mused that her experience was “almost worth it”: “The sex was great, and the excitement and adventure of doing what we know we aren’t supposed to be doing, then being caught! Well, and it makes a great story.”

Mahdavi’s informants claimed that they were living the social and sexual changes they desired, reminding her that their “revolution was not about momentary acts” but was “a way of life.” This way of life included social gatherings and behavior that “could be viewed as hedonistic” but were also “a necessary part of constructing a world over which they had control, a world they could live in rather than in the world of the Islamists, who would have them stay home and obey.”

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