This is my 6th day of a two-week trip in Azerbaijan, a country bordered by Turkey, Iran, and Russia. To follow my exploits, see www.MartyInAz.com.
I gave several lectures in Baku this week: to psychologists, and to public health professionals at the Ministry of Health.
I did them all in English, working with a translator. I say something, wait, she says something; I say something, wait, she says something. I've done this before in other countries, and never like it; it's hard to get a rhythm going, but more importantly, it cuts down the amount of material I can present by almost 50%. And dealing with people's questions--which I encourage and they typically desire--is especially clumsy. I clearly have an amazingly gifted translator here (who blushes at nothing), but it is a personal challenge trusting my precious (and admittedly idiosyncratic) ideas in someone else's mouth.
In typical Azerbaijani fashion (as I've learned, to my dismay), the start and end times of my lectures were unclear, and I wasn't sure exactly to whom I was speaking. That, of course, makes preparation difficult. I invariably get to do these talks in stiflingly hot and ugly rooms. And then comes the Eastern norm of the stone-faced audience, which I've also encountered before. The grim affects, the folded arms, lack of eye contact--it's like talking with depressed people who have a touch of Asperger's syndrome. Come to think of it, that defines Soviet (and therefore ex-Soviet) civic life.
But my talks must have gone well, because no one left early--in fact people invariably stayed until they were told to leave. I've been asked to return, and will actually squeeze in another lecture the day before leaving for home.
It's been a challenge talking about empowering people around sexuality--when they're stuck in an era of virginity before marriage (and really follow it, even most males); it's a wife's duty to have sex when her husband wants it; there is no sex education; and public agencies are still trying to reduce the practice of forced marriage at girls at puberty.
So I talked about simple things like changing the wedding night to include talking, touching, and having sex with the lights on; contraception as a means of improving sexual enjoyment; and using lubricants to make sex more comfortable for both partners. I also reminded people that the virginity/enforced ignorance system places a crushing sense of responsibility on men. Men themselves don't talk about this, women can't really help unless they're willing to challenge the entire gender system, and as a result most "normal" people feel alienated around sex. I believe that some of the male violence and coercion around sex is an expression of anxiety and resentment about the pressure to perform in really awful circumstances.
Since there is no distinction in my mind between sexuality and politics (reminiscent of that line that those who make a distinction between education and entertainment don't understand either one'), I talked about the American experience of sexual health promotion--and aggressive failure. I spoke about the U.S. debacle with Gardisil--how a small number of religious politicians were able to undermine the distribution of a miraculous drug that could cut the rate of HPV and cervical cancer for millions of American women, all in the name of preventing girls from becoming sexual before marriage. I said that in the U.S., sexual health had to be marketed as a health issue instead of a sexual issue. Public health officials, take note.
In all, my week in Baku has been interesting, aggravating, and a challenge to my concepts regarding politics, sociology, economics, nationalism, and psychology. Are there ideas that we can use to understand all people, or are cultures so fundamentally idiosyncratic that they can only be understood on their own local terms?
Some people assume that sex is a universal language, a longing (or an anxiety) shared by almost everyone. In my travels around the world, I've never found that "sex" had a meaning or value on which everyone agreed. Azerbaijan is one more country that confirms my experience.
Tomorrow morning I head out to "the regions," the ancient, rural lands in the mountains and valleys. If I have internet access, you'll hear about it before I return to Baku on Friday night. Inshallah.
I continued my trip to Azerbaijan by visiting medieval times twice, from two entirely different--yet oddly related--directions.
Today I went to Krasnaya Sloboda, a small town in the foothills near Russia that is experiencing a religious revival. In fact, it now has the only actual Jewish culture in Azerbaijan. The rest was wiped out by the Soviets in the general anti-religion frenzy of the Stalin era, enhanced by the standard Russian and Central Asian anti-semitism.
Religion has been making an enormous comeback in all the former Soviet republics since the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Whether Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, not surprisingly, it's been the orthodox strains that have been most energetic. After all, that's the kind of religion that survives underground during times of oppression, and that's the kind that's most attractive when religion is reintroduced.
So although Judaism has been considered a relatively progressive religion for 1,000 years, the Judaism I found in Krasnaya Sloboda was pretty disconcerting. Not only are women not allowed to pray next to men, they aren't allowed to pray at all. The men in the synagogue were quite proud that "we are more strict than the Jews in Israel." They gave the usual spiel about women having a privileged role in transmitting the culture through the home. I suggested that they were being deprived of the beauties of the Torah (such as they are), and of the comforts of worshipping god (such as he/she/it is). They shrugged, saying this is "tradition," which of course is both nonsense and not a very good reason for separating family members during times of prayer and socializing.
Two hours later, having left Krasnaya Sloboda, I sat at dinner with my guide and driver, she a college-educated world traveller and he a normal kind of high-school graduate, both in their late 40s. In response to a few questions back and forth, they proceeded to jointly lecture me on the finer points of their culturemandatory female virginity before marriage, the unimportance of sex in women's lives, the need for men to have regular "sexual release," the complete inappropriateness of female infidelity, and the occasional necessity for honor killings--of daughters or wives who have strayed.
Yes, these two people who own cell phones, drive, and use the internet believe that the hymen is so important that a girl should be killed if she can't present it to her future husband. And they believe that, although male infidelity is "only normal," a wife who strays deserves to be killed; an enlightened man would only beat and abandon her.
Yes, my guide Azzia would kill her own daughter if she betrayed her family's dreams of a virgin bride--although "this would never happen, because we train her every day since she is little." I noted the tremendous responsibility young daughters have: you wouldn't trust a 14-year-old with your best camera, watch, or family china, but something far more precious--the family's reputation and dreams--are carried on her shoulders every day. How anxiety-provoking this must be for the family. Azzia didn't quite get my astute, western analysis.
I asked if this were an Azeri belief or a Muslim belief, and she said "Muslim, definitely." Trying hard to contain my disdain, I said, "This is how you lived 1,300 years ago, and this is how you live now." She agreed, without a trace of irony.
Of course, the ultra-orthodox Jewish system, repressive as it is, is far more benign than the Muslim one. Jews haven't had anything like honor killings since they left their desert tents. Nor do Jews abort fetuses simply for being female, nor do they abandon newborn babies who make the stupid choice to come into the world as girls.
But both systems devalue femaleness, and in doing so leave both men and women isolated and incomplete. the "otherness" men and women experience of women and men is so profound, there can be no intimacy. The lack of trust is so profound there can be no intimacy.
When hymens are more important than humans, when female sexuality is dismissed as myth, when male bullying is considered evolutionarily, spiritually, and physically "normal," and when men and women are prevented from praying together, god feels shame at god's creation. If god has tears, god weeps.
Azerbaijan is sitting on much of the oil left in the world. This makes Azerbaijan important--for a very short while. But it doesn't make Azerbaijan rich; its religious tradition of denigrating women, fearing sexuality, and preventing intimacy makes it very, very poor.
When the oil is used up in just a few years, Azerbaijan won't be important anymoreand it will still be poor.
The Iowa Supreme Court has affirmed the conviction of 18-year-old Jorge Canal, who complied with a 14-year-old friend's request for a photo of his penis. The young man is now forced to register as a sex offender, meaning his chances of getting a college degree, job, or livable apartment are pretty much ended.
According to the court, the girl "generally hung out with teenagers older than herself;" was "only friends" with Canal; thought the picture was sent "only as a joke;" and was not "a means to excite any feelings." Nevertheless, Canal was convicted of "knowingly disseminating obscene material to a minor."
Canal was a foolish kid. But there are many ugly, stupid, irresponsible adults in this story. The girl's mother, who checked her daughter's e-mail and internet use, found the photo and forwarded it to her husband. The father then showed the photo to his friend, a police officer. The cop arranged to have Canal arrested. A prosecutor pursued the case, a judge tried it, a jury convicted. These adults failed Canal and his friend miserably. His ruined life will be a testament to their fear, insecurity, and hatred.
All these adults were supposedly attempting to protect Iowa's young peopleby punishing this kid who was fooling around with a pal.
So let's spend a moment in the real world (which none of these adults seem to inhabit). Which is likely to hurt this 14-year-old girl more--seeing a 2-square-inch photo of a friend's erect penis, or being the reason that this friend will spend time in jail and decades as a registered sex offender? Her life is now ruined (in addition, of course, to his), because of her criminally negligent parents, criminally ambitious prosecutor, and 12 jury members who failed to protect people who needed justice but received only wrath.
Americans should understand the horrors of our obscenity laws: a picture or word or object is obscene only after a jury decides that it is. And a jury can decide that ANY picture, word, or object is obscene. So no one can know for sure what's obscene until it's too late. This is exactly like laws against "hooliganism" in places like Russia that we rightly deride.
The judge in Canal's case had rightly told the jury that "a depiction of a person's genitals was not in and of itself obscene. In order for the depiction of a person's genitals to be obscene, an average person applying contemporary community standards with respect to what is suitable material for minors must find the material is patently offensive, appeals to the prurient interest, and lacks serious literary, scientific, political, or artistic value." At that point, the picture becomes illegal, and sharing it with someone else becomes a crime.
A jury of twelve Americans destroyed Jorge Canal's life because they believed that a picture of his erect penis is "patently offensive." I hope each of them never gets a good night's sleep for the rest of their lives.
I'm returning from New York, where I keynoted a big Planned Parenthood event.
It's wonderful to speak to groups of people who support sexual rights. It always feels like visiting family. (The family that makes you feel welcome, not the family that wonders if you were switched with their "real" child at birth.)
After I spoke, I saw an old friend, and the subject of pornography came up (I hardly go anywhere anymore that it doesn't). An influential sex-positive researcher, she told me she favored full access to sexually explicit materials--"except, of course, snuff films," she said.
That brought me up short. Here's a world-class sociologist, a tremendous force for good in the world, and she's talking about snuff films--movies where actual people actually die while making the film, which very sick viewers then watch for sexual pleasure.
I told her there's no such thing.
"Of course there is," she said.
I asked if she'd ever seen one. She hadn't.
I asked if she knew anyone who'd ever seen one. She hadn't.
I asked if she knew anyone who knew anyone who'd ever seen one. She hadn't.
"But various law enforcement people talk about it, and they say they exist," she said. I totally believe that they say that. But I asked her if any of these prosecutors, detectives, or cops had ever seized one, shown her one, or even seen one. She said no.
She and I travel in very different professional circles which only overlap slightly. So between the two of us, we've got most of the sex profession covered. And together we've been at it over half a century. To top it off, she's one of the world's experts on sexual violence.
So if neither of us has seen a snuff film, or knows someone who has, I'm certain they don't exist.
What's interesting, though, is the enduring power of this myth. Like Bigfoot, delicious fat-free lasagna, or moderate Republicans, people insist there is such a thing. Nobody's seen one, but the myth is so persistent that somehow it's up to the non-believers to prove the thing doesn't exist--which, of course, can't be done.
People are especially prone to believing myths about sex. Part of my job is to challenge such beliefs: That the internet is full of pedophiles waiting to kidnap our kids. That porn is a gateway drug that leads to watching kiddie porn. That masturbation within marriage is a form of infidelity. That love always leads to desire, and that lack of desire reflects a lack of love. That condoms don't work. That abstinence does.
What's even more interesting than challenging these myths, though, is asking why these ideas persist in the face of people's actual, contrary experience. In most marriages, at least one partner masturbates. Most Americans who pledge abstinence until marriage have sex before marriage. At some point most people love someone and yet have insufficient desire. And so on.
Everyone agrees that we desperately need more communication about sex--between partners, between parents and children, among physicians, psychologists, and sex therapists. But communication with inaccurate information is worse than no communication at all.
That's a main disadvantage of do-it-yourself sex education websites and blogs--where people write in with their problems, and others offer their "opinion" and "experience." This advice is often gender-biased ("most women are selfish in bed"), fear-and-danger oriented ("never let your daughter go to frat parties") moralistic ("porn is an evil intrusion into the sanctity of your relationship"), or just plain wrong ("sooner or later, menopause kills everyone's sex life").
The internet is the sex educator's worst nightmare--a chance for everyone to reinforce everyone else's ignorance. So this week, do yourself a favor--just ask yourself, "When it comes to sex, how do I know what I know? Why do I believe what I believe, anyway?"