When Iranian American anthropologist Pardis Mahdavi first visited Tehran in the summer of 2000, she expected to encounter the Iran she grew up imagining. Her family remembered violence and extremism, and these were the images that stuck: “women clad in black chadors, wailing and whipping themselves,” “black bearded men with heavy hearts and souls,” arranged marriages, and the fierceness of the “morality police.” But while she encountered this repressed side of Iran, she also heard stories of and witnessed signs of what some friends and informants called enghelab-e-jensi or enghelab-e-farangi, a sexual or sociocultural revolution. Her interest in how an “insatiable hunger for change, progress, cosmopolitanism, and modernity” was being linked to sex by young Tehranians sparked the beginning of seven years of anthropological study.
During repeated visits, Mahdavi found that despite the strict moral policies of the Islamic Republic, young Iranians were listening to music, dancing, drinking alcohol, and socializing in new ways. Western dress and makeup were ubiquitous. She attended parties where famous DJs played techno music, Absolut vodka and Tanqueray gin were served, and female guests mingled with “western guys.” Although house parties were common among the middle and upper-middle classes, lower-class youth threw parties in abandoned warehouses or at secluded outdoor locations, serving homemade liquor and playing music on “boom boxes” or car stereos. Young Iranians also indulged in premarital and extramarital sexual escapades. As a twenty-three-year-old man explained: “In Iran, all things related to sex had a door, a closed one. Now we, this generation, are opening them one by one. Masturbation? Open it. Teenage sexual feelings? Open that door. Pregnancy outside of marriage? Open it. Now the youth are trying to figure out what to do with all these opening doors.” Understandably, young people experience confusion in the face of competing ideals and desires—traditional expectations versus contemporary temptations—and the stakes of personal decisions remain high. In 2004, despite nationwide attention to the public execution of a seventeen-year-old girl suspected of having premarital sex, Mahdavi nonetheless found many young women willing to lose their virginity in order to participate in the changing sexual culture.
Like youth in other countries who lack private spaces to retreat to, some Iranian youth reported having sex at parties and in cars (which sometimes allowed them to escape the morality police) out of necessity. But some also purposely sought group sex. Shomal, in northern Iran, had a reputation as a popular destination for these sexual explorations. One informant told Mahdavi that young men and women “go there, deep in the jungle, and have lots of sex, with lots of people; it’s really something to see. I love it.” Another young man said: “Have I ever had group sex? Well, yes, with a few women at a time, but who hasn’t done that? But I’ve watched really elaborate orgies too.” He had observed “a big group orgy in Shomal,” after being convinced to attend by a girl he knew.
Although Mahdavi did not visit Shomal, she attended other sex parties in Iran. One evening, she accompanied her friend Babak to a party held in a huge garden with beautiful hanging trees. “Welcome to the jungle,” a young man said as he greeted her. After stripping off her Islamic dress, including her head scarf and manto, she followed the men further into what felt like “the hanging gardens of Babylon.” Babak squeezed her arm and whispered into her ear, “Take a deep breath, Pardis.” As they walked closer to the swimming pool, she noticed it had been drained of water. Voices drifted up from the bottom of the pool. With surprise, she realized that “a full-blown orgy was taking place.” As Babak took off his shirt and “started to wade into the group of young people,” Mahdavi perched herself on the diving board, which seemed like a safe place to observe: “I continued to watch as bodies moved from one trio to another. A group of five men and women huddled together below me. I couldn’t tell who was kissing whom, and I couldn’t see how much oral or penetrative sex was taking place, but it seemed that most of the people were completely naked, and from the movements I could see, it looked as though half were having some kind of sex.”
Another sex party Mahdavi attended was held at a garden estate outside of Tehran, hosted by a young woman whose parents had gone on religious pilgrimage to Mecca. Upon arrival at the property, she heard techno music coming from a bathhouse. She followed her friends inside. When her eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, she saw “forty or so young people present, all naked or in undergarments, kissing, touching, dancing, and some having oral, anal, and vaginal sex.” She watched groups of men and women “engaging in sexual acts with both genders,” until she felt faint from the heat. She began searching for the friends she had arrived with, who had disappeared into the steam. The young woman was “kissing and being kissed by three men.” Mahdavi was unable to find the man who’d driven them; later, she learned that he had been in a back room procuring Ecstasy.
When talking about their weekend adventures, some of Mahdavi’s informants focused on the recreational aspect of the parties: “[There is] alcohol, there is sex, there is dancing, there is—it’s just fun! It’s what we do for fun!” Others viewed the parties as a representation of “all things Western,” a way of gaining status and claiming a cosmopolitan identity; some also expressed ideas about sex as freedom that harked back to ideas underlying the sexual revolution in the United States. Still others claimed parties offered escape and “eased the pain” of living in Iran. As one man said, “Sex is the main thing here; it’s our drug, it’s what makes our lives bearable, that’s what makes parties so necessary.” “If we don’t live like this, we cannot exist in the Islamic Republic,” a woman declared. “We hate our government, despise our families, and our husbands make us sick. If we don’t look fabulous, smile, laugh, and dance, well then we might as well just go and die.”
But the 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.” As another young woman said before attending a sex party:
It’s all about laj bazi (playful rebellion). Here, when we go to parties, of course our bones are shaking, but we go with shaking bones. And I’m telling you, we are scared. Everyone is. No matter what they tell you, they are scared, from the moment they leave their homes; and every time the doorbell rings, delet mirize (your heart sinks). Could it be? You ask yourself. Could it be them? It’s scary. But you know, we have to do something. Something to get back at them, something to remind ourselves, Hey, we are alive! Hey, we have a say in our lives! ...