It's a neo-conservative nightmare: In Iran and China, Western sexual values are bringing about real change
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! ...
A police officer who was a bit skeptical of the idea of consent to participate in BDSM activities told me, “I don’t understand how one day it is okay, and the next day it is not; I mean, when collecting evidence from a person who has made the accusation of domestic violence, pictures are often taken of the physical evidence: bruises, cuts and other injuries. What makes this bruise—the one that is said to be evidence of assault—different from that bruise—the one that is said to have been the result of consensual activities?”
I asked him to imagine this:
A person with a mask on is plunging a sharp blade into your chest. What is happening to you?
A criminal is assaulting you with a deadly weapon—It’s an attempt to end your life!
A physician is making their first incision to perform open heart surgery—It’s an attempt to save your life!
Now, how do you differentiate between the scars?
How do practitioners of BDSM/Leather/Kink lifestyles differentiate between engaging in consensual power/control dynamics in their relationships and abuse? And when it is abuse, do they feel their complaints are understood and taken seriously by service providers? These are two questions I will address in a ground breaking research project on “Intimate Partner Abuse Among Practitioners of BDSM/Leather/Kink Lifestyles.”By placing a spotlight on the experiences and perceptions of individuals who have ever sought help in dealing with an abusive power exchange relationship, or who wanted to seek help, but didn’t, it may be possible to determine if kinky people comprise an underserved population. This research aims to promote greater understanding of BDSM/Leather/Kink lifestyles in order to improve of the quality of information, responses and interventions provided by outreach educators and service providers to this population.
I am grateful to the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom for their support.
Invitation to Participate in a Needs Assessment Survey on Intimate Partner Abuse Among Practitioners of BDSM/Leather/Kink Lifestyle
All interested individuals who are involved in BDSM/Leather/Kink lifestyles are invited to participate in a survey about intimate partner abuse.The purpose of this survey is to gather information regarding the quality of experiences had by those who sought help from domestic violence service providers, or those who wanted to seek help, but did not do so. The overall goal is to help service providers and outreach educators improve the quality of information, responses and interventions regarding the unique needs and experiences of individuals who live a BDSM, Leather or kinky lifestyle.
You are invited to take the survey whether or not you have been involved in an abusive relationship because the survey will collect basic demographic information about those who engage in BDSM, Leather and/or kink, as well.
The survey link is available here: https://www.psychdata.com/s.asp?SID=155554
The survey will take approximately 25-35 minutes to complete.
Please respond no later than January 31, 2014.
Your participation is voluntary.All responses are anonymous.However, there is potential risk of loss of confidentiality in all email, downloading and internet transactions.The final results of this study will be used for research and may also be published in a summary format in a peer-reviewed journal.
If you have any questions about the survey, please contact Elizabeth Fawcett, Ph.D., M.P.H., at
.This study has been reviewed according to accepted Institutional Review Board (IRB) procedures for research involving human subjects, and approved.If you have questions about the rights of research participants or the way this study is being conducted, you may contact Texas Woman’s University Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at 940-898-3378 or via email at
In the course of defending their right to treat gay people as second-class citizens, conservatives have frequently deployed slippery-slope arguments: “If we accept same-sex relationships, what will we have to tolerate next? Bestiality? Pederasty? Polygamy?” While these arguments are stupid, the people making them are not, or at least not always. They’re doing their best to trot out a parade of horribles that will shock the sensibilities of most Americans.
Clearly we should be shocked by violations of consent. (Reminder: Children and animals can’t consent!) But the inclusion of polygamy on this list is a symptom of prejudice, and not one that’s held only by conservative troglodytes.* Advocates for gay marriage, in the course of pursuing a laudable goal, sometimes made public statements disparaging non-monogamy, suggesting that state sanction of marriage would help reduce gay “promiscuity.” Slate’s own Hanna Rosin described the (relative) acceptance of non-monogamy among gay male couples as “[t]he dirty little secret about gay marriage.”
Although reliable figures are hard to come by, it’s likely that the majority of consensually non-monogamous couples in the United States are heterosexual.** These days, you know who your gay neighbors are—gay people no longer have to seek out loveless heterosexual relationships to hide behind, or move in together but pretend to be roommates. Meanwhile, you don’t know if your neighbors are poly (or whatever other term they may use), because they’re still afraid that if they don’t hide that aspect of their lives from you, something bad might happen. Those potential consequences range from having all future interactions feel awkward to having authorities take away their children.
I have identified as bisexual since my first year of college in the mid-’90s and as polyamorous since a few years after that. Over the last two decades, I have always been out as bi. I’m also lucky enough to have a supportive family, who have been accepting of my partners. If I love them, and they love me, that’s good enough for Mom and Dad. On the other hand, I have never, ever been out as poly in a workplace. Start trying to explain consensual non-monogamy, and some people—a lot of people—are going to think you’re obsessed with sex. (Never mind that I’ve been with my wife, Rose, for 10 years, have been married for three, and in all that time the two of us have dated fewer people than plenty of serially monogamous singles I know.) Some co-workers may avoid polyamorous colleagues because they’re paranoid that they may be on the prowl. Others will become distrustful because they think that poly is an attempt to re-label behavior that they consider cheating, and cheaters aren’t trustworthy.
If you’re in a vanilla relationship, you probably take it for granted that when you’re talking with a co-worker, and they say, “Hey, you’re looking sharp, are you going someplace special tonight?” you can just talk. I was asked this question recently on an afternoon when I was planning to head straight from work to a date with Dana, my partner of two and a half years, during a week when Rose was out of town. Of course, just saying where I was going isn’t enough—that just leads to, “Who with?” So I respond with something extremely vague—“Oh, a friend,”—but my mind is racing, trying to remember if I’ve mentioned that Rose is out of town, wondering if my co-worker is reading something sordid into the conversation. This sounds relatively low-stakes, but over time, the weight of many such small nuisances adds up. At first you don’t know how people might react, so you conceal things, or tell a few little white lies. Before you know it, it’s been months, or years, and maybe you might like to come out, but that would force you to admit past deceptions. So you go on, wasting energy on these internal conversations about things you don’t think you ought to be ashamed of, trying to evade questions without raising suspicion.
A few months ago, I had dinner with Dana; her husband, Aaron; and her mother. I was introduced as a friend. Beforehand, I thought this would be fine, and it mostly was. Certainly, I enjoyed meeting her mom—I care about Dana, and I want to be involved in and understand her life, including her family. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later, when I had the opportunity to introduce Dana and Aaron to my mother, that I recognized how strained that first interaction had been. As I said, I’m out to my family as poly. When I call my folks every couple of weeks to tell them what I’ve been up to, and to hear their stories about my brother and his kids, Dana’s name almost always gets mentioned, discussing something we did recently, or something we’re planning.
On the surface, the situations were nearly identical. We had a nice dinner and talked about life, work, places we’ve lived or visited, art and music. Nothing explicit about our relationship was even mentioned. But think about it: When you introduce a (monogamous) partner to your family, you don’t say, “Hi, Mom and Dad, this is Pat, who I like to have sex with sometimes!” I don’t engage in a lot of PDAs with Rose in front of our parents, either. But it was nice to sit around a table with my family, of birth and of choice, and just behave naturally. I didn’t have to worry, if I casually stroked Dana’s shoulder or used some term of endearment like sweetheart, that someone might freak out. I didn’t have to continuously monitor my behavior and words. I didn’t need to dissemble. ...
If you've been brought up in Western society your first exposure to polyamory probably occurred through pop culture. Vicky~Christina~Barcelona immortalized the triad relationship in an impossibly beautiful Caucasian Hollywoodesque fantasy, with the implicit warning that such an arrangement is unstable for the long term. Sitcoms like Friends throw in their two pence to denigrate ethical non-monogamy by presenting an episode where Chandler encounters a women in an open and honest relationship.
Chandler: So explain something to me here, uh, what kind of a relationship do you imagine us having if you already have a husband and a boyfriend?
Aurora: I suppose mainly sexual.
Monica: Oh. I'm sorry it didn't work out.
Chandler: What 'not work out'? I'm seeing her again on Thursday. Didn't you listen to the story?
Monica: Didn't you listen to the story? I mean, this is twisted! How could you get involved with a woman like this?
Pop culture would have you believe that polyamory is at best a naive delusion, at worst a morally twisted act. Apart from the small body of literature on the subject, the majority of cultural references for open and plural relationships contain harsh judgements (see comments on my last post The Hell of Monogamy for some good ones); stories of instability, betrayal and immorality. It's clear that in a world where we are taught to seek education from books and lessons, those seeking advice on how to construct and maintain multiple relationships cannot look to mainstream society for any type of guidance. Those who feel the inclination to love many, have to learn by doing, and are often shunned and shamed whilst doing so, making the pursuit of their relationships a thousand times harder. Indeed the fact that the polyamorous community is growing at all in the face of constant opposition, is a true testament to the power of love... and marginalization. The power that the world gives polyamorists by vilification turns it into a cause, spawning Poly-pride, support groups like PolyLiving and not for profit organizations like Loving More. Rendering it a more vibrant and solid community. Or is it?
Unfortunately despite all the good intentions, a minority's struggle for acceptance will always create a 'prisoners' dilemma' and this one is no different. In the non-monogamous community certain relationship configurations are more likely to be accepted if they align themselves to already existing precepts and/or paradigms. For example as the idealised Male-Female-Female triad slowly becomes more acceptable to the general public, it's no coincidence that it's also the most popular choice for many newly out-of the closet polyamorists; simply because it is the most familiar, comfortable and least controversial. To the outside world that is. Because poly-activists argue that this configuration still perpetuates male privilege (a bisexual female who gets it on with another girl, is no threat to the male ego - aka. One-Penis-Policy). Such a paradigm which is perceived to perpetuate the very patriarchy and notion of possession that polyamory tries to counteract in the first place, is one of the biggest hot potatoes.
Likewise, some proponents of polyamory like to distance themselves from promiscuity and/or swinging which are heavily frowned upon by mainstreamers - even if many polyamorists discover their inclination by through such sexual liberation in the first place. Promiscuity is harshly condemned (at least when it concerns women) and swinging is premeditated promiscuity. It is - gasp - sex for fun. Moral judgements and definitions divide the non-monogamous community because the harsh rejection by the world of the community as a whole, creates a desperate need in many to achieve acceptance at any cost. I say, the cost isn't worth it. ...
Six months into a long deployment to the Middle East last year, the top enlisted sailor aboard the Navy ship Gunston Hall jotted a Web address onto a Post-it note and handed it to a lower-ranking female sailor.
"SwingerLifestyle.com," it read.
Command Master Chief Petty Officer Kelly Smith gave her the link to the kinky dating site, the woman later told a Navy investigator, after suggesting she attend a party where couples can "swing," or swap spouses.
Her sworn statement was included in a newly released investigative report obtained by The Virginian-Pilot through the Freedom of Information Act. The internal investigation, which was launched after the woman showed the note to another sailor, revealed "a pattern of sexual harassment and fraternizing behavior" by Smith.
The ship's commanding officer, Capt. Andrew Loiselle, removed Smith from his leadership post within days last September. Smith, who has been serving shore duty in Norfolk since then, accepted nonjudicial punishment, also known as captain's mast, and is in the process of voluntarily retiring after 23 years.
Smith declined to be interviewed for this story. In a statement to the Navy investigator, however, he admitted sharing the website but denied coming on to the sailor. Smith told the investigator his wife had used the website to book a vacation to Jamaica and, later, a cruise. The website includes a travel page with links to swinger resorts and cruises, but Smith denied ever engaging in spouse-swapping.
He gave the Web link to a subordinate and suggested she book a trip, he told the investigator, to help save her troubled marriage.
The woman, whose name was redacted from the report, met with Smith in his office aboard the Gunston Hall for a checkout interview before transferring off the ship. She told him serving had been hard on her marriage, according to her statement.
"The (command master chief) started talking about his sexual orientation," the sailor said in her written statement. "He informed me he and [name redacted] were swingers. He stated he had attended 'swinger parties' and did not realize how many sailors were swingers."
In the military, adultery is a criminal offense, punishable by up to a year in prison and a dishonorable discharge. ...
Organizers of the Touch of Flavor Festival filed a lawsuit for contract breach when the venue's new management abruptly canceled the event in May.
Baltimore, MD (PRWEB) August 23, 2013
TTB Ventures LLC today announced that it has settled its lawsuit against Coppermine Field House LLC, the manager of the Clarence "Du" Burns Arena.
TTB Ventures states that they are satisfied with the settlement which resulted from a May 2013 lawsuit brought in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County (case number 03C13005461). Coppermine also issued a statement correcting "any incorrect impressions" about the Touch of Flavor Festival. Among other things, the letter acknowledges that TTB Ventures notified the original management of the nature of the event when the contract was signed.
The Touch of Flavor Festival, which was scheduled for May 17th and 18th in Baltimore, was abruptly canceled by the venue’s management company just days before the event. TTB Ventures filed a lawsuit alleging a breach of the contract they had signed with the previous management in October of 2012.
"There is a perception that businesses dealing with adult topics are still afraid to pursue issues in court, and we think that otherwise this dispute would never have progressed the way that it did," says event organizer Cassie. "We believe that both the Court’s attitude towards this issue and its quick resolution demonstrate that we have reached the point in this county where this type of discrimination can be successfully challenged. This is not just a victory for us but for anyone involved in a legal dispute because of who they are or how they live. We hope that this resolution will give others confidence that they can proceed and win if they find themselves in a similar situation."
Public interest in kink has skyrocketed over the last year with the release of books like the Fifty Shades of Grey series, which has broken sales records previously held by the Harry Potter series. The increase in interest has not been met with an increase in available education, and a recent CNN article explores an increase in handcuff emergencies since the books were released.
"Whether we've been enjoying them for a day or a decade, sometimes our relationships can use a little something extra," says Cassie. "People are intrigued and are going to try new things, with or without the education to distinguish fact from fiction. It has become vital to give people an accepting environment where they can learn how to try these new things safely. We created Touch of Flavor with the mission of teaching attendees workable knowledge and skills that create exciting and enjoyable romantic experiences."
The Touch of Flavor Festival has been rescheduled for September 7th and 8th in Baltimore, Maryland. ...
It's not my business how many partners people have, but let's not pretend that this will bring sexual equality to relationships
Polyamory is the latest subversive and a la mode sexual practice to receive extensive media coverage. It appeals as a subject for to those interested in alternative lifestyles, but also attracts commentary from some deeply unpleasant folk who have trashed it alongside gay marriage. "What next?" ask the bigoted opponents of equal marriage. "Polygamy and marriage to your brother/cat/hedge trimmer?"
It is neither my business or concern as to how many sexual partners anyone has at any one time, and I genuinely could not care less how folk organise their relationships. But the co-opting and rebranding of polygamy, so that it loses its nasty association with the oppression of the most disadvantaged women, is as irresponsible as suggesting that because some women chose to enter high-end prostitution as a social experiment, all prostitution is radical and harmless.
Caroline Humphrey, a professor of collaborative anthropology at Cambridge University, has argued in favour of the legalisation of polygamy because, according to a number of women in polygamous marriages in Russia, "half a good man is better than none at all". While polyamory is not the same as traditional polygamy – which has been practised for centuries under a strict code of patriarchy in communities where women and children have few if any rights – the co-opting of the sanitised version will further normalise a practice that is anything but liberating for women in this arrangement.
There is also the assumption that polyamory is an invention of a set of too-cool-for-school hipsters, who have recently discovered that exclusive couple-type relationships are so last season. However, it was radical feminists in the 1970s onwards that developed the notion of non-monogamy as a way to challenge patriarchal heterosexuality. The definition of polyamory as "ethical non-monogamy" currently doing the rounds sticks in my craw. Non-monogamy was deeply ethical. One could have as many sexual partners as desired but everything was honest and above board, with no one being deceived.
The type of non-monogamy radical feminists developed and practised involved no men. We were all lesbians starting off on a fairly equal playing field. Some of us involved with leftwing politics had previously been witness to or victims of men who had sexual access to as many women as they wanted, while women waited for her one partner to get round to paying her attention. In the meantime, women were pitted against each other while the men played a subtle game of divide and rule, and there were plenty of women to do the washing, childcare and provide emotional and sexual support for these oh-so alternative men. ...