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Foreign Policy Magazine
Thursday, June 6, 2013
Iran is in the throes of an unprecedented sexual revolution. Could it eventually shake the regime?
BY AFSHIN SHAHI|MAY 29, 2013
When someone mentions Iran, what images leap into your mind? Ayatollahs, religious fanaticism, veiled women? How about sexual revolution? That’s right. Over the last 30 years, as the mainstream Western media has been preoccupied with the radical policies of the Islamic Republic, the country has undergone a fundamental social and cultural transformation.
While not necessarily positive or negative, Iran’s sexual revolution is certainly unprecedented. Social attitudes have changed so much in the last few decades that many members of the Iranian diaspora are shellshocked when they visit the country: “These days Tehran makes London look like a conservative city,” a British-Iranian acquaintance recently told me upon returning from Tehran. When it comes to sexual mores, Iran is indeed moving in the direction of Britain and the United States — and fast.
Good data on Iranian sexual habits are, not surprisingly, tough to come by. But a considerable amount can be gleaned from the official statistics compiled by the Islamic Republic. Declining birth rates, for example, signal a wider acceptance of contraceptives and other forms of family planning — as well as a deterioration of the traditional role of the family. Over the last two decades, the country has experienced the fastest drop in fertility ever recorded in human history. Iran’s annual population growth rate, meanwhile, has plunged to 1.2 percent in 2012 from 3.9 percent in 1986— this despite the fact that more than half of Iranians are under
At the same time, the average marriage age for men has gone up from 20 to 28 years old in the last three decades, and Iranian women are now marrying at between 24 and 30 — five years later than a decade ago. Some 40 percent of adults who are of marriageable age are currently single, according to official statistics. The rate of divorce, meanwhile, has also skyrocketed, tripling from 50,000 registered divorces in the year 2000 to 150,000 in 2010.Currently, there is one divorce for every seven marriages nationwide, but in larger cities the rate gets significantly higher. In Tehran, for example, the ratio is one divorce to every 3.76 marriages — almost comparable to Britain, where 42 percent of marriages end in divorce. And there is no indication that the trend is slowing down. Over the last six months the divorce rate has increased, while the marriage rate has significantly dropped.
Changing attitudes toward marriage and divorce have coincided with a dramatic shift in the way Iranians approach relationships and sex. According to one study cited by a high-ranking Ministry of Youth official in December 2008, a majority of male respondents admitted having had at least one relationship with someone of the opposite sex before marriage. About 13 percent of those “illicit” relationships, moreover, resulted in unwanted pregnancy and abortion — numbers that, while modest, would have been unthinkable a generation ago. It is little wonder, then, that the Ministry of Youth’s research center has warned that “unhealthy relationships and moral degeneration are the leading causes of divorces among the young Iranian couples.”
Meanwhile, the underground sex industry has taken off in the last two decades. In the early 1990s, prostitution existed in most cities and towns — particularly in Tehran — but sex workers were virtually invisible, forced to operate deep underground. Now prostitution is only a wink and a nod away in many towns and cities across the country. Often, sex workers loiter on certain streets, waiting for random clients to pick them up. Ten years ago, Entekhabnewspaper claimed that there were close to 85,000 sex workers in Tehran alone.
Again, there are no good countrywide statics on the number of prostitutes — the head of Iran’s state-run Social Welfare Organization recently told the BBC: “Certain statistics have no positive function in society; instead, they have a negative psychological impact. It is better not to talk about them” — but available figures suggest that 10 to 12 percent of Iranian prostitutes are married. This is especially surprising given the severe Islamic punishments meted out for sex outside marriage, particularly for women. More surprisingly still, not all sex workers in Iran are female. A new reportconfirms that middle-aged wealthy women, as well as young and educated women in search of short-term sexual relationships, are seeking the personal services of male sex workers.
Afshin Shahi isa lecturer in Middle East politics and international relations at Exeter University. He tweets at @AfshinShahi.
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