Defying Sexual Mores in Conservative Georgia

IT is not steady work being a professional sex kitten in Georgia. If she had not learned this as a cover model for Georgian Playboy (which closed after eight issues), Shorena Begashvili understood perfectly after her erotic television talk show was shut down (after six months).

[nytimes. 14:29 19.02.2011]

By that time, the show’s demise was so universally anticipated that one Tbilisi blogger polled his readers on “When will ‘Night With Shorena’ be canceled?” The producers were so cautious that the show had tried to offer an erotic twist on clothing, or cooking. “To be honest,” Ms. Begashvili said, “we talked about everything except sex.”

It’s par for the course in a country caught between colliding forces: the pro-Western transformation undertaken by Mikheil Saakashvili’s government and the deep, tidal pull of a conservative culture. Few subjects highlight these crosscurrents as starkly as sex, and a generation of young Georgians is caught in between, said Ms. Begashvili, 28.

“They don’t understand — are they allowed to do it, or not?” said Ms. Begashvili, a husky-voiced actress who manages, like Marilyn Monroe before her, to be simultaneously knowing and daffy. “They can’t get an answer from anyone. If they ask their mother, their mother will say no, not until you are married. So they have no idea what to do.”

Since the days when amorous men routinely kidnapped their brides, families in the Caucasus have been characterized by what sociologists politely refer to as “gender asymmetry.” Women were expected to remain virgins until marriage — the groom’s mother checked the sheets — while men enjoyed exuberant sexual freedom, typically continuing after they were married.

These customs persist to a surprising extent. Young men in search of sexual experience are taken by older relatives to prostitutes, and there is a healthy market for hymen reconstruction, known euphemistically as “jewelry work.” In a survey of 3,000 college students from across Georgia conducted last year by the Institute of Social Studies and Analysis, 91.4 percent of men said they had had sex at least once; the number for women was only 15.1 percent.

But the traditions are being questioned, especially in a capital city that is emphatically tilting West. Television, influenced by the government, gently pushes cultural norms in a liberal direction; the new season of a “Friends”-inspired sitcom has added an unmarried couple living together, for instance. Documentaries examine the “institution of virginity” with anthropological neutrality, and a young American unleashed a flood of commentary with a frank blog posting about Georgian sexual mores. (It warned of “an army of uncles and cousins who will wish to do you harm.”)

MS. Begashvili is one of the few public figures to have tried a full-on assault on virginity, though she notes that her scripts were prepared for her.

She marshaled her arguments during a broadcast of “Night With Shorena” in January 2010, when, dressed in a deep violet, bosom-promoting pantsuit, she said on her show that it was “scientifically proven” that couples who married without first having sex were more likely to divorce. She made the case that Georgian women had never been particularly chaste, citing a historian who said that when the Persian shahs were replenishing their harems, they had to use different rules for Georgian women, “probably because it was difficult to find virgins.”

At that point, conservative activists began picketing the station. In a formal complaint, the Union of Orthodox Parents denounced the “Shorenization of society,” declaring that “virginity has served as our moral compass before the Mongol invasion and thereafter.” A few months later, the show was off the air; its producers cited “unprofitability,” but broken taboos lurked in the background.

Iago Kachkachishvili, who heads the sociology department at Tbilisi State University, said the show seemed more aimed at attracting viewers than setting off a sexual revolution. After it was canceled, Georgian society returned to its default mode on the matter: Silence. He calls the gender imbalance “a typical Oriental mentality,” evidence that the cultural upheaval that swept the West in the 1960s and 1970s never made it as far as Georgia.

“It’s terrible for women,” Mr. Kachkachishvili said. “You can really find women not having sex in their lives at all. Not even one time. They die, sometimes, without having had sex.”

Ms. Begashvili has her own opinion about virginity. She was a 16-year-old virgin when she married her boyfriend — mainly, she says in retrospect, because she wanted to have sex. At 18, she was at home with a baby, watching her husband get dressed to go out for the night.

“I watched serials on television, and looked at myself in the mirror, and I understood I had to do something,” she said. “I understood that it would go on in the same way. He would cheat on me, and I would be at home. I thought for five years. After five years, I got divorced.”