On Iran’s “Erotic Revolution”

Data are always a mischievous thing and even more so when they out of a religious autocracy. In the US, it’s commonly said that women underreport their sexual partners when asked by one to two, so you can only imagine how such a question might go over in Iran.

It hasn’t, but Foreign Policy says that other data that are more readily available point to a sexual revolution in Iran that includes sex before marriage, earlier sexual debut, and increased use of contraceptives.

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.

The article is long on speculation and short on facts, mostly because they’re not available, but many data points do point to some interesting demographic changes that could signal a cultural shift in the perception of sex outside of marriage, the value of marriage and childbearing, and more.

What’s not entirely clear is why. The article gives suggests that the current generation of young people is reacting to the lack of emergence of a utopian society and that having sex outside of marriage is part of the small rebellions they are engaging against the regime.

It’s a tidy theory, but it likely obscures the story. First, demographic shifts take time to happen. Iranians didn’t wake up in 2013 and decide to stop having children. Even if they did, we wouldn’t see the changes in national averages yet. This evolved over a few decades. Secondly, there is ample evidence that young Iranian women were fairly progressive in their attitudes regarding female independence, sexuality, and empowerment before the Revolution, so it is more likely that the children of those women who underwent their own sexual revolution in the 70s are coming of age and making decisions that reflect the attitudes projected in their own homes, if not in an official or public sense.

I’d also venture to say that it might be possible that some progressive or secular Iranians are choosing not to have children because they don’t want them to grow up under the regime they have experienced. That’s more in line with the explanation offered by FP, but it’s also pure speculation.

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A Zimbabwe Update

My arrival in Harare a few weeks ago almost perfectly coincided with the most recent call for elections, and I couldn’t have been more ecstatic. Watching Zimbabwe come out of hyperinflation has been astonishing, as an economist, and as a person trying to become a Zimbabwe scholar (sort of), a call for elections was electrifying.

Of course, my euphoria was short-lived. The first person I talked to about it responded with “they probably won’t happen.” The second with “no one actually thinks they will happen.” The third delved into a lengthy explanation of the coalition government and the problems associated with the implementation of the new constitution and how they likely wouldn’t happen on time and suddenly, I realized how little I actually knew.

I’d been here before. That is, I’ve jumped into a country I knew very little about with a few weeks’ worth of research under my belt and tried to answer some questions about it. I’d never been to Zimbabwe before. Zimbabwe is a place you can read a lot about. The hyperinflation, president of seemingly millions of years Robert Mugabe, agriculture and land reform, cholera and the UN, and so much more.

For all of this, things in Zimbabwe seem to be working. Sure, the power went out a few times on the streets, but even as traffic snarled, people got to where they were going and were improbably polite about it. Everyone seemed so kind and helpful. There wasn’t the constant blaring of horns you hear in Delhi or Kolkata. It didn’t seem nearly as crowded as Dar or Kampala. Though I was warned not to walk around at night and got plenty of stares for going on a jog through a park nearby my hotel, I felt incredibly safe driving around the country and walking through Harare during the day. We even managed to get buy-in from a relevant ministry on my project without too much leg work.

That’s not to say that things are perfect. An estimated one third of Zimbabweans under the age of 49 suffer from HIV/AIDS. Though the official unemployment rate is lower than that of the US (6% to 7.7%), an estimated 70-90% of Zimbabweans aren’t working for wages. Cash is short due to dollarization and prices are much higher than one would expect.

And elections, it seems, as so many tried to tell me, will be delayed. So perhaps everything doesn’t work quite as well as I had thought.

It’s really beautiful, though.

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For reading on Zimbabwe, I’ll recommend the two books that were given to me as I took on this project. I’m sure there are many more good ones and I’d be happy to read/share if anyone has suggestions.

  1. Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives (Voice of Witness)
  2. Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa