One year ago today, I published a blog post called “Sex in Georgia.” The ensuing shitstorm changed my life (mostly for the better). Let this post be considered a retrospective, a reevaluation, an update. Things change, things stay the same. The Wheel of Time turns, ages come and pass. You’re the next contestant on The Price Is Right.
A year is a strange thing. I clearly remember sitting in Gldani at the computer desk – I remember pulling the couch over to the computer to watch TV, or a chair from the kitchen when I was doing something more interactive and wanted to sit up. I remember sitting in my kitchen, drinking Vodka-Nabeghlavi and listening to my friend who lived in Imereti tell me about her experiences with men in Georgia – the cab driver who pulled his cab over three times on the way to my house to ask her to marry him; the sleazy TLG volunteer who kept hitting on her and every other TLG woman in the most desperate and obvious way possible – and I remember waking up the next morning and writing a blog post about what the situation was in Georgia with regards to getting laid, with basically two purposes in mind: one, shaming the current male volunteers into not acting like cocks with legs, and two, informing potential future TLG volunteers what the heterosexual marketplace looked like in the country so they could, like, mentally prepare themselves.
At the time, I didn’t think that I was saying anything particularly non-obvious or controversial. I mean, objectively speaking, we were told all of the things that I said we were told at orientation, and whether you agree with what we were told or not, we were definitely told those things. We were definitely warned that in Georgia, there is a saying that when a woman says no, she means maybe, when she says maybe, she means yes, and when she says yes, she is not a woman. Now, maybe that saying obtains more in the villages and less in Tbilisi or maybe the various people who told it to us had just pulled it out of their asses, but the ninety-something of us who came in group three all heard that (and various other nuggets about the medieval Georgian mentality towards women and sex) a number of times. For the audience I was expecting – a few volunteers and their parents – the post was probably sort of unremarkable.
So the response I got was really unexpected. I think that a lot of it was not really directed at what I was saying in particular but at the fact that I was a Westerner and I had written about Sex in Georgia. I think a lot of people read one paragraph, got pissed off, and fired off an obnoxious comment or three without bothering to try to understand the context or purpose of the post. I think that hundreds of people probably completely missed the paragraph where I said “Now, it’s a little different for those of us who live in Tbilisi” as evidenced by the very first comment on the post, which was “I think it all depends on the area you live in, in urban areas it’s mostly not true or the above described is too bold.”
The reaction to the Sex in Georgia post and the ensuing discussion taught me a lot about Georgia. I met a lot of cool people, got interviewed by journalists, and earned a lot of trust and respect from women in TLG who had run up against the massive institutionalized misogyny that pervades every level of Georgian society and culture. Despite the backlash and negative response from angry Georgians, the post and its aftermath was a really good thing for me. And every time I go back and read that post, I cringe at how bad it is. If I had known that it would be read thousands of times and linked to in the New York Times, I would have tried not to be so rambling, so unfocused, and so… I don’t know, so amateur-blog-ish. I would have wanted to say something big and important, something bigger and more important than “people in Georgia say they don’t have sex, but secretly they do.”
Anyway, a lot of people at the time said that they’d be interested in seeing what I thought after six months or a year in the country. And that Peace Corps guy who I mentioned in my last post linked to my blog and disclaimed that I’d only been in the country for a month or two so people should cut me some slack for being so wrong about everything, all of which implies that with time and wisdom I would recant my culture-shocky reaction to a new place and come to realize that Georgia is actually a happy land made of unicorns and sunshine and apologize for being so culturally insensitive as to point out the really obvious things about sexual culture in a conservative country.
I think at this point it’s obvious to all that I’m not going to do that. So here’s what I think, a year later. I’ll just boil down the substantial claims I made in Sex and Georgia and discuss each one:
1. “men are expected to be sexually experienced when they get married and women are expected to be virgins.”
This is something that we were told at orientation, and it is totally true. Yes, there are some men who marry women who are not virgins – there are women who get divorced and remarried, or widowed and remarried, and there are even some women who openly admit to having had sex and men marry them. However – and I know I keep beating the hymen restoration surgery drum, but even without that barbaric self-inflicted mutilation – in general, there is a perception that most men will not marry women who are not virgins, and I have heard of an actual case where a man discovered that his girlfriend was not a virgin and refused to marry her, and yes, it happened in Tbilisi. In general, women are still terrorized by the so-called “institution of virginity.”
2. ““Dating” in Georgia is vanishingly rare. Instead, there is courtship.”
I shouldn’t have said this because different people mean different things by “dating.” When I said it, I meant two adults in an adult relationship, who probably call each other boyfriend and girlfriend, who probably do things together that they don’t do with other people, which may or may not include actual sexual intercourse, who probably advertise their relationship on facebook and probably spend Valentine’s Day together and annoy their single friends with how cute they are, and who are probably not yet at the stage in their relationship where marriage is seriously on the table.
In Georgia, relationships do in fact carry more of an expectation of marriage from a much earlier point. Relationships are indeed expected to have less physical intimacy – and since sexual intercourse is only for married people and oral sex is only for whores, Georgians who date each other have to either brazenly violate social taboos or limit themselves to cutesy G-rated eyelash-batting nonsense, which is often cited as the reason why so many Georgians get married at such a young age.
Georgians who do date each other in a more Western sense of the word generally maintain some level of pretense about what is going on, especially with their families but in many cases also with their friends and acquaintances. Of course this applies more to women, who have to deal with the aforementioned virginity crap, then men, who I am told love to brag about how many nashebi they have fucked.
3. “In theory every woman has a “patroni,” or male guardian”
For some reason this one caused a lot of controversy, with some Georgians absurdly claiming that they had never even heard of a patroni. What the fuck is that bullshit? You know what a fucking patroni is, you dissembling douchewad.
That said, I never encounter this at all in Tbilisi. That’s why I said “in theory” – as far as I know, women do have men in their lives who would seek to defend their honor and safety, but in practice women police themselves and each other and very rarely do men step in and interfere in women’s day to day activities. I’ve heard of men (and women, incidentally) offering TLG volunteers to be their patroni, and I’ve definitely seen Georgian men trying to protect the TLG volunteers, especially the women, who are placed under their care in very obvious and occasionally overbearing ways. However, in general I think that the folks at orientation made too much of the whole patroni thing.
Also, one of the things that patronebi would theoretically do is take revenge on men who had deflowered the women in their charge. This is basically a vacuous responsibility because no Georgian woman in her right mind would ever admit to her “patroni” that she had had sex with someone who she wasn’t married to.
4. “It is considered strange for men and women to be friends.”
They told us this at training but as far as I can tell it’s not true – although there do seem to be certain social activities that women are enjoined from participating in, like sitting around at a restaurant smoking cigarettes or standing around out in the street and smoking cigarettes, that men seem to spend the bulk of their free time doing, and so often men and women do lead totally separate social lives. This is different for the young, educated, affluent Tbilisi set, who are more likely to come in mixed crowds.
5. “Apparently, Georgian men do not understand the concept of a single woman who is not interested in marrying the first random stranger to approach her, and can become insistent and/or dangerous if not rejected properly”
This is snarky but basically true. What actually happens, in my experience, is that Georgian men act all butt-hurt when a woman doesn’t treat them like visiting royalty and become argumentative and pushy, and if a woman shows any sign whatsoever of being willing to continue the conversation, the Georgian man will continue to demand an explanation as to why the woman won’t give him what he wants, whether it’s her phone number, a kiss, sex, or marriage. It’s irritating and pathetic but rarely gets to the level of dangerous, although I have heard of many cases in which the Georgian man will stop asking and just decide to take what he wants.
6. “I’d say the most striking thing about this situation is the fact that the women who come to Georgia with TLG are basically seen by many men in Georgia – Georgians and TLG men included – as the only potential sexual outlet in the entire country.”
Not just true, but oft cited by Georgians as if this excuses the constant harassment Georgian men subject foreign women to. “They don’t mean any insult, they just think that all foreign women are sluts!” If I read that in one more comment I swear my brain is going to start leaking out of my ears.
However, I did neglect the fact that TLGers are not the only foreigners to come to Georgia and are thus not the only sexual outlet for Georgian men. There are also Russian and Ukrainian girls, various NGO workers, and of course there are Georgian women who come to be known as sluts through such transgressions as being divorced or being indiscrete about a premarital relationship. So, “only” was too strong a word, and I probably should have said “one of the few sexual outlets” instead.
7. “Finally, a note about talking about sex in Georgia. The subject seems to be a lot more taboo than it is in the US.”
Well, I think that was amply illustrated in the weeks that followed my post.
So look – there’s a few nuances I’ve come to appreciate, and a few clarifications I should maybe have made (and would have, had I known the level of scrutiny I’d receive after the post), but overall what I said then and what I think now line up pretty well, taking into account the fact that my intention in repeating items like 2, 3, and 4 was to paint a picture of what we were told to expect rather than what I actually observed – a point which I attempted to clarify in my editor’s note.
There’s also the general gist of the post – the impression people seem to have gotten from reading it. For instance, many people took the post as harshly critical and inferred that I did not like Georgia. Although there are some things that I described in the post that I think are seriously awful, and I can understand that there’s a sort of implicit judgment in how you frame certain things, I actually took pains – at that point – to try to be descriptive rather than prescriptive. I never said “Georgians should be having more sex!” or even “Georgian men should stop sexually harassing my friends” – even though I do think that Georgian men should stop sexually harassing my friends – and yet people accused me of trying to impose my values on Georgia like an imperialist colonizer. The truth is, I actually really like this country, and if you can get past all the gender crap (for instance, by not being a woman) it’s actually a really nice place to live. After the Sex in Georgia post, I definitely became increasingly critical of Georgian gender relations, and as I said, I do think that Georgian men should stop sexually harassing my friends, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that in the original post I was insulting Georgia or Georgians.
I can also understand how people may have gotten the idea that my post was just a thinly veiled complaint about the difficulty of getting laid in Georgia. Thing is, that couldn’t be further from the truth. By the time I wrote Sex in Georgia, I had already had sex in Georgia, and so had a whole bunch of other TLG volunteers of my acquaintance (not all together, don’t get any ideas…). As I said in the post, a number of volunteers paired off right away – in like, their first day or two, before orientation even started – whereas others, like myself, waited a couple of weeks (I generally don’t have sex with people I’ve only known for a couple of days, amoral foreigner though I may be, just for practical reasons). For TLG volunteers, the circumstances actually line up in favor of a lot of sex – there are a bunch of young people far away from home who bond strongly with each other (often over a few drinks) because of shared struggles and are isolated from the locals by language and cultural barriers – and if you happen to have your own apartment with no host family to tiptoe around, your odds are even better.
Also, and I know this is going to offend a bunch of people, and I’m sorry, but the women in TLG complain about Georgian men all the time, and so the impression that I get is that a large number of TLG women have simply ruled out sex with Georgian men and focus their attention entirely on guys in TLG or other expats (and several women have explicitly told me that they would never date Georgian guys); whereas guys in TLG have nothing to complain about in Georgian women, who tend to be beautiful and intelligent and saintly overall, and for every Georgian woman I meet who claims that she could never marry a foreigner because she’s a good traditional Georgian girl I meet another who says she would never (or never again) be with a Georgian man. What I’m getting at is that Georgian men, by doing all the shit I complain about in this blog, actually do foreign guys a great big favor by making us look really good in comparison. Of course there are exceptions – there are Georgian men who are really, really great people – but there aren’t enough exceptions to satisfy all of the women who find the Georgian male mentality repulsive.
But enough about that. The last post has been argued and re-argued ad nauseam, as per general internet custom. All that is old will be new again. What’s new is what I want to focus on for the end of this
This past year, I’ve seen the first ever production of The Vagina Monologues in the Caucasus region. I’ve seen the Ministry of Education admit in a report, in front of various assembled representatives of government and NGOs with media coverage, that the issue of sexual harassment of volunteers required special attention from TLG and on other occasions I’ve seen TLG provide that attention. I’ve seen continuing dialogues – despite occasional hiccups – about issues of sex, sexuality, gender politics, race, and other pertinent issues, and I’ve seen countless Georgians open their minds to ideas they may never have encountered or considered before.
In other words, I see progress, all around me, and I feel honored and gratified to have a chance to be a part of that progress. People always want to know why I want to stay in Georgia – why I don’t miss New York – and this is why. Here I feel like what I do matters and has an impact in a way that I never felt in New York. Here I feel like I’m part of something much greater than myself.
It’s been a good year.
Video: Aretha Franklin, “A Change is Gonna Come”