2009 Azerbaijan

A Baku Kind of Day

After a 10-hour flight to London, a 6-hour layover, and a 5-hour flight across Europe, I landed in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan. By midnight I was in my room at the new Ambassador Hotel, too tired to sleep, too tired to do anything else–except take a sleeping pill.

I awoke this morning, and after a luxurious buffet breakfast I wandered down the street. I haven’t been in a really exotic place since India (see my trip to India!), and I felt the familiar rush of the unfamiliar. And here, not only was everything unfamiliar, it was vaguely unidentifiable: Azerbaijan is part European, part Asian; part Russian, part Mongol; part miniskirt, part headscarf; part blood feud, part Microsoft.

After changing money, buying water, and checking produce prices (bananas $2/pound, onions $0.20/pound), I met my guide Azia in the hotel lobby and off we went for a tour of the city. After a 40-minute traffic-choked drive through wide streets lined with mostly-modern buildings, we parked and walked to our first stop—Martyrs’ Alley (http://www.panoramio.com/photo/18663237).

The memorial complex sits atop a hill overlooking the Caspian Sea, the largest salt-water lake in the world. A park during communist days, it now institutionalizes the country’s three most important memories. A cemetery holds the black tombstones of soldiers killed by Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabach conflict in the early 1990s; down its center, a 25-foot wide walkway is lined with memorials to the Turkish soldiers who defended Baku from the British in World War I; and at the end of this walkway, granite engravings show the faces of civilians who were killed by the Red Army’s desperate invasion on January 20, 1990.

So there you have it: the enemy, the friend, the occupier. And minutes after meeting my guide, only hours after entering this ancient Silk Road-era land, I was up to my neck in politics. Or as she put it, “the truth.”

The rest of the day was spent scrambling about a 15th-century palace complex. My guide happened to be a UNESCO consultant, and so we discussed both history and her critique of the palace’s restoration. In Azerbaijan, as in so many parts of the world, the 15th century can feel only minutes old, while the recent past often has the inevitable feel of primeval destiny.

My First Work Day In Baku

The day started with a taxi ride careening through rush hour traffic, delivering me to the U.S. embassy. Talk about real life–they wouldn’t let me take ANYTHING into my meeting there—not a pen, a notebook, camera, nothing. And no smiling allowed…this is some serious thing, fella.

Once inside, I spoke for over an hour with two state department attaches, amiable texans (just a coincidence) who talked openly about the repressive side of the regime, the virgin-til-marriage cultural norm (apparently highly observed), the city’s unrestrained growth, and lack of a single smoke-free place to hear live music.

They were simultaneously impressed at my ambitions here (to train people at various stages of professional development), and cautionary about pushing people too far. Apparently, no one here talks about sex, feelings, or anything else. Oh, good.

I asked them lots of political questions—are they playing Uncle Sam off against the Russians? How do they feel about the U.S. getting in bed with a dictator? How do they attempt to influence the Azerbaijani government? How cautious should I be about contacting human rights groups here? They were generous with their time, realistic about their mission, and very relaxed. We swapped Texas jokes and they bade me farewell. And no, I shouldn’t even THINK of photographing the outside of the building. Once outside this point was reinforced by some grim-looking soldiers when I merely pantomimed snapping a photo. I think anyone on earth would understand their scowling NYET.

I next went to a crumbling old Soviet-era building to meet with the ministry of health. Their admiration and caution was similar to the Embassy’s. On the other hand, they sincerely believe that “just having contact with outsiders” is a good thing for local professionals, so they’re genuinely glad I’m here.

We discussed some seminars I’m giving here next week to physicians, psychologists, and planners. They agreed to my outlines, saying everything would be great–“as long as you don’t need ‘measurable objectives’ for your lectures,” they laughed. They honestly seem to believe that just sniffing me will be good for the natives.

Tomorrow I speak to therapists at Khazar University, which will be translated into Russian. It’s exciting to bring my idiosyncratic concepts about sexuality and sex therapy to psychologists who have never been trained in the area. On the other hand, being translated for three hours can be wearisome. Constantly having to stop and wait, being limited in my use of humor, unable to make offhand remarks that tend to lubricate difficult passages—and most of all, losing all that valuable time—it’s been frustrating when I’ve done it in countries including Turkey, Morocco, Croatia, and the U.S.S.R.

If I wasn’t so monolingually stupid, I wouldn’t bring such a handicap to my work. I may not be an ugly American, but I’m certainly not a sophisticated one, either.

Conflict 101

Tonight I almost got my lights punched out.

I say this not to brag or to celebrate, but because it’s a perfect Azerbaijan story. Not that it can’t happen anywhere—from Chicago to London to Shanghai—but because it’s just a perfect story about a place whose central public narrative right now is the inevitability and intractability of conflict.

The taxis in Baku have no meters. Whether a beat-up old Lada with broken seats or a new Mercedes, they have no meters. In other places—like Delhi—when the cabs have no meters you either pay what the driver asks, or you negotiate at the start. If you’re not in a hurry, the negotiation can be kind of entertaining, especially if the cabbie figures you’re a dumb, rich tourist.

But in Baku you don’t negotiate. The basic understanding is that if the ride is a “reasonable” distance (can you feel trouble brewing already?), you pay 5 Manats ($6.25). If everyone’s charming and friendly, you can get away with 4 Manats.

Today I lectured at the University (more later), then walked by the sea, and had dinner. I then took a cab to my hotel, which is outside the core Old City (about 12, 13 minutes away). I’d already taken this ride three times, and always paid 5 Manats. So tonight I get in a cab, get to the hotel, give the guy a five, and start to get out.

He says “nyet,” hands it back, and demands 10. Ten! No way, I say, figuring he’s just bargaining after the fact, and again extend the five toward him. He says no. I say fine, get out, and hand him the five through his window. Nyet. OK, I walk around the cab toward the hotel, and now stick it through the open passenger-side window. Nyet. OK, I just walk away from the cab toward a little grocery store three doors down from the hotel.

Sure enough, the guy follows me. And in front of the store, in front of a half-dozen people, he gets in my face. “You think I’m baby?” he demands. “What you say to me?” He’s about 25 or 30, needs a shave and a shower, and is glaring at me as if I’d offered to inseminate his mother.

“What you try here?” he rages. “Ten. Ten! You think I fool?”

Hey, I’m not trying anything, I say plainly. I don’t know what the problem is, I say calmly, realizing he probably doesn’t understand a word I’m saying. I hold up my open hands, once again offer the five, and ask, “what’s the problem?”

He glares at me, just 10 or 12 inches from my lovely white nose, cheeks, and chin. I look plaintive, wide-eyed, matter-of-fact. I honestly don’t know what’s going to happen; this kind of open invitation to violence is something I only see in movies.

The bystanders don’t say or do a thing, although they’re watching intently. (Only afterwards do I realize how inappropriate their behavior is.)

Time stops.

It takes forever to start again.

He grabs the bill, angrily says something in Azeri that is presumably not approved by the Ministry of Tourism, gets in his cab and roars off. Life goes on, unbloodied. Only then does my heart start to pound in my chest.

Azerbaijan isn’t unique in its history of violence or its lack of tradition of conflict resolution. It isn’t even unique in its 15-year frozen conflict with its immediate neighbor (Armenia), a fundamental insult mentioned in every newspaper article and every conversation, every single day.

But what can possibly be the function of a commercial system that institutionalizes disappointment and conflicting expectations, all overlaid on a bed of machismo? If the cabbie expected 10 Manats, why didn’t he say so when I got in the cab? We could have negotiated the fare then, and I could have either agreed or gotten out. Either way, his integrity would be preserved.

Instead, he assumed that he had all the power to dictate the outcome, and when this assumption was challenged, he had no place, psychologically, to go. Demands and then the threat of violence (very real, I assure you) were the only tools he had. Conflict was guaranteed.

This is a poor way to run a taxi service. It’s a deadly way to run a country. Add a few billion barrels of oil, and it’s no way to run a world.

Training Professionals Here…I Think

I gave several lectures in Baku this week: to psychologists, and to public health professionals at the Ministry of Health.

I did them all in English, working with a translator. I say something, wait, she says something; I say something, wait, she says something. I’ve done this before in other countries, and never like it; it’s hard to get a rhythm going, but more importantly, it cuts down the amount of material I can present by almost 50%. And dealing with people’s questions—which I encourage and they typically desire—is especially clumsy. I clearly have an amazingly gifted translator here (who blushes at nothing), but it is a personal challenge trusting my precious (and admittedly idiosyncratic) ideas in someone else’s mouth.

In typical Azerbaijani fashion (as I’ve learned, to my dismay), the start and end times of my lectures were unclear, and I wasn’t sure exactly to whom I was speaking. That, of course, makes preparation difficult. I invariably get to do these talks in stiflingly hot and ugly rooms. And then comes the Eastern norm of the stone-faced audience, which I’ve also encountered before. The grim affects, the folded arms, lack of eye contact—it’s like talking with depressed people who have a touch of Asperger’s syndrome. Come to think of it, that defines Soviet (and therefore ex-Soviet) civic life.

But my talks must have gone well, because no one left early—in fact people invariably stayed until they were told to leave. I’ve been asked to return, and will actually squeeze in another lecture the day before leaving for home.

It’s been a challenge talking about empowering people around sexuality—when they’re stuck in an era of virginity before marriage (and really follow it, even most males); it’s a wife’s duty to have sex when her husband wants it; there is no sex education; and public agencies are still trying to reduce the practice of forced marriage of girls at puberty.

So I talked about simple things like changing the wedding night to include talking, touching, and having sex with the lights on; contraception as a means of improving sexual enjoyment; and using lubricants to make sex more comfortable for both partners. I also reminded people that the virginity/enforced ignorance system places a crushing sense of responsibility on men. Men themselves don’t talk about this, women can’t really help unless they’re willing to challenge the entire gender system, and as a result most “normal” people feel alienated around sex. I believe that some of the male violence and coercion around sex is an expression of anxiety and resentment about the pressure to perform in really awful circumstances.

Since there is no distinction in my mind between sexuality and politics (reminiscent of that line that ‘those who make a distinction between education and entertainment don’t understand either one’), I talked about the American experience of sexual health promotion—and aggressive failure. I spoke about the U.S. debacle with Gardisil—how a small number of religious politicians were able to undermine the distribution of a miraculous drug that could cut the rate of HPV and cervical cancer for millions of American women, all in the name of preventing girls from becoming sexual before marriage. I said that in the U.S., sexual health had to be marketed as a health issue instead of a sexual issue. Public health officials, take note.

In all, my week in Baku has been interesting, aggravating, and a challenge to my concepts regarding politics, sociology, economics, nationalism, and psychology. Are there ideas that we can use to understand all people, or are cultures so fundamentally idiosyncratic that they can only be understood on their own local terms?

Some people assume that sex is a universal language, a longing (or an anxiety) shared by almost everyone. In my travels around the world, I’ve never found that “sex” had a meaning or value on which everyone agreed. Azerbaijan is one more country that confirms my experience.

Tomorrow morning I head out to “the regions,” the ancient, rural lands in the mountains and valleys. If I have Internet access, you’ll hear about it before I return to Baku on Friday night. Inshallah.

In contrast to yesterday…

In contrast to yesterday, today was a day I could totally enjoy without judgment or political feelings.

This morning we drove way up into the mountains. How high? I think the name, Cloud Catcher Canyon, says it all. The jeep drove higher and higher up a narrow serpentine road. Periodically we inched our way around fallen boulders, washed-out sections of road, or ambling goats of various colors. Eventually we made one more hairpin turn and the road opened onto a Shangri-la—mountains covered with snow, valleys dotted with sheep, and friendly, coarse-looking men and women variously trudging, washing, working, or just waving.

Xinaliq (pronounced “chin-ah-lik,” accent on the “ah,” “ch” pronounced like “chutzpah”) is an isolated old village of a thousand souls. They speak virtually no Russian, just Azeri and their own unique language spoken nowhere else.

So I’m walking around these mud-walled huts, stumbling over drying cow-dung patties (fuel in winter), barely avoiding the lines of drying lamb (food for winter), holding my breath whenever I pass an outhouse.

The people are friendly, willingly posing for photos if I wish. The woolen-clad women neither look away nor stare. The kids neither run away nor flock to me, clinging or begging. The men smile, all semi-toothless (proving that these guys do follow the Azeri custom of sucking on sugar cubes a dozen times a day.

It’s all just easy. There’s a steady breeze, the mountains and valleys are spectacular, the people ignore me in a casual way—and suddenly, I have all the time in the world. It’s taken a week-and-a-half of being in a land most humans have never heard of, but I’m finally relaxed.

And then I hear it—an eastern-sounding oboe-type instrument and the faint rhythm of a drum, far away. I ask my guide what it is, and she helpfully replies “music somewhere”, another of her absolutely pointless answers to many of my questions.

I eventually locate the sound—below us and to the right, I think—and Abbas gingerly guides the jeep down a rocky path that looks too steep to walk, much less drive.

And unfolding, right before me, is a village wedding. About a hundred people are, apparently, in the second day of a three-day celebration. There’s enough food to feed Chicago; same-gender dancing that apparently serves advertising and courtship purposes for those not getting married today; and a series of rituals involving, incongruously, the exchange of cash—hundreds of 10-manat bills (each worth $12) changing hands, from observers to dancers, to young boys, to an old guy with a leather attaché case. I also note that someone’s writing down (with a pencil left over from the Khrushchev years) who’s giving what. This guy knows who’s naughty and who’s nice.

I ultimately find out that: it’s an arranged marriage, though the boy and girl “like each other”; she’s 18 and he’s a few years older; married people will tell each of them (separately, of course) what to expect on the wedding night (including the age-old admonition that he must not drink, because “you know, it’s not good for the man’s duty”); when they finally consummate, the blood-stained sheet will be displayed, and then the village men will shoot their guns into the air to celebrate (no psychoanalytic comments here, please).

I was welcomed as if I were a long-lost cousin from a distant valley, and given all the food I was willing to eat (feeling quite prissy with my little hand sanitizer). In this country they eat parts of animals I don’t know the names of—and generally cook them without wasting time washing utensils, ingredients, or the hands that put the two together.

I stayed for hours, swaying to the music, watching the dancing (clearly meaningful to everyone except me), feeling the mountain wind on my sun block-free face, and smiling to all the strangers who smiled at me.

I knew I had a two-hour drive back down the mountain, so I eventually bade my new family farewell, wistfully wished I could give bride and groom some marital advice (“go slow, and talk to each other!”), and took a last moment to feel relaxed and at peace.

Sometimes, it takes a village.

Stumbling Over History

As civilizations go, the U.S. is pretty new. One rarely stumbles over history in America, except for our own—generally only a few decades old.

I’ve blogged from Europe many times about the history everywhere—Charlemagne’s coronation chair in Germany, the Roman ruins in London, the Burgundian architecture in what is now Belgium.

Azerbaijan today is a weird mix of ancient Silk Road tradition, Ottoman-era customs, Soviet repression, and 21st-century material obsessions.

The Soviet occupation (1920-1991) affected both everything and nothing here in Baku. I say “nothing” because the semi-rural Muslim culture lasted right through Soviet times and still remains: the patriarchal, multi-generational family; obsession with female virginity; intense relationship with sheep; tradition of obligatory hospitality; serious superstitions about almost everything.

One lasting impact of the Soviets is the forests of extraordinarily ugly apartment blocks assaulting the eye in every direction. The construction was cheap, the style consciously hideous (no bourgeois love of beauty here), the urban planning non-existent. Virtually all the late 19th century neo-classical or beaux-arts buildings were torn down (by the Soviets or, after 1991, the money-obsessed Aliev family tyrants), and with them, all authentic Azeri architectural style.

Another Soviet impact Azerbaijan shares with other central Asian and Eastern European countries is demographic—who ended up where, and how. Here’s my Baku story for the day:

I went looking for a new neighborhood today, and found one about a kilometer from my hotel. After walking all afternoon I was hungry, and the first decent-looking café I found featured Ukrainian food and decor. I had a fabulous meal of borscht, kasha, herring, pickles, home-made chicken sausage, and, thrillingly, fresh-squeezed orange juice.

The waitress looked very un-Azeri, so I asked, through a translator, if she was Ukrainian. She said yes, “sort of,” and we began a conversation. How did she get here? Her grandparents immigrated here, her mother was born here, mom married a Ukrainian in similar circumstances, and here she is.

Hmm, she looked early 40s, so I figured her for early 30s. That would make her mother maybe mid 50s now, meaning her grandparents had come here immediately after WWII. This was getting interesting—especially since Stalin’s hatred of Ukrainians was greatly feared and is well-known.

“Were they forced to come here?” I gently asked. Everyone has a family story of some kind in worn-torn areas, and such inquiries are not generally considered intrusive.

Yes, in fact, her grandparents were forced here. I was hot on their trail. “To work in Sumgayit, yes?” Yes. They had been dragged to the center of Azerbaijan’s post-war oil industry—arguably the dirtiest, unhealthiest industrial center in the world at that time. Having driven last week through what’s left of it, I can’t quarrel with its reputation.

The stuff we Americans read or hear about—1915 Armenian genocide, massive 1920s Turkish-Greek population exchange, violent Hindu-Muslim mutual exile of 1947 India—happened to actual people. And so we can stumble onto Ukrainians in Azerbaijan, Croatians in Macedonia, Lithuanians in Poland and Russia, and other ethnic anomalies. They didn’t ask to be banished from their homeland (or to have their country overrun), but years ago, they were.

We call it history. They call it exile, or home, or both.

Random Thoughts

Here are some not-so-random thoughts about this odd country:

* The so-called President Ilham Aliev is everywhere. You cannot walk or drive anywhere without seeing enormous billboards with his picture; his photo adorns most offices and many shops. He was “elected” in 2003 with an unlikely 77% of the vote; his most important qualification seems to be that his father ruled here as dictator for 23 years.

Like all dictators, he has amazing wisdom, comes up with brilliant quotes, and is an expert in all areas of human endeavor from economics to sports to architecture. No wonder most public buildings, including the airport, are named after him or his father. His son is already being discussed as his natural replacement one day, as is his wife. Here as in most former Soviet republics, a people oppressed by the Russian boot for 70 years has simply replaced the boot.

* People here don’t smile for photos. They laugh and joke until someone holds up a camera, and then they become grim, as for a mugshot. This isn’t just for tourist pics; I’ve seen many families on outings where happy kids were admonished for not getting serious enough when their photo was taken. The only explanation I’ve found for this is that for most Azeris, the only time they used to have their photo taken was by the police.

* Almost all men here smoke. Everything smells from smoke, including my hair.
Unlike in Europe, women here usually don’t smoke. Of course, as women here become more liberated, they’re smoking more, too.

* As in all major cities of developing countries, traffic here is a nightmare. But there’s a local twist—all drivers honk their horns constantly. My driver told me it’s because traffic only became really bad 2 or 3 years ago, and people are still confused and coming to terms with it.

* In two weeks of 75+ degree heat, I didn’t see a single man wear shorts. In keeping with local custom, I didn’t either, until my last day here, hiking in the wilderness. Women wear mini-skirts and tank tops—and practically never shorts, either.

* I took the subway just for fun. It was clean, fast, crowded, and very, very deep, like Moscow’s. People were complaining that the fare had just been raised 500%–to 25 cents.

* I’m eager to get home. I know that for a day, everything will seem magical. I’ll blog one more time before leaving—about my visit to a refugee camp, and to the 11,000-year-old petroglyphs in Gobustan.

A Half-Step Up From Hell

I never told you about the refugee slums I visited last week in Sumgayit, an hour north of Baku.

Sumgayit was built as an industrial center by the Soviets right after WWII. They recruited brainpower and labor through a combination of incentives and coercion. The area exported oil and gas to the Russians for decades. And as in every Communist country, it was done without absolutely any concern for the health of the workers, their community, or the planet.

Sumgayit became legendary as a carcinogenic, mind-numbing wasteland. Eventually the area was so polluted that no one could work there. And the industrial technology changed, so most of the equipment was abandoned, left to rust and collapse.

Where else would you send war refugees?

From the day I started planning this trip a year ago, I was determined to see the refugee camps. Between 1991-1994, Armenian soldiers and nationalists occupied more and more Azerbaijani territory—first the province of Ngorno-Karabach, then 7 more districts adjacent to it—and expelled the Azeris who lived there. (Note: the Azeris aren’t completely blameless in this; they ran a few pogroms against Armenians in Baku and elsewhere.)

Overnight, these Azeris had to leave their farms, ranches, vineyards, flocks, and ancestral homes, including their ancestors’ graves. They fled primarily east, some stopping in crude tent villages, others going all the way to Baku. Armenia is holding onto this land at an enormous price: other than the ever-meddling Russians, the international community has virtually blockaded Armenia as a result.

The UN says that, proportionate to the population, Azerbaijan has the largest internally displaced population in the world—a million people, more than 12% of the population. Towns like Guba (the “big city” from which to explore Xinaliq) quickly doubled in size, from 130,000 to over 250,000. The traditional pace of life here made such dramatic change even more disruptive.

So when war refugees flooded east, one logical place to put them was the abandoned, unsafe, ugly town of Sumgayit. The edges of the town have recently been developed with high-tech industry and ostentatious villas; ironically, the seaside once littered with transport equipment is becoming a weekend destination for residents of the increasingly crowded, increasingly treeless Baku.

So I persuaded the tour company to set up a little excursion around Sumgayit. They shrugged and said the Azeri equivalent of “sure, whatever.”

It was a half-step above hell.

Apartment blocks that looked bombed-out were occupied by desperate-looking men, women, and children. The old-looking people were actually in their 30s and 40s, badly aged from being homeless for half their lives. Families lived 3, 4, and 5 to a room, with several unrelated families living in a single dilapidated apartment. Some “apartments” actually had no roof; many had windows open to the elements. Water pipes and gas pipes crisscrossed the scrubby earth between buildings, sometimes dangerously hidden by trash and weeds, sometimes dangerously exposed to careless or diseased feet.

How did I get to know what these homes looked like? I didn’t have to persuade anyone; I was dragged into them by people desperate to tell their stories. Women in filthy sweaters and shawls spat out their stories for the thousandth time—stories of dawn expulsions from homes, families torn apart, husbands and sons shot in front of their eyes.

Some showed pictures of their former homes and intact families in happier times. Some showed me the one pathetic treasure they had rescued and preserved on their nightmare escape—an old toy, a handmade cap, a high-school diploma in a cheap frame.

They demanded to know what they had done wrong, and what was going to be done for them. They wanted my promise that I would rescue them, starting by telling their story.

I can’t rescue them, but I can tell a bit of their story.

Young People Are Azerbaijan’s (Troubling) Future

Fittingly, I spent my last two nights in Azerbaijan with lots of young people.

I spent my next-to-last night at the graduation ceremony of Khazar University, the private college which co-sponsored my trip. It was thrilling, depressing, entertaining, and disturbing, all at once.

Seeing young people at the beginning of their adults lives, simultaneously earnest and giggly, was inspiring—and, like I said, a little depressing (children! They’re all children!). They wore the blue and gold robes of Khazar over their miniskirts or jeans; occasionally a robe opened to expose impossibly tall high heels or the ragged cuffs of what had to be a student’s only pants.

I reflected on what a college or advanced degree means in a market-oriented fascist country. Teachers? You teach the president’s truth. Doctors? Don’t get any fancy ideas about public health. Business people? Better master the art of the bribe, and learn which players are government-approved.

And lawyers? I was informed, sotto voce, that this would be the last graduating Law class. The country’s “President,” apparently, doesn’t want private law schools confusing the students with any inconvenient ideas of justice.

Oddly, each group of graduates pledged an oath in both Azeri and English. Grimly, in unison, they swore to bring honor to Khazar, and to use what they’d learned “to serve my family, my people, and my country.” They actually ended with “I swear, I swear, I swear.” It was eerily like a military or Communist youth pledge. And while many presumably said it purely by rote, the idea of such a pledge was creepy to my Western, individual-oriented ears. Essentially, their education didn’t belong to them—it belonged to their community. It’s a charming idea, troubling in its inevitable implementation.

The diplomas handed out, oaths sworn, and mortar-boards tossed into the air, it was time for entertainment. We saw traditional folk dances, and heard some Azeri opera. The climax was a stage full of “foreign students” lustily singing a national song off-key. As everywhere, the enthusiasm of youth was infectious, and ended with rousing applause. The future of Azerbaijan began again.

The final night of my trip I spoke to 50 of Khazar’s undergraduates.

And what did these kids want to know about? The same things that all college students want to know about: love, desire, love, sexual incompatibility, love, orgasms, and love. Who doesn’t want to know more about love?

These modern kids with their cell phones and laptops also have a disturbingly strong belief in the sexual stereotypes we associate with the 1950s. Both the young men and women were vocal about the necessity of female virginity before marriage, and their ambivalence about male virginity. They saw the latter as an ideal, but not entirely realistic. Indeed, both genders saw men as having special erotic “needs” that they couldn’t entirely control.

I must report, with all due modesty, that the kids loved me—my active lecturing style, continual kibitzing of individuals who texted or talked while I spoke, and willingness to use words like “vagina” and “balls.” When they said people just don’t say such things in public, I asked why. I then asked if they’d say them in private. “Not to your future wife,” said one. “Or your actual wife,” said another.

Americans were sexually inhibited 50 years ago, too.  But we weren’t continually pressured by MTV, internet porn, and the 24-hour-a-day contact of mobile phones. Yet in my two weeks here, I rarely saw young people hold hands, much less kiss. When I mentioned “kissing with tongues” during my talk, many of the students giggled or blushed.

And so I simply talked about “myths about sex;” said that feeling confused about sex is normal; reminded them that some girls like sex and some guys don’t; and threw out lots of words: menstrual period, masturbation, clitoris, going slow during intercourse, big breasts. They stayed and stayed; although I was hot and tired, I stayed and stayed, too. I wouldn’t have left this for the world.

Except I had to go pack.

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