Photo: Justyna Mielnikiewicz for The New York Times +++ Shorena Begashvili with her daughter.
TBILISI, 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).
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.”
THUS began a career in scandal. Ms. Begashvili grew up in poverty, running with a gang of children to collect scrap metal to sell for change. Her family sometimes went without food. If she is brave, she said, poverty made her that way. When a regional edition of Playboy invited her — by then a little-known theater actress — to be its first cover girl in 2006, she was too frightened to agree, she said. By the second issue she said yes. “She found a niche that was ready to be occupied; she was ready to take her clothes off and be seen as a sexual person,” said Nico Nergadze, the magazine’s editor at the time. “It was a very cultivated decision on her part. It was more of a business decision.”
A quirk of timing landed her in the center of a culture war. Mr. Saakashvili and his coterie, who took office in 2004, seek to transform not only Georgia’s geopolitics but its society. Their success has been breathtaking in some areas; in Georgia, once considered among the most corrupt regions of the Soviet Union, petty bribery has been banned so effectively that some workers refuse the boxes of chocolate traditionally exchanged at New Year’s.
That transformation becomes risky when it shifts to private life. Georgia is an Orthodox Christian country, and its church far outstrips the government as its most popular institution, polls show. Patriarch Ilia II occasionally lashes out at the Westernizers, as in a recent sermon in which he warned Georgians that they morally damaged their children by sending them abroad for education.
Outrage builds particularly quickly when sex is at issue — most recently over rumors of a gay pride parade, which the patriarchate termed “a public march of Sodomites and Gomorrans.”
MORALITY has proved an effective rallying cry for critics of the government, Mr. Nergadze said. They express “a general feeling of sex forced on the Georgian nation, something like that,” he said. “These same people see an ongoing process in Georgia of forced Westernization.”
Ms. Begashvili, who has moved on to acting in films, doesn’t seem worried about which group will win in the end. She rolls her eyes at the religious activists, remarking that “their children do what they want, they just do it quietly.” Georgians themselves will opt for a more frank, modern approach to sex, she said.
Anyway, she said, the complaints always seemed to come from one segment of the population.
“Usually the men said something like, ‘You’re such a nice girl, why can’t you do a different show?’ ” she said. “The women said, ‘That dress you were wearing on the show — where can I buy one?’ ”