Training Professionals Here In Azerbaijan

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This is my 6th day of a two-week trip in Azerbaijan, a country bordered by Turkey, Iran, and Russia. To follow my exploits, see

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 at 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.

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