What happens in the bedrooms of married couples in Iran? A new study attempts to find out, offering a rare glimpse into Iranian women's sex lives. Warning: the findings are disheartening.
The study, published this month in the journal BioMed Research International, found that many Iranian women are being denied their basic sexual rights—that is, their "human rights as women to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality.” Iranian culture teaches women from a young age to feel shame for their sexual desires, so it's perhaps no surprise that they struggle to express themselves when they grow up and get married.
Researchers from Mashhad University of Medical Sciences in Iran and University of Maryland, Baltimore County in the U.S. interviewed 25 married women, five husbands, and seven midwives in Iran for the study. Each interview lasted 60 to 90 minutes. After analyzing the responses, the researchers revealed four overarching strategies women shared for managing their sex lives: complete silence, negotiation, asking for help, and sexual sacrifice. We've gathered some of the participants' responses below.
Forced into silence.
Many women told the researchers that talking about sex was out of the question for several reasons: They didn't want to feel shame. They didn't want their husbands to question their morals or fidelity. They were afraid of angering their husbands. They feared risking a stigma of promiscuity.
“I did not express my desire for sex because I feared that my husband would think that I was too open in our sexual relationship," said a 31-year-old woman who had been married for a dozen years. "To be honest, I was fearful that he might think that I’d had previous sexual experience, whereas I had none at all, and believe me, I do not want him to think of me in that way.”
A 25-year-old woman who had been married for seven years said that asking for sex was embarrassing, so she avoided it: “Sometimes I wanted to have sex, but I did not show that. I always feel that, you know, I do have pride and I feel that by talking about these issues I would have to swallow my pride.”
Negotiating for sex.
Some women didn't want to stay quiet, but they weren't sure how to speak up—so they hinted at their sexual desires nonverbally, in an attempt to avoid being dishonored or humiliated. This strategy was considered negotiating for sex.
For example, the 25-year-old from above explained it like this: "I do not say it directly to him, as I think that it detracts from a modest woman’s prestige. But I might put on a lot of make-up that night or change my clothes. I wear something that my husband loves. He then sees my desire himself.”
Essentially, these women had to walk a fine line of trying to negotiate for sex without risking their husband's wrath, as the possibility of being shamed was very real. “I can say with confidence that 99 percent of women feel shame when starting a sexual relationship,” said one 28-year-old woman who had been married for five years.
For some this risk was too much, but for others it was worth the reward. One 50-year-old women said she did not tell her husband she wanted sex early in her marriage “because I did not know what my husband’s reaction would be.”
However, as time went on, she realized she was missing out on a basic human right. “I’ve got the right to be with my husband tonight, to enjoy and to have sex whenever I need to,” she said, but then added, “Well, when I need it, I have to wait till my husband suggests it to me.”
This woman's mere recognition of her sexual rights was exceptional. She felt that too many women in Iran were hindered by pride, shame, modesty, or "an unawareness of their rights and needs.”
Asking for help.
Some women felt they could not remain silent, but they also couldn't negotiate for sex, so they sought outside counsel—usually from professionals or the media, since they were too embarrassed to talk to family members.
“I never speak with my mother about these issues, not even one word,” said one 31-year-old. “My mother always maintained privacy and did not let us talk to her or seek her help about sexual issues. She raised us in such a way that we never talk about sex with her.”
Another woman, 25, felt the same way. She said she bought a book about sex before getting married but was terrified her mother might find it. “I thought that if my mom finds it, she would ask me ‘Why are you reading that?’ or ‘Why do you want to know that?’ I was ashamed in front of her. I still feel ashamed,” she said, adding that she threw the book away.
When women turned to midwives or health professionals for guidance, they often felt judged or found their advice unhelpful. “I wanted the doctor to make my husband aware of these issues, because I knew it would be better if he heard it from the doctor,” said the 25-year-old woman who had been married for seven years. “I asked the doctor if it would be possible for my husband to come to see her and she said 'no, I cannot explain sex to every man.’”
Without any help, they were left with very few choices.
Lastly, researchers found that, when all else failed, many women simply sacrificed their sexual happiness (researchers called this phase "sexual adjustment"). Basically, they committed to a life of pleasing their husband and never thinking about their own sexual needs.
As one 27-year-old who had been married five years explained it: “(My husband) asks ‘Have you had an orgasm?’ I just say yes, whereas I haven’t. I pretend to be satisfied because I do not want to upset him, or you know, make him forget me and love somebody else or look down his nose at me or have an affair … generally, I do not enjoy my sexual experiences.”
Many women agreed with this sentiment, saying they only continued to have sex with their husbands to keep the men from leaving them—not because they enjoyed it.
“I think that if (my husband’s) sexual needs and desires are met at home, he does not seek any sort of sexual enjoyment or pleasure outside of the home,” said one 40-year-old woman who had been married for 14 years.
In his interview with researchers, one Iranian husband, 38, legitimized these fears: “Well, women know that men’s main goal of marriage is to have sex and if a woman cannot satisfy her husband, he may seek satisfaction from an affair. Therefore, they should not refuse sex.”
What does it all mean?
The researchers believe that many Iranian women are being forced into silence, thanks to messages they receive from a young age—both from society and their parents—not to talk about sex. By the time they are married, they have learned from sociocultural and religious beliefs to put their husband’s sexual needs above their own, resulting in an appalling lack of sexual rights.
"The Islamic emphasis on women´s purity and modesty does not help in Iran where women´s sexuality is strongly controlled," said Ilsa Lottes, professor Emeritus at University of Maryland Baltimore Country and one of the authors of the study. This in turn can lead to much bigger problems.
"There is a large body of research supporting the view that women´s power and influence in the political, economic, educational, familial and religious institutions of a society are strongly related to their sexual rights," she said.
For more, you can read the entire study here.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.