I talk sex for a living. Neither talk show host nor therapist, I'm a humanitarian worker trying to save the world, one sex act at a time. My work takes me to some interesting locations—most recently to Iran, where, according to its president, there are no homosexuals.
Flying time from New York to Tehran is twelve hours, yet it took me more than two days to arrive. A forced stopover in Vienna allowed ample time for a quick visit to the International Atomic Energy Agency to discuss condom distribution, a luscious slice of Linzer torte, and a love bite from a carriage horse that nipped my right arm as I exited a church on the main square.
After scarfing down my cardboard meal, I spent the second half of my red-eye from Vienna to Tehran nervously fingering my headscarf like a blankie. I knew that, as a woman, I'd have to cover up, but I just wasn't sure how it worked. Gently over the head with tails of the scarf trailing over each shoulder, like Grace Kelly or Lady Di might have worn? Tied in a knot under my chin, like my ex-husband's pickled, old, toothless aunt? Dramatically tossed across just one shoulder with the rest atop my head like a cocktail napkin? Ei-ei-ei.
I can teach you how to put a condom on your man with your hands behind your back in the dark, but secure a headscarf, or hijab, as it's known in these parts ...hmmm. As I waited anxiously for the hours to tick past, I watched the surrounding females and worried I'd make a colossal ass of myself. My sleep-deprived thoughts strayed to how I'd much rather manipulate a hand job than a hijab.
When the pilot turned on the "fasten seatbelt" sign indicating our final descent into Tehran, we all returned our seats to their upright and most uncomfortable positions. We stowed our tray tables and switched off any electronic devices, including those portable bomb detonators and other vibrating objects. I observed a planeful of passengers transforming themselves for arrival. Every female over 12 was now covered with a hijab. Stunning, shiny-haired women now looked like pinched-faced, apple-doll grannies shriveling into the last stages of old age.
Sheepishly, I slid the silky-smooth scarf over my head and knotted it clumsily under my chin, tucking in my hair as best I could. I noticed that the fair-haired female cabin crew were the only women who did not cover up. I also noticed that they never left the aircraft. Instead, they stood in a slightly smirkish stare-down with local authorities across the extended ramp that led the passengers away into another world.
In my unfamiliar attire, two things crossed my jet-lagged mind.
One: Cotton, cotton, cotton. I was sweating like a pig. I wanted to rip the scarf from my skull before my hair melted and oozed into my ears, but I simply bore my burden as any wimple-wearing woman would. By the time I made it to customs, I looked as if I'd come in from a rainstorm, slopping through my own stream of sweat.
Two: Please God/Allah/Mohammed/Whoever, Do not open my suitcase. This could lead to some serious questioning, the kind fit for a "sex terrorist," and I prayed to any luggage-minding deity that my bag would be spared. In my overstuffed black duffel with the wobbly wheels and the telltale mismatched stripes of a cheap basement bargain, I was carrying 400 female condoms. This I did not wish to explain to the slow-moving, armed agent. Not the vagina. Not the penis. Not even the 73 tubes of lube. Well, maybe the lube, because it was kind of fun to play with. No. I just did not want to go there with my blue eyes and wisps of badly behaved hair. The heavens smiled upon me—Alhamdulillah—and in I went, penis, vagina, and condoms in tow, to the Islamic Republic of Iran, to talk about sex.
Not. So. Fast. Heavy footsteps quickened behind me, accompanied by a booming voice and an AK-47. "Lady-Ma'am! Mrs. Lady-Ma'am, halt!" The gun tapped the protruding outline of the hardwood penis in my bag. In my fuzzy state, I quickly conjured up a scene based on a similar experience retold countless times by my friend Inés. My fantasy went something like this:
"Mrs. Lady-Ma'am," he'd say, "we must need to see in suuweetcase, now." I'd stop and oblige. As in many Islamic countries, one's suuweetcase is X-rayed as it enters the country, usually checking for (illegal) alcohol. In this case, it was my vagina that would catch their eye—an odd, squishy, square, silicone unit, the color of a kitten's tongue. I'd open my bag and in they'd reach, snatching my vagina in its saran wrap sheath.
"Mrs. Lady-Ma'am, excuse, but what this is to be? Why you bring to Iran?"
With a deep breath, I'd roll my neck and straighten my back into authoritative response posture. "This is my vagina," I'd answer. "Shall I show you how it works?"
The customs' agent would get much redder than my silicone model, which would jiggle in his clammy hands. Staring warily at my square vagina, he'd decide that, perhaps, no, I did not need to show him how it worked or even, for that matter, further explain why I was bringing it into his country. He'd simply dine out on the story for weeks. After all, I was boozeless; how dangerous could I or my vagina be?
This was unlike a customs' agent I'd once met in Senegal who let me bribe him with safer-sex accessories to leave his airport: "Ah, oui, Madame, you give to me zees zings for z'amour, I let you free at Dakar, n'est-ce pas?"
Realizing quickly that this smiling agent had no knowledge of my gelatinous genitals, I snapped back to reality, relieved that it had only been in my exhausted mind, and proceeded to exit the poorly lit airport with my used boarding pass that he'd kindly handed back after I'd dropped it on the floor.
At 9:30 a.m., after a two-and-a-half-day journey across nine time zones with only three hours of sleep, I delivered my first lecture. As an HIV educator, I spend my time explaining the ins and outs of safer sex and other ways to avoid becoming infected with the virus. Since my audience is usually United Nations staff, my crowd is made up of people from many different countries, backgrounds, and beliefs. Although I often delve deeply into my personal experiences following nearly two decades of working on HIV, on this particular trip I was expected to stay neutral and soft-spoken and just deliver the facts—"Just the facts, Mrs. Lady-Ma'am."
Slipping into teacher mode, I quickly discovered that I had some conservative participants from Afghanistan, a neighboring country with less exposure to Western ways of life. Cultural sensitivities in mind, I chose my words carefully, avoided unclear gestures and explained to my attentive participants the varying risks associated with the different types of unprotected sex.
"And let's not beat around the bush here, unprotected sex occurs most frequently between HET-ERO-sex-u-als," I enunciated carefully. "Why, you may ask?" I added with my game show smile. "Because there are more heterosexuals," I nodded with a broad hands-up-to-Jesus gesture. Most of my group acknowledged this as fact and waited for the next item on my list of tantalizing hazards.
As I narrowed my focus to unprotected anal sex—common among heterosexuals and the riskiest when it comes to HIV—one small, bearded Afghan cleric looked as if spiders had crawled into his ears and were making their way under his skin toward his dark eyeballs and flaring nostrils. Questions shot out from him like cartoon bubbles.
"But, but, but, but whyyyyyyy? Is haram—is wrong hole," he stammered. "Why zis anal sex wiz womans when for da sexy ting God has make-ed ze perfectly good vagine?" He calmed his waving hands, smoothed down his beard, and with truly confused eyes, looked to me for an answer.
This was the same man who had earlier asked matter-of-factly about the risk of sex with donkeys, camels, and sheep, clarifying it was common and accepted for one to have sex with animals as long as, afterward, they were sold to another village.
I bit my lip and calmly explained a few possible reasons for anal sex, such as maintaining a girl's virginity or, God forbid, because it might feel good. At this great revelation, one of his dark eyebrows raised ever so slightly, and I thought of his wife, who was likely in for the surprise of her life next time she bent over. On this particular point, my Iranian participants were much better versed and seemed to find sex not the least bit satanic.
Another factor driving the spread of HIV in Iran is drug use, particularly in the south—notably Bam—where I was to deliver my next round of sessions. To get there, I had to fly several turbulent hours in a creaky Soviet jet in desperate need of repair. As our flight rattled through the air, I did my best to ignore the plane's ceiling panel that hung open, exposing mismatched fraying wires and, luckily, not sky. Instead, I tried to avoid my heavyset neighbor's heaving left elbow, which plunged in and out of my rib cage. Hoping for a snooze, I stared out the window and rested my feet on my carry-on genitals tucked beneath the seat in front of me.
As I perched hesitantly on my stiff Soviet seat, observing the terrain below, my bold, pudgy, middle-aged neighbor tried desperately to chat with me. He spoke in broken English and, every ten minutes or so, splattered me with an assault of spittle-ridden questions. He asked if I was American. Yes. Was I alone? Yes. Where was my husband? (I ignored him.) Why was I here? Work. Did I like Iran? Yes. Was I a Maasai? Excuse me?
Indeed. Was I a Maasai? Was he insane? The Maasai are a notoriously tall, thin, semi-nomadic indigenous people from East Africa. This definitely struck me as odd, since I am short, curvy, and pale. So I asked him again.
"Excuse me, what did you ask?" And he repeated with a bit more enunciation, "Are you Mes-siiii-ah?"
Oh, now that was clear. I've been called a lot of things but never a Messiah, so although I wasn't sure of the response he was after, I decided to just go with it.
"Well, as a matter of fact, yes, I am," I replied with a beatific smile. I waited for him to request a blessing, kneel before me or kiss my toes. Instead he shook his head knowingly, flashed me his prayer beads—perhaps in fear—and returned to the in-flight magazine, clearly overwhelmed that he'd met his own personal Messiah.
Despite later discovering that Messiah was his version of the Farsi word for Christian, I decided the title fit and adopted it as my own.
With my new role defined, I embraced my next opportunity to save a few more souls and talk sex and drugs. Due to abundance of opium, drug trafficking and unemployment, the questions in the south of Iran were in-depth on the topic of injecting heroin. This group included many young humanitarian workers from Southeast Asia.
"Okay, so besides unprotected sex," I asked, "can anyone tell me another way a person can be exposed to HIV?"
A broad-faced Cambodian was eager to answer. "Ah, yes, I know answer this question, same in Souwz-East Asiaaah, HIV spreat by dirty bad inflected noooodles."
This did not go down well with his Asian colleagues. Half the group was insulted, while the others feared they would never eat again. I probed him further and asked if he perhaps meant "infected neeeedles" to which he smiled in agreement and replied, "Yes, yes, exactry, inflected noooodles!" His co-worker from Thailand thought HIV originated in mangoes. Another questioned the safety of eating monkey brains. Lunchtime discussions were hard to digest.
This was also the group to prove that age-old question. Yes, I learned: Size does matter. My penis is an average-size blond-wood model someone once gave me on a stopover in Kenya. (It matches my hair beautifully, a fact totally lost on the hijab crowd.) A group of tall West African women in the back of the room laughed aloud when I whipped it out. One raised her long slender hand and asked, "Mais, alors, vat eez zat?" she laughed. "Eez eet for white girls? S'il vous plaît, eet eez so leeeetle!" More giggling. "Excusez-moi, mais, eez just so, vell, re-dick-u-luz!" She sniggered through the rest of the session.
Conversely, my Southeast Asians grew eyes the size of watermelons. Stunned into silent disbelief, they had clearly never seen anything that big, live or wooden. They sat with their eyes averted and with nervous hands on their knees. One grinned toward the back of the room, visibly flushed in brewing fantasies of men in faraway places. The rest of the crowd simply delighted in the reality of a white woman in a headscarf playing with fabricated genitals for their benefit.
My work is not for the prudish. It is a challenge to promote risqué notions of safer sex in a country with fashion police who work full-time to ensure women are properly covered up. There's a market here for the beach "burkini," don't forget. Body condoms for modest Muslims.
After two weeks, I was ready to pack up my penis and vagina and leave Iran. I eventually made my way back to Tehran for my return to New York City.
On the day of my departure, I shifted from Messiah to Cinderella. My visa was for exactly two weeks, but my flight was to depart after midnight—spilling into a fifteenth day. I had to be in the airport, boarding pass in hand, luggage checked and past immigration by 11:59 p.m. or not only would my airplane turn into a pumpkin, but I also risked being put in a Persian prison.
Lube dispersed and relieved of my 400 female condom load, I dashed through the airport in my slippery headscarf to all the appropriate stops starting with checking in, collecting my boarding pass and seating assignment, and filling out duplicate departure forms.
At 11:57 p.m., out of breath and beading up with perspiration, I reached immigration to find a stern, hook-nosed woman looking uncomfortably like the Wicked Witch of the West. I bet she didn't carry a vagine in her wheely bag. Her skin definitely had a green tinge, and I could swear I heard Toto whimpering in a wastebasket she kicked beneath her desk. She looked at her watch, raised a thick, dark monobrow, gave me a demonic glance, and dismissed me from her country with the heavy ka-chunk of her stamp in my passport. I was free, having escaped with 23 seconds to spare.
Once onboard, you could almost hear the whoosh of scarves being pulled from heads as the women shook out their locks in the freedom of the airplane. I abandoned my travel companion personas and headed home to Manhattan, where the idea of the wind in my hair took on a whole new meaning. Home to rest and restock my lube and condoms and continue my life as a "rubber" revolutionary with a backup vagina.
Next stop: Bangkok.
About the Author
Martina Clark is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY. During a twenty-year break from travel writing, Martina enjoyed a fascinating series of positions with the United Nations doing HIV prevention and education around the globe. She has traveled to over 90 countries and has done condom demonstrations in at least fifty of those. Her piece "In Search of the Bubbling Muppets" about Iceland, appeared earlier this year in Travelati under her pseudonym, Lucy Eaker. She also makes lamps and sings in a reggae band.