As Georgia rushes to embrace Western ways, a cultural taboo on sex before marriage for women is one tradition that is still holding strong. And even while acknowledging the macho tenets that shape it, the taboo is one tradition that many Georgian women from all walks of life say they do not want to buck.
“We have two morals in this country: one for men and another for women,” said Tbilisi State University Gender Studies Professor Nino Javakhishvili. “Premarital sex is not only tolerated, but even encouraged for men, while it is frowned upon for women.”
An August 2009 survey by the Tbilisi-based Caucasus Research Resource Centers reported that 77 percent of respondents think it is unacceptable for a woman to have sex before marriage. The belief is rooted both in Georgia’s conservative culture and the Georgian Orthodox faith, which does not discriminate between men and women on the topic.
Not everyone observes the taboo, but it is so widespread that Georgians have even come up with a semi-jesting name for it – “the virginity institute.” The “institute” is heavily debated in Internet forums and occasionally in the news media.
Women tend to participate less in these debates. Rather, it is Georgian men who passionately argue for or against this cultural convention. Supporters cite the need to uphold Georgian traditions. Critics -- who often resort to social networking or dating websites to try to hook up with “Natashas” from the North --reject the “institute” as a legacy of a pre-modern mindset.
“Sex is something you do in Ukraine, Russia or some other place where people are grown-up about this, while here you just get married,” grumbled twenty-something cellist Vakhtang Gabisonia.
Georgian women may shrug their shoulders and laugh about “the virginity institute,” but many still willingly play by its rules. “This may look silly to somebody in the West, but people make choices in life according to their cultures,” said 18-year-old student Nutsa Avaliani. “This is how everyone in my family lived and I am going to do the same because I think it is the right way.”
Gender researchers say that the country’s culture of abstinence prompts many young Georgians to marry simply to obtain license to engage in sex. As a result, baby-faced married couples are often found walking around holding babies of their own, commented Tamar Sabedashvili, United Nations Development Fund for Women Gender Advisor in Georgia.
“There is a direct connection between the virginity institute and early marriages in Georgia,” Sabedashvili said. “Often these marriages have to do with sex, more than anything else.”
At the same time, heavy social and family pressure can also play a role. Marriage is widely seen as the sine qua non of Georgian life – a condition that establishes a person’s status as a full-fledged member of society.
Twenty-three-year-old Liberali news magazine reporter Natia Guliashvili acknowledges that such pressure often prompts her female peers to rush to marry.
“Sometimes a girl is so convinced that her mission is to get married [and] that the earlier she achieves this, the sooner she feels self-realized,” Guliashvili said. “When from a very early age, a girl is told that her true mission [in life] is to be a wife and a mother, even when grown-up she may never start asking if she is fully enjoying the rights that she has.”
Student Avaliani agrees that such pressures may influence her thinking about marriage, but says she does not want to end up like a 25-year-old friend whom she terms a spinster. “I really want to get married and have kids very soon, and I think that is what every woman wants,” she said.
The “institute” and resulting early unions are associated with one growing problem -- divorce. Divorce rates have been increasing steadily since 2005, exceeding 0.7 per 1,000 people in 2008, according to the Georgian National Statistics Service. This figure pales compared to rates in the United States or the United Kingdom, but the curve is sloping upward.
In Western societies, Javakhishvili noted, people tend to go through several relationships before they settle down. But there is no exact equivalent for “dating” in Georgian. Men and women “dadian” (“walk together regularly”) or “khvdebian” (“meet’). The concept does not imply sex. Most Georgians live with their parents before marriage and romantic visits are not tolerated at home.
“There is often a difference between someone you are really attracted to and someone you want to grow old with,” said Javakhishvili. “The young couples often discover that this is not one and the same.”
Recent data suggest that young unions are in decline, but still popular. In the past two years, the median age for first marriages has grown older in Georgia -- 26.8 years old for men and 25.1 years old for women, according to the Georgian National Statistics Service. Just a few years ago, the figure for women was 23 years old.
Some blame the advent of a market economy in Georgia for the rising marriage ages. Young people now start working earlier and the more exacting work environment – and less predictable economic security -- can interfere with wedding plans.
For many Georgian women, getting married at an older age means a more extended period of sexual abstinence.
Tamara Tavartkeldidze, a 79-year-old widow and retired literature teacher, recommends that young women should not worry about sex, but rather worry about finding Mr. Right. “I got married when I was 30 and I have never wanted to have any other man,” Tavartkeldidze said of her deceased husband. “Finding the right man is hard. Having many men is just a technical question.”
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.