By Razib Khan
A few years ago the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, asserted that his nation did not have gays as they did in the West. What Ahmadinejad seems to have meant is that a public gay identity does not exist in Iran. He has to be aware that homosexual behavior is not unknown in his nation.
More generally Ahmadinejad’s comments brought up the issue of men having sex with men throughout the Middle East before marriage. This is a taboo topic in much of the region, so getting good quantitative data seems pretty much impossible. But PLoS Medicine came out with a paper with a result which suggests that the anecdotes of relatively widespread homosexual behavior in the Middle East are not totally unfounded or unrepresentative (the journalist Hugh Pope has indicated that Middle Eastern men have sometimes assumed he would naturally be open to sexual propositions because he was a Westerner. He grew a mustache to discourage such inquiries) .
The paper is about HIV, Are HIV Epidemics among Men Who Have Sex with Men Emerging in the Middle East and North Africa?: A Systematic Review and Data Synthesis. Here’s the figure which jumped out at me:
The title of the table is Prevalence of anal sex between males in select populations in MENA.
For Iran there is a notation of “unspecified male-to-male sexual contacts,” so I take the figure for Iran to mean that 29% of sexually active unmarried men in Iran are engaging in activities with other men. Does this mean that 29% of men in this sample are gay? I don’t think so.
As you likely know Iran’s state imposes conservative sexual mores upon its population. Though Iran is not Saudi Arabia there are still hazards when it comes to men and women entering into relationships before marriage. But it also turns out that many Iranian men at their peak of sexual ardor are unmarried. A recent paper reports that 40-45% of men aged 25-29 were unmarried.
One needs to be cautious of a figure like this. There is likely selection bias in the sample, even if it is less clear than in the case of truck drivers at STD clinics or prisoners. And this is only one report. But it finally gives us a concrete number to point to when we allude to the likelihood that male-to-male sexual contact has to be rife in societies where heterosexual sex outside of marriage is very difficult, and marriage has to be delayed to the exigencies of the modern economy.