The idea came to me in the bathroom.
Getting ready for work, listening to a radio report about Syrian refugees fleeing to a pop-up camp on the border, a question flashed into my mind: How do they maintain family life, marriage, sexual relations, love, intimacy, privacy in their flimsy tents and metal containers? Why have I never explored that in my 27 years reporting war and crises around the world?
Sex and love is not something I usually talk about, but that thought sent me on an odyssey into life’s most essential question, trying to discover what makes us all human even in the most extreme conditions.
From Berlin to Beirut, Tokyo to New Delhi, Accra to Shanghai, everywhere I looked I found people seeking — and craving — love, intimacy and sexual fulfillment. My quest took me to women and girls, who we so often dismiss as only victims of our patriarchal, misogynistic, hypersexualized culture, who were boldly seizing every opportunity for satisfaction and personal pleasure. I also found their evil downside: sexless marriages, industrial-scale infidelity and loneliness.
I wondered, do Afghan mothers in tribal villages have sex and relationship talks with their daughters (especially the underage ones they are about to marry off to men old enough to be their fathers … or grandfathers)? Or are they just too busy trying to survive?
In Berlin, I found a young Afghan refugee, pregnant with her third child, who looked totally shocked when I asked whether she thought she had the right to be happy. And later, at a BDSM workshop, I had to pretend not to feel really awkward when ropes were thrown around me while interviewing the king of bondage!
But while Berlin is one big adult playground … New Delhi is not. India is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. A recent article described 700 brides at a mass wedding being given cricket bats to whack their grooms if they become abusive. Still, even there I found a thriving BDSM scene!
I’d only been to Japan once, to cover the tsunami in 2011. But now trying to uncover intimate secrets, I was amazed by what I discovered in Tokyo. Women told me you’re an outlier if you have a happy, sexually fulfilled marriage. My heart was healed when I met one particularly loving couple who created the Adoring Husbands Association. A key feature: The husband must regularly yell “I LOVE YOU” to his wife at the top of his lungs! It seems to work!
Along my journey from Asia to India, Africa and Arabia, I found incredible similarities and mind-bending contradictions. These societies were more sexually liberated centuries ago than they are today. From Shunga to the Kama Sutra to the Perfumed Garden, they all have their ancient erotic texts. Sexual fulfillment, satisfaction and experimentation were all encouraged, and not just for men. Women also were meant to share in the joy, and take their own sexual pleasure.
Across the cultures, most of the women I met have marriage on their mind. Virginity on their wedding night is to be prized above all. In Beirut, Lebanon, there is a thriving business in hymenoplasty (look it up!).
We met straight couples and gay couples, a transgender superstar in Shanghai, an all-female motorcycle gang in New Delhi, all pushing the boundaries of what it means to be fulfilled in every way. And true to the current climate sweeping the world, we found women increasingly aware and brave enough to demand their consent be respected.
In this journey I wanted to find out how people, especially women, could find true love and intimacy, where sex is safe and fun, and personal happiness comes before family and filial duty.
This is a truly EXTRAORDINARY journey, for wherever you land in the world, everyone’s talking about sex and love!