MASTURBATION does not exist in Myanmar—not the practice, which is presumably common enough, but the word itself, which is absent from the government-approved dictionary. When it comes to sex, accepted terms are hard to find. Linguists disagree as to whether “vagina” and “penis” have proper equivalents in Burmese. Most people simply point at their body parts or use euphemisms, says Nandar, a local activist who translates feminist literature. Parents tend to speak coyly of “flowers” and “pumps”—if they talk to their children at all about the birds and the bees.
In theory, sex education is offered in schools, but most teachers skip the topic. They are often too embarrassed to talk about sex in the classroom. Most parents do not want them to anyway (it could arouse children’s curiosity, many argue). Last year an MP from the ruling National League for Democracy proposed giving the subject more prominence. The government did not take up her suggestion.
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Laws about sex are a muddle. The morning-after pill is freely available on supermarket shelves for less than a dollar a pack. Abortion is illegal, but widely practised. Sodomy, or “unnatural offences”, as the criminal code inherited from colonial times puts it, is outlawed. So is adultery. Even holding a woman’s hand can be considered an “outrage to her modesty”. Marital rape remains legal. During a recent Burmese New Year festival, Yangon officials banned the sale of contraceptives and Viagra in the hope of curbing sex crimes.
The urban elite is loosening up a bit. “The Vagina Monologues”, a risqué play, was recently performed in Yangon, the commercial capital. (A few years ago the mere publication of the V-word, in English, in a local paper created such a furore that the paper apologised.) But in much of the country, old wives’ tales still hold sway. Women are told that washing their hair when menstruating could be fatal. Eating tea-leaf salad or guava at the wrong time of the month is also dicing with death. Women’s underwear must be washed separately from men’s, so as not to jeopardise masculinity. Those expecting babies should not eat spicy food, let alone have sex.
But even if the sexual revolution has not reached Myanmar, the technological one has. Smartphones are changing the way ordinary Burmese understand their bodies. In anonymous chats, young women dare to ask doctors questions they would never broach in person, says Michael Lwin, who developed maymay, an app providing guidance about maternal, child and female health.
But it is mainly from porn that teenagers are learning about subjects their elders won’t discuss. Demand is high. The trailer for “Violet of Myanmar”, allegedly the country’s first high-definition adult movie, created a storm when it was posted online last year. The offending material was quickly taken down, but not before the police launched an investigation into how it ever came to be put up in the first place. On the plus side, at least they now have indisputable proof that masturbation does indeed exist.