Why you should care

Because opening economies and communications can also liberate countries sexually.

At Mojo, a busy, upscale bar in Yangon, foreign NGO workers, teachers and entrepreneurs sip on Myanmar beer and dance to the latest techno beats among a trendy crowd of young, privileged Burmese. At the bar, an American expat details to a friend how his Burmese ex-girlfriend won’t stop stalking him; nearby, a local girl argues about her curfew with her parents on the phone. After she hangs up, she walks onto the dance floor, throws her hands up and begins to gyrate provocatively between two tall foreigners as if it’s the most natural thing in the world.

But in deeply conservative Myanmar — a state ruled by a brutal military junta until 2010, and which hosted its first open general election in 25 years on Sunday — such scenes are an increasingly common phenomenon. Much like its politics and economics, Myanmar’s social conventions are evolving, pitting modern attitudes toward relationships and sexuality against traditional norms. Some women are challenging strict gender roles, experts say, while more teenage sweethearts are having sex, a small LGBT scene is emerging and society is becoming more permissive. Sure, it might not be San Francisco in the 1960s, but in its own subtle way, Myanmar is undergoing a sexual revolution. “People are expressing tenderness publicly and tolerance is more visible,” says Sid Naing, country director for Marie Stopes International, a nongovernmental organization providing reproductive health services.

Since adopting a nominally civilian government in 2010, Myanmar has generated more jobs and wealth. Its economy has surged over 8 percent annually in recent years, compared with an average of 4 to 5 percent among all developing economies, the World Bank says. And Myanmar has attracted more tourists and foreign workers, including those from international telecom companies such as Norway’s Telenor and Qatar’s Ooredoo, which have made wireless Internet more widely accessible. That combo of extra cash, the fluidity of foreigners and unfettered communication has proved a powerful aphrodisiac.

Five years ago, everyone was shy and no one was talking about sex. Now some of my friends have one-night stands and threesomes.

Dolly Handerson, a public relations assistant in Yangon

Indeed, pornography, now much more readily available online, and secretly through street vendors, is influencing more behavior. Some people who lose their virginity before age 16, for instance, want to get more experimental as they get older — like trying anal sex or orgies, “and they get that from porn,” says Dolly Handerson, a local 23-year-old public relations assistant at Wired Media in Yangon. More young Burmese are also going out to bars and clubs — a pastime once reserved for the elite, or sex workers — and they’re dabbling in casual relationships. “Five years ago, everyone was shy and no one was talking about sex,” says Handerson. “Now some of my friends have one-night stands and threesomes.”

A man browses a sex site on a laptop in Rangoon, Myanmar.

More young Burmese are searching online for information about sex while dabbling in casual relationships.

Source Ko Myo / Corbis

The fact that many adolescents attend universities that have been relocated to the countryside and away from their families — a policy instituted after large anti-junta student protests rocked Yangon in 1998 — has also facilitated the country’s sexual emancipation. Although not all young Burmese engage in sexual activity, as many still wait until marriage, they’ve been given more space both online and in public to mingle with one another. That has helped embolden women such as Su, a 20-year-old law student who says there was no democracy in either her country or home before. “Now,” she says, “my parents give me freedom: My boyfriend or husband is my choice.” Even those living at home enjoy more freedom as their parents are increasingly consumed with work pressures from a growing economy and a higher cost of living.

But while some women feel more empowered, formidable challenges remain. Myanmar’s patriarchal society, after all, still subjects women to double standards — when boys are interested in sex, they’re considered naughty, but tolerated. “But a girl is absolutely not supposed to be curious or even understand sex,” says Naing. Consequently, sex education — whether at home or at school — isn’t always available. That has created a ripe environment for the spread of sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies in a country where abortions may lead to jail time and can only be conducted illegally, often in back-alley clinics. Here, abortions have become one of the leading causes of maternal death, according to a United Nations Population Fund report.

As Myanmar becomes more sexually liberalized, challenges will undoubtedly arise. But so will certain opportunities. Painter Sandar Khine can now openly exhibit her collection of bright acrylic nudes, while artists such as Me N Ma Girls, Myanmar’s first all-girl pop dance ensemble, can take bolder strides with their lyrics and style. At the same time, women’s rights organization advocates such as Ma Htar Htar, who founded Akhaya in Yangon, argue that authorities must do more to confront sexual abuse. But at least the media now has the freedom to report on these cases, which encourages more women to come forward.

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