Sex talk show scandalises conservative Georgia
Wearing a tight red dress and leaning suggestively over a chair, Shorena Begashvili gazed into the camera and said in a husky voice: "Today we're going to talk about the sounds people make when having sex."
It is being broadcast on private channel Imedi, the same station that provoked an international uproar this month by broadcasting a fake news report that said Russia had invaded and Georgia's president had been killed.
Hosted by 27-year-old Playboy model Begashvili, the weekly programme began airing in January and features interviews with celebrity guests, street polls about people's sex lives and clips of erotic scenes from Hollywood movies.
The goal, Begashvili said, is not simply to be smutty, but to educate and change perceptions about sex in Georgia.
"We are trying to educate Georgians about sex," she told AFP in an interview at a trendy tea house in the capital Tbilisi. "Many people in Georgia say they don't need more information about sex, but trust me, they do."
Begashvili's critics disagree and her programme has sparked protests from religious groups, an official complaint to the channel and threats of legal action.
The controversy is part of a larger debate in Georgia over the country's social values as it continues a transformation that began with its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
In recent years, and particularly since the 2003 pro-Western Rose Revolution, Georgia has increasingly looked to the United States and Europe as political and cultural role models.
But comparatively liberal Western attitudes towards sex are clashing with traditional values, especially as the socially conservative Georgian Orthodox Church is also seeing its influence rise.
"Many Georgians see sex as something bad, as a sin, as something you shouldn't be talking about. That's what we're trying to change," said the show's director, Beso Solomanashvili.
-- 'Why shouldn't we talk about it?' --
Public opinion polls show that Georgians are far more conservative about sex than Americans or Europeans.
A nationwide survey by the Caucasus Research Resources Centre last October found that 77 percent of Georgians disapproved of sex before marriage and that 90 percent opposed homosexuality.
In contrast, a Gallup poll in the US last year found that only 40 percent of Americans opposed pre-marital sex and a 2001 Eurobarometer poll of young people across Europe found that nearly nine out of 10 approved of sex outside of marriage.
In Western countries, Night with Shorena's frank talk about one-night stands, virginity and satisfying sex lives would hardly raise eyebrows. But in Georgia the backlash was furious after her programme suggested that Georgians don't need to wait for marriage to have sex.
Student groups rallied outside Imedi television's studios demanding the "perverted" programme be taken off the air. The Union of Orthodox Parents, a religious lobby group, filed a complaint against the programme with the channel, demanding it be banned and that Begashvili issue a public apology.
"This kind of propaganda for immorality is unacceptable to us, to our religious feelings, and it contradicts traditional Christian values," said Avtandil Ungiadze, the union's co-chairman. "Urging young Georgian women to have pre-marital sex is harmful to society."
Ungiadze said the group is waiting for Imedi to respond to the complaint and plans to sue the channel for violating broadcasting standards if its concerns are ignored.
Officials with Imedi refused to comment on the programme, directing all questions to the show's producers.
Since the show's launch, Begashvili has become a symbol of the decline of traditional values in Georgia for the country's conservatives, who have dubbed the trend "Shorenisation."
Despite this, and frequent attacks on her character, Begashvili said she hasn't been bothered by the controversy.
"Some people are afraid of sex and that's why there is a scandal," she said. "But sex is an ordinary thing and it's something we can't live without. Why shouldn't we talk about it?"
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