The hottest-selling item in Tehran pharmacies this summer isn’t allergy medicine or vitamin C. It’s a sex-education DVD—the first ever released in the Islamic republic—called Beloved Companion, which has been blazing off the shelves. “It’s been selling really well,” says a pharmacist in central Tehran, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, with a laugh. “We’ve sold hundreds since it was released.”
Until now, Iranian and foreign films sold on DVD or shown in theaters have been completely censored. No nudity, no foul language—not even innuendo is left by the time censors hack their way through. In fact, Iran has some of the strictest morality laws in the region. That doesn’t only cover what can be shown in films or written in books but also crosses into the public sphere. Unmarried young men and women flirting in parks or cruising around in cars are often picked up by the morality police.
So it comes as no small surprise that Beloved Companion was given the stamp of approval from both the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The DVD took more than two years to produce, and it was an uphill battle all the way. “These issues are taboo and nobody would give us permission to make the film,” Mohammad Reza Alizadeh, the DVD’s producer, said in an interview with the Hamshahriye Javan magazine. “We had problems with both the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Culture. It got to the point where I decided I’ll take the risk and produce [the DVD] out of my own pocket.” Alizadeh steered away from smut and brought in psychologists and other experts for commentary. The gamble paid off. The DVD hit pharmacy shelves about a month ago, selling for roughly $4 each. Customers must be 18 or above to buy the DVD. “This is the first time we’re using simple and clear language to discuss issues which can’t be brought up on television and radio,” Alizadeh told the Hamshahriye Javan newspaper. “We don’t have the necessary conditions or the available space to teach sexual issues so this project was a good start.”
The marketing campaign has been relatively chaste. The Beloved Companion website reassures potential buyers with the slogan “Don’t be worried anymore” and claims the DVD would be “A Great Gift for Spouses.” If the customers still haven’t been sold, the website lays out more explicit profiles of their potential customers: “Young couples who are shy about discussing marital issues.” “Couples who have been together for years but are not satisfied with their relations,” and “People who want to understand their spouses’ needs.”
Word got out quickly. The pharmacist in central Tehran says they’ve been selling between 300 to 500 copies a week, mostly to young couples. Sales have only slowed recently since bootleg copies of the DVD have surfaced. Another pharmacist in central Tehran, who also asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, says they’ve been selling up to 100 copies a week but their customers have been more mixed. “An elderly woman came in and asked about this DVD earlier today,” she says. “I asked her why she was looking for this DVD and she replied, ‘My husband says he’s not satisfied in the house and says he’ll get a second wife if I don’t think of something. A friend recommended I buy this DVD.’ ”
The video has even been selling well in the conservative neighborhoods of south Tehran. One pharmacist in south Tehran, who also asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, said they’ve been selling 50 to 100 copies a week. The pharmacy brought in a female sales clerk to avoid any awkward interactions. “Religious people also want to enjoy life and being together,” the pharmacist says. “They have emotions too.” Customers who are too shy to buy the product in stores shouldn’t despair. They can order it online. One online shop guarantees discretion and tells buyers that the receipt will list the contents of the package as “computer parts.”
Academics who have studied Iranian society see the success of the DVD as a sign of a broader trend. “People have reached the conclusion that they need education in these matters and the information from traditional sources isn’t sufficient. It’s becoming a more pleasure-seeking society,” says Mina, a social psychologist. “There is a huge gap between the developments inside the society and the culture and image that the government is trying to portray.”
Alizadeh, the DVD producer, is betting that his audience isn’t going away. He’s already planning a sequel.
With reporting by a special correspondent in Tehran.