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Once Upon a Time, There Was Sex in Georgia

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 January 2017


Georgians have long found in the remote mountainous regions of Georgia, Pshavi and Khevsureti, a fragmentary ethnographic image of a romantic and exotic “once upon a time” version of Georgia. Georgians have been particularly tantalized by images of the strange sexual practices of these mountains (called ts‘ats’loba), which represent a kind of paradoxical “sex without sex,” a seeming inversion of normative Georgian sexuality, belonging at the same time to the most “Georgian” part of Georgia. Fragmentary images of this “Georgian ancestral sex” circulate in a complex, multigenred interdiscursive space of citationality, becoming, in this recirculation, a haunting absent presence, representations of a sexual alterity shot through with lacunae and absences, which become full of virtual potentiality as these gaps and absences are filled in with one's own imagination and desire. This article ethnographically traces the citational connections between these fragmentary images of sexuality.

Ethnographies Of Absence In Contemporary Georgia
Copyright © Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. 2014

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1 Various drafts of this paper have benefited in particular from close and careful readings by Deborah Cameron, liana Gershon, Bruce Grant, Alaina Lemon, Anne Meneley, Lauren Ninoshvili, and Elana Resnick, as well as the anonymous reviewers for Slavic Review,Constantine Nakassis's repeated and diligent readings helped me see through the forest of details and reframe the paper completely. Kevin Tuite and Paata Bukhradze's work on Pshav-Khevsur ethnography, published and unpublished, provided the original inspira-tion and ground for this paper. The research itself would not have happened without the knowledge, friendship, and collegiality of my Georgian friends Zaza Shatirishvili and Nino Tseradze, Emzar Jgerenaia, and Khvtiso Mamisimedishvili in particular. I thank Elizabeth Dunn and Martin Demant Fredriksen for spurring me to write the paper in the first place, and the previous editor of Slavic Review, Mark D. Steinberg, whose advice helped me see what this paper was really about. Any errors are my own. Aleko Tskhitishvili, “Kartuli Mama-p'ap'uri Seksi,” at (last accessed 10 November 2013). Note that my transcription of Georgian uses apostrophes to indicate Georgian glottal consonants and should not be confused with the prime symbol used in Russian transliteration. Unless otherwise noted, all trans-lations are my own.

2 Cameron, Deborah and Kulick, Don, Language and Sexuality (Cambridge, Eng., 2003), 23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

3 I am drawing here on Georg Simmel's concept of sociability, though for Simmel, the sociable play form of sexual interaction was coquetry and flirtation, not petting or casual sex. Simmel, Georg, “The Sociology of Sociability,” trans. Hughes, Everett C., The American Journal of Sociology 55, no. 3 (November 1949): 258.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

4 The Georgian-language Playboy (and the first Georgian “Playmate”) appeared in August 2007 and continued for a short time into 2008, publishing seven issues total. On Playboy's failure in Georgia, see, for example, “keketketo,” “Failure of Georgian Playboy,” Slavic Review 73, no. 2 (Summer 2014) CNN iReport, 25 April 2009, at (last accessed 2 January 2014). Nestan-Darejan is the heroine of Shota Rustaveli's medieval poem of (largely unrequited) love, The Knight in the Panther's Skin; she and Queen Ketevan are idealized, stereotypical models for a certain type of Georgian femininity, embodying a restrained modesty and a sexuality that is largely based on unattainability, usually opposed to that imputed to Russian or western women. Emzar Jgerenaia, personal communication. See also Shatirishvili, Zaza and Manning, Paul, “Why Are the Dolls Laughing?: Tbilisi between Intelligentsia Culture and Socialist Labour” in Darieva, Tsypylma, Kaschuba, Wolfgang, and Krebs, Melanie, eds., Urban Spaces after Socialism: Ethnographies of Public Places in Eurasian Cities (Frankfurt am Main, 2011), 214–16.Google Scholar

5 Tskhitishvili, “Kartuli Mama-p'ap'uri Seksi” For a full ethnography of Khevsur sts'orproba and its reception in Georgian culture, see Paul Manning, Love Stories: Language, Private Love and Public Romance in Georgia (Toronto, forthcoming).

6 The context for this definition is helpful. An online forum discussion began with a long post about ts'ats'loba by “nanu,” who commented, “at a time when even Europe wasn't ‘developed’ to this level, things were happening in the mountains of Georgia that contemporary Americans would envy.” This provoked a question from “temo,” who wanted to know just what ts'ats'loba was, anyway. To this, “tiamat girl” answered, “Sex with-out sex *big grin* lol.” At this ambiguous response, temo asked, “and whaat [sic] is that? You've got me all confused now,” and nanu offered her doubts that it was entirely “without sex.” This exchange happened at,12 March 2007 (last accessed 10 Nov 2013). Since the texts I cite from Internet forums here and below contain animated (.gif) emoticons, expressing the stance or emotion of the writers which cannot be printed, I have resorted to translating the emoticon in each case into its conventional meaning in ordinary language, while capturing the “flavor” of the translated emoticon by using another common internet convention, the bracketing of paralinguistic textual expressions of emotion or action within asterisks. I also cite the location of each emoticon image so that readers can retrieve the original emoticon it transcribes. Here, *big grin*, at (last accessed 5 January 2014). The *big grin* emoticon has been changed to *happy tongue smiley* since first it appeared. Throughout this article I use full names or pseudonyms as given. If a full name (i.e., first and last) name is given, the reader may assume that it is the real name of the indi-vidual. If less than a full name is given, either a first name or no name, then the reader may safely assume that I am anonymizing the name of the interlocutor (partially because of the somewhat sensitive nature of the materials). In some cases, I simply do not know the names of the interlocutors. Pseudonyms used by forum participants are always repro-duced exactly as written (and, if in Georgian, they are also glossed and transliterated). An anonymous reviewer pointed out that my application of these rules produces the effect of segregating elites from non-elites, published authors from the “folk.” I fully agree and find it an unfortunate and unintended outcome of these procedures. For further consider-ation of how deeply inscribed these particular boundaries are, see Manning, Paul, “Love Khevsur Style: The Romance of the Mountains and Mountaineer Romance in Georgian Ethnography” in Grant, Bruce and Yalcin-Heckmann, Lale, eds., Caucasus Paradigms: An-thropologies, Histories, and the Making of a World Area (Berlin, 2007), 4445.Google Scholar

7 Tskhitishvili, “Kartuli Mama-p'ap'uri Seksi.”

8 Stewart, Charles, Demons and the Devil: Moral Imagination in Modern Greek Culture (Princeton, 1991), 189.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

9 Stewart, Demons and the Devil, 175-77. The slippage here is quite common, as Sarah Alison Miller notes: “That accounts of uncontrolled or perverse sexuality have repeatedly borrowed from the vocabulary of teratology suggests that a certain vigilance is required to keep sexual monsters and monstrous sex properly policed.” Miller, “Monstrous Sexuality: Variations on the Vagina Dentata,” in Mittman, Asa Simon and Dendle, Peter, eds., The Ash-gate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous (Farnham, 2012), 312.Google Scholar It is noteworthy that the Khevsurs themselves are haunted by sexual fantasies that take the form of creatures of fantastic sexuality, exhibiting both alterity and monstrous inversion of normal sexuality. For example, there is a class of female demons called dobilebi (literally, “sworn sisters”) who take their name presumably from the fact that they are consorts al-lied to male shrine gods by a Active siblinghood relationship similar to sts'orproba among humans. Both human marriage and sexual reproduction are alien to the divine world, all relations between divinities taking a form analogous to Active kinship (sworn sibling-hood) and sts'orproba. On these points, see Tuite, Kevin, “‘Antimarriage’ in Ancient Geor-gian Society,” Anthropological Linguistics 42, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 4849.Google Scholar Such creatures are particularly harmful to their human rivals, women and children, but with respect to human men, whom they seduce in dreams, they are rather more like succubi, violating all the rules of marriage and sts'orproba alike: they are promiscuous, they always engage in sexual intercourse, each sex act with them always pollutes their male partner and al-ways produces more beings like or worse than themselves, and they eat their young. Makalatia, Sergi, Khevsureti (Tbilisi, 1984), 236–37.Google Scholar

10 “Twilight (2008 film),” Wikipedia, at (last accessed 5 January 2014).

11 Emma Gray, “Vampires and Sexuality: What Are ‘Twilight’ And ‘True Blood’ Saying about Sex?,” Huffington Post, 28 October 2011, at (last accessed 10 November 2013).

12 See Tuite, “‘Antimarriage’ in Ancient Georgian Society,” 47.

13 In “Twilight Saga (4 books),” TBILISIS FORUMI, 25 January 2009, 1:04 a.m., at (last accessed 10 November 2013). For the emoticons glossed as *sad smile*, *cry*, and *sad*, see,,, respectively (last accessed 10 November 2013).

14 On this kind of slippage, see again Miller, “Monstrous Sexuality,” 312.

15 The hauntology of the ghost also resides in its temporality, its lingering. My thanks to Elana Resnick, via personal communication, for reminding me of this. Here Georgians are haunted by both ghosts of the past (“traditional” Georgian sex, whatever that ends up meaning) and also specters from possible futures (associated with the “developed” sexu-alities found in Europe and especially the United States), which, according to some inter-pretations found in the online forums, turn out to be doppelgangers: the Georgian “traditional” past turns out to be a premonition of the Euro-American “developed” future.

16 See Manning, “Love Khevsur Style,” 23-45. See also Manning, Love Stories.

17 Note, for example, that sts'orperi, which refers to any participant in sts'orproba, also has a nonsexual sense that means something like “peer.”

18 On these points, see Tuite, “‘Antimarriage’ in Ancient Georgian Society,” 46–49; Manning, “Love Khevsur Style,” 26–28; Manning, Paul, The Semiotics of Drink and Drinking (London, 2012), 177204.Google Scholar

19 Herzfeld, Michael, Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics in the Nation State (London, 1996), 14 Google Scholar.

20 Makalatia, Sergi, Pshauri Ts'ats'loba da Khevsuruli Sts'orproba (1924; Tbilisi, 1998), 6.Google Scholar

21 Nakassis, Constantine V., “Brand, Citationality, Performativity,” American Anthro-pologist 114, no. 4 (November 2012): 626.Google Scholar

22 In this sense, ts'ats'loba resembles moe (“a euphoric response to fantasy characters or representations of them”) in Japanese otaku and fujoshi subcultures, denoting a sexuality revolving around “pure fantasy,” consisting of “relationships removed from context, emptied of depth and positioned outside reality.” Patrick Galbraith, “Moe: Ex-ploring Virtual Potential in Post-Millennial Japan,” Electronic Journal of Contemporary Japanese Studies 9, no. 3 (October 2009), at (last accessed 10 November 2013).

23 Cameron and Kulick, Language and Sexuality, 107.

24 A general desire for ts'ats'loba (i.e., a desire for a kind of relationship) is para-sitic on actual relationships that express desire between specific ts'ats'alis, which is what the term ts'ats'loba denotes. Thus, reframings of ts'ats'loba are not only citational but parasitic, in Michel Serres's sense of denoting a relation to a relation and not the entities brought together by the relation. Michel Serres, The Parasite, trans. Lawrence R. Schehr (Baltimore, 1982), 33. For further discussion of citationality and parasitism as parallel semiotic conditions, see Constantine V. Nakassis, “Para-s/cite, Part I: The Parasite” and “Para-s/cite, Part II: The Paracite,” in “Parasites,” ed. Matthew Wolf-Meyer, special issue of Semiotic Review (May 2013), at (last accessed 7 lanuary 2014).

25 Zaza Shatirishvili, personal communication. Also cited and discussed in Manning, “Love Khevsur Style,” 45.

26 For example, Makalatia's short pamphlet of 1924, Pshauri Ts'ats'loba da Khevsu-ruli Sts'orproba, runs to twenty-eight pages, of which fifteen (pp. 13-21, 24-29) are repro-ductions of poetry about these relationships. His complete ethnography of Pshavi (Sergi Makalatia, Pshavi [Tbilisi, 1934]) devotes about eight pages to the topic, which contain no less than sixty lines of poetry in the discussion of the practice (pp. 118-126), as well as ten pages in the section on folk poetry which are devoted to this topic (pp. 221-30).

27 For a detailed discussion of this episode, see Manning, “Love Khevsur Style,” 34-45.

28 The sphere of circulation of (rural, peasant) folk poetry is thus ideologically opposed to a sphere of modern, urban print “publics” inhabited by individual writers: “When I say ‘Folk Poetry’ I mean … that poetry, which spreads, usually by oral transmission, from one man to another and from the older generation to the younger. Its preserver and defender is the memory of many persons, and this is the reason that its form and content is mutable.” Akaki Shanidze, Kartuli Khalhuri P'oezia, vol. 1, Khevsuruli (Tbilisi, 1931), 5. On the formation and policing of this opposition between “folk” and “individual” creativ-ity, see Zaza Shatirishvili and Paul Manning, “Why are the Dolls Laughing?,” 213-18, and Manning, Paul, Strangers in a Strange Land: Occidentalist Publics and Orientalist Geogra-phies in Nineteenth-Century Georgian Imaginaries (Boston, 2012), 155–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar On the practices of the erasure of various kinds of hybrids of folk and individual authorship, see Manning, “Love Khevsur Style.”

29 For this sense of “public,” see Warner, Michael, “Publics and Counterpublics,” Public Culture 14, no. 1 (Winter 2002): 4990 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 Manning, Semiotics of Drink, 187-92.

31 Grigol Apshinashvili made this point in an article titled “Pshavelta Tskhovrebidam” (From the Life of Pshavians), in the journal Iveria in 1896. Cited in Gogolauri, Tamila, “Gana Laghi Var, roma Vmgher…” (Tbilisi, 1996), 5.Google Scholar

32 Warner, “Publics and Counterpublics,” 57.

33 Gogochuri, Davit, Melekseoba Khevsuretshi (Tbilisi, 1974), 38.Google Scholar

34 For example, a poetic duel consists of fragments that all appear to be taken from Shanidze. Akaki Shanidze, Kartuli Khalhuri P'oezia, no. 286; no. 285: 124; no. 425:164; and no. 404:159. In Javakhsvishvili, Mikheil, Tkhzulebani Shvid T'omad, 7 vols. (Tbilisi, 2004), 2:567–68.Google Scholar Tetri Saqelo exists in two published versions: a shorter version published in Mnatobi, no. 1 (1926), and a longer and considerably augmented version originally pub-lished in vol. 3 of Javakhsihvili, Mikheil, Tkhzulebani (Tbilisi, 1934).Google Scholar The latter is the stan-dard text reproduced in the edition I cite here.

35 Both novelists reinterpret the nature of the rules to make the relationship perme-able to outsiders, allowing outsider Georgian readers to imagine themselves vicariously participating in it. In Javakhishvili's case, the practice is explicitly framed as an obliga-tion of the host to the guest.

36 Grigol Robakidze's Engadi was originally published in Bedi Kartlisa, nos. 10-11 (Paris, 1932). The edition I cite here is Grigol Robakidze, Tkhzulebani Tkhutmet' T'omad, 15 vols. (Tbisili, 2004), 2:189-224. This quotation, from Robakidze, Tkhzulebani Tkhutmet' T'omad, 2:216, is, incidentally, also the precise one adduced by Aleko Tskhitishvili for the rules of sts'orproba discussed above.

37 Javakhishvili, Tetri Saqelo, in Tkhzulebani Shvid T'omad, 2:580.

38 In TBILISIS FORUMI, 8 July 2011,1:11 p.m., at (last accessed 10 November 2013).

39 In TBILISIS FORUMI, 8 July 2011,12:11 p.m., (last accessed 10 November 2013).

40 In “Ts‘ats’loba—Pshauri T'raditsia,” Goqvardet ChemnairebU, 11 February 2010, 10:31 a.m., at (last accessed 10 January 2014).

41 In TBILISIS FORUMI, 8 July 2011,3:27 p.m., at (last accessed 10 November 2013). For the emoticon glossed as *smile*, see http://forum,ge/html/emoticons/smile.gif (last accessed 10 November 2013).

42 In, 12 March 2007, 9:17 p.m., at (last accessed 10 November 2013).

43 In TBILISIS FORUMI, 9 July 2011,10:25 p.m., at (last accessed 10 November 2013).

44 In TBILISIS FORUMI, 9 July 2011,3:18 a.m., at (last accessed 10 November 2013). Emphasis added.

45 In TBILISJS FORUMI, 9 October 2011, 7:08 p.m., at (last accessed 10 November 2013). For the emoticon glossed as *two people kissing*, also known as “2kiss” (in actuality, one emoticon face kissing a smiling face), see (last accessed 10 November 2013).

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