CNN's chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, is no stranger to tough coverage. She documented the bloody 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq and has reported from the aftermath of humanitarian crises including the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the 2011 Japanese tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. This year, Amanpour was named as Charlie Rose's interim replacement after he was fired by CBS for multiple allegations of sexual harassment.
In her latest project, Amanpour is taking on a topic that wasn't making the nightly news until the #MeToo movement started: love and sex. Her six-part documentary series, Sex & Love Around the World, explores the intimate lives of people around the world. She spoke to NPR's Michel Martin about the series' conception, its topics and its challenges.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
On the series inspiration
I was actually brushing my teeth, listening to the radio. I heard a fantastic report about all these sad refugees expelled from Syria going to Jordan. I suddenly wondered: "Well, now, OK, now they're safe. How do they actually have sex?"
I don't know why that leaped into my head, but it did. How in these flimsy, cheek-by-jowl tents do they maintain any kind of intimate life? How do they keep their humanity together on the most fundamental level? And in particularly, how do women manage?
On interviewing people about intimacy
There was a lot of shyness, but we were staggered by how open everybody was. And when you think that this series was produced in some of the most conservative societies in the world — I was surprised with how open everyone was, how much everyone wanted to talk, in each and every city we visited. Once the floodgates had opened up, everyone wanted to keep talking and express themselves.
On reporting in the time of #MeToo
We started this reporting before the #MeToo movement, several months before the Harvey Weinstein revelations. We were exploring consent and issues of equality — how both men and women have a right to their own sexual happiness. And that really seems to have landed in the most incredibly fortuitous time in female history. Even in some of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman, we found this real wave of change, particularly powered by young women who want to have a different reality than their parents did. That, for me, was the essence of this series.
On the public's need to talk about sex and intimacy
Every culture and every country that I know of — whether it's the U.S. or China — sex is taboo. It just is. There's a ton of antique literature throughout the world, like the Kama Sutra, that explain carnal pleasure for men and women. Women are taught in these books that they don't just have a right to it — they deserve it! Now, fast-forward to the current orthodoxy around the topic of sex.
There's a much broader conversation to be had about intimacy, emotion and how couples stay together over the years. Having that conversation in this era of porn, the Internet and #MeToo is dire.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally today, a visit with CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour. She's interviewed world leaders and war criminals. She's reported from war zones, and refugee camps, and scenes of natural disaster around the world. And for this reporting, she's won every major award for television journalism. But for her latest series, she's taken on a topic that doesn't often make the nightly news. It's called "Sex And Love Around The World," and it's exactly what it says. It features Amanpour traveling to cities like Tokyo, Beirut and Delhi to have deeply personal and sometimes deeply uncomfortable conversations about relationships and sexuality. And Christiane Amanpour is with us now from New York City to talk more about the series which premieres tonight, Saturday. Christiane, thanks so much for speaking with us.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Hi, Michel. It's great to be with you.
MARTIN: Take me back to that, sort of, moment of, kind of, inspiration for you. Were you in some place terrible, as you often wind up being, and did just something spark you? I mean, did you see say a young couple and say, gee, how do they keep loving each other in these circumstances? What was the moment like, can you remember it?
AMANPOUR: I was actually brushing my teeth, listening to the radio. And I heard a fantastic report about all these, you know, sad refugees who are being expelled from Syria coming to this big refugee camp in Jordan. So on the one hand, they were safe. But on the other hand, you know, I suddenly wondered, well, OK, now they're safe. How do they actually have sex? I don't know why that leapt into my head, but it did. How in these flimsy, you know, (unintelligible) tents, do they maintain any kind of intimate life? How do they, you know, keep their humanity together on the most fundamental level which is about love, and then particularly through the eyes of women. And that's what was the impulse.
MARTIN: Was it hard for you to get people to talk to you about these things?
AMANPOUR: Actually, no. There was a lot of shyness but we were actually staggered by how open everybody was. And honestly, when you think that this was in some of the most conservative societies in the world, they have lived in very, very conservative patriarchal - not just societies but families and communities. So what I was really surprised with from all and every city was how open everybody was, how much they wanted to talk. Sort of like the floodgates just sort of just opened up, and they just kept talking and kept wanting to express themselves.
And we started this way before the Me Too movement, several months before the Harvey Weinstein revelations. And yet, we were talking about consent. We were talking about issues of equality and how men and women have a right to their own sexual happiness. And that just seems to have landed now with this debut of the series tonight at the most incredibly fortuitous time in certainly female history, and I would say human history, to be honest.
MARTIN: Well, let me play a clip from the episode that you shot in Delhi. And these are two young women meeting at a restaurant or bar.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SEX AND LOVE ALL OVER THE WORLD")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I don't like getting one person at a time.
AMANPOUR: Oh, really?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah. So I think Tinder has been a lot of help in that regard.
AMANPOUR: There's Tinder here?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Oh, yeah. Tinder is huge here.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I don't know how I'd meet people without it.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Tinder is huge. Tinder came in with like full force.
MARTIN: That was fascinating because, on the one hand, it seems very familiar. On the other hand, you just can't escape the fact that, in some of these places, this is actually really risky.
AMANPOUR: What we found was that, even in some of the most dangerous places in the world for girls to be girls and women to be women, there was this and there is this real wave of change particularly powered by young people and young women who want to have a different reality than their parents did. And that, for me, was the essence of this series.
MARTIN: Well, I just need to say, though, that the series doesn't just focus on societies that are seen as developing or coming out of conflict. But I'm wondering how you feel the series is going to be received when we in this country, as you well know, are thinking about the whole question of gender dynamics in the workplace with these sexual harassment scandals? And you were, you know, tapped to, say, fill in for Charlie Rose after he was ousted for sexual harassment - sexual misconduct in the workplace. So I guess I'm wondering whether people in the West really have that much to say in terms of whether they've gotten it right?
AMANPOUR: Well, look. I mean, look. First and foremost, I am very pleased that it was a woman who was chosen to fill this spot. I think it sends a massively important signal to the world at large, to be honest with you. Now, having said that, every culture and every country that I know of, whether it's here, whether it's Shanghai, Tokyo, whatever it might be, sex is taboo, Michel, it just is. And it wasn't always so. One of the revelations to me was seeing that in India, of course, there was the Kama Sutra, in Japan, the book called the Shunga. And in the Arab world, in Beirut, this couple who collects antique literature showed me "The Perfumed Garden." "The Perfumed Garden" is their version of the Kama Sutra.
Imagine in the time of the Prophet Muhammad and ever since, there have bean illustrated manuals to explain carnal pleasure. And it's for men and women equally. And women are taught in these books that they don't just have a right to it, they deserve it. And to fast forward hundreds of years to the current extreme orthodoxy that we all live in, especially around the topic of sex, is actually pause for thought. There's a much broader conversation to be had about intimacy, about emotion, about how you become, you know, a functioning, long-lasting couple. And that, to me, especially in this era of porn, of the Internet, of the Me Too is really important. Now's the time. It's late, but it's better late than never.
MARTIN: That's Christiane Amanpour. Her new series, "Sex And Love Around The World," premieres on CNN tonight. Christiane Amanpour, thanks so much for speaking with us.
AMANPOUR: Thank you, Michel. It was a great pleasure and something very new for me.
MARTIN: (Laughter). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.