Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 August - 5 September 2007
Issue No. 860
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Truth or dare

Talking about it is one thing, telling the truth quite another: consulting the experts, Karim El-Khashab dares divulge the taboo of taboos

Open discussion of sexual problems have for long been kept private, yet some believe that Egyptian society is finding a way to open up and find solutions

Targeting Egyptians, Arab satellite TV has been promoting aphrodisiacs like never before. In one recent advertisement, a middle-aged man comes home to find his young wife complaining that she tried his mobile phone "all night long" but found him "out of service"; sighing he replies that this is "normal", but after she grudgingly turns away, the drug appears, promising inexhaustible "credit". And advertisements are but one way in which sexual issues -- a subject previously kept firmly out of the public sphere -- have forced themselves on collective consciousness. This must have to do with the fact that people can no longer marry as young or as easily as they once could; harassment of women on the streets is but one sign of sexual frustration turning into a serious social problem. But to a far greater extent than the accessibility of sex -- the legitimate availability of private space, for example -- it is conditions like erectile dysfunction -- an affliction, according to a National Research Centre report published three weeks ago, of some eight per cent of Egypt's male population -- that state- run and private television have concentrated on, with whole segments of their programmes, even a weekly show, dedicated to problems between married couples in the bedroom.

Yet as sexologist Nagla Ezzeddin -- founder of one of Egypt's earliest clinics -- points out, much of the media discourse is cosmetic: "it is not true that because men are fatigued by daily life they have sexual problems, or that the weight on their shoulders is heavier." Poverty and stress have little to do with it, in fact, as evidenced by other Third World countries where, though the economy is comparable, no such problems exist. "It's rather a question of approach, our understanding of sex in the first place." A problem that tends to start in the first year of marriage will usually persist until that part of the relationship has died. Sociologist Said Mustafa, who has researched the issue extensively in Egypt and the Arab world, agrees that it is hardly a question of stress; perceptions of sex play a far greater role in the problem. "We curse it in public and worship it in private," Mustafa says: in the public sphere the topic is seen as unclean -- bring it up, he says, and you'll be met with either silence or condemnation -- while, among men, it is reduced to vulgar and sexist bragging, often degrading to women. As for women among themselves, discussing sex is a kind of heresy: "Women are taught from a very young age that this is not something they can discuss, and if they were to do so they would be seen as loose and lacking in morality. One could argue that this is even more disturbing and dangerous than the discourse of men." The sad result of this is that most women internalise their discontent, with terrible consequences for the whole family. Nor does the lack of sex education -- even at the biological level at school -- help anyone: the vacuum of conversation and debate can no longer continue, Mustafa insists; nor will the state whereby "we say one thing in public and believe the complete opposite in private". In private, indeed, he goes on, few issues are impacting the Egyptian psyche as much as sexual frustration: the combination of religious-cultural constraints with globalisation and access to satellite television, together with bleak economic prospects, has placed the average Egyptian under unbearable sexual pressure.

Considering that marriage -- an extremely expensive procedure -- remains the only legitimate means to having sex, the figures might as well speak for themselves: seven million unemployed, nine million unmarried over 30, and 40 per cent of marriages between cousins (something that is particularly true of the provinces). No wonder sexual frustration is rife: a marriage based on family interests -- to appease the elders or keep wealth within the family -- as opposed to genuine affection and understanding, is unlikely to sustain a healthy sex life. For men, masturbating to porn or indeed Arab video clips -- it costs no more than LE20 a month to have private access to satellite television or, as Mustafa puts it, "marry the TV" -- is a convenient alternative to both the hassles and expenses of matrimony, which are absurdly exhausting by any standards, and the moral agony of engaging in premarital sex: "add to this the fact that the religious establishment in Egypt has often professed that masturbation is the lesser evil compared to sex out of wedlock." Masturbation may be perfectly harmless in its own right, but the fact that, abetted by pornography, it has come to replace sex in Egypt Mustafa finds alarming; and with the ever rising marriage age in this society, people grow up and grow older knowing only one sex partner -- themselves. Mustafa pointed out that, while masturbation is about satisfaction, sex is about a lot more: understanding, affection, excitement, pleasure. Masturbation kills intimacy, he says; in the absence of intimacy even married couples become sexually frustrated and the men prefer masturbation to the disappointment of sex.

Nor is it only bad karma for the family as a whole, Mustafa adds; pornography has serious consequences for the male psyche: "women in these movies are portrayed in the most grotesque way, the dynamic they embody perverts the relationship between men and women; and in the absence of any other information, men believe that what they see on screen is what sex is or should be like." Many women have complained to Mustafa of their husbands acting out porn scenarios in bed, thereby alienating them in various ways; of even greater concern is the fact that pornography is developing in such a way as to incorporate drama, spreading stereotypical perceptions and unrealistic expectations. The long-term effects of this have yet to be seen, while widely publicised cases like that of Ahmed El-Fishawi and Hind El-Hennawi -- pregnant by El-Fishawi, El-Hennawi managed to prove that he was indeed the father of her child and successfully established their marriage against the evidence -- gave men the idea that women use sex to trap them. Porn remains the safest, most cost-effective release. A similar tension preceded the sexual revolution in the West, Mustafa goes on to explain, but this change of attitude only became possible as a result of the availability of private space and contraception. As long as the conservative outlook remains predominant, he says, the crisis will persist. Still, Mustafa is by no means advocating premarital sex or the exclusion of religious teachings, rather he is emphasising the fact that something has to be done to ease the tension, and pornography is clearly not the answer. Liberalisation of sexual attitudes along with secularisation of society, he predicts, will take place in Egypt in much the same way as it did in Turkey and Central Asia, however slow in the coming. Already, he says, there is a sharp increase in premarital sex -- a trend likely to continue. Mustafa links the secularisation of sex with political and economic liberalisation: if these two processes continue, then so will the rise in premarital sex, a theory backed up by the figures for China, for example, where liberalisation in the early 1980s was accompanied by a rise in the rate of premarital sex from 20 to 75 per cent.Whether or not such trends in other conservative societies will be followed here in Egypt is still uncertain. However, few would disagree that the social contract regarding sex has been broken and must be replaced. Egyptians still maintain their norms and traditions regarding sex, it is clear that perceptions of sex as well as sexual education must alter.

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