Muslims Talking Sex Series: “Sex is The Biggest Deal”

GOATMILK continues  its original and exclusive month long series entitled “Muslims Talking Sex” featuring diverse Muslim  writers from around the world discussing a gamut of topics in their own unique, honest and eclectic voices.

Fatima Emanon

There’s an old saying: sex is no big deal in a marriage until it isn’t working. Then it becomes The Biggest Deal.

By that maxim, it seems Muslims face a Biggest Deal of communal proportions.

A girlfriend told me recently of women who were so unprepared for what would happen on their wedding night, they came away feeling they had been raped. I was shocked, but after asking Muslim peers and health professionals about this, I realized we have a level of sexual ignorance in our community that is almost endemic

I heard of a mother who went through years of marriage and child birth four times who didn’t know the basic fundamentals of her own anatomy; she thought her urine tract and the birth canal were the same thing. That is, she believed she only had one opening in her genitals, not two.

Another friends’s sex education consisted of being warned against horseriding for fear of a broken hymen.  Her hymen, advised her father, was evidence of her virginity, and explained this via a demonstration with some cling wrap. She was not taught anything else.

I asked a male friend his thoughts on sex education in the Muslim community, and his response was “What sex education?” And even the very little we do offer, we actively avoid. A local Muslim school recently had to cancel its sex-ed class because so many of the students’ parents denied them permission to attend.

Parents aren’t picking up the slack at home, either. One Muslim counselor, despairing of the current situation, began lessons for married women. She starts with the question, “Hands up whose parents spoke to them about sex before they got married so they had a decent understanding of the topic?”

All hands remain down.

In much the same way our community likes to brag about the rights given to Muslim women (did we mention Muslim women could vote 1400 years ago?) despite our shady reality (just behind this barrier, thanks, sisters), we like to think of our faith as encouraging a healthy approach to sex (“There is no shyness in matters of faith!”, “Sex is sadaqah!”) , while in reality, Muslim schools are tearing out the pages of line drawings of naked bodies in science text books so as not to corrupt their students (true. It happened in my home town).

This is a combination of misplaced modesty and a belief that any discussion on sex or the physical form would encourage premarital sex. Sarah Palin might be impressed, but would the Prophet (SAW)?

Muslims entering marriage with little concept of how sex, their own bodies or their partner’s bodies work can have more than just disappointment in store. Marriages are being damaged and falling apart due to sexual difficulties and ignorance. Men are complaining to counselors they had no idea what to do with their wives, literally. Worse, having no knowledge of sex beforehand, some turn to the most readily available, and free, source they can find for their education: internet porn. They therefore approach marriage with an incredibly warped view of women’s bodies (thanks to plastic surgery and air brushing) and what women enjoy (thanks to the overtly patriarchal nature of most pornography), and then couldn’t understand why their wives weren’t responding as they had seen online.

Women, similarly, struggle to know how to behave. On the one hand, they seem to be taught by family and community to be demure flowers in society, but are still expected to know, magically, how to perform in the bedroom. According to one counselor, if their partners are suffering from some form of sexual dysfunction, such as impotence or premature ejaculation, many women are shy to discuss it with anyone, including their husbands, as they fear that to raise it will paint them as a bit “too” interested in sex and unladylike. In the minds of these Muslim women, the madonna-whore dichotomy lives on. Not wanting to be seen as a character from “Girls Gone Wild” in a hijab, they remain silent, close their eyes and think of Mecca.

This doesn’t help marriages. And it doesn’t help with abstinence either, recent studies indicate (1).  A lack of frank discussion on the topic can just leads to two ignorant people entering a marriage, and may not prevent premarital sex anyway.

Theologically we know we shouldn’t be so caught up in ‘ayb (shame) and haya’ (modesty) as to be ignorant of our religious obligations. “Sex within marriage is an ‘ibadah (act of worship),” observes one counselor. “Everyone knows that hadith! Therefore, just as we have to know how to pray because that’s ‘ibadah, we should know how to have sex.” Moreover, “it is incumbent on the partners to sexually satisfy each other, and I tell the women who come to see me that if they are just pretending to enjoy themselves, then that is a sin, as they are deceiving their husbands. Communication is key.”

So how do we fix this? Clearly, sex and reproductive health education needs to occur within the home and at school, for both males and females. Classes at school should be segregated to minimize embarrassment, but both classes should be taught the same things, so that both genders would have an understanding of the physical nature of their future partners. The education should be holistic, and cover the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of sex and sexuality. It should stress Islam’s strong teachings of sex as positive and healthy within marriage, with sexual desire normal and good, but requiring restraint outside of it. Contraception should be taught, not only because it’s allowed in Islam between married couples but as one of the counselors said bluntly, “if they are going to be engaging in haram practices of sex outside of marriage, then at the very least it should be the lesser of two evils, and they should know how to avoid STIs and unwanted pregnancies”. The permissibility of the types of sex, such as oral sex and even bondage, should be discussed.  Apparently, these questions come up more often than you’d think.

And if all this could happen, then maybe sex would go from being The Biggest Deal to just A Great Part of The Deal.

1. Mathmatica Policy Resarch (2007)  “Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs”, final report.


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