When one sees Muslim leaders (even if they’re usually of the male variety) attempt to take on serious and relevant issues to the Muslim Ummah such as sexually dysfunctional marital relationships, one truly hopes for the best. Alas, well-meaning though they may be, there becomes glaringly obvious a lack of knowledge and understanding regarding female sexuality.
A few claims that are being made and circulated en masse (and dangerously so) are the following:
- Muslim women (especially from ‘conservative, practicing families’) do not really experience sexual arousal or any feelings of intense sexuality before marriage.
- Women’s fitrah is such that they are automatically less sexual than men.
- Muslim women are intimidated and scared by even discussions about sex prior to marriage; if a Muslim man wants to discuss it with his fiancée, he shouldn’t lest she run in the opposite direction.
- Women don’t ‘need’ to orgasm as much as men do; their sexual feelings are minimal and what they truly seek from sexual encounters is not necessary physical pleasure, but emotional connection.
Not only are all these claims inaccurate, but to perpetuate them on a massive public forum – and by an individual with significant influence over large numbers of Muslims – is extremely dangerous due to the fact that the Muslim community already suffers from a horrific lack of knowledge and awareness about sex and female sexuality.
This is not Islam
Despite the fact that Islamic texts fully recognize women’s sexual needs and in fact protects them as a religious right, many male Muslim leaders perpetuate cultural stereotypes about the nature of female sexuality and falsely pass them off as Islamic guidance. Such ridiculous ideas include the belief that women have a lesser need and appreciation for the physical aspect of intimacy; that they do not experience intense sexual arousal prior to marriage; and that the very idea of sex is disturbing and unnatural to them, or that they are unable to comprehend the true nature of intercourse before marriage.
In all fairness, even Western cultures and scientific thought has long held faulty and inaccurate beliefs regarding female sexuality (most famously, the views of Sigmund Freud and the Victorian phenomenon of ‘hysteria’). However, it is also true that Western society has moved along with considerable speed with regards to knowledge of female sexuality than many Eastern (and Muslim) cultures have.
It must still be kept in mind, though, that the amount of studies and research collected on female sexuality is dwarfed by those about men, and that there remains a great deal to be discovered about female sexuality in general.
Going back to the claims being publicly taught, there is first of all a severely erroneous conflation between the reality of culturally ingrained attitudes about sex, and the actual innate physical desires and needs that women have for sex.
While it is absolutely true that many Muslim cultures teach women unhealthy negative attitudes about sex and equate female sexual desire with being dirty or impure, this in no way actually reflects the physiological need for sex that exists in the female gender as a whole.
No matter how much cultural brainwashing women receive regarding their sexuality, most women will still inevitably experience feelings of sexual arousal at some point in their lives – and for those who do, it will generally first happen before marriage.
Furthermore, the arousal a woman feels can and does reach strong levels of intensity, including orgasm; for example, in a wet dream. This was acknowledged even by prophet Muhammad (PBUH), who confirmed Umm Sulaym’s question regarding female wet dreams.
Women are no less sexual than men
Even outside of wet dreams and masturbation however, women can and do feel intense sexual stimulation – anything from wearing a new pair of jeans or sitting on a massage chair. This is not to be crude, but simply realistic. 
Nor are such experiences purely involuntary; many women are curious about their bodies and are actively aware of what stimulates them both physically and mentally (after all, the brain is the most powerful sex organ).
Sexual curiosity exists in women just as it exists in men; since many girls mature physically and mentally faster than boys, they can be ahead of the game when it comes to being curious about sex.
Whether it’s reading romance novels (and anyone who thinks that girls read romance novels just for the emotional fluff is fooling themselves) or magazines like Cosmopolitan, girls crave information about both the romantic and the explicitly sexual.
Communication about sexual issues is another matter, one tied much more strongly to the aforementioned cultural brainwashing about intimacy than the idea that women have an inherent and instinctive fear or aversion to sex.
Advising Muslim men to ‘just pray Istikhaarah’ instead of respectfully discussing or asking questions related to sex with their fiancées is harmful and, quite frankly, insulting to both the man and the woman. We should not be perpetuating attitudes of embarrassment, shame, and stigma about sexual issues but rather, encouraging men and women to approach the topic with respect, dignity, and honesty. It may be uncomfortable at first or awkward, but then, all positive growth and change is by necessity.
It is necessary to say here that a great deal of work needs to be done in training Muslim men and women on how to discuss matters related to sex and marriage in a respectful, dignified, and mature manner.
There is one final issue – the idea that women are innately ‘less sexual’ than men. While there is no denying the biological differences between men and women, including sexually, there is a big difference between recognizing the difference, and claiming that women simply aren’t as sexual.
More accurate would be to state that what men and women find sexually appealing and arousing, how they react to such stimuli, and the levels at which they respond to such urges differ greatly – but do not take away from the inherent sexuality of women.
It is also a fallacy to say that the sole or primary benefit or reason that women engage in sex is for an emotional connection; rather, while some women do enjoy sex more because of the emotional connection, it is not a necessary component of their actual satisfaction or orgasm.
In fact, the vagina – specifically the clitoris – has thousands more nerve endings than the penis, which means that its orgasm can be correspondingly much, much more intense than the male orgasm, and contradicts the belief of those men who are convinced that women don’t really ‘feel it.’ (Not to mention that women are capable of different types of orgasm and multiple orgasms.)
It is worth noting that, once sexually aroused, women have a much stronger need to orgasm than men do. If they are stimulated and left unsatisfied, it causes extreme emotional upset (and significant physical discomfort). Should this become a recurring pattern, where husbands reach climax but make no effort to ensure their wives’ satisfaction, women often end up angry and resistant to being sexually available.
Psychological Haleh Banani mentions as well that women who are emotionally unsatisfied in their marriages yet are sexually fulfilled have higher rates of remaining within that marriage than the other way around. If that doesn’t underscore the point well enough, I don’t know what will.
The claim that women have fewer or less intense desires, or a somehow less important need for orgasm, is in fact an unhealthy way of minimizing female sexuality and its priority in a relationship.
This takes place both amongst Muslims and non-Muslims and is a sign of how misogyny permeates our attitudes such that we automatically do not consider women to be of equal footing even in bed (and God help any woman who shows any sign of initiating sexual interest or contact!).
While the argument may go on to rage over who is ‘more’ sexual (keeping in mind that new studies continue to emerge on the topic, with sometimes paradoxical results), there is no benefit to be gained from pushing the view that women are simply less sexual beings.
In fact, it does the opposite, by telling men that they do not have to consider their wives’ sexual needs to be as important or necessary (the caveat that ‘a woman’s right to sexual satisfaction is guaranteed in Islam’ does nothing to change the final message).
It is also implying to women that they should give up hope of true sexual satisfaction because it’s unrealistic and biologically unnecessary for them to experience it (but hey, all women really want are snuggles and warm fuzzy cuddles, right?).
It is high time that we begin to provide qualified individuals in the Muslim community who can discuss sex – and especially female sexuality – from a more nuanced and accurate perspective.
Otherwise, Muslim leaders who take it upon themselves to talk about the subject are simply contributing to the already terrible state of Muslim intimacy, and the continued struggles of Muslim women seeking satisfaction and fulfillment in their own marriages.
What truly needs to be encouraged, emphasized, and taught is the importance of men and women alike to improve communication with their spouses about matters of intimacy. From there, it should become much easier for husbands and wives to become comfortable with their own and each others’ bodies; and for husbands to understand the various factors affecting women that may be significantly responsible for obstacles to sexual fulfillment. Just as men have their own unique preferences, levels of libido, and so on, so too are the tastes and desires of women varied and vast.
To truly seek an improvement to the sex lives of married Muslims, the first step should not be to make sweeping generalizations of female sexuality that are based on androcentric perspectives.
Rather, it must be recognized that championing outdated ideas causes a great deal of harm to both men and women. A more nuanced and accurate understanding of female sexuality must be collectively pursued in order to see significant positive change in Muslim marriages.
First published: September 2014