In a recent conversation on sex and intimacy, Dr. Wafaa Eltanwahy, expert in psychosexual and relationship therapy says, “It is critical for us to start talking about sex openly and frankly in the Muslim community and it should come without a disclaimer.”
We assume people outside of the Muslim community live in a sex-obsessed world. However, the stats show the biggest downloader of pornography is a Muslim majority country. Yet sex remains a taboo topic. It’s not spoken about in our communities openly. If it is spoken about, the framework surrounding it comes from what is haram or halal in sex.
Dr. Eltanwahy says this is frustrating. Many couples are experiencing problems when it comes to their intimate lives. She says that it stems from a lack of speaking about sex and having access to good educational resources.
Sex conversations: then vs now
Habeeb Akande, author of A Taste of Honey, Sexuality, and Erotology in Islam, believes our main problem is having disassociated spirituality from sex. It took Habeeb ten years to research and write his book on erotology in Islam, as it such a vast topic.
Erotology is the study of desire and sex. It was a popular science between the 9th and 14th centuries. Many works were published on this topic during this period and many Muslim scholars, poets, writers, and medical authors published books on it.
They derived their sources from Qur’an, Hadith, and other ancient manuscripts. The purpose of this study was not only to learn about mutual sexual desire and the ethics of sex but also to learn about female desire and fulfillment. These scholars went to great lengths to educate men on how to please their wives.
However, towards the 19th century, the study around this science began to taper off. Habeeb believes the primary reason for this is because several Muslim countries were colonized by the West. This meant that Muslim communities adopted a Western understanding of sex and intimacy.
The understanding that we have now, that sex is dirty and taboo, comes from a European and Christian influence. Interestingly, the art of pleasing a woman is still taught in some African tribes, in West Africa.
The Islamic perspective on sex is, it is not only meant to be pleasurable for both the husband and wife but sex is there to gain a divine reward from Allah. Habeeb says, “Islam is a sexually enlightened religion and it teaches us that sensuality should not be devoid of spirituality.”
The central aim of Habeeb’s book highlights the loss of sacred sensuality in modern times. And how it can be reclaimed by a revival of the classical erotological tradition.
An open conversation about female pleasure
The burning question is how did we get here? And while colonization is a significant part of the answer, it’s not the only culprit.
Dr. Eltanwahy sees many women at her clinic struggling with having a fulfilling sex life. The number of Muslim women suffering from vaginismus is continuously on the rise. As is husbands telling her that their wives are frigid.
Vaginismus is a condition involving a muscle spasm in the pelvic floor muscles. It can make it painful, difficult, or impossible to have sexual intercourse. While vaginismus presents itself as a physical condition, it does stem from psychological or emotional factors.
A major factor found in her practice is that female sexuality is often left out of the discussion completely. She believes this is because the topic can make men feel uncomfortable.
Women are taught from a young age that sex is only about pleasing your husband. And that men should have access to their wives at any time, to fulfill their desires only. For women, having any notion that sex is pleasurable is dirty and evil. And yet women are expected to know how to please a man when it comes to the bedroom. This leaves women frustrated, not engaged, and having little or no desire for sex.
Solutions based in ignorance
Whereas men will have these conversations about sex freely with their Imam or a religious leader. And most often are told that if your wife has a problem in the bedroom, take another wife.
Women are afraid to talk about what they want because male sexual entitlement has silenced women’s voices. Dr. Wafaa says “ Men provide what they know, they don’t provide what the women need.”
Women can only start talking about sex and what they need sexually in spaces provided for them to speak freely. Women need to not be judged or being made to feel ashamed.
Because the sex conversation is repressed in Muslim communities, Dr. Wafaa believes this has led women to not have the necessary communication skills or even the language to express what is lacking in their sexual lives.
“Everything goes back to communication”. And when you look at the situation from a holistic viewpoint it goes back to their childhood, trauma, or even sexual abuse. She has heard many women say, “My mother didn’t tell me anything about sex.”
If we are not going to start talking about sex to our kids, then they will learn about it from their peers and pornography. Firoza Osman, the author of the recently published book, How to Talk to your Muslim Child about Sex, says, “I wrote this book as a guide for parents to support their children to navigate a hypersexualized world and embrace their sexuality in an Islamic way.”
“Too many Muslim children are losing their identity, becoming addicted to pornography, engaging in premarital sexual activity, and living double lives. A lack of sex education leaves them at an increased risk of teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and harmful sexual behaviors. It also leads to failure to recognize what makes a healthy relationship which makes them vulnerable to abuse.”
Firoza believes there are certain principles that if we can adopt them will help change the stigma around talking about sex. Ultimately, we want our children to embrace their sexuality in an Islamic way so they can go on to have a healthy sexual relationship with their spouse.
This can happen if parents start the conversation on sex, do not shame them, and have honest and real conversations about relationships. We need to become askable adults and make use of teachable moments, to talk and actively listen to our kids.
Hug your spouse frequently!
We also should provide a safe space for our children and model a healthy affectionate relationship. Talking about sex should not only start in the teen phase but we need to start having this conversation much earlier.
Osman says, “It actually starts with laying the foundation at an early age for open conversation. Start with using the correct vocabulary with a toddler and teach consent and boundaries with a preschooler. Those topics are not directly a conversation about sex but rather learning that our bodies are a sacred trust from Allah that must be respected by ourselves and others.” We remove the shame and taboo surrounding sex by using correct terminology.
Habeeb concludes what might be the biggest problem for most Muslims on this topic, keeping the balance. We don’t want to associate sex with procreation only nor do we want to go to the other extreme, which is prevalent in secular societies, where sex is just hedonism. Pursuing our pleasures at all costs.
It’s time for us to release our cultural and colonized baggage, educating ourselves on the Islamic perspective on this topic. Islam holds the sexual act between a man and a woman in the confines of marriage as a sacred act.
But we need to educate ourselves about this from experts within our own communities.
Sameera Qureshi, Programming Strategy Director at Heart, says, “We must take a long look at how we’re understanding and framing sex. For such a sacred and nuanced act within Islam, we are completely doing it a disservice.”
We need to take back and develop our own narrative.