Editor’s Letter: Sexuality

Cover Your Eyes!

I watched Titanic for the first time at home with my parents. Jack and Rose are running, a respectable bourgeois lady and working-class man, away from the assistant of her insufferable, arrogant fiance. Rose with her tight ginger curls free from the usual chignon with her wild glittering eyes. Leonardo still baby-faced with 90s dreamboat hair. They run along narrow corridors, knocking over silverware. Rose’s virginal white dress somehow remains pristine after they run through the fire room. They run into a room, then into a car. What happens next, after their giggles quieten and their faces neared, would be preceded by mother’s shrill directive: “don’t look, cover your eyes!”

Being an obedient child, I never looked. I never peeked, not even once. I genuinely associated intimacy with sin and even a feeling of disgust for a long time. Those moments felt painfully awkward and it didn’t help that I never got an explanation or discussion about sex or sexuality from my parents, nor from schools, as far as I remember.

The sex education class I had in secondary school was focused on abstinence and I remember the girls being made to watch a video of a fetus being sucked out by vacuum during an abortion. It was, to us, another perturbing thing overzealous adults wanted to show us. Afterwards, we went back to our world,  saturated with gossip about couples, whispers about notorious toilets and spaces people were seen kissing, and mean-spirited bitching about the school “slut,” (unsurprisingly, the boys she was with escaped moral condemnation).

All of this was, of course, symptomatic and consequential of the larger refusal to properly acknowledge and explain the reality of sex and sexuality. As if in not looking at scenes of kissing couples, the reality of intimacy would cease to exist in the child’s mind. As if simply stating the imperative to turn away from sexual desire would automatically result in obedience and a reduction in teen pregnancy.

Growing up, especially during the period of teenhood, shame is abundant: in how our changing bodies are perceived, how our feelings of attraction and desire begin to confuse us, and all the complications of growing into our individual selves.

It shouldn’t be taboo to talk about sexuality, our changing bodies, and the development of sexual desire and attraction. They are, after all, completely natural. Yet for so many, these changes were seen as much a marker of growth as they are the beginning of heightening anxiety. Especially for teen girls, our parents would begin to fuss and obsess over the presentation of our bodies, sexual precociousness, and the company we keep, especially of the opposite sex. The overbearing dark cloud of sex before marriage was a threat that loomed, defining so much of how we were to behave. This cultural and social surveillance of female bodies leads predictably to a deep feeling of shame when it comes to our own bodies and sexuality.

This is quite ironic since the religion is very much “sex-positive” and encouraging of healthy sexual relationships. The Islamic tradition, sunnah, and hadiths are full of advice and stories around the importance and joys of sexual relations between married couples and how it is an important facet of an intimate relationship which strengthens the bond of a couple. Muslim scholar Al-Ghazali calls it a blessing from God and in a hadith, our prophet Muhammad s.a.w. is reported to say that God rewards Muslims for “sexual play.”

Yet why is there this discrepancy between the sexual frankness in the religion, and the intense, anxious suppression on the discussion of sex and sexuality within Muslim communities?

Perhaps what is sad is how many have to peel away layers of shame to even begin to healthily associate sex and sexuality as something that can be joyous, fun, and full of love. For so long this aspect of the human experience has been swathed and chocked with shame, guilt, and a swirl of toxic mystery, that it can be a journey to see its reality.

Sex Education

Imagine what happens to the mind, what the mind does, when it doesn’t have the limits of reality to control its wanderings. What nebulous, misguided images of sex and sexuality it festers when you’ve only heard the sounds, caught snatches of images, and listened to the experiences of others. What kind of distorted image would be pieced together from these fragments?

What happens to a woman when she is demanded to be innocent, even sexually naïve for most of her life up until she is married? One can only imagine the difference in power between partners when one is conditioned to be less sexually knowledgeable than the other. How anxiety-inducing that first sexual experience of hers will be, and how vulnerable she might be to instances of sexual abuse!

Sex education, one that is thorough, accurate, and not filled with messages of guilt and shame, is important. It’s important so that prevailing myths around sex and sexuality can be addressed and young adults are educated on their sexual rights, take necessary safety precautions, and limit the dangers they may face.

For example, it’s often said that a woman’s first penetrative intercourse will result in bleeding due to the rupture of the hymen. However, this belief is grossly inaccurate and perpetuates the erroneous belief that your first time is necessarily painful (which then leaves little responsibility to the partner to be mindful of their partner’s readiness and comfort during sex). This article provides a helpful, easy-to-understand primer on the question of whether the first time should hurt.

Of course, sex education is a contentious topic, one that has been a site of struggle between “conservative” and “progressive” camps since it involves the values and opinions we hold regarding female sexual autonomy.

The facts, however, regardless of opinion, is clear. Young adults are going to have sex, regardless of the messages pumped into their minds about how sinful it is. The only thing that can be controlled is how we respond, and whether we provide them with the information they need should they do it.

If abortion and teen pregnancy is a fear, then abstinence-only sex education has the opposite intended effect, since it has been proven to result in the highest rates of abortions and teen pregnancies. What works is if they are given accurate information about safe methods of contraception, how to access it, and how to take precautions from STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infection).

Consent and Healthy Relationships

The other issue, far more nuanced than the obvious, stark topic of sex and desire, is consent and healthy relationships.

I would like to share the following quote from a post by HEART Women & Girls about how consent is fard (religious obligation):

It is narrated from the Prophet (SAW: peace and blessings be upon him) that: “Do not engage in sexual intercourse with your wife like hens; rather, firstly engage in foreplay with your wife and flirt with her and then make love to her” [Alliyatul Muttaqīn] and narrated from Imām °Alī (AS): “Whoever wants to get close to his wife must not be hasty, because women before engaging in the act of love making must be engaged in foreplay so that they are ready for making love to.”

Sexual activity and intimacy without consent violates its sacredness revealed by God. This is also marital rape. Across all types of relationships and interactions, consent is fard.

Beyond the quick and dirty information about sex, more sensitive conversations around consent, coercion, and emotionally healthy relationships are important so that people will be able to identify when they are in abusive relationships, and where they can go should they need to seek help.

When there is a lack of comprehensive, evidence-based sex education, young people would naturally seek other avenues. Consider the fact that in the digital age, many youths turn to porn, and that porn has become the unofficial source of sex education. (As an aside about the link between repression and porn, think about the fact that six Muslim-majority countries are in the top 10 global consumers of porn).

Porn is also abundant with images of unhealthy, unrealistic depictions of sex, with frequent images of coercive, even violent sex, where women are often depicted in submissive roles. This leads to higher instances of unrealistic expectations, high-risk behaviours, and a higher risk of being a victim of sexual aggression. Of course, there are instances within the porn industry to provide healthier depictions of sex, but they are not the dominant image that is seen in the flood of images and videos available.

It is important that there is a counter-point to such images, and that accurate, sensitive information is accessible to young adults will naturally be curious due to their burgeoning sexuality.

A Mother and Her Baby: Both Children

Not too long ago, an incident in our neighbouring country made me grieve for the kind of loneliness, shame, and emotional turmoil that the topic of sexuality often brings to young girls. On the 14th of October, an 18-year-old girl died in a toilet during childbirth in Ipoh Her baby was found dead too, in the toilet bowl. For six hours, she kept telling her mother that she was constipated.

I keep wondering about depths of shame and fear she must have had from having a child out of wedlock. How deeply lonely she must have felt throughout her pregnancy, and especially during the last moments of her life. She died alone in a toilet because going through the intense pain of childbirth alone was more tolerable than facing the shame of having a baby outside of marriage. Up till the end, to come out and admit it was too scary for her.

To imagine her weight of repression and psychological oppression was intensely sad. Regardless of what one might feel about the rightness or wrongness of what she did, the result surely ought not to be her own death, along with her baby’s.

The safety of our children, the limit to abuses, and ensuring that our intimate and sexual relationships are as healthy as possible, should be prioritised. It can be, as we have seen in this fatal case, a matter of life and death.


Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu