Oct 24, 2012

Masturbation, aka, self-love!

A couple of nights ago, a screening of a documentary focusing on Masturbation as part of independent cinema event took place. I couldn’t have missed such event where a glimpse of sexuality-related debate was to be held! The documentary was called “Secret As Usual” سرية كالعادة which is wordplay for the term Secret Habitالعادة السرية which is how masturbation is usually referred to in Egypt.

The 30-minute long documentary is all made up of interviews, save for very scarce visual material. The interviewees are a few Egyptian young people of both genders and the rest are experts including andologists, psychiatrists and the like including the famous (for some, notorious) Heba Qotb, who’s been striving to position herself as a media-sexology figure in the last few years.

Through the interviews, we hear the young people talk about the ways they perceive masturbation & their attitudes towards it; not much personal experience. The “experts” mostly lecture us about what’s right and wrong, healthy and unhealthy for the remainder of it.

To be honest, the movie left me quite frustrated despite being a lauded initiative by the director (she made a previous film about sexual harassment). We may assume that the sheer attempt of approaching the matters of sexuality in our context is a happy event. That wasn’t exactly how I felt however.

The movie painstakingly tries to correct misconceptions about masturbation. It tries to open up options that masturbation may not be a bad thing. The Sheikh and the Priest say that there are no clear religious instructions against it. The doctors say that it doesn’t cause the oft-cited myths of blindness, madness, weakness, infertility, etc. Right after masturbation has been declared innocent of causing these afflictions, the “doctors” go on to explain how it actually causes premature ejaculation!

My frustration comes from that the film’s “experts” fail to deliver a viewpoint that masturbation is actually a healthy, useful and safe practice! It tries to correct and destigmatize, but it doesn’t affirm the positive aspect of masturbation. The message was that it’s not bad, but not good either, and that it usually reveals something wrong is going on.

My second disappointment is that the director interviewed the usual suspects: the medical and religious institutions, and dropped the human rights and anthropology approach. 
A positive approach to sexuality in general and masturbation in particular was missing.

Yes, jerking off is good, if don’t know that already. Let’s revisit how:
Photo from Scarlteen.com

For one thing, sex is good and healthy and it’s not that different if you do it with someone else or with yourself. It improves blood circulation, delays ageing and does other good stuff to your body. Masturbation helps people explore their bodies, their pleasure patterns, and sensitive areas. It can be used as an exercise to avoid premature ejaculation and practice self-control. Notably, it’s the safest way of sex out there. Unless, you’re using sex toys or similar objects, there is no risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections. 

Unless masturbation seriously interferes with productivity and daily life activities, it cannot be considered an addiction.

One would assume that society is now okay with masturbation, because let’s face it, everyone is doing it. But no, that’s not the case. Through my work with young people in schools and youth centers, I received countless questions about it. There remain a great deal of people who feel guilty about it, haunted by morbid thoughts of sinfulness and uncleanliness, in addition to all the other health hazard myths.

No wonder! It’s not uncommon for religious scholars to speak against it (it’s safer for them to denounce any form of sexuality), thereby enforcing the sense of guilt. It’s also no surprise when doctors juggle their opinions between “it’s not bad” to “it can cause you isolation and premature ejaculation”.

There is a view that masturbation was mentioned in The Bible through the story of Onan who would withdraw the penis during intercourse and “waste his seed”. Though this view is questionable by some, it is still used by many to justify why masturbation (and even contraception) is sinful. There is no mention of masturbation in Koran, but a couple of questionable interpretations and hadiths (prophet sayings) are perpetuated by most conservative sheikhs  to denounce it. Other Islamic scholars are permissive of it on grounds that it may prevent a greater sin (sex outside marriage).

Unexpectedly, it’s not only the religious institution that has intensified negative views around it. The medical institution played a historic vicious role as well. In fact, the term secret habit sounds very similar to the expression secret vice (and even self pollution) which dates back to the 19th century in Western Europe and America, aka during the rise of modern medicine. For centuries, medical practice viewed masturbation as a serious public health concern that leads to insanity, and various other ailments.

I am well aware that using a sex-positive approach in sexuality discussions is a very difficult battle. We are in a country that’s still struggling to give young people the right to be informed about their bodies, sexuality and health. A recent policy brief by Population Reference Bureau (A Washington-based research center) provides more information and recommendations for incorporating comprehensive sexuality education into schools curricula in Egypt.

Such documentaries are good starting points. Public debates regarding sexuality matters are needed, though there is a current fear of moral panics and pushback by conservative forces in society that feel empowered after the revolution. Discretion about public debate is always nice, but too much caution may also get us no where.

The battle is going to be long and tough. It won’t get very far unless we move beyond the stereotypical ways of portraying sex and unless the progressive, sex-positive voices are included in the conversation.

Oct 17, 2012

Stop harassment: It's not sex, it's oppression!

It was Eid celebrations once again, Eid has become notorious for waves  of sexual harassment whether downtown Cairo or elsewhere, or even in other governorates which we hardly know anything about.

Things were different this time. Various initiatives and announced they are stepping up their response and trying to deal with sexual harassment. There were attempts to document and stop sexual harassment on the street and the metro. Moreover, media has covered sexual harassment duing Eid more extensively. Cameras were out on the street to capture photos of guys stepping their boundaries. More positively, the debate and writing on the ugly phenomenon seemed to have surpassed times past.

Did all those analyses capture the reality of sexual harassment? I don't think so.

"My dignity is my freedom"
Many of those who approach the subject restrict the etiology in one of two options: first, women's clothing and their lack of decent cover-up (these arguments sometimes extends to attributing it to the mere presence of women on the street). Secondly, sexual repression and frustration which our male youth suffer from.

In fact, I don't think these two interpretations differ much from each other; they're like two sides of one coin. Proponents of this theory hold that women are sexual objects, more like a magnet or a moving vessel. Since youth do not have the means to get married at an early age, they're sexually frustrated and beholding these sexual vessels (women) moving around on the street would provoke men and hence they have to take as much as possible out o that vessel to fulfill their needs.

Why does sexual harassment occur and why has it become to spread? Indeed our youth are repressed, but what type of repression? Most o us obtain education at an educational system that produces disfigured humans, unprepared to face life's challenges, and becomes met with unmerciful labor market. It's possible to give a lot of statistics about unemployment rate, but numbers won't capture the experience of seekers of decent jobs.

More importantly, are young people listened to? are young people invested in? how able are young people to participate in social and political life?  The rate was 3% before the revolution and I am sure it has risen but still far from satisfying. What do we expect after this recipe of marginalization and systemic failure? Frustration, violence and religious extremism.

The problem is sexual frustration or women's clothes. The truth is men in our society feel "emasculated". Men in our country feel oppressed. The oppressor oppressed whoever weaker than them. And we've had our share of it; centuries of colonization and decades of military dictatorship. Men take it out on women (ie the weaker).

Last year, I was part of a research team on youth attitudes towards sexual harassment. What struck me was the depth of misconceptions regarding sexual harassment. Although a lot of them denounce it, many thought girls are the ones responsible for it and even enjoy it. Dangerously enough, they show no understanding of women's experience of violence whether on short or long term.

Most of us don’t appreciate the sense of weakness, fear, and powerlessness that harassment creates whether it was verbal or physical. Most of us don’t appreciate that a certain gaze to a woman’s body could make her feel as senseless object. So what would it feel like if their hands reach out to her most private parts of the body with an intent to humiliate and showoff of power, and not for pleasure? If you wish to know more about such experience, you better listen to the women themselves.

"Control yourself, not my clothes"
Is there a solution? Of course. Our hope is that our people breaks free from its shackles and restore its dignity. Education must be reformed both in terms of curricula and methodology. Curricula must include human rights education, gender equality, and sexuality education. Youth must be truly included in all decision-making related to their lives; not just using them as window-dressing as governments like to do.

Many talk of increasing legal penalties. To be honest I am quite skeptical of such suggestions. We have a lot of laws that are just ink on paper without enforcement. Many talk of increasing police presence on the streets. This may sound reasonable, but what about policemen who actually harass women? What would encourage women to go report the incidents, especially with the huge trust gap between people and police?

Legislation is significant, but more importantly, society has to be engaged. The existence of laws expresses the state’s commitment towards a certain issue. Now we live in the time of the people, community initiatives are key to create change; and many of those have recently surfaced.
Other suggestions such as facilitating marriage or changing women clothing are quite preposterous.

Two more points I would like to highlight:

1- Sexual harassment is not the only form of violence women are subjected to in our society. There is also domestic violence, female genital cutting, early and forced marriages, financial violence, etc.  the root of those problems are not much different that harassment. These issues are not any less important that street harassment. We must not limit women issues to what she faces in the public space only because there are much more violations.

2- It’s only women who suffer from street harassment, it has become mainstreamed. Anyone who looks different or vulnerable is liable to harassment. Foreigners, black people, people who dress in a nonconforming way, people with disability, and the list goes on.

The first step in facing the problem is acknowledging it and dealing with it in a mature way. Safety and physical and mental integrity are rights to everyone without discrimination.