Female sexuality today: challenging cultural repression
Robert T. Francoeur
In the first millennium B.C.E., human cultures clearly experienced an Axial Period in a striking transformation of human consciousness. The transformation occurred independently in three geographic regions: in China, in India and Persia, and in the Eastern Mediterranean, including Israel and Greece. In this cultural transformation, a prevailing mythic, cosmic, ritualistic, collective consciousness embedded in a tribal matrix with the female in the foreground slowly gave birth to a male-dominated, rational, analytical, individualistic consciousness. This transition in cultural values began very slowly, after the last Ice Age retreated, with the discovery and spread of agriculture, the domestication of animals, and primitive forms of writing, metallurgy, and the wheel (Francoeur, 1996; Gupta, 1987; Jasper, 1953; Lawrence, 1989).
In both the East and West, the earlier primacy of female sexual archetypes and values gradually weakened over millennia, until they were finally supplanted by patriarchal societies and religions. In the East, Confucius and LaoTzu, the Upanishadic sages, Mahavira, and the Buddha in India continued to speak of the importance of women as sexual teachers and their active role in ritual sexual union. This ancient recognition of women’s superior capacity for sexual pleasure (bhogo) is evident in Tantric Yoga (Francoeur, 1992ab; Stubbs, 1999) and in the Kamasastra and Anaga Ranga (Hindu erotics). The persistent Eastern affirmation of female sexuality is beautifully illustrated in the 85 “Love Temples” built a thousand years ago in Eastern, South, and Central India. A favorite of many who have visited and studied these temples is an exquisite sculpture on the south wall of the Mahadeva Temple in Kajuraho showing two women supporting a man symbologically standing on his head. The man is caressing their vulvas as a third women sits atop him enjoying vaginal intercourse (Deva, 1986-1987, 176; Francoeur, 1992ab).
In the more sexually dichotomous-thinking West, female sexual archetypes were more quickly and completely replaced by male-defined and dominated archetypes. Still, during this Axial Period, a Jewish tractate in the Babylonian Talmud, echoed later in an Islamic creation myth, tells us that “Almighty God divided sexual beauty/pleasure into ten parts. Nine parts he gave to women. One part he gave to men” (Brooks, 1995; Kiddushin daf 49B). In Greek mythology, when Zeus and Hera argued whether males or females had a greater capacity for sexual pleasure, Tiresias, who had experienced half of his life as a man and the other half as a woman, maintained that when it came to the capacity for sexual pleasure, women were by far the winners.
However, in the West, a major factor in the radical shift in gender power from females to males was the emergence of male-biased monotheistic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and the gradual dominance of male-controlled monogamy. For at least 3,500 years, from the First Axial Period in the millennium before the Common Era, sexual values in both the East and West have favored the male, restricted sexual communications between the sexes, and repressed the sexual rights and expression of women (Francoeur, 1992ab; Francoeur & Noonan, 2004; Lawrence, 1989; Prescott, 1975).
In the view of theologian Ewert Cousins (1981), we are now passing through a Second Axial Period. For centuries, forces have been building up, which Cousins and others believe are now reaching a watershed turning point. For a second time in human culture, the balance of gender power is being challenged on a global scale. New sexual codes are evolving. Worldwide, we are shifting from a heterosexual-marital-coital-procreative value system to friendship-and-pleasure-based values. But to create more gender-egalitarian cultures, we need to deal with the repression of female sexuality, the subject of this paper (Bockle & Pohier, 1976; Ehrenreich, et al., 1987; Fisher, 1999; Francoeur, 1996; Francoeur & Noonan, 2004, 1373; Ogden, 1994).
Our evidence of a Second Axial Period comes from 12 years of research and analysis of sexual attitudes and behaviors in 60 countries, working with 280 colleagues (Francoeur & Noonan, 2004, 1373-1376). In almost every country we reported on, we found a variety of new developments where women are challenging the patriarchal view of sexuality at the same time they are expressing and asserting their own self-defined sexual rights and needs. Why should we focus on enhancing the sexual rights and health of women when achieving gender equality in economics, the law, and politics appears more compelling? Enhancing sexual intimacy is “political only because it is so profoundly and fundamentally personal.”* Our hypothesis is that expanding and enhancing women’s knowledge of their own sexual nature and sexual response potential will contribute to an enriched, more egalitarian intimacy with their sexuoerotic partners, in keeping with the expanding human self-awareness and consciousness.
There are numerous, widely acknowledged examples of the ongoing repression of female sexuality in East and West cultures. Our focus here is on examples of secular and religious repression of female sexuality outside Western Euro-American cultures. While our examples deal with women’s sexuality, it is obvious that customs and taboos that inhibit and repress female sexuality also negatively affect male sexual pleasure.
In Part 1, we offer evidence of the prevailing repression and absence of female sexual rights and pleasure that have resulted from centuries of widespread patriarchal cultural taboos limiting and repressing discussion of sexual matters, even between husband and wife. This repression of sexual communication, whatever its subconscious motivations, has kept women misinformed, and often totally ignorant about their sexuality and sexual pleasuring.
In many cultures we have reported on, sexual communications taboos are reinforced by male-privileged social controls of sexual intercourse that have effectively made it nearly impossible for women to express their sexual voice, their sexual desires, needs, and rights. These taboos, described in Part 2, involve restrictions on loveplay, fear of touching the female and male genitals (except as necessary to facilitate penile penetration), unscientific fear of female sexual secretions, and the imposition on females of painful sexual practices, including “dry sex,” female genital mutilation, “salt cuts,” and other unhealthy and harmful practices.
While our examples of taboos on sexual communication in Part 1 and examples of pleasure-inhibiting customs and mating practices in Part 2 are drawn from cultures outside Western European and North American cultures, it is not difficult to find parallels in certain religiously conservative American subcultures.
Part 1: Repression of Sexual Communications
“What is not named does not exist”–Anna Arroba (2004)
1. From South Korea
Although only 3% of South Koreans identify as adherents of the Confucian value system, with 49% affirming a Christian affiliation and 47% claiming Buddhism, Neo-Confucian reproduction-oriented sexual norms have traditionally surrounded sexuality with a total secrecy. This secrecy permeates Korean marriages, families, and public life. The strength of the taboo on sexual talk makes any mention or discussion of sexual matters, particularly female sexuality and female orgasm, totally unacceptable even between spouses. Even today Korean children grow up with a belief that ignorance of sexuality is good. In adolescence, the natural curiosity about sexuality often turns into irresponsible sexual activities. To maintain the purity of one’s family lineage, female virginity and sexual fidelity were and still are stressed for women, whereas men were and still are generously allowed the varieties of prostitution, polygyny, and other forms of sexual explorations.
The male-dominated sexual culture of Korea has been and continues to be very phallic-oriented. Because the male sex is considered sexually superior to the female sex, sexual intercourse is not perceived as a mutually intimate interpersonal relationship. Rather, it is perceived as a physiological or primitive event, a kind of tension release for the male. In this view, only the phallus is worth consideration. Thus, the entire Korean sexual culture exists for satisfying the male’s sexual needs, downplaying the mental and intimate relationship between partners. Women are raised to passively play up to this male-dominant action, and those who are more obedient and passive are encouraged. Men, on the contrary, are portrayed and raised as strong, aggressive, and dominating figures, and this concept is carried into everyday sexual and marital relationships. Because this sexual discrimination is regarded as natural, intimate relationships between men and women are seriously distorted. (Choi, et al., 2004, 940)
2. From the So People in Uganda
According to a personal communication with cultural psychologist Elizabeth Allgeier (Bowling Green State University, Personal communication, 2004), who has lived with a preliterate polygynous tribe in northeast Uganda,
The So people have a word for male ejaculation, but also no words
for female orgasm, clitoris, or anything sexually female. They
were aware of masturbation. This was something a man might do
when on a long hunt without a woman available. The idea that
women might masturbate was preposterous to them. There was no
orgasm for women. It was taboo to touch the genitalia of one’s
partner except incidentally to quickly insert a penis. Women
viewed sexual contact as necessary for having babies, but with as
much enthusiasm as I view cleaning the toilets in my house.
Breasts were bare and not eroticized; they were for babies, not
for men. With no loveplay, and no vaginal lubrication, women
found penile penetration painful.
3. From Sub-Saharan Africa
[Note: This report was shared with the authors anonymously to protect the individuals involved.]
Recently, while serving as a visiting professor at a medical college in an African country where female circumcision is common, a female professor of medicine remarked to me, “Women who have been circumcised cannot experience an orgasm because they do not have a clitoris.” To which I replied, “The whole body is erogenous; and while not having a clitoris might increase the time to reach an orgasm for some women, most women should be able to experience orgasms with or without a clitoris.” As our discussion continued, I mentioned the erotic potential of the lips, nipples, and G-spot and the value of kissing and lightly caressing the face and all of the skin. She informed me that in her culture, breasts were for feeding babies and men did not touch the breasts. To do so would result in the man being labeled as a baby. I then suggested that she send her husband to chat with me and I would make suggestions on things he could do to help her experience an orgasm. To this she replied, “My husband would never talk to anyone about sex.” I then suggested she go home and either masturbate–an idea that she found repulsive–or that she encourage her husband to kiss, caress, massage, and fondle her and that he manually stimulate the G-spot or use sexual positions that would stimulate the G-spot. She asked me how to find the G-spot. I turned on my computer, pulled up slides of the female reproductive system, showed her the approximate location of the G-spot, and how her husband could stimulate this sensitive region.
Early the following morning she came waltzing into my office with a big smile on her face and exclaimed, “Wow! I am 48 years of age and I just had my first orgasm.” After telling me about her “delightful” experience, she asked me if I would be willing to meet with some of her young female patients some evening, show them the pictures of the reproductive system, show them the location of the G-spot, and discuss the erogenous regions of the body.
For the remainder of my stay (three and a half months), I quietly and secretly met each week with the physician and 10 to 20 young, married women who had been circumcised in childhood. We discussed the anatomy of the female reproductive system, erogenous areas of the body including the G-spot, sexual stimulation, sexual pleasure, and sexual orgasms. They explored their bodies and had assignments to do at home. These sessions were enlightening and rewarding to me due to the positive feedback I received.
In the spring, a few days before I returned home, the female physician arranged a picnic dinner in a small, rarely used local park. She invited all of the approximately 200 women who had participated in one or more of the evening sessions on female orgasm. About 150 women attended the picnic dinner. During the picnic dinner, many of the women came to me thanking me for “making their lives better” and to express their appreciation for my taking the time to tell them about the erogenous areas like the G-spot. Their husbands were much more discreet, communicating through an intermediary their “appreciation of what you did.”
After the dinner, the physician asked the group of young women a variety of questions. One question was for a show of hands if they had achieved an orgasm from stimulation of their G-spot. Every woman, about 150, raised her hand. All of us know this is not the way to collect scientific data and I have no idea how many of those who raised their hand had really experienced an orgasm and how many had not. I am sure some of these young women just wanted to belong to the “orgasmic club.” However, I think it is realistic to say that many of these young circumcised women, did learn to experience orgasms from G-spot and other erotic stimulations. (Personal communication, 2004)
4. From Turkish Cyprus
Muslim women in Northern Cyprus do not like to discuss their sexual problems with strangers, with family members (including a spouse), or even with a specialist doctor competent in the field of sexuality. The majority of these women are unhappy and complain about their lack of sexual satisfaction despite the insistence of their husbands on having sex regularly. In Kemal Bolayir’s clinic, most sexual complaints from the females involve inhibited orgasm, vaginal spasms, and coital phobia. Most of these cases can be traced back to negative sexual learning, misinformation, religious inhibitions, prohibitions against talking about sex, and lack of sexual knowledge.
Dysorgasmia among Muslim Cypriot women is more frequent in long-term marriages. This is believed to be because of the heavy burden of the women, housework, childcare, and the need to work outside the house as well as contribute to the family budget. Men’s insistence on having sex whenever they desire without taking into consideration the feelings of women, and their failure to include enough loveplay, are among the reasons for women’s dysorgasmia. In Northern Cyprus, the main cause of diminished sexual desire for women is the lack of quality in the sexual loveplay. Many Turkish women are deprived of enjoying orgasm, but prefer to suffer in silence instead of speaking out. In brief, women avoid revealing or discussing their dysorgasmic or anorgasmic problems and so suffer without relief (Bolayir & Kelami, 2004, 318).
5. From Nigeria and Other Subequatorial African Cultures
In African cultures, there are certain sexual practices and topics that Africans simply do not discuss or acknowledge with non-Africans because they are very sensitive, sometimes taboo, and many times racially charged. Even within an individual tribal culture, some sexual topics and behaviors are not open for discussion between men and women or between children and their parents.
Nigerian Ibos, for instance, believe talking about any sexual matter is vulgar. Sexual education should not exist, and sexuality should never be discussed. In the Borno region, talking openly about sexuality is clearly taboo. In the Delta State, any discussion of sexual topics is taboo. Males do, however, discuss sexuality-especially when they want to tell their peers how many girlfriends they have had intercourse with (Esiet, et al., 2004, 758).
6. From India
Modern Hindu cultures and subcultures also contain a general disapproval of the erotic aspect of married life, a disapproval that cannot be disregarded as a mere medieval relic. Many Hindu women, especially those in the higher castes, do not even have a name for their genitals. This general disapproval of the erotic even in marriage is still strong in India, accordingly to Nath and Nayar (2004, 519). Despite their variability across the economic and caste spectra of India, the pervasive presence of sexual taboos can and does increase the conflicts around sexuality, sour it for many, and generally contribute to its impoverishment. This can effectively block many men and women from a deep, fulfilling experience of sexual love. It is not difficult to detect the prevalence of considerable sexual misery in the Indian marriage and family from culture ideals, prohibitions, and modern fiction and cinema. This is also evident in clinical studies of the sexual woes expressed by middle- and upper-class women who seek relief in psychotherapy, and in the interviews that Sudhir Kakar (1989, 21) and others have conducted with low-caste, “untouchable” women in the poorest areas of Delhi. Most of these women portrayed their experiences with sexual intercourse as a furtive act in a cramped and crowded room, lasting barely a few minutes and with a marked absence of physical or emotional caressing. It was a duty, an experience to be submitted to, often from a fear of beating. None of the women removed their clothes during intercourse since it is considered shameful to do so.
Part 2: Sexual Practices that Inhibit and Repress Female Sexual Desire and Pleasure
1. Insights from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Uganda, Sudan, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Botswana, and Tanzania
In many sub-Saharan African cultures, in Nigeria, Ghana, and elsewhere, sexual intercourse is only for the man’s satisfaction and for childbearing. Female orgasm is considered inappropriate, unhealthy, and even dangerous to both the female and her partner. Male orgasm, however, is a sign of potency, and men will seek sexual relief even when abstaining from intercourse. And then one encounters a paradox in cultures that place a high value on loveplay at the same time they warn against female orgasm.
In many Christian and Muslim cultures in Nigeria, sexual relations are male-dominated, with the male initiating and dictating the pace. Female response and satisfaction are not considered important. Coitus takes place with no loveplay. The male-above position is standard, and marital coitus is for procreation, not for pleasure. Women in many sub-Saharan African cultures, like the So people, do not even know what female orgasm is, and have never experienced it.
In Ghana, penile-vaginal penetrative sex with little loveplay is the normal sexual style. Although the well-educated youth are exploring noncoital forms of loveplay, fellatio and cunnilingus are still abhorrent. Genital touches and caresses are hardly accepted. Traditionally, women feel shy about touching the penis. Most men are not interested in having their genitals manipulated.
Dry Sex. “Dry sex” is a common practice throughout sub-Saharan Africa. It fits comfortably with the distaste for vaginal secretions and loveplay and the lack of interest in female sexual arousal and orgasm. In this setting, males quickly reach orgasm and satisfaction while women are left with painful intercourse, no arousal, and no orgasm.
Many African women prepare themselves to pleasure their husbands with a dry vagina by mixing the powdered stem and leaf of the Mugugudhu tree with water, wrapped in a bit of nylon stocking and inserted in vagina for 10 to 15 minutes before intercourse. Other women use soil mixed with baboon urine, which they obtain from traditional healers, or detergents, salt, cotton, or shredded newspaper. These swell the vaginal tissue, make it hot, and dry it out. The women admit that sexual intercourse is “very painful … but our African husbands enjoy sex with a dry vagina” (Schoofs, 2000).
Competition Among Co-Wives. Even today, many African men have three to five wives. These women compete among themselves to be the best cook for the man of the house or the best in bed. Traditional healers and witch doctors who sell them love portions also teach these women about the importance of dry sex, and how a swollen, very hot and tight vagina makes a man feel “big” and, therefore, a “real man” when he inserts his penis.
Genital Cutting (Female Genital Mutilation/Circumcision). Genital cutting, the most controversial and publicized issue concerning women’s sexual health and response, is a common ritual in many African tribal cultures in Egypt, the Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, and Malaysia. In Type 1, the mildest form, only the clitoral hood and part of the clitoris are removed. In Type 2, the minor labia are removed and the tissues sutured to restrict vaginal access. In Type 3, pharaonic circumcision or infibulation, the clitoris, minor labia, and part of the major labia are all removed and the remaining tissue pinned or sewn together, leaving only two small openings for the exit of urine and menses. Medical complications and an increased risk of HIV infections, often serious and even life-threatening, are common with all forms of genital cutting.
Although the Koran makes no mention of genital mutilation and a dozen African nations have enacted laws punishing the practice, these laws are seldom enforced. The practice continues because many Muslim and non-Muslim males believe an uncircumcised woman is dirty and impossible to control, thus undesirable as a wife. So despite the serious, lifelong health risks associated with genital mutilation, at least 130 million African women are circumcised with 2 million girls subjected to mutilation every year in 28 African nations (Rosenberg, 2004).
Widow Inheritance. Widow inheritance is an African variation of the early Jewish injunction of Moses (Deut. 25, 5-10) detailing the responsibility of a man to produce a male heir by the widow of his deceased heirless brother. In African cultures, widow inheritance gives the brother-in-law of a widow sexual access to the widow in return for supporting her and her children. Widow inheritance is a factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS, but it is deeply rooted in customary male rights and responsibilities. Recently, Kenyan women have pressed some leading Catholic and Anglican clergy to challenge the sexual access component of this custom.
Yankan Gishiri or Salt Cut. This traditional “cure,” practiced mainly in the northern part of Nigeria by the Hausa, involves a surgical cut in the anterior vaginal wall of a woman who has been diagnosed by a traditional healer or traditional birth attendant to be suffering from gishiri disease. Gishiri refers to a wide range of conditions or symptoms, including itching vulva, absence of menstruation, infertility, obstructed labor, anemia, malaria, and any condition that presents the symptoms of headache, edema, fainting attacks, or painful inter-course.
The “salt cut” is usually made on the anterior vaginal wall. Repeated cutting over a period of time may extend the incision area to the posterior vaginal wall. The gishiri cut is also performed when certain changes occur during pregnancy, such as hypertrophy of the vaginal muscle and vaginal discharge. The cut is performed by a traditional birth attendant or healer, few of whom are knowledgeable of the anatomical structure of the area they are cutting. There is no scientific basis for the gishiri cut, and despite the fact that it effects no cure, the practice continues unabated. A gishiri cut leaves behind both immediate and long-term health complications, such as hemorrhage, infection, shock, and scar formation. Some of the most debilitating effects include a breakdown in the wound-healing process. This is caused by repeated cuttings, which can be done anytime any of the above-mentioned symptoms surface. Damage can also be done to the bladder, leading to vesico-vaginal fistula or damage to the rectum causing recto-vaginal fistula. Repeated salt cuts make intercourse extremely painful and even impossible for women (Opiyo-Omolo in Esiet, et al., 2004, 771-774).
2. Insights from Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel
Within Israeli ultra-orthodox sects, women receive no sex education, while men receive some education just before they marry. As a result of this silence, many couples with sexual problems go to fertility clinics because of the couple’s and the families’ concerns with lack of pregnancy, rather than with the sexual dysfunctions that produced the infertility to begin with. Being childless in Israel is considered a tragedy. Israel has the highest proportion of fertility clinics for its population in the world. All treatments, including in-vitro fertilization, are paid for by the HMOs. However, out of deference to the ultra-orthodox sense of modesty, many fertility physicians do not collect information about the couple’s sexual life. In a typical case, a Haredi couple was referred to Safir (2001) after being married for 11 years and having had two children by artificial insemination. On their return to the clinic for additional treatment for a third pregnancy, their new physician discovered that they had never had intercourse. For this cultural group, fertility treatment for unconsummated marriages is unfortunately not a rare occurrence (Safir, 2001, 49-50).
David S. Ribner (2003ab), a professor of social work at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, has identified some pervasive influences on the sexual behavior of Haredi couples:
Communications and the language of intimacy. Everyday life in a
Haredi community clearly militates against any exposure to or
acquisition of language to describe the sexual parts of one’s
own body and the body of the other sex. Haredi women are
encouraged to avoid being verbally explicit about their own
intimate desires and to use nonverbal clues. Men have more
leeway in this than women, but it is difficult for either men or
women to be conscious of sexual desires when both have been
taught to repress any sexual thoughts or fantasies about their
Sexual isolation. With no television, often no radio, no movies,
no secular novels, and not even innocuous family or women’s
magazines to read, the Haredi couple is protected from any
sexual information from the outside during the entire course of
their marriage. The rules of modesty practically eliminate any
possibility that either spouse will share his or her sexual
concerns or questions with a friend, relative, rabbi, or
Holiness and sanctifying intimacy. Because the Haredi see
sanctity as infusing every aspect of human experience, all
sexual behavior must be intentionally sanctified. A Haredi
couple must consciously focus on creating an atmosphere of
holiness through proper thoughts and some time-and-circumstance
limits on sexual behavior–the Sabbath eve is a preferred time
for sexual relations, which must always take place under the
cover of a sheet. As Ribner (2003a, 55) notes, “Attempting to
instill a feeling of sanctity while flooded with all the sensory
inputs of physical intimacy may prove a daunting goal indeed,
one often doomed to failure.”
Time and the scheduling of intimacy. Strict Jewish observance
forbids any physical contact between spouses during menstruation
and the following week. Intercourse is strongly recommended on
the Sabbath eve and on the mikveh night, after the woman’s
ritual bath at the end of the two-week menstrually linked
abstinence. This “two weeks on/two weeks off” pattern of contact
characterizes marital life until menopause with the possibility
of uninterrupted contact.
This purity restriction applies not only to intercourse but also to any direct or indirect physical contact between husband and wife. Toward the end of her menstrual period, but not less than five days from its onset, the woman has to check each morning with a white cloth at the external opening of the cervix whether she is still bleeding. When there are no more signs of bleeding, she waits seven “clean” days before her cleansing bath (mikveh), after which she can resume intercourse (Shtarkshall, 2004, 612-616).
Recently, some ultra-orthodox women have complained that the ritual ban on touching is unbearable, especially when they are in a low or depressed mood, ill, or suffering. This is also true when the husband or an adolescent child is ill or suffering. Women also complain that resumption of intercourse at the end of the Nidah period often has a “mechanical” aspect to it, which causes both individual and interpersonal difficulties (Shtarkshall, 2004, 612-616).
Modesty in sex as in all else. The Haredi silence about sexual
matters includes prohibitions against owning and viewing
televisions and reading newspapers and magazines produced
outside of these communities. Any public contact or display of
physical affection is clearly prohibited. This means that Haredi
children grow up without ever seeing any examples of parental
affection. Couples are also taught to repress any sexual
thoughts or fantasies about their spouse. Sexual intercourse
must take place in the dark, although the couple may use some
indirect light during loveplay. The couple is expected to be
fully undressed but covered with a sheet during intercourse.
Modesty requires that a husband not look directly at his wife’s
genitals, and vice versa.
Being together and becoming sexually active. The abrupt shift
from total abstinence to the initial physical contacts of
marriage poses “a daunting challenge fraught with unknowns in a
number of areas for newlywed Haredi” (Ribner 2003a, 58). In
addition to the total lack of any opportunity to see someone of
the other sex not completely clothed either in person or in
print, and little or no sexual information about one’s own
sexual anatomy, the spouse’s sexual anatomy, and what to expect
in sexual arousal, can create a potent problem-producing
context. Difficulties in their purely physical realm may be as
basic and as painfully awkward and basic as neither husband nor
wife knowing the location of the vaginal opening.
3. Insights from Islamic Egypt
Western images, indigenous feminism, new Islamic views of women, and the requirements of the institutions of the modern family and state all contribute to the creation of the ever-changing image of “proper” woman and man in Egyptian and Islamic cultures. Nonetheless, an Islamic framework is becoming ever more popular as the foundation for gender discourse in certain segments of Egyptian society. Fundamentalist discourse lends legitimacy and cultural authenticity to a variety of positions in discussions of sexual behavior.
Underlying more or less all discussions of sexuality in the Arab world is the prevailing religious ideology that “considers women to be a source of evil, anarchy [fitna] and trickery or deception [kaid]” (Sherif 2004, 348). There is also the fundamental distinction in the Qur’an between what is halal or lawful and what is haram or prohibited. This is not a simplistic good or evil distinction, because some behaviors are “in between things,” things that may be permitted, but are not approved, as well as things that are not permitted but also not punished. Halal carries the connotation that something is not only lawful, but also beneficial and recommended. Haram has the connotation of that which is forbidden, and also harmful and punishable under law.
A basic concept of sexual modesty and intimacy involves ‘awrah, which tradition divides into four categories: what a man may see of a woman, what a woman may see of a man, what a man may see of a man, and what a woman may see of a woman.
To be a Muslim is to control one’s gaze and to know how to protect one’s own intimacy from that of others. However, the concept of intimacy is far-reaching, for we are confronted here with the concept of ‘awrah. Between men and women, and also between men before their own wives, the part to be concealed from the eyes of others stretches from the navel to the knees exclusively. A woman must reveal only her face, hands, and perhaps the feet. Between husband and wife, sight of the whole body is permitted except for the partner’s sexual organs, which one is advised not to see, for “the sight of them makes one blind.” Exceptions are allowed in cases of juridical or medical purposes.
Total nudity is very strongly advised against, even when one is “alone.” This is because absolute solitude does not exist in a world in which we share existence with the angels and with djinns (spirits lower than angels). “Never go into water without clothing, for water has eyes.” But this is the strict interpretation of the Q’uran. It is commonly agreed that all forms of public nudity are forbidden for both men and women. The most extreme case of this is that some ultraconservative men will cover their wives’ feet with a cloth when they climb in and out of a bus. But certain fugaha (rulings) allow husband and wife to be intimate and look at each other’s sexual organs during intercourse. Some even affirm that it increases one’s ability to reach the quintessence of ecstasy (Sherif et al., 2004, 350).
Signs of Hope: Challenging Female Sexual Taboos
We could cite many examples from our 12-year research project of recent challenges to the deeply entrenched patriarchal repression of female sexual rights and health. In the past, most of these challenges would hardly have created a ripple in the world outside the village, or even nation, where they emerged. Quickly forgotten, they would have no long-term effect on human culture around the world. But today, the Internet, the World Wide Web, and satellite communications change all that.
In Costa Rica, Anna Arroba (2004) in Costa Rica reports that at
last the truth is coming out about the sexual misery lived by so
many people. However, the problem that I detect is that
centuries of silence and ignorance cannot be breached merely by
the high production of new information or by the new discourses
about the right to pleasure. What is not named does not exist,
and for many women, the very process of naming is the very first
step of appropriating their bodies and their genitals. On the
positive side, the state of men’s and women’s sexuality in this
country is not that different from others, but the ice has been
broken on the subject of sexuality, which is the beginning of
breaking the silence. It is impossible for men, and particularly
women, to identify or acknowledge that they have a sexual
dysfunction when their culture gives them no basis for
comparison. For instance, a 1992 study found that two out of
five women had never experienced orgasm. Although sexologists
and therapists are aware that the most common female
dysfunctions are lack of feeling and arousal and the inability
to reach orgasm, it is likely that 40% of Costa Rican women will
not even be aware of their dysfunctional sexual relationships.
In a culture that has a centuries-long taboo on the discussion
of sexual matters, it is also likely that men will not
acknowledge any problem with premature ejaculation and lack of
erection. There are, however, some positive signs that Costa
Ricans are becoming more aware of and willing to talk about what
constitutes normal, healthy, and pleasurable sexual relations
for both women and men (Arroba, 2004, 239).
A second example, reported by P. Masila Mutisya (1996, 2000, 112-121) and Beldina Opiyo-Omolo (in Brockman, et al., 2004, 687-688), involves replacing the traditional genital cutting with a new ritual, called Ntanira na Mugamo, or “circumcision through words.” Developed by several Kenyan and international nongovernmental agencies over six years, this non-surgical ritual brings young girls together for a week-long rite of passage, during which they learn traditional teachings about their impending roles as women, parents, and adults in the community, as well as more-modern messages about personal health, reproductive issues, hygiene, communications skills, self-esteem, and dealing with peer pressure. A community celebration with song, dance, and feasting affirms the young women and their new place in the community (Lacey, 2004).
Changing a deeply rooted tradition like genital cutting sometimes presents unexpected problems and paradoxes. In Egypt, for instance, 98% of urban poor and rural girls, and 50% to 80% of all Egyptian women, are subjected to genital cutting. In 2004, following a lecture for Egyptian physicians in Cairo, Beverly Whipple, R.N., Ph.D., an expert on the “Grafenberg spot,” reported her findings that Egyptian women were still able to achieve orgasm through Grafenberg (G) spot stimulation and the vagus nerve pathway to the brain despite having been circumcised. The doctors politely asked Dr. Whipple not to publicize her finding, because Islamic fundamentalists would quickly exploit this finding to support their defense of genital cutting (Personal communication, 2004; Sherif, et al., 2004, 354-355).
It took several thousand years and many generations for our ancestors to negotiate the First Axial Period. It seems obvious that our explosion of digital, Internet, and World Wide Web communications is already greatly accelerating our transition through the present Second Axial Period. Will several millennia shrink to several hundred years? Or less?
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Robert T. Francoeur, Ph.D., Raymond J. Noonan, Ph.D., Beldina Opiyo-Omolo, M.P.H., and Jakob Pastoetter, Ph.D.
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