What we know about women’s sex lives
Research on the sexual lives of Egyptian women is scarce. Questions are rarely asked, and even then, only of married women, since unmarried women aren’t supposed to be having sex in the first place. The problem, in my experience, has more to do with official reticence rather than an unwillingness among women to talk about their experiences or expectations.
Most studies that look at sexual function in Egypt are done at health centers or hospitals with patients turning up for various other medical conditions, rather than going door to door. This is because asking frank questions about sexuality is easier while wearing a white coat which gives the situation a “respectable” medical cover. However, this clinical context means that the research is skewed to those seeking medical help, and may not reflect the general population. Even then, getting doctors to ask questions can be tough. One survey of more than 350 gynecologists (the majority women) from half-a-dozen or so Arab countries, including Egypt, found that almost 90% rarely asked their patients about sexual dysfunction, although half thought screening was important, and more than three-quarters were dissatisfied with their training in the field.
There have been small-scale studies in a couple of countries, including Qatar and Jordan. One of the most detailed comes from Lebanon, where in the 1980s, Marie-Therese Khair Badawi, a psychoanalyst looked at the sexual lives of Christian women in Beirut during the civil war. Khair Badawi summed up the experience in a book called Le Desir Amputé [Amputated Desire]. The knife in this case was marriage; almost three-quarters of the wives questioned did not dare to ask for sexual stimulation from their partners and half experienced orgasm occasionally at best. More married women had an unhappy or painful sexual debut than their unmarried counterparts, significantly more complained their partners took little interest in arousing them and half of wives in the sample thought that they themselves might be frigid. A generation later, Khair Badawi saw precious little change in the marital bedroom. “The power of women in the Arab region is not femininity, it’s maternity,” she told me in 2010. “Woman emphasizes children, and de-emphasizes her sexuality and her husband, the children, especially in the [Middle] East replace everything.”
The most extensive of study of women’s sexuality in the region comes from Morocco and the work of Khadija Mchichi Alami, whose 2000 study of more than 700 married and single women covers a wide range of topics–sexual education; frequency, duration and varieties of sexual intercourse, including sex talk, taking the initiative and faking it. Among its notable findings:
- Of those women who were sexually active, more than a quarter reported some form of sexual dysfunction;
- More than 70% of those surveyed thought that sex work was socially accepted
- Around 40% thought that infidelity in a husband was forgivable, but less than 4% thought the same was true for wives (and even, then only in the case of a spousal impotence). Two-thirds thought women were not entitled to the same sexual freedom as men.
- Almost half of the women did not express their sexual desire and more than 40% kept quiet during intercourse
- Although almost two-thirds of the sexually active women thought mutual orgasm was vital to “successful” sexual relations, only 4% said that orgasm was key to their own pleasure. Around two-fifths said they had faked it at one time or another.
For these and other fascinating results, see Le Comportement Sexuel de la Femme. Many more such studies are needed—across the Arab region–to capture the attitudes and behaviours of a new generation of husbands and wives, and how these vary (or not) between different populations.