Studies of young people’s sexual activity


In one of the most comprehensive studies of youth sexuality in the Arab region, a recent survey of 1,200 unmarried out-of-school youth aged 15-24 across the country found that more than a third of men under 20, and more than 60% of those aged 20 and over, admitted to some sexual experience; these figures fell to just under 10% and just over 15% respectively among women. Men with a sexual history made their debut around age 17, generally with someone their own age; the sexually active women were a little older when they got going, and generally with an older partner as well.

The majority of sexually active men and women had fewer than five partners in the past year, and for almost a third of men, money changed hands at some point in the proceedings in the previous 12 months. As for what the sexually active youth were getting up to, more than 60% of the men reported having had heterosexual anal sex, with around 40% engaging in “superficial relations” and just under 30% with experience of vaginal penetration. Almost 70% of sexually active youth never used a condom, and almost two-fifths said they knew virtually nothing about them. (Ben Abdallah and ONFP, 2009)

An earlier study, in 2000, of more than 4,000 students aged 12 to 20 from across country found that almost three-quarters of the boys, and three-fifths of the girls surveyed said they had a girlfriend/boyfriend, and the vast majority took their romantic relationships seriously.  More than four-fifths of the boys and three-fifths of the girls thought people their age were having sexual relations, starting around aged 16 or 17; they reckoned the majority had multiple partners and that only a minority were regularly protecting themselves with condoms or other forms of contraception. As for same-sex relations, about a third thought male homosexuality was commonplace among their peers, dropping to a fifth for female homosexuality. While most of them took a dim view of the practice, classifying it as either an illness or perversion, a significant minority considered it a choice, a freedom or a right of passage. (Direction de la Médicine Scolaire et Universitaire, 2005)

In a detailed look at the sexual practices of university students, a 2005 survey of more than 350 undergraduates in southern Tunisia managed to get results for just under half the sample (the rest refused to answer the self-administered anonymous questionnaire, an interesting reflection on the limits of sexual expression in seemingly less uptight Tunisia). Almost two-thirds of the men and just over a fifth of the women had had partial sexual relations, falling to just under half of the men and only 6% of women who admitted to full intercourse. The vast majority of women thought sex before marriage was wrong, mainly on religious and moral grounds; on the other hand, a third of men considered premarital sex essential to enriching their personal experience and to the pursuit of pleasure.


A 2007 study of more than 2,000 mainly unmarried people between the ages 15 and 24 from across the country found considerable declared sexual activity—at least among the men. (Axetudes and Kingdom of Morocco Ministry of Health, 2007)  Three-fifths of the men surveyed had tried genital petting; just over half had had superficial sexual relations; just over a third had experience of vaginal penetration; around 30% had engaged in anal sex; around 4% admitted to having had same-sex relations. These figures fell to just over a quarter; just over a tenth; around 5%; around 1%; and just over half a percent for women. With the exception of same-sex relations, which were more common in country youth, urban and rural males had similar levels of sexual activity; rural girls, however, reported more vaginal and anal sex, as well as same-sex relations, than their city cousins. The average age of sexual debut was just shy of 17 in boys and just over 18 in girls. Half the young men made their sexual debut with a sex worker or casual pick-up, roughly 40% got their start with a friend or girlfriend and just under 2% said their first experience was with another man; for the girls in the survey, just over a third made their dEbut with a lover, a third with their spouse and just under 30% with a friend.

The vast majority of sexually active youth said their relations were very rare to infrequent; just under two-fifths of these women and more than two-thirds of those men said they had multiple partners. While just under half the men had sex with an older partner, that was true for three-quarters of the girls. Less than 15% of boys and 5% of girls used any form of contraception; around a third of girls relied on superficial relations to avoid pregnancy. However, only 1% of the group reported an unwanted pregnancy.


The country’s university students have, for decades, been squarely under the microscope when it comes to sexual attitudes, behaviors and practices.  In 1952, just over 100 male undergraduates at American University in Beirut, an elite English-language institution, were surveyed as to their sexual habits; the researchers’ goal was to compare the behavior off American students to that of their Arab counterparts. The survey found that that almost 70% of the AUB students had had heterosexual intercourse in the past year, three-fifths of them with a prostitute; more than a third had had a homosexual relation at some point in their lives, and the vast majority had also masturbated. The Arab students were more sexually active than their American peers, though this did not mean the former were at sexual ease. “The subject of sex is avoided in the home, and the prevailing parental attitude is that the entire question of sex should wait upon marriage. Boys receive so little sex training that even nocturnal emission may produce strong feelings of guilt,” the researchers noted; almost sixty years later, the same observations essentially hold true. One category in which the Americans surpassed the AUB students was in female premarital relations: while only 10% of the AUB students said their female colleagues were having sex, almost half of the American students suspected the same.

A follow-up survey in 1963 found much the same level of heterosexual and homosexual activity among AUB men, though far fewer were going to brothels; the researcher attributed this to a new source of sexual release—the “call girl”. For all the social and cultural changes on campus—more female and foreign students, as well as cinemas just round the corner—the researcher (part of the team a decade earlier) was not surprised that sexual behavior had essentially stayed the same:

Sexual behavior is a central function of personality, and deep personality changes in either individuals or groups do not occur over a decade or as a result of marked social changes. The American experience has shown that in spite of the sexual revolution “not much more premarital sexual freedom actually is present now than a generation ago.” The present [students] may have shown an increasingly liberal attitude toward sex, but not a concomitant change in their behavior.

Flash-forward to 2005 and a  survey of more than 1,400 unmarried students from campuses across Lebanon found that almost three-quarters of men said they had had a sexual relationship, while less than 20% of women claimed the same. Of those having sex, two-thirds of men said they used contraception (mainly condoms), but only a quarter of the women claimed to have used contraception (mainly oral contraceptives); in the case of pregnancy, half of the sexually active group said they would turn to abortion, with a quarter opting for the morning after pill. The most common places for sex were at home when the parents were away, in a car or at the beach house; 15% said they had sex when their parents were in the house.


A 2008 study of almost 1,900 university students in one governorate found that 86% of men and 14% of women had some previous sexual experience; for 15% of the sexually-active sample, this consisted of vaginal, anal or oral intercourse. The mean age of sexual debut was just under 18 years of age.   Of the sexually active men, 7% reported same-sex activity. Of those who were sexually active, under half reported using a condom.  (Jordan Ministry of Health, 2008) While HIV provides a socially-acceptable cover to ask such questions, other researchers who have tried to survey pre-marital and extra-marital relations among young women have found themselves as stymied by officialdom Jordan as I was in Egypt.

Saudi Arabia:

There is little hard information about youth sexual behavior in the Kingdom. One rare oasis in this data desert is a 2010 study of more than 200 male students aged 15-20 at the University of Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia, which found that around 30% declared “premarital sexual activity”, while three-fifths admitted to watching porn and only half realized that condoms could prevent sexually-transmitted infections. About 40% of the men had travelled abroad, and they were three times more likely to have had pre-marital sex than their peers who stayed at home.


A 2010 study of more than 1,500 university students in Algeria, the vast majority of whom were unmarried, found that more than half had sexual relations, with twice as many men reporting such activity as women. Both made sexes made their sexual debut in their late ttens. Around half the men and a third of women used a condom at their last sexual encounter. Around three-fifths had experience of vaginal intercourse, and around half had tried oral or anal sex as well. Less than 15% of the sexually active students had experience of same-sex relations, and around a quarter had relations with sex workers, only half using a condom.

Further large-scale studies of young people’s sexual attitudes and behaviours are underway in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, and Lebanon.