Passive v. active

The prejudice against passive male partners is a long-running theme in Arab attitudes towards male homosexuality, as it is in many other cultures. However Georges Azzi, director of the Arab Forum for Freedoms and Equalities, drew my attention to a recent shift.  “It’s still the case, [being the active partner] it’s very important,” Azzi told me in 2009. “If you come out to your parents the next question will be, ‘Are you the one that [is penetrating]?’” But times are changing, “In Lebanon, three years ago, if you go to the profiles in the Gaydar or Manjam…in the profile you have to choose your favourite position. In the beginning, everyone was defining themselves as bisexual or top. Now things are changing in Beirut, now we have diversity in the preferences.”

And it’s not just Beirut. Azzi’s observations are backed up by research elsewhere.   According to one study of 100 men-having-sex-with-men in Cairo, around half said they alternated between active and passive (“versatile”), while a roughly equal proportions (20-25%) described themselves as either active or passive. (Thanks to Charbel Maydaa, of Helem, for sharing this research). These results are further supported by a three-city study of almost 800 men-who-have-sex-with-men in Egypt, in which the majority of men in Alexandria and Luxor reported themselves as active partners, while the population in Cairo was mixed.

Attitudes towards active and passive homosexuality are shaped by centuries of patriarchy and are embedded in power relations in Egyptian, and broader Arab, society. It will be interesting to see if growing democratization, along with continued exposure to Western sexual norms (where the active/passive hierarchy has largely faded) will level the playing field in attitudes towards active and passive partners, both among homosexual men and in society more broadly.