We welcome a guest post today from L. L. Wynn and Angel M. Foster, editors of the new book Sex in the Middle East and North Africa.
As we were wrapping up our previous book project Abortion Pills, Test Tube Babies, and Sex Toys: Emerging Sexual and Reproductive Technologies in the Middle East and North Africa, we already knew what our next book had to be about: sex. It was a no-brainer. It kept coming up. You can’t talk about things like sex toys in Morocco (from dildos to carrots) or gender transformation technologies in Turkey (used by Kurdish transgender sex workers) or Viagra in Egypt without sex being an important part of the discussion. And if you want to talk about the availability of medication abortion in Tunisia and Palestine or hymenoplasty in Iran, you have to inquire as to why it’s needed—what kind of sex are people having that produces the need for access to safe abortion care or to recreate virginity?
We also knew there was a market—the New York Times’ coverage of Shereen El-Feki’s book Sex and the Citadel proved that. People want to read about sex. People especially want to read about sex in the Middle East and North Africa.
But that was not just an opportunity; it was also a problem. If there’s a market for reading about sex in the Middle East, that’s because it’s a topic that Western audiences have long fixated on. It has a long colonial pedigree. As academics, that’s something that we’re not only aware of, we’re actively trying to unsettle.
One way that academics have dealt with this is by only writing about sex from particular angles: mainly, public health. After all, if you only focus on the aftermath of sex, its risks and dangers, then you can avoid talking about its pleasures—and all those complicated colonial legacies. But we didn’t want to only approach sex as a health issue. Sex is pleasure. Sex is desire. Sex is a lot of things more than just a set of health risks and solutions. We wanted to take the pleasure aspect of sex seriously. After all, that’s one of the main reasons (but not the only one!) that people have sex.
So we asked ourselves: is there a way to write about sex and its pleasures in a way that’s academically interesting and not just titillating an audience hung up on stereotypes about veils and harems and a caricature of the sex-mad Arab patriarch and his wives? The only way to deal with this dilemma, we decided, was head on. There’s no writing about sex in the region without considering the history of representations of sex in the Middle East and North Africa.
We also sought a wide range of voices, prioritizing scholars from or located in the region and asked them to write from deeply embedded and ethnographic perspectives. Some of the topics covered in the book include: straight and gay allyship in the “lesbian playground” of Dubai; women dealing with dick pics while hooking up in Jordan; the comparative risks and rewards of legal and illegal sex work in Tunisia; gay men struggling against normative masculinity while using sex apps in Beirut; porn consumption among pious revolutionary women in Iran; single women using magic to cast spells of impotence after being spurned by lovers in Morocco; Syrian refugee women who rebel against American constructions of marital love; the pleasures and politics of withdrawal as a contraceptive method in Turkey; a Coptic Christian woman dealing with revenge porn in the context of sectarian politics in Egypt; and Palestinian women using smuggled sperm to have babies with their husbands who are in Israeli prisons—a unique case of procreation in the absence of sex. Throughout the book contributors examine the complexities surrounding normative, non-normative, and illicit sexual behaviors and relationships, including heterosexual and non-heterosexual relationships, individuals whose bodies and lives reject binary categories of gender and sexual desire, those who have premarital, marital, and extramarital relationships, and those who engage in remunerative or transactional sex. In doing so, the contributors explore topics that veer away from the standard tropes of sex in the region and demonstrate that bright lines dividing normative and non-normative behaviors do not exist.
We hope that this volume serves as a springboard for discussion and critical reflection on both local moral worlds and the global politics of representation.