Rola Yasmine, 29, is a young sexual and reproductive health and rights activist. She currently leads the organization Project A in Beirut.
Without hesitations, Rola told me that she has no problem to talk openly about sexual pleasure with other young people in Beirut: “A lot of people may find this strange, because of preconceived notions about societies in the Middle East, which are xenophobic and Islamophobic”.
How easy or difficult is it to talk about sexual pleasure with young people, depends on how “it has been sold out to the individual”. “If you are ashamed about it or not depends on your upbringing. In Lebanon, there are mixed feelings on the issue. If you say you are not being pleasured within a marriage, it is ground for a divorce. However, in the religious courts pleasure is only understood as the duty of being able to pleasure your partner within a marriage ”.
Rola acknowledges that sexual pleasure is lived very differently among LGB persons. “In the gay world is not that difficult to access sexual pleasure, you can do it by going to the right clubs, to the right areas or by using a mobile phone App. However, the downside is that some people are pushed to believe that pleasure is everything.” Rola criticizes the different categories that exist within the “gay culture”, such as “twink”, “bear”, because they police people’s bodies: “They say, this is how you look like, then you have to fuck like that. These categories really limit people’s interests and they are part of a bullying culture”. Stereotypes do not only affect gay men, but also bisexual or lesbian women: “While sexuality with other men is a complete turn off for heterosexual men, women who have sex with women are seen as “very sexy” within the patriarchal system”. Heterosexual men do not escape prejudice: “Heterosexual men are thought to be always available on demand and they have the burden to perform well”.
Lebanese media doesn’t help to break the taboos and prejudices that exist around sexual pleasure: “As in most of the world, media deals with the topic in a sensationalist way. They glorify male’s sexuality and they objectify women to sell items”. Sex education in Lebanon is also lacking honest and open discussions about the topic: “Sex education is very poor, clinically focused. It’s not even sex education, because it doesn’t go beyond conception and reproduction”. The Lebanese Ministers of Health and Education mandated a reproductive health curriculum, but teachers have a lot of questions about the topic and they need to be trained.
Peer educators in general also avoid discussions about sexual pleasure: “I blame funding for this, because everything is around STI prevention and family planning. This is very linked to the Millennium Development Goals. It is not a MDG for people to achieve pleasure”. The main problem, according to Rola, is that youth peer educators try to teach contraception and HIV/STI prevention, but they don’t see the connections between these topics and agency, autonomy and consent, all of which go hand-by-hand with the talk on pleasure: “The negotiation around a sexual practice or behavior stands on having an honest discussion about pleasure”.
“Some people want to shut down the conversation about sexual pleasure because they see young people as reckless, unreliable, and they don’t want to invest to have fully capable young individuals who have agency and autonomy.” Rola also explained that if you can’t have a broader conversation around sexuality (which includes pleasure), this leads to intolerance and violence: “When you keep scaring people (about diseases or other problems), they keep blaming trans or homosexual persons. The conception of normal sex comes from that format, and that hetero-centric discourse contributes to a violent society”.
In Lebanon, people think of two different types of pleasure: the “normal” and the “perverted”, which has to do with role playing, BDSM, having more partners, having sex with more people: “Even in an heterosexual relationship, anal sex can be a taboo.” For Rola, it is clear that we need to redefine these concepts, and teach that pleasure does not equal an orgasm or ejaculation, that it goes beyond penetration and that it is very diverse.