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Are Lebanese finally ready to kiss and tell?

There has been a slow change in attitudes with regard to sex in Lebanon. (The Daily Star/Grace Kassab)

BEIRUT: Let’s talk about sex. It seems like everybody is these days. Turn on the television any evening and take your pick of talk shows discussing the topic. This month, Time Out Beirut launched their fourth sex issue with a survey inquiring into the sexual habits of their readers, a couple of weeks after a Lebanese pop singer wore a necklace made from condoms on national TV.“We wanted to find out what really turns Beirut on, and see if Beirut was any different from any other city in that regard,” Naomi Sargeant, Time Out’s managing director, says of the survey.

While Sargeant doesn’t claim that the survey, to which over 600 people replied, was entirely scientific, she does feel it was part of a growing acceptance and a more open attitude among at least some Lebanese to sex.

“You’re seeing a different generation of maybe 23- to 35-year-olds who are not necessarily following religion or abiding by what society says we should be doing,” she says.

In November of 2010 Lebanon’s LBC started broadcasting the show Lezim Taaref (“You need to know”). Topics covered in its first episode included female masturbation and the male G-spot.

Dr. Labib Ghulmiyyah, one of the co-hosts of the show and a gynecologist, thinks Lebanon is still somewhat reluctant when it comes to talking openly about sex, but says the show is creating discussion.

“It’s still difficult for people to talk about it,” he says. “Our goal ... was to start up the awareness somewhere, to initiate something.”

“Things are changing,” says gynecologist and sexologist Mona Sabra. “There’s a will even in the more closed societies to talk about this ... When I returned from France in 2010 after six years I was surprised about how much we talked about it on TV, even at 9 p.m.”

Leila, 32, agrees that the subject still hasn’t fully come out into the open. Even within her “somewhat bohemian” family, her decision to move in with her boyfriend six years ago caused ripples.

“Even when we weren’t living together, my entire extended family shunned my direct family, because I was doing something inappropriate,” she says. “It’s [still] very much ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’”

But, she also admits the regular appearance of sex in the media is making a difference. “If you don’t talk about it, and it’s hidden [but] it’s become more prevalent. But on the surface, it hasn’t changed.”

“We say we are ‘open,’ but we’re not really open,” says 31-year-old Philip. “If you’re with your partner, kissing for example, there’s something inside of you that feels uncomfortable to do whatever you want to do, because there’s eyes on you. Lots of eyes.”

That scrutiny is even greater outside of heterosexual relationships, says Raja Farah, a sexual health educator.

“Homophobia has become less politically correct, but that just means that people are less forward with it,” he says. “It’s still all around, but it is less easy to see.”

But Farah believes the Internet is one of the tools by which people are beginning to break taboos. “Attitudes overall have evolved as a result of the Internet and the growth of social media outlets,” he says. “People see more, and exposure is key to changing attitudes. I think, however, that attitudes in Beirut are completely different than attitudes outside Beirut.”

If there’s one thing experts agree on, it’s that the biggest remaining taboo is female virginity. “Women are obliged to remain a virgin,” says Sandrine Atallah, Ghulmiyyah’s co-host. “They’re not talking about the existence of sexuality before marriage.”

Leila agrees: “I know at least five people that have had hymenoplasty,” to maintain that they are still “virgins.”

“You do everything you can to get to your wedding day as smoothly as possible. Which means you haven’t had sex, you don’t talk about it. You’re a good, clean, proper girl,” she says. “But, underneath the surface, it’s all OK. It’s all done. It’s even understood that it’s done. But, please don’t talk about it.”

However, says Sabra, attitudes are beginning to change. “We’re going through a period where some women don’t really know whether they want to be open, or they want to be traditional,” she says. “These are educated women, working, independent, but still having this confusion about whether to have a normal sexual life or to keep their virginity until marriage.”

Even if people are talking about sex with each other, the topic is still a long way from working its way into schools. Sex education was put on the national curriculum in 1995, but was withdrawn just a few years later following criticism from religious bodies.

Instead, young boys get their information from porn, and girls get their information from boys, experts say.

“I, like most of my friends, learned what I know from personal endeavors,” says Jean Paul, 22. “As a teenager, it was from watching pornography.”

“I learned about sex from my boyfriends,” says 28-year-old Nadine. “And they learned about it from porn.”

However, with pornography comes pressure on both men and women to achieve an unrealistic sex life, says Sabra. She also believes that this perpetuation of fantasy imagery is also contributing to the rise in labiaplasty and vaginaplasty.

“Because everybody is going for completely hair free [bikini waxes], so labia are making more of an appearance,” she says. “So it’s now a trend to have small labia. I see this from women [when they say] ‘I think my labia is very big, so I want to get surgery.’ Like the noses.

“Men take advantage of the lack of women’s knowledge,” she says. “I once had a woman come to me with her boyfriend, because they’d been having sex for three years and he told her that she would need to have an operation to tighten her vagina because after three years it becomes wide ... They were 21 years old.”

Poor sex education also means poor awareness of sexual health.

“We didn’t use condoms when we were young. When you’re a kid, you really know nothing,” says Nadine. “I don’t think there’s enough media coverage about STDs and stuff like that.”

Although they push for better education, even the experts sometimes think things should be kept under wraps.

“I don’t think sex should be the talk of the town,” says Ghulmiyyah. “We should educate people about it, but you shouldn’t talk about it like you’re talking about your car.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 21, 2012, on page 2.

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