What We Don’t Know about Sex in the Middle East

After ten years writing and traveling through the Middle East, John R. Bradley decided to tackle the subject that everyone talks about without saying much: sex. In Behind the Veil of Vice: The Business and Culture of Sex in the Middle East, Bradley reveals the many different ways countries across the region talk about and regulate sex. Below, he chats with Zócalo about legal prostitution in Tunisia, hour-long marriages in Saudi Arabia, and what West and East have in common when it comes to sex.

Q. What are some of the assumptions those in the West have about sex and the Middle East?

Behind the Veil of Vice, by John R. BradleyA. For me, what is most striking is that in the space of a century these assumptions – or what I would call misconceptions or fantasies – about the Middle East have changed so radically.

Until the early 20th century the Middle East, in the eyes of the West, was an exotic place of intriguing decadence, of secret harems and lecherous pederasts, a sensual region where Westerners could indulge in sexual behavior, or at least report on it, in perhaps the only way that was unlikely to cause consternation at home. Now the opposite idea prevails: the Middle East is sexually barren, horribly repressive, and anti-sex in a way that contrasts with the supposed licentious and libertarian West.

Both of these narratives, I think, tell us as much about the preoccupations of the West, and the West’s projection of its anxieties on other peoples and cultures, as the reality of how sexuality has played out in the Middle East historically or continues to do so in the present. But what most intrigues me, and is the main theme of Behind the Veil of Vice, is the remarkable resilience of competing cultural identities and attitudes toward sex in the countries I explore, which include Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Bahrain, Iran, and Yemen.

A vibrant underground continues to flourish in private, and sometimes even in the open, in the local, strongly rooted communities I have lived and worked in, despite the strange, faceless, sexless rules the minority fundamentalists want to put over public life. Essentially, we’re talking about the vast gulf that exists between private and public morality, which is normal in any culture during any period of time you care to mention.

Q. Can you discuss broadly the status of sex and sexuality in the Middle East, particularly through the status of institutions like prostitution and marriage?

A. I think it is defined pretty much in the same way that it is the West, by what I call in the book a kind of higher hypocrisy. However, it is very difficult to make broad generalizations about the whole region, and that is precisely what the book tries to show.

For example, in Tunisia prostitution is legal and regulated, and every main city has a red-light district. Because the staunchly secular Tunisian regime thankfully does not allow the radical Islamists any opportunity to participate in the political or social life of the country, and because Tunisia has a deeply entrenched feminist tradition, the issue of legalized prostitution is of little concern to the average Tunisian man or woman. At the same time, the Tunisian regime takes a very dim view of unregulated prostitution, and has introduced laws that have successfully helped to restrict its practice. In contrast, in Egypt prostitution is officially illegal, despite the fact that the country is still ruled by an essentially secular regime. However, prostitution is everywhere in Egypt, involving both male and female sex workers. This fact is often highlighted by the Islamists, who are afforded a role in Egyptian political and social life, as a sign that the country has lost its moral way.

Elsewhere, the status of prostitution in the Middle East varies greatly. In Syria, it is quietly tolerated. In Bahrain, there is a thriving sex industry catering mostly to Saudi sex tourists, and the issue has become central to the Islamists’ campaign to rid the island of so-called Western influence. Having said that, in Saudi Arabia itself there is also a thriving sex industry, albeit in a less brazen way than exists in Bahrain, something attested to by the frequent raids of brothels by the Saudi religious police, even in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

Where Saudi Arabia – and Iran and Egypt – really come into their own is with what are called “temporary marriages.” The rules vary, because of the different Shia and Sunni traditions, but they can last for anything from an hour to a year or two, and are perfectly legal in these three countries. Moralizers of various stripes argue that temporary marriages are basically a cover for prostitution, and often they are; but in some ways it does not matter what you call them. That 70 percent of all marriages in Saudi Arabia these days are reportedly of the temporary variety is a wonderfully uplifting statistic. The country’s religion has found a back door permitting what it ostensibly forbids, which is what every functioning religion, or for that matter ideology, needs to do, if ordinary people are to live sane and healthy lives.

Here, as in many other aspects of life that often baffle Western observers with their inconsistency; Middle Eastern sexuality has once again proven itself solidly resistant to restrictive and oppressive dogma.

Q. We in the West seem sometimes obsessed with the idea of sex and sexuality in the Middle East, as some of the commentary you highlight about suicide bombers and the veil illustrates. Why do we take this attitude, and how does it thwart our understanding of and interactions with the Middle East?

A. In any civilized culture, anyone arguing that suicide bombings by Islamists are the result of sexual repression among males in the Middle East would achieve little more than making himself an object of scorn and ridicule. Alas, the West has long since ceased to be civilized when it comes to discussions of sexuality, and the fact that there are pundits who actually make a living spouting such nonsense should be a source of eternal shame for us all.

It isn’t surprising that such pundits are often avowed Zionists. For them, focusing on the alleged sexual hang-ups of the September 11 suicide bombers is a very useful way to deflect attention from complex foreign policy issues, including America’s role in the Middle East and specifically its unconditional support for Israel.

Q. What was the impact of the Islamic Revolution in Iran on the sexual mores of the Middle East? What about the “family values” revolution in the West? Where does that leave us today?

A. Numerous events during 1979 in the Middle East, and in particular the Iranian revolution and the siege of Mecca by radical Islamists, ushered in a wave of Islamic fundamentalism that fed into and changed the region’s political and religious discourse surrounding personal choices, including the most fundamental ones involving sex.

But we should remember, too, that in 1979 and 1980 elections also brought to power Ronald Reagan in the United States, with the support of Christian evangelicals, and Margaret Thatcher in Britain, whose “family values” rhetoric was no less extreme for not being explicitly couched in religious rhetoric. As a result, we all find ourselves in the midst not of a clash of civilizations, as is popularly thought, but a convergence of religious fundamentalisms.

With this intermixing of sex, politics, and religion, hypocrisy has inevitably grown in the West, as it has in the Middle East. Deviation in both regions is increasingly defined as disorderly, dirty, and sinful by puritans of various stripes. My book draws attention to the central paradox that, as intolerance has increased, so has vice, because as the range of acceptable behavior decreases so the definition of vice broadens, and more people therefore are by default engaging in unacceptable behavior.

Once we recognize that exchange between consenting people is the foundation of any liberal society, then we realize that accepting sexual variety is a sign of a healthy, not a corrupt, society. When sex outside of controlled channels is defined as deviance, it is the most exposed, the least powerful, who suffer. Behind the veil of vice lies the sanctimony of those who would impose their way – be it sharia or evangelicalism of a Christian or so-called feminist hue – on people who are defined as sinners, the fallen, and so requiring protection and salvation. The vice lies in the exploitation, in the coercion, that results from forcing natural human drives and needs into the shadows.

That is the ultimate perversity, and it is what the West today has most in common with the Middle East.

*Photo courtesy HMA.


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