Embracing the Sacred: Love, Emotions, and Sexuality

Since my previous article, “There are Just No Good Muslim Women Out There” I received a series of responses that have challenged me to examine further some of the arguments I made and consider actionable means with which to address the issues that were raised. A segment of my article that drew heavy response was my insistence that it is a silly logical leap to assume increased emotional proximity causes unfettered sex. A recent article on CNN.com has me revisiting this issue of sexuality and Muslim relationships, fortifying my belief that rethinking relationships, and even actively discussing sexuality, is neither an inevitable nor a particularly rational progenitor of premarital sex.
Focusing its lens on the ‘hook-up’ culture (marked by uncommitted sex, often with multiple partners) endemic of American society today, the CNN.com article cites various studies that are increasingly pointing to the toll that hooking-up takes on one’s psychological well-being. One such study from James Madison University in Virginia shows that no-commitment sex can have an especially damaging effect on women, who for a variety of physiological and sociological reasons tend to find more attachment and desire for a continued relationship after sexual encounters. In both men and women, hooking up can cause increased tendency towards depression, detachment and low self-esteem.

The article highlights a group called the Love and Fidelity Network, “a secular, nonprofit group dedicated to helping college students open the discussion for a lifestyle that doesn’t involve casual sexual activity with anonymous or uncommitted partners.” The group, which evolved in response to both the general uneasiness with the no-commitment experience and the increasing presence of sex-positive programming on university campuses tailored towards the hooking-up model, advocates and provides support for individuals wishing to practice sexual integrity and premarital abstinence. They are present on 20 campuses nationwide and are part of an emerging effort by various organizations and social networking groups pushing to resuscitate a veritable dating- and marital-based culture.

As a matter of message, approaching sex in an appropriately enthusiastic and positive manner is an anemic facet of American Muslim society. I get the feeling that the apprehensive response to my assumed dismissal of the ‘dangers’ of sex is a product of a Muslim community that approaches sex and sexuality in a peculiarly unhealthy way. I take issue with sex being the barricade to talks about improved relationship models and the dread of emotional proximity causing sex partly because romantic relationships are eventually supposed to lead towards sex. Writing about the smugness of American Muslims when it comes to sex and their tendency to dismiss the importance of love and passion, Sister Barnburner on GOATMILK writes “What Muslims have come to call ‘practical’ is in actuality ludicrous, socially damaging and impractical in the extreme. In a marital partnership, practical means strong affection and good sex… Anything less is relationship suicide. Anything less is fitna waiting to happen.” Sex is a major part of marriage. The whole point of relationships, whether they are dating, chaperoned meetings or an entirely arranged affair is to find someone and get married. Emotional proximity can and does at some point lead to both marriage and sex—as it should in a reasonable community.

What’s more, as Nadiah Mohajir recently wrote in an article for Altmuslimah, and countless studies have shown, a robust education in human sexuality starting at early ages is heavily correlated with being more likely to delay having sex and to reduce unwanted pregnancies. Even in its most normative strains, Islam as a religion is quite descriptive about sex. It is well recorded that the Prophet (SAWS) and his companions were explicitly thorough, and positive, when talking about it. Yet, when human sexuality is discussed within Muslim communities, it is generally discouraged or attached to overtures about the devil, zina or hellfire, establishing a ‘sex-negative’ attitude within the general hospice of our society. It is unhealthy, and this attitude is continually the roadblock in our community developing more appropriate and applicable modes of romantic relationships.

The recognition among American youth such as those involved with the Love and Fidelity Network that the sexual norms of college culture are psychologically damaging, along with their subsequent proactive efforts to carve out a space for their views, should be an example to young Muslims. It is possible to take active ownership of our sexuality and relationship experiences without it digressing into promiscuity and breaking religious obligations. While we have been turning these issues into repressive silences, young people across the country are beginning to react to a cultural aspect they have been disenchanted with—an aspect we carry religious conviction is wrong—and are building improved, workable, supportive means of establishing healthier, more fulfilling relationships. This group can talk about relationships and sex without having it. So can we.

I am convinced that there is some middle ground between a hook-up culture and the immature, emotionally detached experience that marks our community’s expectation of relationships, a middle ground that can be found while walking hand-in-hand with our religion’s sexual principles. We can (and need to) talk about and pioneer new systems of dealing with emotions, romance, dating, relationships, and yes, even sex, without compromising what we believe. Moreover, we need to be free to do so on our own terms. Sexuality, just like how one interacts with the opposite gender or finds a spouse, is a personal matter that one does in consultation with their own needs, individual beliefs and religious sensibilities, yet it is regularly commandeered by the ubiquitous ‘community’s’ expectations and often-inapplicable standards. Rather than trying to hammer out a singular definition of what relationships and sexual identity mean, we should be tenaciously working to forge vibrant systems of edification by which we are empowered to search for those answers on an individual basis, based on what is relevant, makes sense and speaks to our emotional, intellectual, spiritual and sexual selves.

(Photo: Vita)
Adam Sitte is a writer based in Washington, D.C. working on civilian empowerment in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.


  • Sarwar says:

    To readers, if you are also on facebook, please join Tahmena Bokhari???s fan page
    This page is how I came to know of this article.

    I totally agree with the article and Tahmena???s statement about it. We have to look at reality even when it is taboo if we want to develop ourselves. Reality is that all youth, Muslim or not, are curious and have questions about sex and their bodies, it is normal and natural. Sex education is not learning about sex, it is learning about one???s own body. I think this is why so many Pakistani women have so many illnesses that can easily be prevented or treated but because they never speak about symptoms or go for check up. Women in places like Pakistan and other poor countries probably die all the time from simple infections they have been suffering from with years only because they could not speak up or were not educated on these matter in the first place.

  • muqarnas says:

    Adam, This is a fantastic article and I am in complete agreement.  I was very put-off by the way many readers responded to your previous article by harping on your statement about emotional proximity leading to sex, and I am glad you addressed it in a follow-up article.  I agree that their response does reflect an extremely unhealthy attitude towards romantic emotion and sex among American Muslims, which is ironic because like you said, Islam does not take a sex-negative attitude. 

    I think a big part of this problem is the general way Muslims have tried to carve out an identity for themselves in American society ??? by hyper-reacting against what they dislike about it rather than creating an identity on their own terms.  This needs to change, and I think our discussions about sex and relationships will be one of the most difficult areas for it to change because people are downright petrified about where that “might” lead.  What I want to ask them is ??? don???t you see where our current reactionary attitude is leading us? We shouldn???t have to wait another generation before fully realizing the dangerous end of our current path, we should have the foresight to see it now and do something about it now. 

    I think highlighting the Love and Fidelity Network is a great way to get a discussion going about how American Muslims can improve discourse on love, sex, and relationships on our own terms.  Do you suggest building a similar network?  Do you see it starting off as an online effort that can perhaps develop into a physical presence?

  • Adam Sitte says:

    @ mugarnas – thank you so much for your comments! I think that one of the hard facts of Muslim life in America is that communities are excessively insular and often especially resistant to visible change in the physical sphere, and I wonder if that resistance is partly driven by the same 20- and 30-year old muslims who need this reacquisition of discourse. So yes, I think online efforts are a necessary way to start and iA they can proactively be developed into more physical ones. But I also think finding semi-institutional means, through sunday school efforts or other community programs, for younger Muslims is essential. Many Christian youth groups do a wonderful job of normalizing and negotiating these issues in inter-gender settings. I’d like to see much more encompassing youth programs within our communities.

  • ma2010 says:

    I read both, your previous article “There are Just No Good Muslim Women Out There” and of course the one that I am commenting on today. I figured I would just respond to both in one comment, hopefully other readers will not mind. The growing epidemic of the hook up culture I believe is precipitated by what you described as a “culture that has accepted premarital sex as a standard for half a century”, after half a century or so of so called sexual maturation and liberation not much is left besides people hooking up with multiple partners and with little to no emotional attachment or satisfaction. Our somewhat insulated community is not taking into account, or choosing to ignore how many of those casual hook ups are by people within the Muslim community, and that the lack of sanctioned relationships, and the lack of a good model of relationships means that most of the adolescent Muslims in college either participate in little to no emotional contact with the opposite sex, or they follow the only example being given to them and join in on the hooking up.

    At the end of the day neither are learning how to foster an emotional relationship, which is much harder then a physical one. So I truly hope that there is a change, and that people are given a chance to make decisions about a life partner with some emotional depth rather then the current norm of cold meetings with lists of questions.

    I really enjoyed reading both articles and hope to read more by you in the future.

  • MohamadAhmad says:

    As-Salam ‘Alaykum. I don’t mean to dismiss this whole discussion as pointless but I think it boils down to self-esteem and purpose. I think the general thing we are taught growing up is that love is so important and our life goal is to fall in love with “the one”. It’s hard enough for non-Muslims but even harder for Muslims because there are more barriers. But I don’t think we should be obsessed with finding our “one”. If we focus on developing our relationship with the One, Allah, then our life takes on a greater purpose.

    The major problem with gender relations is not that we are too loose or too strict with our interactions but that we put too much emphasis on the interaction. It’s not that big of a deal who you end up marrying or if you ever marry in the grand scheme of things. I know this is easier for me to say as I am a young Muslim American male and have it a lot easier than Muslim sisters when it comes to marriage but dwelling on the issue does not help and can actually really be depressing. If we give this issue so much importance in our life and then fail to achieve what we planned or hoped for we set ourselves up for major disappointment.

    For example, if a person says “I MUST marry the right person by X time” and then fails to do so life becomes difficult. It’s tough and maybe unfair but this isn’t the final abode. So I suggest we set our sights on bigger issues, in this world and the hereafter and not fall into this culture of relationship/soulmate searching obsession. The incredible success of the Twilight series should highlight just how silly our obsession with “love” can lead us. This is the real world and if we want to improve our chances of making it to paradise it suits us to ground ourselves in what really matters and leave the fantasy world in Hollywood where it belongs.

  • alillyat says:

    “I think a big part of this problem is the general way Muslims have tried to carve out an identity for themselves in American society ??? by hyper-reacting against what they dislike about it rather than creating an identity on their own terms.”

    That is an excellent point, mashaAllah. This way of thinking is a huge issue for the Muslim American community, and is especially problematic and confusing for the second generation (and, I would argue, converts to Islam).

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