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.
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.