Sex is described as many things: it can be an act of passion for some, physical gratification for others, a necessity for procreation, an act of worship for people of faith, or some combination thereof. It is also a word and experience that is often loaded with many emotions: joy, love, and all too often, fear, shame, and stigma.
One of the challenges of beginning this conversation is that historically, sex and sexuality have been seen as uncomfortable subjects across most racial, ethnic, and religious communities. In Muslim communities, the strong notions of privacy and modesty are often conflated with the shaming of feeling sexual desire, which creates an environment hostile to open discourse, let alone operating outside of religious code. This lack of open, nuanced conversation has long-term consequences: it instills shame and unhealthy attitudes toward sex, which many women carry into their sexual relationships, both within the framework of marriage and outside of it. Islam, like many other faiths, has values around sex and sexuality, and most mainstream scholars would agree that the tradition emphasizes:
- Abstinence until marriage
- Modesty and privacy around sexual issues
- Mutual pleasure between partners, a sexual right that both men and women are granted
It is also noteworthy that Islam as a faith is sex-positive—sex is considered to be a sacred act of worship and the right to mutual pleasure is at the forefront—but cultural baggage and patriarchy has perpetuated attitudes of shame, stigma, and silence about sexuality. So what role does sexuality play in the life of the spirit? The current narrative is that sexuality and faith can be at odds with each other for those who may not operate within the above-mentioned religious code, but do they have to be? Have we created a safe, judgment-free space for all in our communities where individuals can explore values and expectations about sex while still feeling a sense of belonging to the faith community they identify with? Is it possible to have a values-based conversation on sex while still honoring personal agency? How can we reclaim the conversation to one that instills positive, healthy attitudes toward sex, instead of one laden with cultural baggage, patriarchy, and shame?
As the Executive Director of HEART Women & Girls, a nonprofit that promotes sexual heath in faith communities, my work demands that I ask these tough, uncomfortable questions. Often times, these questions are the pink elephant in the room. In secular spaces, sex positivity and feminism promote sexual freedom and tend to dismiss religious law that promotes ideals such as abstinence as oppressive. Despite the reality that Islam is historically a sex-positive faith, with numerous, detailed references in Quran, hadith, and other legalistic texts, current religious discourse often offers Muslims little space to openly ask questions and negotiate their sexual identities.
In fact, many Muslim scholars instead reinforce cultural and patriarchal stereotypes about female sexuality and pass them off as Islamic guidance. Consequently, many unmarried women, and even some married women, find themselves being denied their sexuality even as adults, being shamed and at times alienated when speaking openly about sexuality or sexual health concerns. And while I am certainly not arguing that Islamic law should be changed, I do believe it’s time to address the topic of sex and sexuality with respect and dignity, to engage in nuanced, honest discussions, and to reclaim sexual decision making—both for those who choose to engage as well as those who choose to abstain—as a tool of empowerment. For example, many Muslims find their faith and Islamic guidelines empowering (and not oppressive), and work to incorporate them throughout their lives. There have been instances when individuals:
- Choose abstinence, or return to abstinence after being sexually active, for the sake of their faith.
- Explore romantic relationships and companionship in at a time when the age of marriage is delayed, but still strive to maintain their physical boundaries.
On the other hand, living by this framework doesn’t always come easy. In fact, it is crucial to acknowledge that those who find this framework easy to follow are often the ones who come from a place of privilege. The difficulties of practicing abstinence in a hypersexualized society is not addressed adequately in religious spaces. Whether one chooses to use a religious framework to guide sexual health decision making or not, the shift we must make is to accept that those decisions must be coming from a place of empowerment, and from a mindset that promotes personal agency, both of which are not contradictory to being a person of faith.
For too long, religious discourse has made sex a black and white issue: you don’t have sex when you’re not married, and you do when you are. Abstinence is a value universal to many faiths and its merits are many: there is much wisdom and benefit—both to the individual as well as to society at large—in the spirit of this Divine Law. However, addressing the issue as black and white simplifies an experience that is anything but simple. Nor does it offer the opportunity to really consider, discuss, and critically think about what one’s values and expectations are about sex.
Most importantly, not allowing for such discourse can deny an individual personal agency, which is closely intertwined with feelings of empowerment and bodily autonomy. It’s important to note that abstinence until marriage is not always a religiously motivated decision: while some might choose not to have sex because God commanded so, others might choose not to have sex because they deem the experience so intimate that the only condition that can honor that is a lifelong commitment. To some, this may just be semantics. To others, it can be personal agency.
When I talk to young people about sex, I offer them a slightly different discourse. I ask them: what are the conditions necessary for you to have sex? These conditions can range from love, desire, passion, to contraception, consent, and marriage/commitment, and anywhere in between. I tell them that sex is an act that can have physical, emotional, and spiritual consequences and I emphasize that having sex is a decision where multiple conditions might need to coexist, and that these conditions can evolve over time. Certain conditions might be non-negotiable: like consent or commitment. Other conditions may change depending on the situation. Maybe contraception isn’t a necessary condition at all times if one feels they are in a committed relationship and are okay with conceiving. This process can seem threatening to the ideal of abstinence until marriage, but it also offers the opportunity to think about sexual activity with an empowering lens that honors and protects bodily autonomy well before they are in the heat of the moment. These are lifelong skills they can carry with them, and can help guide them whether it’s their first time having sex, or it’s their hundredth, and teaches them the importance of being self-aware, of boundaries, and of communication—foundational elements for every successful marriage or relationship.
We need to build support systems for those who choose abstinence but struggle with being sexually frustrated, and change the discourse so they can find strength in their decision to abstain and not be burdened by it. At the same time, we need to understand and appreciate that sexual diversity—regardless of what we may believe about it ideologically—does not, in fact, put one outside the folds of the faith in the eyes of God. We must internalize that it is not okay to alienate someone from the faith community simply because their decision to have sex may be one we fundamentally disagree with.
The beauty of Islam, and many faith traditions in general, is that people of all walks of life and experiences identify with it. Islam in particular is beautiful in that it offers the opportunity for one to have a very direct, personal, and private relationship with God, who is believed to be the Most Merciful. God allows space for diversity, and his promise is to always answer the call of the one who calls him. This Divine love is not conditional: as long as one continues to seek God and his Truth, God will continue to love his servant.
If that is what we know of God, and his mercy, and His relationship with humankind, then who are we to deny some a safe space to coexist simply because we disagree on sexual ethics? It’s important to see what other faith and cultural communities have done to address these issues. There are a number of religious communities that have similar frameworks that set the tone for sexual decision making. What have they done to create safe and inclusive spaces?
We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We just have to keep pushing our way through and making a space that fits for all of us—one that is inclusive, empowering, and truly free of shame for all involved.