A couple of nights ago, a screening of a documentary focusing on Masturbation as part of independent cinema event took place. I couldn’t have missed such event where a glimpse of sexuality-related debate was to be held! The documentary was called “Secret As Usual” سرية كالعادة which is wordplay for the term Secret Habitالعادة السرية which is how masturbation is usually referred to in Egypt.
The 30-minute long documentary is all made up of interviews, save for very scarce visual material. The interviewees are a few Egyptian young people of both genders and the rest are experts including andologists, psychiatrists and the like including the famous (for some, notorious) Heba Qotb, who’s been striving to position herself as a media-sexology figure in the last few years.
Through the interviews, we hear the young people talk about the ways they perceive masturbation & their attitudes towards it; not much personal experience. The “experts” mostly lecture us about what’s right and wrong, healthy and unhealthy for the remainder of it.
To be honest, the movie left me quite frustrated despite being a lauded initiative by the director (she made a previous film about sexual harassment). We may assume that the sheer attempt of approaching the matters of sexuality in our context is a happy event. That wasn’t exactly how I felt however.
The movie painstakingly tries to correct misconceptions about masturbation. It tries to open up options that masturbation may not be a bad thing. The Sheikh and the Priest say that there are no clear religious instructions against it. The doctors say that it doesn’t cause the oft-cited myths of blindness, madness, weakness, infertility, etc. Right after masturbation has been declared innocent of causing these afflictions, the “doctors” go on to explain how it actually causes premature ejaculation!
My frustration comes from that the film’s “experts” fail to deliver a viewpoint that masturbation is actually a healthy, useful and safe practice! It tries to correct and destigmatize, but it doesn’t affirm the positive aspect of masturbation. The message was that it’s not bad, but not good either, and that it usually reveals something wrong is going on.
My second disappointment is that the director interviewed the usual suspects: the medical and religious institutions, and dropped the human rights and anthropology approach.
A positive approach to sexuality in general and masturbation in particular was missing.
Yes, jerking off is good, if don’t know that already. Let’s revisit how:
|Photo from Scarlteen.com|
For one thing, sex is good and healthy and it’s not that different if you do it with someone else or with yourself. It improves blood circulation, delays ageing and does other good stuff to your body. Masturbation helps people explore their bodies, their pleasure patterns, and sensitive areas. It can be used as an exercise to avoid premature ejaculation and practice self-control. Notably, it’s the safest way of sex out there. Unless, you’re using sex toys or similar objects, there is no risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections.
Unless masturbation seriously interferes with productivity and daily life activities, it cannot be considered an addiction.
One would assume that society is now okay with masturbation, because let’s face it, everyone is doing it. But no, that’s not the case. Through my work with young people in schools and youth centers, I received countless questions about it. There remain a great deal of people who feel guilty about it, haunted by morbid thoughts of sinfulness and uncleanliness, in addition to all the other health hazard myths.
No wonder! It’s not uncommon for religious scholars to speak against it (it’s safer for them to denounce any form of sexuality), thereby enforcing the sense of guilt. It’s also no surprise when doctors juggle their opinions between “it’s not bad” to “it can cause you isolation and premature ejaculation”.
There is a view that masturbation was mentioned in The Bible through the story of Onan who would withdraw the penis during intercourse and “waste his seed”. Though this view is questionable by some, it is still used by many to justify why masturbation (and even contraception) is sinful. There is no mention of masturbation in Koran, but a couple of questionable interpretations and hadiths (prophet sayings) are perpetuated by most conservative sheikhs to denounce it. Other Islamic scholars are permissive of it on grounds that it may prevent a greater sin (sex outside marriage).
Unexpectedly, it’s not only the religious institution that has intensified negative views around it. The medical institution played a historic vicious role as well. In fact, the term secret habit sounds very similar to the expression secret vice (and even self pollution) which dates back to the 19th century in Western Europe and America, aka during the rise of modern medicine. For centuries, medical practice viewed masturbation as a serious public health concern that leads to insanity, and various other ailments.
I am well aware that using a sex-positive approach in sexuality discussions is a very difficult battle. We are in a country that’s still struggling to give young people the right to be informed about their bodies, sexuality and health. A recent policy brief by Population Reference Bureau (A Washington-based research center) provides more information and recommendations for incorporating comprehensive sexuality education into schools curricula in Egypt.
Such documentaries are good starting points. Public debates regarding sexuality matters are needed, though there is a current fear of moral panics and pushback by conservative forces in society that feel empowered after the revolution. Discretion about public debate is always nice, but too much caution may also get us no where.
The battle is going to be long and tough. It won’t get very far unless we move beyond the stereotypical ways of portraying sex and unless the progressive, sex-positive voices are included in the conversation.