Sex and politics may seem like strange bedfellows but they are often closer than we think. In the 1960s, opposition to the Vietnam War and the casting-off of sexual hang-ups in Western countries blended into a single slogan: Make Love Not War. Meanwhile, a new generation of feminists insisted that taking charge of their own sexuality was a political act: "The personal is political," they said.
Up to now, the revolutionary cries of the Arab uprisings – "freedom", "justice", "dignity" and so on – have been directed mainly against regimes. Their core demand is a different kind of relationship between governments and the people they govern, but it doesn't take a huge leap of imagination to see that these same buzzwords might also be applied to the way people relate to each other – personally and sexually.
The common thread here is patriarchy. Arab regimes have borrowed heavily from traditional concepts of the Arab family, adopting a paternalistic style of authoritarianism and applying it on a national scale. Much the same can be said of religious leaders – and sex is the point where state, family, and religion all meet. In Arab societies, as Shereen El Feki points out in her new book, Sex and the Citadel, "the only widely accepted, socially acknowledged context for sex is state-registered, family-approved, religiously sanctioned matrimony".
The fact that large numbers of Arabs find it difficult to fit this mold – whether they are single mothers, young people who can't afford to marry, or people attracted to their own gender – is increasingly recognized, Feki says, but solutions are still elusive.
One reason is a reluctance to talk about it. "In the Arab world,” an Egyptian gynecologist tells Feki, “sex is the opposite of sport. Everyone talks about football, but hardly anyone plays it. But sex – everyone is doing it, but nobody wants to talk about it."
Feki herself has no such qualms and in the course of her book finds plenty of Arabs willing to discuss sex, even if the interviews don't always go smoothly. Showing a vibrator to a group of Egyptian women, she is asked what it does. "Well, it vibrates," she says – to which one woman replies: "But why?"
Difficult as it may be to imagine now, in Western eyes Arab society was once a by-word for licentiousness, for which it was despised by some and envied by others. Today, the stereotypes are reversed – a shift that is largely due to international politics – with many Arabs regarding the West as an infectious source of debauchery from which they must be protected.
But it is not only a nationalistic kind of Puritanism that impedes discussion of sex. Even if the taboos are overcome, language can also be a barrier. Arabic's once-rich vocabulary of sexual terminology has shrunk over the centuries, Feki says. "One tenth-century book, The Language of Fucking, for example, mentions more than a thousand verbs for having sex." Now that these words have been lost, this particular segment of Arabic culture has been fossilized as well.
Discussion of Arab sexuality today is often over-simplistic and when I first saw Sex and the Citadel on Amazon's website I feared the worst. Its title – echoing the popular TV series, Sex and the City – seemed more than a little contrived and its cover showed a pair of Islamic crescents arranged to look like female breasts (though I'm assured that's only for the American edition).
Nonethelesss, a friend urged me to read it – and I'm glad I did. There is no other book that gives such a well-rounded picture of contemporary Arab attitudes towards sex. It's highly readable but also includes plenty of thoughtful context without getting bogged down in theories and statistics.
Feki – half-Egyptian, half-Welsh and raised in Canada – trained in immunology but later worked for The Economist writing on healthcare issues, particularly HIV. She was also appointed vice-chair of the UN's Global Commission on HIV.
Mostly, though, she keeps this expertise in the background, allowing her Arab interviewees to give their own account, whether the topic is virginity, marriage, masturbation, birth control, sex workers, sex education, sexual health, or sexual diversity.
Thus, an Egyptian psychiatrist who regards homosexuality as "a developmental disorder" that can be "healed" is given space to make his case. Though his views have been shaped by religious belief (he's an evangelical Christian), the psychiatrist is far from stupid and he at least has the grace to admit that his 'treatment' doesn't always work.
Feki's book leaves little doubt that changing attitudes to sex and sexuality go hand-in-hand with political change. "Free and equal relations among individuals," she writes, "are not only key to sexual rights but are also the cornerstone of political democracy; by levelling hierarchies, accepting differences, and respecting individual choices in the one, you help to foster the same in the other."
But how, exactly, might this transformation happen? Feki attempts an answer in her final chapter – if only a tentative one. Arabs' sexual culture, she says, depends on a complex interplay of other factors that include the law, education, economics, religion, and the media. Movement in those areas will also bring movement on the sexual front.
If there's one certainty in all this it's that the way forward for Arab societies lies through talking – and arguing – about sex more frankly and openly than they do at present. And Sex and the Citadel is an admirable starting point for that.
Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World by Shereen El Feki is published by Random House group.
Brian Whitaker is the author of Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East (Saqi Books, 2006 and 2011).