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In the bedroom

According to sexologist and hypnosis specialist Dr. Sandrine Atallah, sexology is the science behind the psychological, physiological and emotional aspects of sexuality. She is one of the rare physicians to have specialized in the field in Lebanon, where discussing sexuality remains taboo. NOW Lebanon sat down with Atallah at her Clinique du Levant office to hear about both her experiences and sexuality in the country.

How did you start in the field?

Atallah: I studied medicine but wasn’t really interested in any of the traditional specializations. At the time, I had moved to France and chose sexology and hypnosis because they do not exist in Lebanon despite the great need. We mention sexuality within the context of psychoanalysis, but that’s about it. For instance, someone with erectile dysfunction has little access to understanding the physiological aspect of his problem. Hypnosis is a type of psychotherapy that will go through a modification of the mental state to treat various fears, phobias, anxiety problems…it’s a tool. I use it in sexology, but hypnosis does not work without a more global therapy.

How many sexologists are there in Lebanon? Is there any stigma surrounding your profession?

Atallah: I am unsure of the exact number, especially the number of specialists with a qualified degree. As for people’s reaction, they often tend to laugh. Others will ask me what it means to be a sexologist and why people need to consult one. After the laugh comes the shock: “Do you really have patients? Who actually consults you?” There are also those who are genuinely interested; “Really? I had no idea this existed in Lebanon; we are in need.” And finally, after their confusion, they go, “Oh that’s great! I have a friend or a cousin or a friend of a friend who might be interested…”

Tell us a bit about your patients. 

Atallah: Regionally speaking, I don’t have many from the Gulf; they are mostly Lebanese, from Syria and Jordan. Within the country, I have a bit of everything — from the Frenchie Coco from Achrafieh, to the Verdun snob, the veiled lady from Dahiyeh, to the woman who is waiting for the Mahdi, and even the man from Bourj Hammoud. Of course, most people I see have the means to afford a sexologist, which remains a luxury that comes after you make sure your basic health problems are taken care of. One does not die from a poor sex life.

Those financially strained come when the couple is at stake, when there is a risk of divorce if things do not improve sexually, or if problems come in the way of pregnancy. Therein, things are a bit more serious. For the wealthier patients, some will come and complain about problems finding their G-spot, for example. 

There are also women who have been raped, traumatized, and are disgusted when their husbands touch them. Some, without any form of abuse, are traumatized by past experiences. I’ve seen a lot of very phobic women, often educated in some type of cocoon, scared of swimming, driving etc... They have involuntary contractions of the vagina’s muscles that prevent any form of penetration [vaginismus]. The worse is that they go to a gynecologist who will either remove their hymen, stretch out the vaginal muscles or use a dildo, but this does not solve the problem, because they are scared of penetration. Although dildos are part of the therapy, there is a specific technique. We usually ask the woman to start by experimenting with her own body and fingering herself, and eventually the woman can use a dildo.  

What are Lebanon’s most common problems?

Atallah: Men’s most frequent problems are premature ejaculation followed by erectile dysfunction, like in most countries. This is classic. For women, most women consult for vaginismus. This does not mean it is the most common. Women rarely come for lack of desire, or orgasm, whereas in other countries, like in France, where I have worked, women will be more demanding of their pleasure. There are those few surprising cases. For example, I once saw a woman who was 21, completely veiled, and had four children from her husband. She was here because since her third child, she could no longer orgasm. And she felt fine admitting to reaching an orgasm during masturbation in front of her husband. So there are surprises, especially within the Muslim community.

Of course, for Christian women, there is a significant difference between girls who say, attend the Collège Louise Wegmann [an expensive private school] as opposed to those who have gone to an Ecole des Frères. In Lebanon, there is everything; you can’t stop at stereotypes. My manicurist knows my profession. So she’ll ask me questions. But with her friends, she’ll act very innocent. There’s also a personality factor, one’s upbringing. Ultimately, if you are not inhibited, there’s always potential. But there are people who are so inhibited, they don’t even have fantasies, and such women need a comprehensive therapy, with psychoanalysts. My work is not sexoanalysis; my therapy is short, three to six months long.

What are your thoughts about hymnoplasty?

Atallah: The practice is very common in Lebanon, but I find it extremely hypocritical, because one must understand that sexuality is how one behaves with his or her own body, it’s not a drop of blood. And there are women who are virgins and do not bleed, 30 percent in fact. Some women, for example, have a very elastic hymen, so elastic that they only lose it once they give birth to their child.
 
I’ve given sex-ed courses to the Sœurs de Charité in Achrafieh. They invited me to come. So you see, there’s this duality. You ask them to define virginity, and they allude to the concept of “her being open or not” as if the woman was a bottle of Pepsi. There is a total misconception of the woman. Why don’t we use similar analogies for men?

What do you have to say about the reputation Lebanese women have that they dress provocatively but are not adventurous in the bedroom?

Atallah: In psychology, we refer to this as the phenomenon of histrionic personality, which is actually common in several Middle Eastern/Mediterranean countries, like in Italy. People in these regions are very much focused on appearance. The women, who may look like sex bombs, often have no pleasure in bed, and so they don’t really know how to engage sexually, because they have never understood their own body. They are here to please, on the surface, but there is less passion and understanding. And this is not only in their sex life. 
 
As for men, they are increasingly concerned with their sexual performance, without really understanding a women’s physiology, often based on pornography, their lack of experience and frequently because they live at home. So they find themselves in this trap, and their confidence is affected. They look for magical remedies at the pharmacy, some of which are dangerous. But then again, how is one to have an adult sexuality, when you are still a child living at home?  

 

  • Carla

    please i want to know how can we talk to dr sandrine ? can i have her phone number or clinic?

    March 23, 2011

  • Andre Keyrouz

    I think Dr Attalah is essential in our society, because her opinions help many people who have sex problems in their life. Moreover, so many people have lack of information of their body use, psychology, and how to manage their sex life. I wish i can always have contacts with her.

    January 23, 2011

  • Samer

    how can one get an appointment with Dr Atallah?

    January 2, 2011

  • Abdul

    I was first shocked when i read this article, but after thinking about this for a little while I believe this doctor is doing a magnificent service. If only more people in our society could be more open to such things.

    September 2, 2010

  • CHARBEL

    Great work Dr Atallah . keep doing your best. Please tell me how we can keep in touch with you ? Gob bless you and bye for now .

    September 1, 2010

  • ghina

    It's a job like any other and I strongly agree with those who made a remark on how indiscreet this lady has come across. Ridiculous.

    August 25, 2010

  • g from lebanon

    Great article, and glad to know these things are starting to happen in our society! Keep up the great work!

    August 24, 2010

  • Fouad

    The interview is good but what does muslim/christian analysis has to do with this? and why a doctor like you have secterian prejudices? why you are shocked when a veiled woman speaks about her orgasm!! this is very sectarian and shows that secterianisn is hitting even the minds of scientists in Lebanon!

    August 24, 2010

  • Sarita

    Dr. Atallah YOU ROCK! How can we get in touch with you? Great article

    August 23, 2010

  • Baha

    I believe this is a very good subject to talk about and discuss it freely though I have a concern regarding the Doctor herself and the way she talks about the different societies in Lebanon with some nuances on where they live and where they come from. I don't agree with the way she addresses things and her opinion about people. I think Dr. Atallah was carried away with the interview to forget that she is a doctor and talk poorly and inappropriate about it that some patients might rise complaints if they read this. How would she feel if someone translates this to Arabic and send it to the Arabic newspapers so people all over Lebanon would have access to her opinion?

    August 19, 2010

  • Watson

    Mr Director Chair, you're a little absurd here, don't you think? She's just giving examples which are very much needed. Cool off, man. Way to go, Dr. Aline.

    August 19, 2010

  • Director Chair

    The funny thing is she revealed it all. shouldn't therapy be a bit more discreet? All what she lacked is after describing her patients and manicurist is to give their names. I don't mind that kind of therapy it is much needed indeed. just this girl right here, has a big fat lebanese mouth

    August 17, 2010

  • nidal

    This type of therapy is much needed and long overdue in Lebanon. It's time that the ignorance and taboo surrounding sex and sexuality were lifted inLebanon. Go Dr. Atallah!

    August 15, 2010

  • hana

    Let's all hope this country will get better at least from the "sexuality" perspective :-)) Thank you for posting this article

    August 13, 2010

  • Tim Lebanese

    Aline, You are the next step in the lebanese society. What you are doing is very beautiful and sincere. I wish you the best of luck in your career. It's very tough to be laughed at when you tell them what you do for living and have studied years for. It seems you are couping well with that. Best of luck in your profession and your life :) Side note: A good question would've been how would be sexologist impact your sex life? In relations do men feel intimidated? (Heck I would) :)

    August 11, 2010