On Consent and Coercion

The following is written by someone who would like to remain anonymous. Thank you for sharing. 

The pressure to get married can be intense. I come from a culture in which early 20s is the ideal time to get married. I rarely felt any pressure to get married at that time, however, as I was focused on my education. But when I got to my late 20s, and went away to graduate school, that pressure formed over me like a dark, anxiety-producing cloud. A cloud that kept reminding me of how I was getting older, how I needed to settle down soon, of how marriage was an important part of being a Muslim.

Before this time in my life I had only dated on guy. Secretly. Despite that I knew nothing of how to date. I was never given any talks about how to deal with men in dating situations. I had been given plenty of talks about how I was not allowed to date, a rule I followed for most of my life. But I was never taught how to negotiate a romantic (or potentially romantic) encounter. I really wish I had.

In my anxious search for a husband I spent hours meeting Muslim men online. I was very naive. I had had few interactions with Muslim men outside my family and had these strange assumptions that all Muslim men would be respectful. Many were. But many weren’t. Many were right out vulgar or sleazy. But I guess that’s what online anonymity brings out in men, and not just Muslim men.

Most of my encounters with Muslim men remained online. But there were a few I met in person, some of whom I wished had never come into my life.

The first man I met in person was a bit older but a devout Muslim. Apparently he had spent his younger life sleeping around, drinking, etc. Basically doing all those things we’re told not to do. Therefore, at this point in his life he appeared to be making amends with God, in the way he thought he was supposed to (or perhaps told to). We had spent months talking through email and phone calls. He seemed quite nice. He even seemed quite nice in person, for the first little while. But then, it became clear, that he was a sexually coercive person.

“But I thought you said he was a devout Muslim”, you might say. In his head, he was. But his one weakness, he told me, was that he couldn’t control his sexual urges. He said he was working on it, and wanted my help. But over the course of the time we dated, he coerced me into having sex with him. Multiple times I made it clear I didn’t want to, but each time he got his way. I thought that if I didn’t he wouldn’t want to marry me. And because I was getting older I would lose my chance of getting married. I thought that if I didn’t let him have his way, I would be alone forever. But I didn’t realize how I was hurting myself with this way of thinking until years later. So much so that even after I broke things off with him I had a similar encounter with another Muslim man a year or so later, where my fear of not finding a husband allowed me to once again be coerced into a sexual act. Luckily, I only saw that man once.

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After these two encounters I felt immense shame. How could I have let myself get coerced like that? It seemed my desperation to get married, created by the pressures around me, allowed me to think that my acquiescence would nab me a husband. At that time I wasn’t thinking that I wouldn’t want such a man as my husband. I just needed to get married.

I am happily married now to a wonderful Muslim man. And in my search for a husband I did meet other good Muslim men. But I so, so, so wish I had been taught about issues of sexual coercion and consent when I was younger.  I so wish I had been warned of the men, including Muslim men (because we’re warned lots about non-Muslim men), who would try to sweet talk me into getting their way. I wish someone had warned me of the men, once again including Muslim men, who would exploit my insecurities to get their way.

Today, I refuse to feel the shame and guilt I used to feel. I am very comfortable placing the blame on those men who knew exactly what they were doing and exactly how much they were hurting me, and most likely other women as well. I feel anger toward them, but am perfectly comfortable with that anger because I know it is justified. They deserve my hate and my anger.

It should go without saying but sex should always be consensual. In my mind, that’s more important than who we have sex with. Our communities need to begin having conversations around consent and coercion and stop spending so much energy on who we have sex with. I really wish I had learned more about consent and coercion when I was younger.

Explaining My Research

It’s been a few days since the infographic came out. People have had some questions on it so I thought I would explain my research a little (and save people having to read my entire dissertation). I’m hoping to get it published in the near future, insha’Allah, but some of this information is relevant right now. Although, the issue is not being covered in the media as much anymore, this is an issue that is and will be relevant for Muslims for a long time.

Muslim Youth Need Sex Education

Yes they do.Why? Because Muslim youth are having sex. I surveyed 403 Muslims in Canada and the US between the ages of 17 and 35. More than half (221) reported they had engaged in sex. I did not ask for any particular time frame. I was simply asking if they had ever had sex. Of those 221, two-thirds (148) said they had done so before marriage. Before anyone thinks that most of those 148 people were men, I found these proportions were the same for men and women – two-thirds of the women and two-thirds of the men had sex before marriage.

Even when looking at those who had not engaged in sex before marriage, half of those Muslims reported that they had considered doing so.

It’s clear that sex is relevant to Muslim youth. Previous research on the sexual education of Muslim youth (done mostly in New Zealand or the UK) has found Muslim parents DO want their children to have sexual education, but not until they are getting married. Knowing that Muslims are having sex before marriage means that having them wait until they are getting married to provide them with this education is too late, and dangerous. They clearly need to know about issues of consent, violence in relationships, and healthy sexual decision making long before that time.

The Greatest Source of Sex Ed is the Media and Parents are the Least Likely Source

I asked my participants to rate, on a scale from 0 – 4, how much sexual education they received from the media, their friends, and their parents. Media received the highest rating and was statistically significantly higher than the rating given to parents as a source of education.

This isn’t unique to Muslims, but it highlights the problem that plagues all young people – parents aren’t talking about issues of sex and sexual health so the school systems need to provide this education. My research simply points out that Muslim youth are no different than their non-Muslim counterparts in this regard.

Lack of Sexual Knowledge -> Fear of Negative Sexual Self-Judgement -> Unhealthy Relationships

The main focus of my dissertation was sexual guilt and sexual anxiety of young Muslim adults. Previous research has found belief in sexual myths and lack of sexual knowledge to be related to higher levels of sexual guilt. Sexual guilt is a fear of negatively judging oneself for either engaging in or possibly engaging in sexual activity.

Previous research has also found a sexual guilt to be related to greater sexual dissatisfaction, higher frequency of sexual problems, and dissatisfaction with a current sexual relationship, which in turn has been found to be related to decreased relationship and marital satisfaction.

Lack of sexual knowledge can therefore result in negative feelings about sexual activity which will have an impact on sexual and romantic relationships.

Conclusion

My conclusion is the same as before – young Muslims need sexual health education, just as their non-Muslim counterparts do.

References:

Brezsnyak, M.,& Whisman, M.A. (2004). Sexual desire and relationship functioning: The effects of marital satisfaction and power. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 30, 199-217. doi: 10.1080/00926230490262393

Cado, S., & Leitenberg, H. (1990). Guilt reactions to sexual fantasies during intercourse. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 19, 49-63. doi: 10.1007/BF01541825

Darling, C.A., Davidson, J.K., & Passello, L.C. (1992). The mystique of first intercourse among college youth: The role of partners, contraceptive practices, and psychological reactions. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 21, 97-117. doi: 10.1007/BF01536984

Mendelsohn, M. J., & Mosher, D. L. (1979). Effects of sex guilt and premarital sexual permissiveness on role-played sex education and moral attitudes. Journal of Sex Research, 15, 174-183. doi:10.1080/00224497909551039

Trudel, G., & Goldfarb, M.R., (2010). Marital and sexual functioning and dysfunctioning, depression and anxiety. Sexologies, 19, 137-142. doi: 10.1016/j.sexol.2009.12.009

Witting, K., Santtila, P., Alanko, K., Harlaar, N., Jern, P., Johansson, A.,… Sandnabba, K. (2008). Female sexual function and its associations with number of children, pregnancy, and relationship satisfaction. Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, 34, 89 – 106. doi: 10.1080/00926230701636163

My Research is an Infographic!

Working with the wonderful women at Outburst! some of my research findings from my doctoral work were put into an infographic to make the results more accessible than they are right now in the huge dissertation document. It’s great to see the information get out there and be shared. Research on sex and Muslims in Canada and the US is virtually non-existent. I’d love to be able to continue doing more research on this, iA, if I am able to get the resources I need to do so.

In the meantime, here is the infographic. A blog post explaining this will follow shortly.

I’m inspired to get this research published now!

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Infographic designed by Meriem Benlamri.

Sexual Education in Ontario

As many may know, Ontario has introduced a new sexual education curriculum. To be specific it is called The Ontario Health and Physical Education Curriculum and will include many issues related to health, including sexual issues. A copy of the grades 1 – 8 curriculum can be read here and the 9 – 12 curriculum can be read here.  As many may also know this new curriculum has caused a lot of controversy.  There has been a lot of misinformation being spread about the curriculum and various attempts have been made to clarify some myths floating around. This week parents against the curriculum have been protesting it by keeping their children out of school for the week. Unfortunately, it seems that Muslim parents are at the forefront of these protests (though they are certainly not the only ones against it). As a Muslim, this upsets me. As a Muslim who grew up in Canada, went through the Canadian school system, and had to negotiate with and navigate my way through Canadian experiences it saddens and angers me. It upsets me to see Muslim parents wanting to deny their children, what I see as, the educational tools that will help them navigate their lives in healthier, safer, and more respectful ways.

I get it. Being an immigrant parent in Canada is NOT easy. That’s why I am not interested in demonizing these parents nor calling names. Being a parent is a scary thing at the best of times. Parents want what they think is best for their child. And, of course, all parents use their own experiences as a reference point for informing their own parental practices and deciding what is best. Being an immigrant parent and raising children in a cultural context very different from the one in which the parents grew up has to be incredibly scary. Many parents may fear that their children will grow up to be people they don’t recognize, people they can’t relate to, people they don’t understand. I’m not even a parent yet, but even the thought of my (hopefully) future children not being able to at least understand Urdu or Punjabi (my mother tongues) freaks me out! So I empathize with these parents because I recognize that they are fearful.

BUT that does not justify keeping children ignorant, because, and let’s be very clear here, children will face sexual and relationship decisions their WHOLE lives. And I mean whole lives. Because sexual education is not just about sexual intercourse. (And the fact that many parents appear to believe that shows how much sexual education is needed!) It is about issues that we face our whole lives.

Let’s take the very important issue of consent. Have you ever picked up someone else’s child only to have them start crying hysterically? Well, that child was telling you that they do not give you their consent to be picked up. That child needs to have their request (as loud as it may be) respected because when you respect that request you teach that child their consent is required for you to touch them. (If you have a chance please check out the cutest protest ever (video) on the issue of consent and bodily autonomy of children.)

Or how about children’s natural curiosity and learning processes? Children begin to have a curiosity of their own and others’ bodies well before they even begin school. They begin to explore their bodies at very young ages. They may see body parts on others that don’t match their own. They may see them at home or at school. And they are curious and rightly so. Curiosity leads to learning. When we reprimand children for being curious about their own bodies, we are teaching them bodily shame. Instead, children need to have a healthy relationship with their own bodies and respect for the autonomy of others’ bodies.

These are just two, out of many, examples of why sexual education is relevant to all age groups.

In the end, my message to Muslim parents who oppose this curriculum is this: Remember that your children may be under your care for now, but they are individuals who will have their own lives to live, insha’Allah. They will face difficult relationship and sexual situations and decisions in life, both while they are children and as adults, which you will not have any control over nor will you be present for. These may be at school, at a friend’s home, online, at the mosque (as this awful case from Chicago demonstrates can happen), etc. But you can be sure they will face them. This sexual health curriculum will provide them with the tools needed to make healthy decisions that feel right to them or negotiate the situation with some confidence. Please don’t deny them that education, those resources, and those tools.