Love Island helped me talk about sex after growING up in an Indian Islamic family
By Aniqah Rawat
Ani explains what it feels like to come of age balancing two cultural belief systems that don't exactly go hand in hand.
No long do we have to wait for summer for our fix of heat, passion and staged drama aka ITV’s Love Island. I hate to admit it, but after a year of writing essays and debates and revision, I do love watching something so obviously framed that it actually numbs your mind and makes the time fly by in a flurry of abs and bikinis and cheese toasties and "it is what it is". Sometimes it’s just nice to switch off isn’t it?
Except that I can’t. As I watch, I’m analysing. Every second, every minute. And there’s plenty to engage in too: countless grievances aired on Twitter over the show’s casting choices, shock exits from the show, and the cruel way it manipulates its contestants.
Despite all that artificial drama, I couldn't help but be shocked at the way Maura Higgins - a woman(!) - talked so freely about sex. Sex has been a tricky subject to navigate; not only through my experiences as a young woman, but also as someone who is a “cultural hybrid”.
A term coined by Homi Bhabha, “cultural hybridity” is a complex subject, but for the purpose of this article here’s what I mean when I say I am a cultural hybrid: I have grown up in an Indian Islamic family; I have been raised in a Western world; I neither solely identify with one or the other, but am a hybrid of these two, somewhat conflicting, identities.
It’s very complicated and - don’t worry - I’m not here to tell you my life story. The story I do want to tell, however is that of a young woman who is trying to understand what sex is, what sex means, and what role it’s supposed to play in her world that has been formed by seemingly antagonistic cultural belief systems.
Growing up, I never really heard the term "sex".
The most intimate thing I saw my parents do was hold hands or kiss on the cheek. Family celebrations were a segregated affair: women in one room, men in another. Whilst watching TV or a film, if anything remotely sexual was shown, and elders were in the room, I learnt to avert my eyes out of embarrassment of my curiosity that, whilst natural, in a conservative Islamic home, was unseemly. And yet at the same time, in secondary school, the gossip always appeared to revolve around sex and relationships. But little old me had no idea what my peers meant when they started talking about who fingered whom and what second or third base was and how so-and-so had almost “got there”.
Broadly speaking, the act of sex, or anything sexual, isn’t discussed in the home of a Muslim family. There are no conversations on how to be safe or what consent is. It’s just avoided, ignored.
It’s treated as a dirty, disrespectful topic that should only be brought up between husband and wife, because only when you’re married is sex allowed (but it’s still not talked about in the open). It’s a subtle, albeit backwards way of learning that pleasure is wrong; that pleasure is a sin.
But if you knew me, you’d know that at the ripe young age of twenty-one, I am not a practising Muslim and I definitely do not believe that pleasure is a sin. Although, to clarify, Islam doesn’t teach that pleasure is a sin per se, but that certain acts, such as drinking, or sex before marriage, that create feelings of pleasure, are sinful because they distract you from your faith. There is pleasure only to be found in everyday acts that aren’t considered sinful in Islamic scripture.
Once you’ve had your “sexual debut”, as my friend calls it (virginity can be a loaded term and a stigmatising social construct), it’s only then that you can realise what you’ve been missing out on. Sex is weird, and sex can be good or bad or somewhere in-between, and you can laugh your way through it. It’s one of the most intimate things we can share as human beings, and there is no right or wrong way of (consensually) doing it. However, as a young, non-practising Muslim, engaged in a Western culture, the idea of sex and what it means, or should mean, is just so confusing.
Don’t get me wrong, in having my “sexual debut”, it’s slowly becoming less confusing in more ways than one, but I’ve found that the belief systems around me simply do not go hand in hand.
Religiously speaking, pre-marital sex is prohibited, as is period sex and anal sex. Sex is encouraged mainly for procreation once married, and talking about sex, regardless of whether that’s sex for pleasure or sex in the case of trying to create a family, is rather taboo. Muslim girls are not considered sexual human beings, and in the cultural belief system that operates, understanding what sex is, what masturbation is, and more importantly want consent is, becomes trying when mothers or aunties can’t talk to their daughters or nieces about something so natural.
So, I thank god (the one I'm yet to find faith in), that I’m a cultural hybrid. Living in a western world surrounded by people who haven’t been brought up in Islam has meant that I have been able to somewhat stumble my way (albeit only recently) through these discussions with girls my own age who I feel comfortable with. And it has been interesting to come to know sex in the Western way as a semi-adult, rather than a young teen like most of my friends and peers did. Seeing sex at 21 through the fresh eyes of someone who has been discouraged from even making eye contact with the subject during those formative years when my peers were talking about hand jobs and discovering lube, has allowed me to see the inconsistencies in this Western sex narrative even more clearly. And what has become clear is that it’s this very thing - talking about sex - that will truly iron out these inconsistencies that are damaging to both women and men.
From weird kinks, to people walking in, to just plain old vanilla, missionary sex, talking about it and treating it like the natural, pleasurable thing it is helps break down this preconception that girls can’t be respectful and sexual beings at the same time. That girls can’t enjoy sex for sex’s sake too.
We don’t slut shame boys, so why do we slut shame girls? Why can boys and men talk about sex so openly, and yet when a woman does the same thing, just like Maura on Love Island has, we start to feel embarrassed or start judging?
I won’t lie, writing this article has in itself been a little strange. I’m out here publicly saying I have a sex life and engaging with the topic of sex, which there’s nothing wrong with and I don’t mind doing; it’s the fact that this article, in talking about sex, is something which also conflicts with my upbringing which makes it strange. But if we were all honest about it, we all think good sex is great.
So, it’s high time we normalised discussions about sex. We need to champion women like Maura who refuse to be ashamed of their sexuality.
Maura proves that just because a woman talks openly about sex it doesn’t mean she has slept with loads of peope or will just jump straight into bed with the next man who wants it from her.
We need to champion men like Tommy Fury (FYI - another Love Islander for any of you rejecters) who is both one of the sexiest men in the villa and one of the most respectful, caring and kind.
If we can have more of these women and men held up into the light of popular culture and public discourse, perhaps everyone, regardless of race or faith, could be exposed to sex when they are ready. Then, we could begin to make more informed decisions about sex, and, in doing so, have healthier relationships with both ourselves and others. So this is me, trying to start some of those discussions. There’s a hell of a lot more I could say about me, but I don’t think right now is the time for me to delve into the details of my own sex life. So until then I’ll say, stay safe, use a condom, and have a good time.
Image by ITV