Between sex and abstinence, there is education and choice

MAY 18 ― The development of a child’s sexuality is a taboo issue. Although there is no denial that as children, many will develop crushes and have ridiculous fantasies about them. 

From a young age, children will explore their bodies and learn to masturbate. But the idea of a child masturbating is an unspeakable horror for so many liberal-minded people that silence is the best cure for such hand-ups. 

For legal and historical reasons we owe to Victorian laws, 16 is the age of consent. But before then, children are clouded with distorted ideas about sexuality and lack of useful information. 

Muslim children are more in danger of this knowledge vacuum because of the social disease of child marriage that plagues Malay Muslim families.

Although taboo, it is not as if sexuality is not taught in school. Masturbation is likely to come up in Islamic Studies (Pendidikan Islam) in school but couched in restrictive and often lurid terms. No other classroom session will young children be inducted into the categories of human bodily fluids. 

The purely mechanical and decontextualised process of procreation is taught in biology class. However, how one deals with the repercussions of one winning spermatozoon that reaches the ovum and needle its way through the zona pellucida is kept under wraps. 

So it comes as little surprise that the Malaysian Youth Sexual and Reproductive Health survey found that nearly 80 per cent of a thousand young people interviewed have no idea that unprotected sex can result in pregnancy and the spread of STIs. 

More than 80 per cent believed that sexual violence is caused by uncontrolled urges. Findings suggest that the pro-abstinence approach to sex education is an outright failure, although Datin Paduka Chew Mei Fun is in total denial. 

Similarly, women are treated like children – to be protected and to be told “no.” With little access or knowledge to pleasure, contraception and abortion, women will have no agency to make informed choices about their bodies. 

The result of which is fear of their own body, its capabilities and limits. It is the societal fear that women themselves have internalised from Islamic theological thinking that female sexuality is by nature rapacious and if unchecked, becomes a source of fitnah or social disorder. 

From a legal point of view, Malaysia inherited a repressive colonial law aimed at controlling female sexuality and its roots lie in the regulation of prostitution in British Malaya in the 1880s. Such is the moral rebuke towards sex workers that, under the Women and Girls Protection Ordinance (later the Women and Girls Protection Act from 1973), women were subjected to humiliating medical check-ups to contain real and imagined venereal and moral diseases from spreading across British Malaya. For their own “protection”, the same law was used to lock women up if they do not submit themselves for inspection.

By very curious turn of events, the same law and rhetoric of “protection” moved away from regulating the bodies of sex workers to young women in general. Young women rounded up by the police and religious authorities for moral transgressions, both actual and imagined, can be remanded and institutionalised in a rehabilitation centre under the Women and Girls Protection Act (now renamed the Child Act since 2001). In the eyes of the law for more than a hundred years, both women and girls have been treated as children. 

Recently, there has been a brew of feminist debates around women’s abstinence as sexual liberation. The debates are mostly between Muslim Middle Eastern and South Asian women who are critical of Western feminist conflation of sexual promiscuity with liberation

Their critique is understandable, as the debate is not simply about sex and female sexuality, but concerning the assumptions about culture and Islam. 

Muslim feminists are regarded as “lesser” feminists for not cheerfully embracing pre-marital sex and this becomes a problem of “Islam.” In turn, in-your-face sex positivity becomes something hurtful and a form of microaggression to some Muslim feminists

But to think that the pro-sexuality position of some Western feminists is a deliberate affront to distinguish itself from Muslim women and Islam is to forget that Western female sexuality was once repressed and still is punished. Many Western feminists also recognise that asexuality is not an aberration. 

This debate takes a different direction by Mona Eltahawy and her talked about and banned piece on the sexual frustrations of Muslim women. Eltahawy shared her own personal experiences and those of other Muslim women of the agony that comes from denying oneself sexual pleasure and the very experience of sex. 

Having herself experienced sex at the age of 29, she felt that she had waited needlessly long for it. She does however recognise her privilege as a woman of education and independent financial means which helped make sex, and more importantly, the repercussions of sex, more manageable and pleasurable. 

This issue of abstinence as a feminist choice is an important one to have in Malaysia. Just as sexually repressive as the Middle East and South Asia, which is why our passions are channeled towards food, the “choice” to remain a virgin and live without sex in Malaysia will be couched as something feminist. 

Again, this is understandable because women are stigmatised and punished for enjoying extra-marital sexual relations. Thus, feminist “choice” here may be a personal salve rather than addressing a societal symptom. 

Between sex and abstinence, there is education and choice. While a woman must have the right to her body, we must engage with and question the rhetoric of abstinence. In Malaysia, that rhetoric is oppressive and repressive even though a few women find it liberating for themselves. 

The way I see it, these things are neither mutually exclusive nor that contradictory but totally related to each other. In fact, the repressive rhetoric of abstinence and feminist justification of abstinence may well collude with each other in an environment where sex education is inadequate and misogyny is rife. Can abstinence really be feminist in such a context? 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist. 

Related Articles