Jul 272015

#TheFirstTime logo

Be a part of our crowdsourced project #TheFirstTime, a platform to anonymously ask your most pressing questions about sex:


For the last five years, HEART has been creating safe spaces, free of blame and shame, for women and girls to speak openly and learn about sexual health and connect them to the resources they need to feel empowered. All too often, we have heard stories of women struggling with intimacy, and with questions about contraception, medical conditions, and relationships but with no space to seek answers.

We’re here to change that. Sexuality is a normal and healthy part of life, and no one should feel like they have to guess their way through life: there are resources to help, and we want to provide you with ways to access such information in a way that is safe, and free of blame and shame.

And so, we are thrilled to partner with LoveInshallah on an exciting projected called #TheFirstTime, which you can read more about below and on their blog announcing this project.


When we started Loveinshallah.com three years ago, we were inundated with questions from our readers about love, sex, and relationships – issues covered in our book, Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women. We realized that, for many of us, there isn’t a safe space to voice our most intimate concerns without fear of shame, humiliation, or judgment.

Recognizing that we all have questions – but not all of us have someone to turn to for answers – we launched an advice column. We enlisted the help of two thoughtful and wise friends – Miss Sunshine and Shy Desi Boy – who, over the years, have answered our readers’ burning questions about love and sex and everything in between.

Two years ago, our columnists answered a question from a young man who was “Clueless About [His] Wedding Night.” He wrote that he was at a loss as to what he should do once he and his wife were alone, but had no one he could turn to for advice. Our columnists answered his question with grace and honesty.

Since then, “Clueless About My Wedding Night” has become the single most viewed post onLoveInshAllah.com. It’s clear from the way in which this column has gone viral that there are many others out there who are also looking for answers about having sex for the first time.

We want to help.

Today marks the launch of our newest project, #TheFirstTime, an attempt to make sure you’re not clueless on your wedding night. We want to know: what questions do you have (or did you have) about having sex for the first time? What advice would you give your best friend on his/her wedding night? And, what resources do you wish you had before you had sex for the first time?

This is a crowd-sourced project so we need your help to complete this survey. This is an anonymous survey and we do not want identifying information.


We are excited to partner with HEART Women & Girls, a non-profit organization that seeks to promote the reproductive health and mental well-being of faith-based communities.

For more information, please contact us at advice@loveinshallah.com

Jun 252015

previously published on Muslimah Media Watch

by Rana S.

I no longer feel awkward saying it out loud – some may think I’m too blunt about it. You know, like, about my period.

Menstruation is one of the factors that nullify a person’s fast (regardless if it is during the month of Ramadan or not) – it automatically “breaks” it. Every Ramadan, I get asked by at least a few people I know (and a few strangers have asked as well) about why I’m not fasting whenever I get “caught” eating or drinking a beverage. I would also get teased with “Ha! You’re cheating!” or “I caught you red-handed!” I suppose some people feel obliged to say something due to the fact that I do wear the hijab, and thus it is assumed I am also the Ramadan fasting type.  Sometimes these are people that I have already told that I fast during Ramadan, but then they suddenly see me “breaking” it.

During my high school and college years, I felt awkward confessing to guys that I was on my period. I would reply vaguely with something along the lines of “well, you know, there are circumstances in which Islam prohibits fasting, and I’m in one of those situations.” Some of the guys would look confused and simply reply with “Oh…okay.” If they inquired further, I would then explain that a person may break his/her fast for health reasons. I would lie that I had a health issue, but never say what that health issue was – I’d basically hint that I did not want to discuss the matter any further.

That changed seven years ago.  I was on the metro drinking an iced cappuccino on a Ramadan day, when a Muslim guy I knew got on. When he spotted me, he walked over and said hi. Then he stared at the iced cappuccino in my hands. “Oh, you’re not fasting?” he asked casually.

“Not today…”

“I guess you don’t feel like fasting today?”

“It’s not that. I just can’t.”


“You do realize that there are exceptions to the fasting rule?”

“Well I know illness is one of them. Are you feeling okay?”

“I’m fine…”

“Then how you come you just can’t?”

“Um, I’m a woman?”


“You do know, right, that the rules of fasting differ for women?”



“Like what?”

“Like, a woman’s period. It nullifies the fast. And yes, I’m on my period. ”

“Oh…I didn’t know that.”


“I honestly didn’t know that…”

The incident with the Muslim guy was my trigger of change. The fact that even some Muslim guys either don’t know or forget that anyone menstruating is exempt from fasting (an ignorance largely due to the taboo of “exposing” men to it) is simply…not right. To be fair, the metro guy wasn’t the only Muslim guy who asked – but he was the only one who kept asking to the point where I confessed that I was on my period.

The metro incident made me realize that the taboo of talking about menstruation or admitting that one is on her period to guys – even when it would be for educational purposes (as in the case of Ramadan) – was only because patriarchal societies devalue and censor women’s bodies whereby only some aspects are fully acknowledged while others are taboos. Menstruation is a defining symbol of womanhood for many women. It is human – yet I have always felt that I should be as secretive about it as possible, to the point as if it does not exist. I did not want to hide that unnecessarily anymore.

I have some Muslim girlfriends who would still prefer lying to guys during Ramadan than confess their menstruation status. A few even go as far as only abstaining from food and beverages in public so as to not be “caught.” A few others abstain from food and beverages only whenever they are at home, so as to fool their fathers and brothers. The taboo nature of periods, and the extent to which some Muslim women will go to hide it, is perhaps why some Muslim guys either don’t know or forget.

Fast forward six years later. I spent the next six Ramadans bluntly telling anyone who asked, man or woman, that I was on my period whenever I got “caught.” With guys, it always occurred on a one-to-one basis.  That changed one day in Ramadan 2014. I was at work, and it happened to be an employee’s birthday. After the birthday cake was divided unto plates, I casually picked one up.  One of male co-workers asked, while the kitchen was still crowded with all employees, “hey, how come you’re not fasting? I thought you were really into that.” All eyes turned towards me. I looked around the kitchen, then responded with “Okay, now that I have your utmost attention, I want to say:  I’m on my period. I can’t fast when I’m on my period.”  One of my other male co-workers laughed and said “Oh yeah! I remember last Ramadan when you told me. I knew when it started and ended!” The conversation ended thanks to a third male co-worker who cautiously said “Okay…this is getting awkward. Can we change the conversation?”

The work incident still makes me laugh. It also made me realize that I no longer feel awkward about explaining my period status during Ramadan to men, regardless of who they are or how many men are in the same room as me.

Just for the record, not every Muslim breaks his/her fast due to exceptions to the fasting rule. There are Muslims that don’t fast simply because they don’t want to.  Others choose to fast on only some Ramadan days, but not all. Then there are those that were obliged to break their fast for a number of days, but don’t make up for them before the next Ramadan – or not do them at all. Fasting is a spiritual journey – not everyone is on the same pace with it.

I procrastinate horribly when it comes to making up my period days. Every year I get lectured by my mom about why I fast them anywhere between one to four weeks before Ramadan – especially since Ramadan these past few years has been in the summer, and thus the days are long. I half-heartedly convince myself that at least I’m preparing myself for Ramadan. That’s still smart, right?…Right?

Muslim girls: Take advantage of your period days in Ramadan. Organize an outing that involves food nearly every day before you return to your fasting routine. You should especially do this with other Muslim girls that are on their period. You deserve a break! How about even a dance party?  Call it “The Period Party” and invite all your menstruating Muslim friends. That is, if you don’t think it sounds too cheesy. I have yet to try this. Or how about even a one week trip to somewhere around the world? You know like, during your period days.

Will I have any period stories this Ramadan? I probably will. Since I was 14, I’ve never fasted a whole Ramadan (one month) without getting my period and without getting “caught”!

Happy Ramadan and Happy Break-Fasting!

Aug 282014

originally published on loveinshallah.com

by Nashwa Khan



I’m about ten-years-old, and have an unwavering love for books. I devour the Harry Potter series,The Magic Treehouse, and tons of chapter books. We can’t afford them and can’t justify purchasing them, so my mom drives my sister and me to the public library every week, where I get to use a computer and roam the bookshelves for hours.

Once I’ve read all the books for my age group, I become adventurous. I wander through the aisles and find a book out of place. It intrigues me. When I open it, there it is a magnified black-and-white image of sperm that was taken under a microscope. I shut the book immediately. Now I have the image of swimming sperm seared into my memory.

I slump back to my mother. I feel guilty, but unsure of why I feel guilty. I confess to her that I opened a scientific book and it had a photo of sperm. My mom does not flinch, but neither does she seem to know how to handle it. We walk out, my basket empty of books, my shoulders burdened with guilt, my heart heavy. I felt awkward but cannot find the source of my discomfort.

This is my sex education, for now.



I’m a high school freshman. The condom stretched over the banana during gym class does not entirely click for me as the demonstration is interrupted by giggles. We all know that the white girl who volunteered to demonstrate is sexually active, so it’s time to laugh at our awkwardness. Even more awkward is the video about female “hygiene” products – narrated by a guy with an Australian accent, dressed in safari gear.

My basic sex education: putting a condom on a banana is somehow comical. I laugh along because, as a brown girl, I need to fit into the sea of sexually active whiteness to survive the next four years.

This is my sex education, for now.



I am fourteen. School, clothes and rotating friends are what keep me going. A trip to Morocco to see my grandparents over the summer, and a cousin’s wedding in Toronto are my priorities. Sex and sexual health education are in my life’s periphery; they will not be taught in gym class again. The condom on banana performance is where my knowledge remains.

Sex may be far away from my mind, but it creeps in slowly. We are sitting at my cousin’s new in-law’s house the day after the wedding. Sitting squished on couches, eating chat masala, drinking chai, gorging on roti, I am much younger than my cousin’s friends, but I am included in their sitting space.

My cousin walks down the stairs to the living room, limping. Her friends begin giggling. I am out of the loop, annoyed by their telepathic communication and understanding. I grab an aloo kabab and munch away. She joins our circle.

Everyone starts whispering, “How was it?”

I begin to understand their giggling. At 26, their giggling is just slightly advanced from the condom-banana awkward giggling of my age cohort. Again, to fit in, I giggle, but I feel even more awkward than I did in gym class.

I do not understand why I am giggling. My cousin came limping down the stairs and looked hurt. Why laugh at someone who is hurt? My mom taught me that that was not respectful. TV taught me that sex was romantic and didn’t hurt. I’d flip the channel in shame when a sex scene came on with my siblings or parents in the room, but I caught enough to know that consensual sex shouldn’t result in limping.

My cousin whispers to her best friend about the pain. I stop laughing. Her friends look concerned, but say that it is her obligation and “that just happens the first time.”

I realize that what we need in Muslim youth communities is sexual health education based on the Qur’an and consent. But I cannot articulate my new learnings.

This is my sex education, for now.



I am studying for my MCAT, discussing the menstrual cycle, and how in high school I learned a bit about a healthy ovulation cycle.

My mom tells me that my paternal aunt was not allowed to take science classes in high school. My dad’s family were new immigrants to Canada. In Pakistan, they did not educate girls or boys on reproductive organs so of course they would not learn here either.

At twenty-two, as an aspiring healthcare worker, I learn that my aunts did not have basic knowledge of reproductive health, of their own bodies, and the beauty of these bodies given to us by Allah Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala.

I wonder now as they praise me for studying whether they understand what I am studying.



I am twenty-two. University has taught me a lot, both academically and experientially. I am full of self-awareness.

I am the first of over twenty cousins in my extended family to move out on my own before being married. I am careful to “be good” and not hazard my parents having “I told you so’s” flung at them by every auntie from Lahore to Karachi.

I identify as a feminist. Feminism brought me closer to my faith. I volunteer with a student health education center on campus and other groups in the community. In these roles I teach people about consent, conduct pregnancy tests, and do peer-to-peer supports.

At twenty-two, I realize why I am an anomaly in my South Asian Muslim family. I may be unmarried, but I know that sex should not hurt. And, if it does, it should stop.

I realize that my upbringing- filled with love and joy – is not a rare narrative among Muslim youth. I realize that as sheltered as I felt in my Muslim community, I was blessed with progressive, mixed-race parents.  I realize that though they avoided some awkward conversations along the way, my mother explained certain aspects of growing up more than the parents of my Muslim peers did. I appreciate that, but I also had to do a lot of self-study. I love my parents for the freedom and values they gave me.

At twenty-two I grasped all of this at once, because of an encounter while volunteering. A young woman came into a clinic I volunteered at. I saw myself in her, the brownness, her discomfort in asking strangers for a pregnancy test. I volunteered to administer the test and counseling right away because I felt like she was my sister. I thought I could ease her out of the invisible cloud of shame she was constrained in.

I dipped the stick into the pee cup and began to softly ask her questions. As the timer ticked, I emphasized how common and unshameful it was for young women to come in for testing and counseling. I let her know where she could be privately tested for sexually transmitted diseases, as per protocol.

Then, she asked me what a pap smear was. Her question knocked the wind out of me.

The memory of the day after my cousin’s wedding came flooding back. The reality is that young Muslims are becoming sexually active and embarking upon lifelong sexual journeys without even basic knowledge about their bodies. The fact is that being sexually active is part of our religion, yet this complexity and knowledge is left out.

How are women meant to make informed consensual decisions while missing critical pieces of this complex puzzle? To be sexually active in the 21st century without understanding that sex is not supposed to leave you in pain,  or without knowing what a pap smear is?

This is abhorrent, but it is not the fault of young women.

I felt overwhelmed with pain and anger after this realization.  Islam is sex positive as a religion, within the bounds of marriage. The shame we feel in our communities due to cultural taboos hurts so many people, especially the women that I see myself and my loved ones reflected in. This is where the gap exists in our Ummah: basic health discourse is non-existent in most Muslim families.

As a community, we tend to ignore sexual health education until marriage, and then expect the couple to consummate their union immediately. By doing this, we ignore basic health and consent education. The shame I felt at ten is the shame that is perpetuated into adulthood, muzzling honest, knowledgeable discussions among friends, and the dissemination of sexual health education in communities. It leaves our women hurt, couples confused, and the community vulnerable to situations where women can be abused falsely in the name of Islam.

Education is a tool we cherish as Muslims, but we do not always use it to address issues that make us uncomfortable. Sex is inevitable for most, which makes early sex education a must. Sexual health education does not lead to zina. This myth needs to be dismantled. Our community needs to see more peer educators – with bodies and skins like theirs – addressing these topics, so that we do not feel ashamed of our bodies, as we do now.

Today, many Muslim women submit to non-consenual sex believing that sex is a requirement of them when that is not the case. Our girls need to be able to defend themselves and feel dignified in their feelings and choices. Many women are complicit in perpetuating this cultural shame. The Quran is a beautiful book that can guide the discussions we have with youth in our community. I’ve included resources below to help start these necessary conversations.

Nashwa Khan identifies as South Asian/African Diaspora living and learning in Hamilton, Ontario. She calls Florida home. Over her undergraduate career in Hamilton, she served on a number of councils including the City’s Status of Women Committee, as Space Allocation Chair of McMaster’s Women and Gender Equity Network, and currently chairs the city’s Youth Advisory Council. Her work has been published in a variety of places including ThoughtCatalog, Guerilla Feminism, and the HuffingtonPostBlog. She is an avid storyteller and lover of narrative medicine. Feel free to tweet her @nashwakay.

Resources: (By no means is this list exhaustive – leave your suggestions in the comments!)

Check out the Twitter hashtag #MuslimSexEd

Youth + Tech + Health digital apps & resources

Umm Zainab & Zainab bint Younus on the birds & the bees

50 Shades of Gray: What Muslim Teens Need to Know

Embracing Sexuality by Zainab bint Younus

Making Love, the Islamic Way

Sex Ed materials by HEART Women & Girls for Muslim youth including Let’s Talk about Sex Education, Sex Ed for Muslim Youth, & Ending Sexual Exploitation

I Don’t Own My Chlld’s Body 

Scarlet Teen: Teen Sex Ed for the Real World

Sex & the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World 

Headscarves & Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sex Revolution

Innocence Lost: The Religious & Psychosocial Ramifications of Hyper-sexualized Culture on the Next Generation

Muslim Matters articles on sexuality

Sexuality in Pakistan 

Islamic views on rape

UPDATE: Additional resources via HEART Women & Girls

Puberty/Reproductive Health


Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health

Women’s Health Foundation

Advocates for Youth

Sex, Etc

Go Ask Alice


Answer, Sex Ed, Honestly

Sexual Violence

Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network

Rape Victim Advocates (Chicago)

Rape Victim Advocates hotline


Sex Education & Research

Centers for Disease Control

Guttmacher Institute


Pregnancy Resource Center

Planned Parenthood


1 in 3 – Abortion


Reaching out to All HIV Positive Muslims in America

Kaiser Family Foundation



LGBTQ Muslim Retreat Resource List

General Empowerment

Forward Together

Jul 242014
Because there aren’t enough hours in the night to eat, pray, sleep AND have sex

by Nadiah Mohajir

Just recently, in casual conversation as well as in several private conversations, I have heard too many women (and in one case, a man) express frustration with trying to manage their intimate lives in addition to their spiritual and domestic responsibilities when the fasts are seventeen hours or more. When one is abstaining from food, drink, and sex during the daylight hours, other responsibilities don’t suddenly stop. Mothers are still mothering, often small children. Husbands and wives are still working long hours at their professional jobs. And no matter how simple (or elaborate) the iftar (breaking of the fast) meal, it still needs to be prepared. As does, depending on family tradition, the suhoor, or pre-dawn meal. And so, I have heard many express frustration that there simply isn’t enough time from sunset to dawn to eat, perform your obligatory and recommended prayers, catch up on sleep, AND fulfill your spousal duties. So what’s a spouse to do?

It should be stated that sex after the breaking of the fast is permitted, all the way until the early morning prayer. This is explicitly made clear in the Holy Quran.

“Permitted to you, on the nights of the fasts, is the approach to your wives. They are your garments, and ye are their garments, Allah knoweth what ye used to do secretly among yourselves.” — Quran 2:187

Furthermore, there are many narrations about the Prophet and his companions about being intimate after sunset, with one narration about a companion actually breaking his fast with intercourse, as opposed to with food and drink. There are also narrations encouraging husbands to seek special permission from their fasting wives to have sex after sunset, to be considerate of how tired fasting may have made their wives.

All of this sounds great in theory, but when the fasts span the majority of the day, and the time between iftar (breaking of the fast) and suhoor (pre-dawn meal) is mere hours, during which one might also want to stand in congregational prayer, read quran, prepare the next morning’s meal, take care of any children or other family members needing care, what’s one to do when one spouse clearly wants to, but the other is too exhausted? This becomes an interesting question, also, for wives who feel guilty and ashamed of refusing their husband, because of the cultural pressures on the wife to sexually please her husband. So while this is an interesting question, this question remains unaddressed – a quick search on google will show that the majority of articles written on sex in Ramadan have to do with permissibility and expiation if one does have sex during the fast. While I personally, don’t also have many answers for this issue either, I would like to offer some tips to at least start this conversation.

1) Talk with your spouse about your expectations and theirs before the heat of the moment. Try to have this conversation even more Ramadan begins, so you both know what to expect. Don’t wait until one of you is ready to be intimate to have this talk.

2) Practice extra mercy. Ramadan is the month of extra blessings and extra mercy. Be considerate of all that your spouse is doing while fasting, and that he or she just may not have the energy once the fast is over. Yes, this may result in some additional frustration but exercise patience and don’t take it personally if your spouse is not in the mood. It’s not that they don’t love you or want you or don’t desire you, it’s just that they may be depleted – in every sense of the word. Be flexible and change your plans. For example, if you regularly pray in the mosque but don’t return until well after midnight, after your spouse is already in bed, offer to pray at home so that you do not stay out that late.

3) Try to divide domestic responsibilities so that it does not disproportionately fall on one spouse’s, often the wife’s, shoulders. One of the reasons that wives may feel exceptionally exhausted in Ramadan is that in addition to the lack of energy one experiences from abstaining from food and drink, they also may be responsible for preparing the pre-dawn meal, the iftar meal, any cleanup that is associated with that, as well as caring for children, if there are any. This does not diminish the spouse’s contribution of spending long hours at work, as that is also difficult while fasting. Caring for others, while fasting, requires a special kind of energy.

4) Renew your intention. Sex in Islam between husband and wife is considered to be an act of worship, though often times, many don’t view it as that and instead approach it as if it is a chore, taking one away from other responsibilities. Instead of seeing sex with your spouse as taking you away from worship, why not see it as a different form of worship and gain the reward for it?

5) Eat well. A good diet, especially when one is fasting, is essential to keep up with to maintain energy. Reflect on your suhoor and iftar diet, and ask yourself if you can add anything to your diet to boost your energy levels. We often make the mistake of approaching our health by compartmentalizing it – our physical health, our emotional health, our spiritual health, our sexual health – when in fact, they are all related. If one suffers, it undoubtedly has an impact on the others.

And so now, I open it up to you. Without revealing personal or specific details about your own intimate life, what are some things we can do to start this conversation, and offer some support to couples dealing with this? Fasting inherently makes one irritable, adding sexual frustration to the equation doesn’t make Ramadan any easier. Let’s start this much needed conversation!


Jul 132014

by Sameera Qureshi

originally published on http://muslimsistah-sq.blogspot.com/

I have a secret to tell.

It’s the grand-daddy of all secrets when it comes to Muslim women during Ramadan. Oh yes fellow sistahs, you know what I’m talking about. You think you can get around people knowing by faking the fast but no, you can’t and you shouldn’t. It’s high time that we educate those around us about the nitty-gritty of fasting permissibility when it comes to women.

And here’s the (not-dirty-at-all) secret…women who are menstruating are excused from fasting. I bet y’all didn’t know that! And it doesn’t surprise me, considering how even within Muslim families, us females are so ashamed of anyone knowing that we can officially take a “break” (missed fasts need to be made up after Ramadan) from fasting, and guilt-free while we’re at it. God is ever so Merciful!

There’s a few reasons why I want to blog about this topic. First of all, no one else is or has, that I know of. I haven’t come across any recent non-Fiqh (religious rules, basically) related blog regarding women, menstruation and Ramadan. Since you all know me so well, I thought it was high time we talk about a natural process that close to 500 million of us Muslim women species go through during Ramadan. Second, I have mixed feelings when it comes to taking a break from fasting. Even though it’s obligatory, and there are times when I’m relieved to get a break, it also throws your fasting routine and rhythm out the window and you also can’t participate in any prayers, which can be tough. So I’ll elaborate on this point. The third reason is because I do not want this generation of young women and the ones to follow to be ashamed of something that is God given and natural. No more fake fasting, no more fake Suhoor (pre-dawn) meals and no more shame. Enough is enough when it comes to this miracle of life that women have been given.

Back to the first point. I have been around non-Muslim friends during Ramadan in the past and when they apologize for eating in front of me during our meet-ups, I have to be honest and tell them I’m not fasting. There’s no way I want them to experience guilt or awkwardness around me when they have no reason to. And I’m not going to lie and say “yeah, it’s really tough this year so I’m taking a break,” because this is not true. And so I tell them the truth. The same goes for close Muslim friends if we’re with each other during community Iftar (breaking the fast) gatherings. If a woman invites me to pray, I tell her I can’t, and I’m sure she understands why! Perhaps try to make a joke out of it and say something like “my uterus won’t let me fast!” (here’s hoping that women know what a uterus is, you’d be surprised). I think most Muslim men (I would hope) know why some women during communal gatherings opt out of prayer…but then, I could be wrong. At least the married men should know. But I think us women need to have less shame around this. If you can’t fast and pray, then you can’t and there’s nothing wrong with it. It shouldn’t stop you from participating in community Iftars and the like. In fact, being in community gatherings during your menstrual cycle will at least give you a sense of Ramadan rather than being holed up at home, watching your family or spouse eat their Iftar meal while you sit and watch them, jealously.

Second, I personally have mixed feelings when it comes to ceasing the fast during this active uterus time. This can be true if you can’t start Ramadan because you’re menstruating, or you have to stop after you’ve fasted and established a routine over a period of time (no pun intended), or the worse case (in my humble opinion) is when you miss fasting the last 10 days (the holiest days) and also when you can’t participate in Eid prayer. This has happened to me before and I was a nutcase. I understand I can’t really control my cycle, but seriously, whenever it happens, I’m in denial and it takes me a while to accept that I will need to sit on the sidelines for a while. Islam still encourages women to be active participants in Ramadan without fasting, such as by preparing meals for those who are fasting, reciting Dua’a (prayers) during the day without actually praying on a prayer mat (which isn’t allowed during a woman’s cycle), giving to charity, performing good deeds, etc. We are blessed to have many additional options apart from abstaining from food, so at least we don’t completely feel left out. But it is challenging to take a break since once you’re in the flow of things (again, no pun intended), you don’t want to stop and have to start the acclimatization to fasting all over again. Boo.

And third, there is too much shame around menstruation, regardless of what time of the year it is. I remember when I lived at home prior to marriage, I use to get up and fake the morning meal so my brothers and dad wouldn’t know that I wasn’t fasting. Then my mom would sneak food into my bedroom, where I’d shamefully eat my PB and J sandwich, ensuring no one could hear or see me. Then I’d have to eat the Iftar meal with everyone else, and have the same late bedtime as everyone. After a while, this became incredibly annoying and also, deceitful. Women are given this time to take a break and rest, and here we go taking religion’s permission, adding a dash of cultural backwardness and shame to it, and we’ve got one heck of a messed up situation that is incredibly frustrating to deal with. When I was teaching sexual health classes to middle school girls this year, this topic came up numerous times: girls having to fake prayers all year round and fasting during Ramadan. They expressed frustration and weren’t sure why they needed to since they were sure their dads at least knew about menstruation (since sexual intercourse is forbidden during this time, I would sure hope so). I felt their pain and offered them advice to talk with their parents about this issue, to save them from faking religious practices they shouldn’t have to.

Finally, while we’re on the topic of Ramadan and menstruation, I really encourage all women to look into more sustainable and environmentally friendly ways of dealing with their cycle. Sure, disposable feminine hygiene products may seem convenient, not-so-expensive (they actually are when you do the math for a year of products) and all that is available, but I assure you, we have come a long way and there’s a myriad of additional options. If sanitary pads are more of your thing, check out Lunapads (made in Canada) or Party in my Pants for cloth options (before you judge, do your research!). If you’re looking for a tampon-alternative, check out the Diva Cup, which also belongs to Lunapads. These may seem like “hippie” alternatives that won’t work for you, but I assure you, they are healthier ways to deal with your period (look up all the toxic chemicals in disposable pads and tampons) AND save the environment at the same time. That’s what part of Ramadan is about anyway, isn’t it?

See, reading this wasn’t so bad, was it? Whether you’re a male or female, I’m sure you learned something new, no? And then there’s many of you out there who probably knew all of this. You sexual health keeners you! Either way, this is another topic where there’s a difference between modesty and shame. It’s OK to tell family members and those you need to if you’re not fasting, in a discrete way. But there’s no reason to be shameful about it, and using a ruse to fake the fast and daily prayers for those around you.

So embrace menstruation during this month, fellow women, and stick with what Islam advises around this subject. Remember that God has ordained this miracle of life within our bodies. How can something God given be shameful?

After all, when we treat menstruation as something shameful and wrong, it can really be a pain in the uterus.

Sorry, I really had to try for one final pun :)

Sameera Qureshi, MScOT (c) is an Occupational Therapist and currently manages a mental health promotion project that is school and community based, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.  Her work over the past six years has been primarily with Muslim populated schools and their families. Since 2011, Sameera has been working to implement Islam-oriented sexual health education programs both within these schools and the greater Muslim community. Her work includes developing the curriculum for both genders and teaching the curriculum to girls in grades 5-9, running parent sessions, collaborating with multiple Calgary agencies around sexual health, and making her work available to interested community member and professionals. She also maintains a blog called Muslim Sistah and can be found on Twitter @muslimsistah 

Jun 252014

By Kristina Friedlander

originally published in barakabirth.com

If it were not for God’s beautiful veiling, if it were not for God covering you beautifully, no deed you do would be worthy of acceptance.

Hikam 131 of Ibn Ata’illah

As Muslims we’re encouraged to have the right amount of shyness, or haya. Haya is a desirable trait, but a quick search will reveal that haya is frequently translated as “shame.” Shame is a fraught term, associated with dishonor and disgrace, of doing something wrong. When thinking about bodies, modesty, and haya, what becomes problematic for me is the notion that our bodies should be covered because they are shameful. Shame, to me, has more to do with humiliation and judgment than, for example, embarrassment. We are embarrassed or feel guilty when we have done something wrong or bad–however defined–but we are ashamed when we judge that what we have done makes us wrong or bad, or is a reflection of our wrongness or badness.

With few exceptions, we humans wear clothing. But the parts of our bodies that we cover vary from culture to culture and even within cultures. As Muslim women and men, we cover (to varying degrees) parts of our bodies but we also cover private spaces within the home and even spaces of increasing privacy as one moves through the home, such as bedrooms. We also think of covering as pertaining metaphorically to deeds–we hope that our bad deeds will remain covered, and consider it laudable when one Muslim ‘covers’ the bad deeds of another by not talking about them. It also applies to good deeds, as in giving charity anonymously. Spouses are referred to as ‘garments’ in the Qur’an, covering one another, providing a sense of mutual comfort and safety.

But does Islam mandate that we cover our bodies because our bodies are themselves a material source of shame? To what extent does the religious tradition deviate from cultural understandings of the body as shameful, especially women’s bodies? How do notions of purity and impurity with regard to what comes out of bodies influence perceptions of the places where they exit? How do certain deeply-rooted western discourses of the shamefulness of women’s bodies influence our understandings in ways that are actually contradictory to our faith tradition (though perhaps not cultural traditions)? And how do Muslims’ cultural lenses teach men and women that their bodies are shameful or disgusting?

Our bodies are not “bad.” We are absolutely meant to celebrate our bodies in the spaces that we define as comfortable, private, and safe, and Islamic mores encourage spouses to mutually enjoy one another’s bodies. I suggest that covering our bodies is not about shame, but rather serves a way that we set and protect our boundaries in public spaces. By covering my body—which in my case includes my arms, legs, and hair—I set boundaries that are informed by what I feel comfortable and safe with but also by my understanding of religious law as it applies directly to me. For me, modesty is the embodied practice of deciding which parts of my body and which behaviors are meant for public spaces and which for private, decisions which draw on my faith, and has nothing to do with any part of me being bad or shameful. In fact, I prefer to go with Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah’s translation of haya as the earnest desire to do what is right.

A major challenge today, and not just for Muslim women but for all women, is to explore, question, and challenge discourses that promote our bodies as inherently shameful or dirty. This isn’t just a philosophical or even a feminist project but a human rights necessity; in so many places around the world (including the United States) bodily shame is an impediment to women’s access of health care resources. It can also be a major obstacle to a healthy and satisfying sex life, as Nadiah Mohajir pointed out in a recent blog post on vaginismus.

For Muslims, having a clear understanding of the vocabulary which is used to describe bodies and how we should feel about our bodies–and especially where Arabic terms and their English translations carry different implications–is a critical component of this process. A deeper exploration of Islamic conceptions of what it means to have a body and of our sexuality, including ideas of pleasure and ideas of emotional safety, are so important. Men need to be involved in this process as well, questioning their own assumptions and exploring what marriage, partnership, emotional safety, and pleasure mean to them. Thankfully, we have a great deal of material within the Islamic text and tradition itself to stimulate discussion and to question our cultural understandings of shame, as long as we can overcome the cultural beliefs that these discussions are in themselves shameful.

Krystina Friedlander is a professional childbirth doula and works at the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She also serves on the Health Committee at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. She regularly blogs at http://barakabirth.com/

May 212014

by Nadiah Mohajir

In the short four years HEART has been working to raise awareness about the importance of reproductive health education in the Muslim community, too many young women have confided in me – both personally and professionally – about intimacy issues in their marriages. Many have shared with me their struggles to embrace their sexuality and sexual desire, while others have struggled with having little knowledge of their bodies. What is becoming increasingly common but still remains unheard of are the stories of those women who can’t consummate their marriages – many days, months, even years go by, as the couple remains unable to have intercourse. While it may seem shocking or unimaginable to some, the situation is unfortunately far too common, and there are numerous reasons for why this part of their marriage is not being fulfilled, including, but not limited to:

  • lack of knowledge about one’s body
  • unhealthy attitudes and feelings of intense shame and guilt related to sexuality
  • past history of sexual abuse or sexual trauma,
  • pornography addiction, and
  • a physiological and psychological condition called vaginsimus, among other sexual dysfunction conditions.

Vaginismus is the condition that affects a woman’s ability to engage in any form of vaginal penetration, including sexual intercourse, insertion of tampons and/or menstrual cups and the penetration involved in gynecological exams. While the causes of this condition are not fully understood, “it is usually associated with anxiety and fear of having sex….though it is unclear whether the anxiety is a cause or a consequence of the condition.” Primary vaginismus can occur when a woman has never been able to have sexual intercourse while secondary vaginismus can occur later in life, due to childbirth or a traumatic event. Numerous factors can contribute to vaginismus, such as sexual abuse and rape, urinary tract and yeast infections, anxiety or stress, and general domestic violence or witnessing domestic violence. The condition is highly treatable and full recovery is possible, with the assistance of treatment including physical therapy and psychological therapy.

This brave woman, Tasniya, a Muslim American, has come forward and shared her story of identifying and addressing vaginismus in her marriage. (youtube link below) She struggled for many years before she successfully found help at the Women’s Therapy Center in New York. Here is her story, and you will see that there are many similar stories and testimonials in the Women’s Therapy Center’s youtube channel. What is most interesting is upon initial review of the various stories, there are numerous themes that are present, despite the race/religion of these women, such as,

  • all the women were virgins when they married. In other words, they came from communities and families that valued abstinence and therefore had very little, if not at all, sexual experience when they got married. Many of the husbands were also virgins or had little sexual experience.
  • they did not know who to reach out to for help because no one understood and they feared stigma and social isolation
  • they also believed they were the “only ones” having such experiences, and that no one would understand them.
  • they did not have pleasant experiences with tampons and ob/gyn visits, which could have alerted them of future intimacy issues
  • there was much guilt and shame associated with having the condition
  • the physical therapy and mental health therapy required involvement on both spouse’s parts, not just the wife seeking treatment

There are many important lessons to be learned from Tasniya’s story, including the following:

1) Parents must help their child(ren) understand their bodies from an early age. Tasniya attributes many of her anxieties and discomfort to not knowing the basic anatomy of her body and not having had those conversations with the adults in her family. She stresses that education and awareness is the first step to developing a healthy attitude towards one’s body and sexuality.

2) Most women do not come forward because they do not know where to seek help and fear being  judged. When asked about why young women don’t come forward and seek help, the responses are the same, across culture and other demographic characteristics: no one knows this exists, and often people respond with much disbelief and judgment. As one woman said “When someone asks you about how your marriage is going, you can’t exactly just come out and say that you can’t have sex. People don’t even know this condition exists, let alone how to respond to it.”

3) There are certain things we can avoid as a community to create safer, more respectful spaces. When a couple is struggling with something as serious as vaginismus, there are certain questions that can have a tremendous impact on one’s self-worth and mental well-being. The first, as Tasniya explains in her story, is the question that many people love to ask newly weds (and not so newly-weds): when will you have children? This question can be highly disturbing to one struggling with vaginismus, as it is extremely frustrating to not be able co have intercourse, therefore making the prospect of having children impossible. The second question is when people respond in disbelief – asking if such a condition is even real, and not self-imposed. “That’s like asking if the cancer that someone has is real,” Tasniya explains.

4) Imams, other leaders of religious and cultural institutions, and medical professionals need to be aware that vaginismus exists and where to send couples for help and resources. Tasniya explains how she sought the counsel of several imams, counselors and doctors without any luck. Awareness trainings are essential for those in leadership positions in the religious and cultural communities so that they can be properly equipped to counsel a married couple who may seek guidance. On the flip side, cultural competency trainings are essential for medical professionals and mental health professionals so that they have a comprehensive understanding of the cultural nuance and attitudes toward sexuality and marriage in the Muslim community and how that may influence the ability to have healthy sexual lives.

5) It is essential to instill a healthy, positive sexuality in our youth to prepare them for when they are in sexual relationships. Tasniya explains how she was never taught that Islam is a sex positive religion, and that sex is seen as a pleasurable and desirable act, within the framework of marriage. She explained how instead, she viewed sex and sexuality as dirty, shameful, and embarrassing, and she always associated pain and disgust with intercourse, which ultimately led to her inability to consummate her marriage. To read more about how to instill a healthy sexuality in youth, please click here. More importantly, it is really essential to speak with young women before marriage to prepare them for what to expect, where to seek help should they need it, and to make them feel like even if things don’t go as expected, they are not alone, and they have a support system.

It is essential that we start raising awareness about this increasingly common condition and seeking proper resources. The health of our marriages and communities depends on it. A recent article in India found that “vaginismus is emerging as a major cause of divorce in Kerala.” Quoted in the article is leading gynecologist Dr P A Lalitha, of Malabar Hospital, who says “Fear is the main reason behind this condition. Added to that, early marriages and lack of proper sex education add more oil to the fire.” Dr. Lalitha confirms a finding that HEART’s fieldwork has also uncovered – that the way society approaches sexuality – with fear – combined with a general lack of sexual education can lead to numerous intimacy issues. Furthermore, just listening to the numerous testimonials on the Women’s Therapy Center channel, I notice that despite the incredible diversity of the women, they all came from families that upheld abstinence. While abstinence in and of itself is a praiseworthy value, I do pose the following question: Are abstinence messages being relayed in a manner that lead to developing unhealthy attitudes towards sexuality and instill a general fear of sexuality instead of a positive outlook on sexuality?

As Wajahat Ali explains how often the “sex talk” is limited to a simple “don’t do it”, with the “it” not even being defined, he highlights why this is not only confusing for our young people, who develop and undergo the same adolescent changes as the rest of their peers, but it also creates a challenge for them to understand, find, and maintain healthy relationships. Using a driving metaphor, he explains “Muslim youth are expected to go from 0 to 60 mph with a spouse, 2.3 kids, and a suburban home without being taught how to start the engine and how to maintain the vehicle on its journey.”

As such, it is crucial now more than ever to begin having conversations about sex and sexuality – within an Islamic framework while being cognizant of the hypersexualized society we live in – with Muslim youth.The sheer amount of fear of intimacy, clash of expectations between spouses and sexual tension that is all too familiar to many Muslim newlyweds is contributing to years, if not a lifetime of marital discord and unhealthy relationships in our community. Moreover, the lack of culturally-appropriate sex education for our youth is leading to much confusion, risky sexual experimentation, and unhealthy attitudes toward sex.

May 062014

by Krystina Friedlander

originally published in islamicmonthly.com

Let’s Talk about Sex(ED)

Item #66 on a list of ways that mosques could better connect with Muslim youth: Sex Education. The list was generated by UnMosqued, a documentary film project that examines decreasing mosque attendance among young American Muslims and highlights ways that mosques fail to meet youth needs. It is no no surprise that Muslims have questions about health and sexuality and that they’re not getting answers from older Muslims in the mosque (or at home, or anywhere in between).

Whether or not they receive “Sex Ed” or reproductive health education classes at school—that is, if their parents allow them to attend—Muslim youth are bombarded with confusing messages about sexuality. Quite simply, pre-marital sex is the norm in American society, where seven out of ten teens will have sex by age 19. These cultural factors are unavoidable, but when we avoid having conversations about sexuality, young people will go elsewhere to find out about sexual health. The idea that talking about sexuality or body literacy is immodest or that it should take place only between married couples leads young men and women to find out about sexuality from friends, magazines, online, or even in pornography. Instead, we can create safe, culturally sensitive spaces for young Muslims to ask questions and get information that is consistent with Islamic beliefs.

In her study of sexuality education among young Australian Muslims, Fida Sanjakdar surveys common misconceptions about sexual health. These include confusion as to how, when, and where in the body pregnancy takes place, a lack of knowledge of basic Islamic regulations for how and when to perform ghusl or bodily cleansing (nearly half of girls surveyed were not aware that they needed to make ghusl following menstruation), a lack of awareness around sexual consent between partners, a belief that contraception is categorically forbidden in Islam, and that young people sometimes confuse all permissible sexual activity with zina or fornication, leading to feelings of shame, guilt, and denial around their own thoughts. By staying silent, Muslim communities continue to perpetuate these and other myths. This is inconsistent with the Islamic tradition, which exhorts us not to be shy when it comes to seeking knowledge.

This may come as a surprise to some readers, but Islam is a sex-positive religion. Islam is a religion of foreplay, sex for pleasure’s sake, and mutually satisfying sexual relationships, a bounty which falls within the boundaries of marriage. Young people preparing for marriage will be better prepared by knowing more about not only sexuality and Islamic legal norms, but also communication and conflict resolution skills. Pre-marital counseling in the Orthodox Jewish community offers us an interesting model for what pre-marital education could look like.

Teens should have basic body literacy including age-appropriate information on how pregnancy occurs, and all men and women should have an understanding of their anatomy and health. We should know what a healthy menstrual cycle looks like, and what symptoms women should take to a care provider. We also need to understand and internalize menstruation as a normal process and not something to be ashamed of. Beyond that, we need better education on the Islamic understanding of menstruation and the practices that go along with it; I have yet to meet a Muslim woman—who isn’t a fiqh scholar herself—who feels completely comfortable in her knowledge of these issues.

And it doesn’t stop there. What about workshops for Muslim parents who want to better understand sexual health, so that they can be resources for their children? What role could “big brothers” and “big sisters” have in coaching teens on Islamic values regarding sexuality? What kinds of discussions can we have to separate out cultural beliefs from authentic Islamic principles when it comes to questions of sex and sexuality?

Some conversations need to be held in a safe and private setting, so it is critical that religious and community leaders receive appropriate training in order to address complicated concerns with sensitivity, compassion, and to make referrals when needed. If qualified counseling is not available, communities need to invest in developing these resources such that individuals don’t ever have to struggle alone, feel unsafe, or feel so conflicted that they find no place for themselves in Islam.

We must also cultivate communities that welcome young Muslims who inevitably engage with questions around sexuality.  This includes acknowledging the reality that some Muslims do engage in pre-marital sexual activity. As valued members of our shared community, we want to ensure that—whether married or single—we have the good sense to protect our health and avoid unwanted pregnancies. The Centers for Disease Control reports that of the 50% of high school students who have had intercourse, 30% claim not to have used a condom the last time they had sex.

When looking at our communities, we must consider how Muslims struggling with issues around sexual health and identity are received in the mosque, and make changes to ensure that our shared spaces sustain—not condemn—those who need support. Instead of denying that sexuality is a normal part of our development as human beings, we can accept it as normal. In doing so, we will learn to create safe spaces for young men and women where they can reach out for advice, learn about their health, prepare for loving and rewarding marriages, and ultimately gain greater knowledge of their faith.

Krystina Friedlander is a professional childbirth doula and works at the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She also serves on the Health Committee at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. She regularly blogs at http://barakabirth.com/

Apr 302014

A collaborative effort between the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, HEART Women & Girls, the Rahma Network, and Karamah, Engaging Muslim Communities in Ending Sexual Exploitation: A Toolkit and Resource Guide targets groups within Muslim communities and any other individuals of faith who are passionate about ending sexual exploitation. This toolkit provides background information on issues surrounding prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation and can be used to raise awareness and mobilize your community to join the fight to end sexual exploitation.

In this first-of-its-kind guide, you will find information on the following:

  • Information on sexual exploitation – definitions, statistics, and difference between human trafficking and prostitution
  • Background on sexual violence and exploitation in the Muslim community – definitions, statistics and barriers to addressing the issue
  • Quranic passages and other textual evidence opposing sexual exploitation
  • Call to action – tips and strategies to raising awareness in the community and ending sexual exploitation
  • Activist spotlights – short background on activists currently working in the field
  • Resources to learn more

To download this useful resource, please click here.

Mar 252014

by Nadiah Mohajir

As we’ve collected stories for the past four years, we have met countless women who struggled with some aspect of their sexuality. We met Farah*, a young woman who had been married a couple of years, struggling to consummate her marriage due to a treatable condition called vaginismus, but too embarrassed to seek help for it. We met Asiya, a newlywed and newly pregnant, who did not receive any contraception counseling before she got married, and did not express her wishes to delay pregnancy to her husband due to shame. We met Sumbul, a young woman in high school, struggling to find a way to leave her unhealthy and abusive relationship, unable to out of fear of exposing her own religious transgressions of being in a premarital relationship. We met Suzan, a young adolescent paralyzed by a recent forced intimate encounter by a man who she once saw as her loving uncle. We met Tania, who is a closeted lesbian, afraid to come out and become an outcast in her Muslim community. And we met Layla, a single woman in her thirties, depressed and frustrated with the reality that her faith does not permit sex outside of marriage, yet facing the reality that she just engaged in intimate activity with three different men without protection. For each of these stories we heard, we met numerous women who could relate to and attest to having similar experiences, and numerous others who had their own unique stories. And so, we gathered many themes:

  • These stories belong to a diverse group of women – some of these women were not educated at all, while others had graduate degrees. In other words, level of education did not impact the likelihood of a woman struggling with her sexuality, nor was it an indication of how much (accurate) sexual health knowledge she had.
  • These womens’ backgrounds ranged from conservative, sheltered upbringings to traditional immigrant families to some of the most open, progressive and liberal upbringings.  As such, we ask, how ingrained are the Muslim community’s attitudes and beliefs toward sexuality that even those from the most open and honest families are struggling with some aspect of their sexuality?
  • When asked why these women did not reach out for help as they struggled with these experiences, ALL of them had the same response: that they did not know who to reach out to, and they did not have a safe space in which they could share their struggles without being judged, reprimanded, blamed, or shamed. 

A few posts ago, I explored the following question: have we confused sexuality with sexualization? The post explored the need to make an important distinction. Using Dr. Leonard Sax’s thesis, I explored how sexuality is about an individual’s identity, while sexualization is about being an object of display for others.

While this is an extremely crucial distinction to make, HEART’s work in the Muslim community has brought to the surface a common mistake that communities make: that in our efforts to push back on the sexualization of women and girls, we have created the notion that women and girls are asexual beings. In other words, our response to the hypersexualized society we live in has been to close the door on any conversation regarding sexuality and to discourage our women and girls to feel sexual desire, eventually inhibiting the development of a healthy attitude toward their sexuality.

The aforementioned stories paint a grave picture of the dangers of not instilling a healthy sexuality in our young people, and why we must begin creating programs that do so. These are attitudes and skills they will carry with them throughout their adulthood, and informs many of the decisions they make regarding their sexual and reproductive health. As such, it is crucial that we begin talking about sexuality so that they understand it is a healthy part of them, but not the only part of them, and definitely not what defines them. Additionally, it is no longer satisfying or effective to tell Muslim youth not to have sex and just end the discussion there. Offering context, allowing them to critically think through why the faith upholds those values, and emphasizing that sexuality is both normal and healthy, but that Islam has prescribed guidelines around when it is permissible to express it offers a more effective strategy. Finally, instilling healthy sexuality in young people gives them the necessary skills to be able to identify a healthy sexual relationship from an unhealthy sexual relationship. While there is no data specific to the Muslim community about the frequency of sexual violence, anecdotal evidence reveals that it is a significant problem that continues to remain unaddressed.

So how do we start instilling a healthy sexuality in our young men and women? Here are a few tips:

  1. Teach them the difference between shame and modesty. As I explain in an earlier post,  “there is a difference – and a pretty huge one – between shame and modesty. Islamic tradition and teachings encourage individuals to be modest with respect to their bodies and their sexuality. Muslims are encouraged to keep their sexual encounters private and between the spouses. That being said, Muslims are not, however, expected to feel shame or embarrassed about their bodies or sexual desire, provided that they commit to exercising those desires within the confines of a marital relationship. The unfortunate reality is that the Muslim community has repeatedly fused the words modesty and shame into one. It has been deemed immodest and shameful to speak about sex, let alone express sexual desire.” For more on this, please read here.
  2. Start having open and honest conversations from a young age. The earlier you begin having these conversations, the easier and more natural these conversations will feel and the more comfortable they will feel asking questions or sharing concerns with you. Many professionals recommend having age-appropriate conversations about anatomy, safe and unsafe touch, as early as the age of two.  
  3. Teach them about what the religious texts say about sex and intimacy. Because of the general discomfort around these topics in the community, young people often are surprised to learn that these topics are addressed quite openly and in much detail in Islam’s religious texts – the Quran, hadith, and scholarly works such as those by Imam al-Ghazali. It is very empowering to know that the religious texts have addressed these very issues and allow for a greater appreciation of the faith’s approach to these topics. Explore questions together such as: what does it mean that sex is sacred and an act of worship?
  4. Create a safe space so your children can come to you with sexual health questions, concerns, or even a problem without the fear of being judged or punished. The reality is that our children will find themselves in situations where they will have to make decisions about their sexual health. They may even make a decision (or two or three!) that are not in line with the Islamic values you uphold. Not being approachable to them, however, should they experience an issue or concern, further alienates them from your family, the faith, and most importantly, puts them at risk for continued poor decision-making – exposing them to unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, dating violence, and the like. Too many of our youth have expressed the fear of being disowned if they reach out to their parents for help with an issue that involves them violating some of the tenets of their faith or family values. For more detail on how to establish this safe space, please check out our toolkit on starting these conversations with youth here
  5. Teach them to challenge gender stereotypes. The gender roles that are continuously reinforced by society and media messaging have a big impact on how men and women interact in a sexual relationship. If women are raised with the notion that certain behaviors are unladylike or if men are raised to believe that men should be aggressive and strong and that women should not express sexual desire, we are feeding into some serious gender stereotyping. Challenge them to think critically of their female and male role models and how they are portrayed in film and media. Try to demonstrate how these gender roles are reinforced, and what longterm impact that has on promoting violence against women, the objectification of women, and unhealthy attitudes toward gender and sexuality.
  6. Teach your children how to navigate the internet and other sources for health information. There is a ton of misinformation, as well as pornography, out there which can contribute greatly to both myths around sexual and reproductive health as well as developing unhealthy attitudes and expectations toward sex and sexuality. According to the Guttmacher Institute, more than half of 7th-12th graders say they have looked up health information online in order to learn more about an issue affecting themselves or someone they know. More importantly, the websites they are turning to often have inaccurate information. A recent study examined 177 sexual health web sites and found that 46% of of those addressing contraception and 35% of those addressing abortion contained inaccurate information.
  7. Similarly, teach them everything they need to know to be safe should they be in a situation where they need to make a decision about their sexual health (and they will be!). Teach them about contraception and pregnancy. Teach them about sexually transmitted diseases. Talk to them about about sexual identity.  And most importantly, teach them how to identify and address acts of sexual violence committed towards them or their peers. Having these conversations and offering this vital information will not increase their likelihood to engage in sexual activity. In fact, research shows the exact opposite: there is no evidence that providing this information leads to increased rates of sexual activity; instead, providing this information allows young people to have the tools and skills to delay sex and make more responsible decisions.
  8. Teach your children to be a resource of this information for others. Even if you make a commitment to having these conversations with your children, other parents may not be doing the same thing. Equipping your children with accurate information and teaching them to be resourceful can be a great skill when they are supporting a friend through some difficult situations.
  9. Teach them the distinction between sexuality and sexualization. For more on this, see my earlier post here.
  10. Say no to porn and other media that objectifies the woman and creates unhealthy sexual expectations. Numerous studies have shown the negative impact that prolonged exposure to pornography has. What’s more shocking are the statistics about exposure to pornography. 93% of boys and 62% of girls have been exposed to internet porn before the age of 18. Put another way, only 3% of boys and only 17% of girls have never seen internet pornography. A good percentage of pornography includes sex acts involving bondage, sexual violence, rape, and bestiality.  Exposure to pornography, long term, and during such an important developmental stage has extremely serious implications for forming unhealthy attitudes and expectations toward sexuality. For example, studies have shown that early exposure to pornography is related to greater involvement in deviant sexual practice, such as rape. Additionally, pornography has been shown to re-wire the male brain to be aroused by making real sex and the real world boring in comparison. The effects of pornography on our youth can be discussed in great detail, and we do hope to, in upcoming posts.

These are just a few tips on how to begin nurturing a healthy sexuality in our youth in a way that acknowledges the challenges of growing up in a hypersexualized society and honoring the faith’s traditions and values of modesty and sanctity. What have you done to help promote a healthy sexuality in the youth in your life? We’d love to hear from you!

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.