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Frank talk from Muslim sex therapist

Cairo-based Heba Kotb dispenses advice based on Islamic teachings on her popular TV show.

July 29, 2007|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — In the delicate realm where the Koran meets human desire, Heba Kotb, a Muslim sex therapist in a ruffled gold head scarf, has strong opinions on vibrators, foreplay, premature you-know-what and why more men can't seem to locate the G-spot.

An hour in her clinic, where some women wear black abayas that reveal only their eyes, is a liberating venture into a culture that has traditionally relegated talk of sex to a family whisper. Demure she may appear, but Kotb's voice is strong and unapologetically public. The Koran, she said, forbids sex outside marriage, but within that union carnal satisfaction is a requisite for happiness.

"I deal with pleasure, desire, orgasms, masturbation, sexual frequency and erection problems," said Kotb, whose TV show, "Big Talk," is popular across the Arab world. "Neither the Koran nor the Sunna, however, address masturbation. My advice is that it's OK to masturbate, but only if you need it badly. Masturbation has become more prevalent here because sex is forbidden outside marriage."

In a society in which male clerics issue fatwas, or religious edicts or opinions, addressing all layers of family life, a feminine voice on something as intimate as sex has made Kotb a celebrity and a cultural revolutionary.

Some conservative clerics accuse Kotb of catering to sinners and Western-influenced permissiveness, but, overall, there has been little outcry about her frankness. Kotb's advice on sex is meticulously framed within the context of matrimony, which she says is a gift from God.

"Everyone is searching for better sex, but people aren't having the best sex," she said. "Sex within Islam is the best. It covers the man's rights and the woman's rights. Islam is the ultimate sexuality. It's beyond the stereotypes of Islamic oppression. I'm replacing that template. I'm replacing the stereotypes."

Kotb's interest in the subject arose from conversations with sex offenders while working on her forensic medicine degree at Cairo University. She later studied sexology and philosophy at Maimonides University in Florida; her dissertation was titled Sexuality in Islam. She wrote advice columns for newspapers, including one called "Behind Closed Doors." In 2006, she started her own late-night TV talk show on the private Egyptian satellite channel El Mehwar.

"I thought about the core of sexuality and religion," she said. "How many relationships could I save knowing about this? At first, there was a state of shock over the TV show. Gradually it was accepted, and today people love it. I think, outside of the sex act, people have little idea about their own sexuality. Five years ago, I'd see two or three patients a week. Today, I'm booked three months ahead."

Kotb has a lively face bordered by a hijab. She wears rings and bracelets; her cellphone hums incessantly, and she seems comfortable with her high profile. She blends science and anatomy charts with the Koran and the Sunna, teachings based on the life of the prophet Muhammad, who, Kotb noted, tended dutifully to his wives.

Kotb advises her listeners that every sexual encounter outside marriage leaves an indelible mark, and that the accumulation of those marks can destroy a relationship and push one further from God. But her larger aim is to help Muslims overcome sexual ignorance by showing them that scripture from centuries ago is relevant to today's preferences and inhibitions.

"It's hard for people to confess that they have no idea about sex, especially men -- they think they're Valentinos," Kotb said, referring to those unschooled in the intricacies of the multiple orgasm. "Sometimes men believe they know everything, and some are, in fact, lying."

To add religious legitimacy to her show, Kotb invites young preachers to answer questions from viewers. Many are part of a movement that emerged in the 1990s that offers a less conventional interpretation of Islamic theology. On one program, Kotb and Sheik Khaled Abdullah discussed the misconception that sex is forbidden during the holy month of Ramadan.

"There is no correlation between how faithful you are to God and how much you avoid having sex in Ramadan," Kotb said.

Abdullah added: "Whenever you feel you need [to have sex] with your wife or whenever your wife feels the same according to God's rule, you can exercise this right and you will be rewarded for that

Economics is also a factor in a nation where widespread poverty delays or prevents many couples from marrying. This, along with the increasing Western influence, most notably from risque music videos on satellite TV, is nudging more Egyptians into sex outside marriage.

"The evil things always seem more interesting to us than the good things," Kotb said. "Some people use pornography and sex toys. The problem is they could get pleasure from these toys and drop their partner. But not many Egyptians use them. Really, not many Egyptians know about them."

The prospect of vibrators and lubricants can seem surreal in a society in which a recent government report found that at least 50% of girls between ages 10 and 18 have undergone genital excision, a procedure that some refer to as genital circumcision, in which part or all of the clitoris is removed. Other estimates suggest that 97% of Egyptian women between 15 and 49 have undergone genital excision. The practice, believed to prevent promiscuity by reducing a woman's sex drive, was banned in June by Egyptian health officials after the death of a 12-year-old girl during the procedure.

"I'm totally against female circumcision. There is no religious or scientific reason for it," Kotb said. "But it does not affect sexuality. A woman keeps her nerve endings. I'm opposed to circumcision because it's part of the human body and it's not the right of anyone to cut your body."

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Noha El Hennawy contributed to this report.

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