In Tunisia, sex is taboo, and it’s rarely discussed at home or school. The country's pornography industry is flourishing, but when it comes to sex education, Tunisian youth must fend for themselves.
“In my family, we don’t talk about sex. Everyone does their own thing when it comes to dating," said Malek, 24, in an interview with HuffPost Maghreb. He and other young people interviewed in this story declined to provide their last names due to fears that their families wouldn't approve.
"I remember my first sexual encounter; it was with a prostitute," he said. "My friends and I were looking for sex that was easy to find. We all had to pitch in to pay her. I have really bad memories from that experience; it was almost traumatic.”
Malek also confessed that he is addicted to porn. “I live in a more or less open environment, and I’ve had many girlfriends. However, I can’t help but watch porn," he said. “We are the ultimate porn generation: porn is easily accessible, and the result is guaranteed, if I may say so.”
However, Malek said he recognized that pornography distorts reality and simplifies sexual interactions. “It creates hang-ups about performance or penis size. There’s a tendency to imitate what you see, to think that one position or the other is guaranteed to make a woman climax -- when in reality, everything is relative, and it differs from woman to woman,” he said.
Emna, also 24, also confirmed the influence of pornography in Tunisia in the absence of sexual education. “I must admit that sometimes it’s enjoyable. It’s something very intimate that we experience, and it’s nobody else’s business,” she stated.
Yet the lack of sex ed, combined with the violent behavior sometimes modeled in porn, can lead to negative real-life sexual experiences for young Tunisians.
“In Tunisia, we suffer from a lack of sex ed. The only sexual references that men have come from X-rated films, which guide them towards extreme behavior, where women are treated as objects," Emna lamented. "Ultimately, in real-life encounters, we are treated like the objectified women in X-rated films. It’s rare to find men who don’t have that pornographic culture of domination."
“Sexually, you can feel the difference! A little training in Europe wouldn’t hurt, I think,” she added.
Sexual inexperience can be problematic, particularly on honeymoons. Leila, 30, comes from a religious family, and both she and her husband adhere to strict religious practices, so they abstained from sex before marriage. Since she was worn out on the night of her wedding, Leila wanted to postpone their first time.
She was unsuccessful. “At 5 a.m., my husband woke me up abruptly, and insisted that I let him have his way," she recalled. "The problem is that he was really clumsy, even violent, asking me where he should penetrate me. I still hold this as a bad memory."
“The lack of sex ed and the demonization of physical pleasure before marriage creates devastating effects, especially after marriage,” explained psychiatrist and sexologist Hind Elloumi.
Poor sex education can disrupt the sex lives of new couples, contributing to vaginismus (contraction of the vagina in response to physical contact, preventing penetration) for women, or erectile dysfunction for men, Elloumi said.
Yet if these types of sexual dysfunction aren't exclusive to conservative societies, are they really linked to a lack of sex ed?
“If sexual dysfunction exists everywhere, its causes differ, based on the prevailing culture in any given society," Elloumi explained. "Vaginismus, for example, can be the result of a bad experience for a sexually liberated woman, but it is generally the result of being unprepared for sex after marriage” within more conservative societies, she said.
“With the instilled notion of chastity before marriage and the repression of sexual urges, a woman finds herself asked in the span of one night to have a sex life, without being equipped with enough information on the subject -- besides the funny stories she hears from friends and cousins,” Elloumi said.
For men, it’s the fear of not being the best that haunts them. “Porn exacerbates this fear, creating a model in which the man always performs exceptionally well, and where sex always lasts a long time,” she added.
Obsession with sexual performance is a clear issue for men. Noureddine, 30, has never had sex, but he has been in a long-term relationship. He said he's been able to give a woman an orgasm without penetration.
Still, predicting his first time after marriage, Noureddine acknowledged, “With all of my friends’ stories, porn, and the state of anxiety I’ll be in, I will most probably be quite bad.”
While parents do not dare to talk to their children about sex, Tunisian education also fails to fill this role. It’s often up to secondary or high school science teachers to take on the task.
A lack of sex ed, the influence of pornography, and young men and women’s fears of their families also complicates the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. The Tunisian Association to Combat Sexually Transmitted Diseases and AIDS is working to address the issue.
“We try to perform preventative work, and to reach the highest number of high school or university students possible, but it’s still insufficient. In two hours, you are only able to supply the most foundational, basic information,” Program Manager Issam Gritli told HuffPost Maghreb.
“We are facing people who have trouble going to a pharmacy to buy condoms out of fear that they may run into someone they know, or that their mother will find out,” Gritli said.
In a society where sex remains linked to marriage and reproduction, birth control is often frowned upon. “Some people accuse us of encouraging extramarital sex by distributing condoms; meanwhile, they do nothing to acknowledge the situation,” Gritli added.
This post first appeared on HuffPost Maghreb and was translated from French into English.