Muslims today are young, sexually and politically frustrated. This isn't the strapline of a new reality show, but the conclusions of stereotype-laden analysis from the Daily Beast. Data from Google Trends showed that six of the ten countries most frequently searching for the word "sex" on the search engine have a Muslim majority. Based on the data, the blog concludes that data "accentuates the Muslim Middle East's fraught relationship with sexuality". (Nevermind the fact that the only country technically in the Middle East is Turkey — unless you count the North African countries of Egypt and Morocco).
It's simple: sexually frustrated Muslims are turning to the dark corners of the internet to indulge their shameful and forbidden fantasies.
And we seem to be ready to believe it. In the past few months, two false stories about bizarre rulings from deranged clerics have managed to go viral —- without verification. Most recently, there was the "farewell sex" law allegedly proposed by Egypt's Salafi party in Parliament. As it turns out, the law was never even on the table. Still, the story went viral quickly —- and it seemed to fit the bill of the crazy bearded fundamentalist. Last December, another unverified story about an anonymous cleric who declared that women should steer clear of phallic foods, including cucumbers and bananas, also went viral. The Egyptian website that initially posted it, Bikya Masr, eventually admitted that the story was unverified, but the damage was already done. The fact that both of these stories were not only published, but also quickly circulated creates a number of problems.
This isn't just about a fascination with the perversions of nutty and misogynistic spiritual leaders —- it is also deeply tied to an age old obsession with taking a peek into the harem, and attempting to understand whether or not Muslim women are, in fact, oppressed. The secret sex lives of barbaric Muslim men and their oppressed wives is not a relic of a Colonial past, but still something that continues to enthrall us today. In 2008, Naomi Wolf wrote about the secret world "behind the veil", where she gave a glance into the supposed secret sexual lives of Muslim women. After interviewing Muslim women in a couple of countries, Wolf gushes about an exotic and tantalising world of Muslim women —- who also enjoy beauty products and sex. Shocker.
Wolf also decides that based on conversations with women in vastly different countries, all Muslim women find sexual liberation through the hijab. Muslim women are spoken about, analyzed, but never given the space to answer for themselves, rather than acting as a spokesperson for all Muslims. Wolf isn't the only one to evoke this image: there was Sex and the City 2, and our endless fascination with Muslim women and lingerie.
So, why are countries with really high percentages of Muslims googling "sex"? It might be a lack of access or education, it might be conservative values —- but this ultimately relies on the community and country. With 2.2 billion Muslims out there, the way in which religion is practiced in different countries not only makes it unhelpful to generalize —- it is also inaccurate. Maybe this isn't as much about Islam in itself, as it is about societies with more public conservative values, a problem that isn't exclusive to the so-called Muslim world.
I'm not convinced that we've figured out how to talk about sex here at home either. Recently, Men's Health released a "smut census" listing the top ten "porn capitals" in America —- based on data such as web searches and movie rentals. Of the top ten cities, only two are in states that do not require abstinence only education. In total, there are 26 states that "stress" abstinence for teens, and it probably does not help that Republicans are trying to legislate the crap out of our vaginas. Nutty religious values, while frustrating, are not the sole reason for a deficiency in sex education —- even though they might be an excuse. The fight for better sex education is something that exists in most areas, it's just that the conversation and fight for it is not necessarily the same across the board.
The way in which religion is practiced is determined by a myriad of factors, including cultural and socioeconomic factors. Treating Muslims as a single body is a self-fulfilling nightmare: it only helps squash the voices of those trying to challenge patriarchal versions of Islam. That's the funny thing about oppression: it's multi-layered. It is true that horrible things are done in the name of Islam, and it doesn't help to tiptoe around it. However, boiling it all down to sexual frustration, or the anger of men, does not go very far. Only once we acknowledge its complexity will we even be able to talk about how to tackle oppression. Context isn't a cop out; it is a necessity.
Sara Yasin is a blogger and writer. She tweets from @missyasin.