"A woman is taught that sex is so painful a man's penis will hurt her," my aesthetician told me in her shop in the back of a small mall in Heliopolis, a wealthy suburban neighborhood in Cairo. "That way she doesn't want to have sex and keeps her hymen intact."
Ghalia, who asked me not to use her last name, was giving me the "Bridal Works" package—peeling me, leaving not even a single flake of dead skin or body hair behind. We Egyptian women are a hirsute group, so for me this process involves a lot of breaks, a lot of deep breaths, a lot of going to my "happy place." In an alternate universe where my family had never left Egypt, I would have been sitting right here in front of Ghalia, or someone like her, preparing for my wedding night instead of researching a story.
I'd come to Egypt with one question: How do people—especially women—learn about sex in a country where sex is taboo? When I bought birth-control pills in Zamalek, an affluent part of Cairo, an Egyptian man next to me muttered, "Disgusting."
In 2010 the government dropped all sex education, the bare minimum requirement for reproductive health, because teachers were shyly skimming the curriculum anyway. Naturally, people turned to the internet: Egyptians are the second-most-likely people in the world to google "sex," but as of 2012, only 44 percent of the population had access to the web.
Egyptian mothers are notorious for avoiding the subject—prepping their daughters only for the customary wax that must take place before their wedding. They grab their daughters by the hand and take them to beauty centers. It's often only there that they can have real and honest conversations about sex, usually with women like Ghalia.
She laughed at the faces I made every time she flattened a cold ball of halawa—also called "sweet," a popular homemade wax—onto my leg, stripped it, and repeated the process. Halawa isn't exactly efficient. She had to strip the same area about three times, leaving my skin pulsating and red.
She was serious about leaving no hair behind, because Egyptian men want a hairless bride as much as they want a virgin bride. It's become a standard expectation of men in Egypt, the way oral sex has become a standard expectation among American men.
"Some girls start crying before I even begin," she said. Women are told their entire lives that this is just a part of marriage, as if any single arm hair or pubic hair looks like a defect. "One bride called her fiancé asking if she could skip the bikini wax."
"What did he say?"
"He asked her sweetly if she would do it for his sake," she recalled. "I tell them that the worst part of marriage is the sweet," she said and rolled the same hairy ball of halawa back onto my legs.
Ghalia was one of the few Egyptian women I spoke to who didn't change the subject when I brought up sex; she was used to the questions. The dynamic between Ghalia and her clients resembles the intimacy between therapists and their patients. She said she often meets women so anxious that their vaginal canals tighten to the point that penetration becomes impossible.
Dr. Wagid Boctor, a leading psychologist who appears regularly on TV, claimed this is not uncommon and told me how often he runs into women who physically can't have sex. He counsels the couple together, but also prescribes a combination of muscle relaxers and antianxiety pills.
Egypt is in dire need of sex education, and Boctor has taken on the job, at least when it comes to Egypt's Christian community. He's a pharmacist who went back to school to earn a PhD in family psychology, with a focus on sex counseling. He'd informally held the title of sex counselor for a while, offering advice to couples in his church, but in the past two years he began traveling throughout Egypt and to Dubai, teaching formal courses in Coptic Orthodox churches.
"When I ask them what the word 'sex' means to them, the response is almost uniform," he said of the high-school-age teens in his classes. "The boys start snickering, nudging each other, while the girls look down on the floor. I'm trying to change that."
He teaches four different levels of student: teenagers, college students, premarital adults, and parents. He believes that sex should be introduced at a young age as something "natural," "precious," and even "holy." He encourages questions both in front of the class and privately. He gets plenty.
"They ask about anal sex, oral sex, masturbation," he told me. Anal sex, according to Boctor, is out of the question—it's condemned in the Bible. Oral sex is OK, as long as both parties give and receive equally. Masturbation, he believes, is selfish; he focuses on mutual enjoyment of sex. Parents have protested his classes, forbidding their children from attending and berating the church for even offering it.
He's not fazed. He believes sex is a basic human need, and he witnesses firsthand how a lack of sex education is destroying lives.
Two decades ago, a woman sought his help for what she deemed a catastrophe: Her four-year-old daughter was constantly rubbing a throw pillow between her thighs. The woman tried slapping her daughter's wrists, scolding her that it was aaib—inappropriate and shameful—but her daughter wouldn't stop. In the woman's eyes, she was raising a sexual deviant.
"I explained that this was normal, counseled her mother, and the girl grew up to be just fine," he said. "She's married now."
Others aren't so lucky. Particularly in rural pockets of the country, parents—terrified and confused by their daughters' natural curiosity to explore their bodies—choose to circumcise their daughters, convinced the practice curbs sexual desire.
In Upper Egypt, a rural, impoverished, and traditional-minded part of the country, "honor" is synonymous with keeping your daughter a virgin. Men hang bloody sheets outside the morning after leilet el dokhla, or the consummation night, in a frat-boy-like ritual announcing, "I married a pure woman from a good family."
"They don't understand that desire comes from here," Boctor said, pointing to his head, "and not from the genitals."
While women are cautioned to stay away from sex, men prove their masculinity through sex.
The problem with this, of course, is that it ends up being an American Pie–esque situation where men learn everything from porn or exaggerated stories. Then, when the time comes to assert their manhood, or whatever, they often have difficulty.
They suffer from performance anxiety, which can lead to impotence or premature ejaculation, or both. Boctor described men in their 20s and 30s who pair Viagra and antianxiety meds to get erect and then be able to use that erection.
"Some get tramadol from their friends or friends of friends, quickly build a tolerance, and get addicted," Boctor told me, referring to an opioid used off-label for premature ejaculation. I immediately recognized the name because my driver had offered me the drug while also trying to sell me hash a few days earlier. It's technically legal, but police monitor it so closely that most pharmacies have stopped carrying it.
In a recent New Yorker story, Peter Hessler wrote about a garbage man who uses tramadol for sex, referring to it as the poor man's Viagra: "In truth, the drug doesn't function like Viagra, but many Egyptian men seem to believe that it does." He noted the unbalance in Egyptian homes—"the combination of men who take sex drugs and women who are circumcised and housebound."
"Sex is the number-one issue affecting marriages," Boctor said. "Even the pope [of the Coptic Church] is making sex education a requirement for any couple who want to get married."
Walking away from Boctor's apartment, I felt both lucky and uneasy. I returned to my alternate universe: I'd grown up Coptic with a saadi parent, a father from Upper Egypt, in El Badrashin, where we'd go days without running water or electricity. It's a neighborhood also known for female genital mutilation. My mother later told me she had intervened so my sister and I escaped unharmed. What if she hadn't?
My dad, like the rest of Egypt, was a victim of his environment. After 20 years in America, he wouldn't question sex-education classes in church; had I stayed in Egypt, I likely couldn't muster up the courage to ask to attend.
Those classes are only available to Christians, roughly 7 percent of the population. That leaves a big chunk of women's fate quite literally in the hands of Ghalia and other aestheticians.
"What do you say to a woman who physically can't have sex with her husband?" I asked her.
"I tell her that she has to provide him with sexual release or he'll end up with testicular cancer," she answered, wholly believing this. "She'll finally relax, and they'll have sex."