March 28, 2021
Debate about sex education reveals a world of contradictions
On Sunday, March 7, Dr. Sandrine Atallah, a consultant in sexual medicine, appeared on the Lebanese MTV show
On Another Planet, with host Pierre Rabbat and five other panelists.
“They invited me to be part of a debate about sex education," Atallah says, “and explained there could be some negative comments from viewers, which I understood and was prepared for."
What she wasn't prepared for was the comments from the on-screen panel. “The way she is talking is very arousing," said one male co-host, after which the debate turned into what one viewer called “unprofessional, masochistic men judging science and education."
“I was told I was provocative," Atallah says, “and that my voice was sexy. I used scientific words, which they also said was a problem. I left feeling completely beaten up and wanting to go to sleep. But someone told me to look at Twitter. It was amazing. The support was pouring in from men and women, feminists, and the LGBT community. It showed such progress. Ten years ago, the LGBT community didn't even speak. The contrast of the establishment media with the voices on social media was stunning."
In another contrast, the TV segment before Atallah's was about a man divorcing his 11-year-old wife because she wouldn't have sex. “Somehow, they weren't shocked about an underage marriage, but my words shocked them. If I were not a woman, they wouldn't have talked to me that way. The patriarchy and political system are afraid of women, of losing power, of having a civil country not a religious one. I think it's often unconscious, but results in them wanting to control women and sexuality, when what we really need is good sex education for our population."
A few days later, Rabbat issued a Twitter apology (since deleted) for his co-hosts' behavior, which Atallah acknowledged, but was not minded to take at face value. “You could have: 1-checked your facts instead of sharing fake news about my videos & my previous show; 2-silenced your anchors instead of encouraging them by saying I was seductive; 3-given me a space to express myself instead of interrupting me." Her stand struck a chord, being retweeted more than 1,100 times and attracting nearly 7,000 likes.
Atallah has devoted her career to providing just that but has not found her main audience through official channels. In addition to her practice at AUBMC, she hosts a weekly podcast
Haki Sarih, or
Straight Talk, which has more than 100,000 monthly downloads, mostly in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. She recently attracted a quarter of a million followers and a half million "likes" on the video-sharing app TikTok, largely used by teenagers, in less than six months.
The rest of the region is inching forward in public awareness of sex education in Atallah's opinion, but Lebanon is actually going in the opposite direction. “I've been told my message is not appropriate for the Arab world, where abstinence before marriage is expected, where young women lack the right vocabulary and knowledge about their own bodies, where marriage of minors is allowed."
Atallah points to research showing that preaching abstinence, for instance, doesn't work. Rather, that good sex education delays the time of young people having sex and allows young women to have more control over their own experiences. “We should start with having sex education in schools," she says. “As a matter of fact, we should start with a civil democracy."
In the face of the recent hardships in Lebanon, Atallah admits she is tired. “I do still have hope, and the eagerness for my work on social media motivates me. But, we need to see change. We are all exhausted. I'm starting to have doubts. I don't mind fighting for sexual rights, but when we don't have the basics for living, it's hard."