Porn in the Middle East – The Elephant in The Room

Porn in the Middle East – The Elephant in The Room

 

There was a time when finding pornography in the Arab world meant going to a shady side-street VHS tape vendor, casting a furtive glance over one’s shoulder, and casually inquiring as to whether there were any “cultural” films on sale.

Today, as the Internet and smartphone technology continue to make inroads across the 22 Arab countries, sourcing porn no longer represents such a problem, nonetheless, the stigma endures. And while across the region a host of political and social issues are increasingly being called into question by a society hungry for change, discussions about pornography – and sex and sexuality generally – remain firmly taboo.

The Arab world undoubtedly has a mixed relationship when it comes to the Internet’s vast treasure trove of adult material. A recent survey conducted by Northwestern University in Qatar found that, from a sample of 10,000 respondents across eight Arab states, the majority was in favor of tighter Internet regulation. Meanwhile, the regular cautionary tales fabricated by local media wheel out a motley selection of "experts" who warn that viewing explicit images will lead to a rise in mental illness, violent crime, and the spread of “sexual deviancy”, for which read homosexuality.

Undeterred by the overwhelming evidence that such policies are always destined to fail, governments continue to announce plans to block access to X-rated websites, often with large scale public support. In 2011, when many thought the days of Ben Ali-style censorship were coming to an end, a Tunisian court decreed that porn sites would henceforth be banned, as they “contravened the values of Arab Islamic society”. Furthermore, just a few months before its overthrow, the Islamist government of Muhammad Morsi in Egypt thought nothing of dedicating endless hours to discussing a new $3.7 million anti-porn initiative. Clearly, they didn’t think that their country had more pressing priorities.

However, while people may publicly express their aversion and opposition to Internet pornography, their private viewing habits suggest something quite different. Put simply, porn is BIG in the Arab world. According to Google AdWords, the 22 Arab states account for over 10% of the world’s searches for “sex”; A total of 55.4 million unique monthly Google “sex” searchers in the 22 (ignoring a further 24 million searches for “sex” transliterated into Arabic) that matches both the United States and India, two countries often cited as world leaders in porn consumption.

What is even more striking is that, when these numbers are adjusted to reflect people’s ready access to the Internet (which ranges from 85% of the population in the UAE to just 1.4% in Somalia) Arab Google searches for “sex” outweigh those from almost anywhere else worldwide. As per AdWords, for every 100 Arab Internet users, an average of 52 searches are made each month, compared to 21 in the United States, 36 in India, 45 in France, and 47 in Pakistan.

Porn in the Middle East - Search

It also seems to be the case that viewing porn in the region is not simply big in absolute terms, but also relatively to all other things people search for. Data obtained from the Internet analytics company Alexa shows that adult-themed sites account for seven of the 100 most visited websites in the US, a figure that is trumped by at least six Arab states – Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen. Meanwhile, Google Trends, which shows how many searches for a particular keyword are made relative to all searches on Google, suggests that people in the region are more likely to search for “sex” than almost anywhere else in the world, with the exception of the Indian Sub-Continent.

Porn in the Middle East - Popular Sites

Internet statistics also provide an insight into the variation in porn searches between Arab countries, and suggest some interesting regional viewing preferences. While Egypt, the most populous Arab country, seems to be the biggest consumer of Internet porn in absolute terms – with 44% of the region’s Google searches for a selection of explicit terms – Iraq and Libya score highest on a per user basis.

Iraq, for example, sees an average of 84 Google searches per 100 Internet users each month for a range of different keyword searches related to sex films and pictures, while Libya averages around 54 searches per 100 users. On the other end of the spectrum, just five searches for the same terms are made per 100 users in Morocco, along with seven per 100 in both Mauritania and Oman.

Even more revealing is the breakdown of the actual keywords people are searching for. While fairly generic searches for “tits” (including البزاز) and “lesbians” (including السحاق) amount to around 895,000 and 718,000 times per month (with the highest number on a per user basis again coming from Iraq) more extreme fetish keywords appear to be far more popular. Searches for “animal sex” and “incest” (in both English and Arabic) occur on average 1.03 million and 1.18 million times per month across the region, equating to more than one search per 100 Internet users.

Porn in the Middle East - porm habits

But how should we interpret these figures? In the West, where the Muslim world is often seen as a place that doesn’t “do” sex, stories that reveal supposedly traditional societies to be hotbeds of depravity gain wide traction in the media as amusing exposes. Meanwhile, religious conservatives in the Arab world draw on evidence of a growing porn habit as proof of the “corrupting” influence of Western values, and the need to return to the supposedly pristine morals of the past. For example, the leading Saudi Internet “expert”, Dr Mishal bin Abdullah al-Qadhi, regularly warns that porn sites are part of an insidious Western plot. “The people of the West”, he wrote, in one particularly damning diatribe, “with their corrupt values, reprehensible principles and pernicious sicknesses, are not content to reveal their vices and sins […] to themselves alone, but continuously strive to spread these afflictions and sicknesses to the lands of Islam.”

In reality, both reactions rely on ahistorical ideas about the role of sex in Arab society. Instead, as the writer and academic Shereen El Feki, author of Sex and the Citadel, points out in a discussion with Raseef22, there really is nothing shocking about the revelation that Arabs watch porn. Before the twentieth century and the rise of the modern state, Arab culture had a long tradition of erotic imagery in literature and music. Medieval books such as The Perfumed Garden and the Encyclopaedia of Pleasure may have had a factual purpose, but they were also read for pleasure. “They are meant to arouse,” explains El Feki, “they are pornography. These notions of pornography as some sort of alien entity to Arab culture are completely untrue.”

Nonetheless, the typical government reaction in the region towards Internet pornography has been one of panic. For example, when a Saudi study revealed the widespread use of proxy services to access blocked adult websites, there were calls to build a series of treatment centers for porn addicts to tackle this dangerous phenomenon. But if there really is an issue of concern here, then surely porn is a symptom of the problem, rather than the problem itself. Sexual desires are a universal phenomenon, and when conventional means of fulfilling those desires are restricted – for example through strict rules about pre-marital sex and an accompanying range of socio-economic impediments to getting married – it is hardly surprising, that people turn to their computers for help.

It should also come as no surprise that governments across the region are keen to crack down on Internet pornography, but their claims to be acting out of religious convictions can be called into question. Instead, efforts to block adult websites can be seen as part of a broader campaign of censorship. As El Feki argues, “throughout the ages, one of the most powerful ways to control citizenry is through sex”. While on the surface Islamist arguments about the need to ban pornography might appear to match those of certain liberal European governments, they are in fact based on very different premises. In moving to restrict access to explicit web content, the Icelandic government was motivated by a desire to prevent women being exploited in the sex industry and to combat negative gender stereotypes. The same cannot be said of the endeavors of Mursi’s former government.

Clearly, porn is here to stay. Government efforts to censor explicit websites are like a never ending game of Whac-a-Mole – every time one site gets blocked, another one pops up. And just like a kid with too much money at a games arcade, their time and resources are probably better spent elsewhere. But there continues to be an absence of serious debate about the issue in the public sphere, and as long as the region’s media continues to peddle obvious falsehoods such as "watching porn will turn you into a criminal", or "watching porn will make you gay", popular conceptions about pornography, and sex in general, will remain skewed.

Porn in the Middle East - who's searching for sex

William is a political analyst focusing on Syria and the wider Middle East. He studied Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge and has lived and worked in Damascus and Beirut.

Marwa Boukarim, is Graphic Designer "with a special liking for organizing information and making it look pretty." You can check Marwa's work at www.marwaboukarim.com.

This article was published on 25.09.2013

Raseef22

A voice inspired by the Arab Spring, Raseef22 is an independent media platform, standing at the intersection between community, identity, democracy and social justice movements. Raseef22’s editorial line adopts local values with a modern perspective, filling a cultural void evident in the Arabic language media landscape.

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