How do the attitudes of Muslim youth toward sex differ from those of other Americans? How does Islam equip them to deal with the pressures of a promiscuous society, where nearly all their peers are sexually active?
If you are a parent, put aside for a short time your preconceptions of how you think your children feel about their sexual identity and responsibilities. If you are a teenager or college student, much of what will be said here will reflect the experiences of you and your friends because it reflects the reality of the situations that face us all.
Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a perfect society. There will always be those who indulge in social taboos. The reality is that casual, premarital sex happens, and to ignore it will only make the problem worse. This reality becomes:
What do American Muslim youth think about sex? Youth should be taught that it's okay to feel uncomfortable about sex. It's your body's way of telling you that it's not right for you at that time. If Islam is really important to you and you really believe that it prescribes what is best for you in the long run, no amount of pressure should be applied in the society where American Muslim youth are raised since the media blitz on sexuality adds to the already present anxiety and distorts people's views on what is considered right and wrong behavior.
In Islam, sex is more than just a means of procreation. It has a very specific role within the context of marriage, a concept that differs from some religions in that it is integral to the process of pleasing one's partner and creating a loving, nurturing relationship. Sex, in most cases, is an act that is between two people observed by God, and if one of those three is not comfortable with it, then something is wrong. The reality is that it happens, for non-Muslims and Muslims alike, and not talking about it or discussing it and its consequences can only make the problem a worse thing that it is, within the context of marriage, so that once they grow up, they will be able to appreciate it for its inherent beauty and purpose.
WHAT ARE THE PRESSURES YOUTH FACE TODAY?
The topic of sexuality provokes strong emotions in people, and because of this reaction, we see sexual images and actions everywhere. Fear, mystery, curiosity, desire-all of these very powerful emotions can be easily manipulated by-and manifest into sexual behavior. "A lot of underage people drink because its frowned upon by authority figures and the same goes for sexual activity," said one teenage Muslim boy. "Basically, a lot of people become curious about sex because of a combination of their peers telling them that they are weird if they don't and their parents telling them they will go to hell if they do." Sexuality is such a complex subject that to dismiss or trivialize it is to suppress a natural urge which demands attention, either through discussion or-as is often the case- release.
"My parents go so far as to tell me what I'm feeling is unnatural, and that I'm being wrong just thinking about the opposite sex in that way," one person said. "I mean, I don't plan to act out on what I'm feeling, but I have to at least talk about it-but not to my parents, I guess." Many young people complain that their parents set unrealistic expectations regarding sexual pressure or anxiety, and they also feel abandoned by parents who simply tell them to "just say no." This leaves them with no choice but to consult less reliable sources of information, such as their equally confused peers.
ISLAM GIVES THE TOOLS TO JUDGE
A healthy background of Islamic ideals can counteract the pressures people face about sex. Nearly all the people interviewed for this article cited Islamic belief as being essential in removing much of the anxiety which plagues American youth. "Islam puts sex into perspective," one youth said. "Unlike some other religions, it's treated as a normal, natural activity that, given a proper context, can bring pleasure and happiness. It isn't necessarily considered 'dirty'-just something worth waiting for."
Most youth agree that education is important. "A lot of our curiosity about sex and sexuality could be satisfied with frank and open discussion" said one. Another said that it is "the mystique surrounding sex in a Muslim family that sparks curiosity. The lure becomes stronger the less your parents discuss it." One parent added that discussing the benefits of sex, like better physical and emotional health, rather than instilling an unnatural fear, is very important. "After all, nobody would bungee jump if it weren't dangerous."
THE RISKS OF SEPARATION
Most Muslim youth, like other Americans, can unfortunately find themselves increasingly susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies, partly because of the failure in following Islamic teachings and unsafe practices but also because Muslim youth who find themselves in situations of temptation are overwhelmed. "For youth who are sheltered by their parents from any significant contact with the opposite sex, a chance encounter can result in a total loss of moral judgment," said one person. "Imagine kids who are never given the opportunity to even talk with members of the opposite sex being put in a classroom with attractive people who may show an interest in them. They just can't handle it."
Many otherwise well-meaning parents socially cripple their children by denying them the opportunity to interact with other girls and boys in an open, Islamically supervised forum. The result is that members of the opposite sex are seen as objects of fear and curiosity rather than as people -and are treated as such. "Our parents spent all of our formative years making blanket statements about the "evils of sex," explained a 22-year old college student. "And once we get married, we're expected to conveniently forget these feelings. Many people of my age find that hard to deal with, and I think that leads to a lot of dysfunctional marriages."
THOSE WHO FALL
There are many more Muslim children than our community would like to admit who are sexually active, some unapologetically. Most, if not all, are discreet in their actions, knowing that the ensuing conflicts would be tremendous. They seem content with living dual lives, one for the mosque and one for themselves. Few, if any, reconcile their behavior with Islam, and most readily accept and believe that what they are doing is considered a major sin in Islam, seeking instead to avoid thinking or talking about the consequences. "It's amazing, really," said one observer. "People who otherwise fast and avoid alcohol will readily jump into someone's bed and not even think about it the following day. These people have moral blinders on when it comes to sex."
Most people involved treat it as a personal weakness or a failure in character, thereby avoiding responsibility for their actions. "I can't help it," said one youth. "Of the typical sex-drugs-rock and roll sampler of temptations that are available to me, the only one I can't resist is sex. Everything else is relatively easy, but that one isn't."
GOD WILL BE MORE MERCIFUL THAN MY PARENTS
For those rare occasions where a Muslim girl finds herself pregnant with an unwanted baby, the option exercised is almost always abortion, usually without consent or knowledge of the parents. The dilemma of choosing abortion in cases such as these can be devastating to those who, already racked with guilt over the consequences of their first major sin, find themselves forced to commit a second major one. "You're placed in a situation where you fear your parents more than you fear God Himself," said one young woman who found herself in this situation. "Knowingly choosing abortion was the most difficult thing I ever had to do, but at the time I was convinced that God would be more merciful than my parents."
WHAT ADVICE DO MUSLIM YOUTH HAVE FOR THEIR PEERS?
Muslim parents have little idea how knowledgeable, as well as how wise, their children are when it comes to dealing with sexual pressure. When asked to give advice to their peers, much of what they said reflected an understanding based on a great deal of personal experience and observation. "If Islam is really important to you, and you really believe that it prescribes what is best for you in the long run, then no amount of pressure should convince you," said one college-aged woman. "In a situation like that, you should take five minutes to cool down and collect your thoughts. You'll probably change your mind."
Another person explained, "Sex is an act between two people observed by God, and it should be performed in marriage with the blessing of God." Others showed a change of heart after living a sexually active lifestyle for a period of time. "I really didn't feel much moral obligation when I was younger," said one. "But now that my views and principles have changed. I think that I'm as pure inside as anyone else. I've completely distanced myself from my past life and attitude, and made a commitment to myself and God to be a more responsible person. If you do try something that you regret later, you shouldn't feel that you are a bad person. You should learn from it and move on. If you don't learn from it, then that's where you'll be making the mistake."
The largest gulf of understanding still remains between the parent and the youth, especially in the area of sexuality. Sex is a natural part of life, and when questions arise, they can be discussed in a mature way without actually condoning certain behavior. Fear seems to do little in the way of preventing or curtailing certain behavior (in most cases, it can actually push kids over the edge), but in families where there is open discussion of these topics, there appears to be a stronger and more principled stand.
As in most child-parent relationships, communication is the key. In households where children obey Islam and its rules simply out of fear of the parent, the overwhelming majority either leave their Islam at home when they go out or find their thin veneer of protection easily cracked by temptation. "Your parents can't be with you forever-sooner or later you will be faced with your own decisions, and your parents won't be around to tell you what to do " one person said. The most stable youths governed their actions through God-consciousness which came through learning and education not parental pressure-and walked through the proverbial fire unharmed.
The topic occurred to me when I heard some discussions about the "equality" of man and woman in Islam and when some rejected the principle of accepting man as the head of the family. In most of these discussions many Western concepts were referred to as scientifically irrefutable, many Quranic verses were arbitrarily interpreted and many Traditions (Prophet's sayings) were ignored and described as unauthoritative. I could easily discern the motives behind such arguments and how most of them were the result of the Western social problematic structure, added to the non-Islamic ideology which prevails over the judgment of individuals in such societies.
Farhad Khan is a contributing writer for islam-usa.com (Edited by Shahid Athar , M. D.)
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