"It's no wonder your website is so popular, all you do is talk about sex!" A typical reaction from fellow journalists who were following the launch of Love Matters Arabic just two years ago. Everyone knows that sex ranks well in google searches in the Arab world and Arab audiences rank high in online pornography consumption. But it was exactly that audience who are looking for sexual content who were disappointed! Because that's not what Love Matters is designed for.
New vocabulary needed
Love Matters Arabic is an online platform with corresponding social media pages that address love, intimacy, relationships, and everything in between. Our target audience is young Arabs, married and unmarried, between the ages 18-30.
It hasn't been an easy job to co-found and coordinate the website. How do you start talking about sex to an audience that has not had proper sexual education, nor a decent vocabulary to describe reproductive body parts? And where do you start when combating the many myths and misconceptions about sex and sexuality?
In a region where more than half of the population is under 25 years of age and receive little or no sexual education at home or school, there is an enormous need to find answers to personal questions about the body, sexual health, sexual feelings. In Egypt for example, the official curriculum offers 14 year olds a lesson in human reproductive biology. The students draw the reproductive system - but boys draw only the male system and girls the female system). There is no further discussion or engagement with students about sexuality and healthy relationships. And as a result, people grow up with many questions and no reliable source to ask. It's no surprise then that most of the participants in our focus group discussions in Cairo named pornography as their number one source of information on sex.
Safe or unsafe
There is an old Arabic proverb that goes "All that is forbidden, is most wanted". As a woman, when you grow up in a society that expects you to remain "pure" and a virgin until marriage, people become creative. A lot of young and unmarried couples have outercourse (sex without penetration). For them it is a "safe" way to enjoy their bodies without breaking social norms that prohibit sex before marriage. What they actually mean by "safe" is: is my hymen intact? Am I still a virgin? And could I get pregnant from outercourse? Little or no attention is given to important safety questions such as preventing STIs. This is an alarming phenomena for a region where STIs such as genital warts or HIV, are on the rise compared to other areas around the world.
What Love Matters really offers is trust and safety. Young men and women come to the website with genuine questions they cannot ask openly elsewhere. A few weeks after the launch of the project an engaged 22 years old woman sent in selfies of her vagina via Facebook. She was concerned that she had lost her virginity during a previous relationship and that her fiancé would reject her if she did not bleed on their wedding night. Of course Love Matters does not issue virginity certificates -which some Arab doctors do by the way. What we did for this young woman was give her peace of mind, saying, one: the hymen does not equal virginity, two: there are women born without hymens, and three: not all women bleed during first time sex.
So what keeps me going everyday with Love Matters? It's the appreciative comments and questions from our audience. There is a story and a life behind every question. People come to us expecting, and sometimes demanding a solution. But Love Matters isn't here to solve others' sexual and emotional problems for them. It is here to empower young people to solve these issues themselves. It offers the information and knowledge you need to make the best decision for yourself. Only you can do that.
And finally the numbers...
Since its launch, 4 million users have visited Love Matters Arabic website, And 13 million users viewed Love Matters videos on Youtube channel. Love Matters Arabic has 443k likes on Facebook, and 10k followers on Twitter.
Love Matters is a finalist in this year's Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards, which honor leading groups and individuals internationally tackling censorship. The awards will be held in London on April 13.