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Arabic podcasts on sex gain popularity during pandemic

A bunch of podcasts are talking about taboo topics to educate and normalise them, while dealing with mockery and misogyny

Lebanese physician Sandrine Attallah recording her podcast Haki Sarih, or Straight Talk, in a studio in Beirut, Lebanon.
Lebanese physician Sandrine Attallah recording her podcast Haki Sarih, or Straight Talk, in a studio in Beirut, Lebanon. (AFP)

Porn, masturbation and anal sex - a series of taboo-breaking podcasts are making inroads in the UAE's conservative kingdom. These audio contents are shattering the silence that has stymied sex education at home and in the classroom.

"There's a growing appetite for relatable content," said Hebah Fisher of the UAE-based podcast company Kerning Cultures. "Stories about our physical and mental bodily experiences is one piece of that." Jasadi" or "My body", which is produced by Kerning Cultures deals with mental and physical health including topics relating to sex and the body. It's one of the growing number of Arabic audio shows addressing issues long deemed taboo.

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The podcast, which was started in 2019, has grown six-fold since its debut and is the company's third most popular show. More than 70 per cent of its listeners are women. Apple named it one of the best Middle East and North Africa podcasts for 2020, and it is especially popular in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

"Content created for us, by us is in high demand. It's a necessary content that we've all been craving, to better understand ourselves, this world, and our place in it," Fisher said.

One of Jasadi's top three episodes - titled "The first time" - features two women, one from Jordan, the other from Sudan, who anonymously discuss the first time they heard about sex and their first experience having it. "I don't know why we have less acceptance for Arabic terms for genitals compared to English," said one speaker who suffers from vaginal spasms, a condition known as vaginismus.

The speaker especially has a problem with the formal Arabic term for vagina, mahbal, because of its proximity to the word ahbal, which translates as stupid. The phonetic link has allowed for the term to be used as an insult or joke, one she often encountered as a schoolgirl.

"Not a single word referring to our sexual anatomy is used in a normal way," she said, reflecting on how rarely Arabic terms for genitals are used outside the context of mockery.

Jasadi is not the only Arabic podcast feeding an appetite for open conversation.

Eib, or Shame in English, produced by the Jordan-based Sowt, has tackled controversial topics, including sex, porn and masturbation, since its launch in 2017. "Eib is Sowt's best show in terms of reach and listenership," especially in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, said spokesperson Maram Alnabali. The number of listeners shot up to hundreds of thousands in 2020 and has continued to grow this year, Alnabali added.

In Lebanon, physician Sandrine Attallah has had to navigate mockery and misogyny when discussing sex on TV. But behind the microphone of her weekly podcast, she serves up straight facts, uninterrupted, on topics such as premature ejaculation, clitoral orgasms and masturbation.

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Her audio show Hakeh Sareeh, or Straight Talk, has racked up more than one million downloads and streams, mostly in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE. "We don't have enough information about sex," said the sexual medicine expert at the American University of Beirut medical centre. "Even if you get some kind of sex education at school, you will not have information about how to masturbate, or how to reach an orgasm. You will not learn about fetish, or BDSM (bondage) or anal sex," she said. And obviously, one will also not learn

Her audience, just over half of whom are female, has grown from 70,000 monthly listeners in April 2020 to 1,00,000 last March. But Attallah's efforts to challenge standard concepts around sex and sexuality have also been met with controversy.

Over the past year, she has experienced three "negative" interviews - the latest on a local talk show in March during which male presenters repeatedly silenced her and accused her of arousing the public. "It was like a trap. It felt ridiculous," Attallah said. "On live TV, they were saying I was seducing people and I was using incorrect terms and that my information was irrelevant."

But on her podcast, produced by the Hakawati network, misogyny takes a back seat and sexuality isn't treated as taboo. "You only learn ... It's actual information, it's very educational," said Attallah.

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