Young Lebanese are exposed to unnecessary risk in their early sex lives because of poor education. Attempts by researchers to collect data on the subject are often thwarted because it remains taboo.
But a sexual health clinic in Beirut is moving towards digitizing its clients’ data, anonymously of course, which could very well provide researchers with one of the clearest glimpses yet into this sensitive subject.
Diana Abou Abbas is manager at Marsa Sexual Health Centre in Hamra, which provides a variety of services all of which generate data that could be useful for researchers.
“Once it’s digital we’ll be able to get studies out of it and get the prevalence and incidents of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), sexual behavior and condom use, for example, amongst certain populations,” says Ms Abbas, stressing that user data will be anonymous.
“We want to focus more on research so we can try to advocate later on for sexual reproductive health rights.”
It’s difficult to overstate just how precious this kind of data is in Lebanon. Aside from HIV, which falls under the National AIDS Control Program, experts acknowledge there is little to no understanding around the true prevalence rates of most STIs and the behaviors that lead to these infections. Patients are hesitant to seek help and data is poorly collated, if it is at all.
Assistant Professor Lilian Ghandour, epidemiologist at the American University of Beirut, knows better than most how hard it is to build a body of data about the behaviors of young Lebanese, especially when it comes to their sex lives.
Ms Ghandour told Lebanese Streets she has encountered great difficulty persuading many local universities to allow students to be given anonymous surveys about their sex lives and sexual health, despite the obvious benefits of better understanding their behavior.
“We just try to explain that we need to get this data, because data involves policy and informs practices,” says Ms Ghandour. “There is a need for youth friendly sexual services in the country.”
She says universities that resist such research often buy into the myth that young Lebanese simply don’t have sex before marriage, or at the very least they reject the idea that their students are having sex before marriage.
But Ms Ghandour has heard these excuses from Lebanese universities before, just on another taboo subject.
“I started engaging in research that deals with sexual health and sexuality of young people about three or four years ago. I noted that what we are experiencing now with sexuality research is what we experienced almost 15 years ago with drug users.”
Unlike in the early 2000s, says Ms Ghandour, policymakers today have a better handle on the level of drug use within the Lebanese population because they eventually recognized there was a problem and academics were granted more room to conduct frank research. But this was only after it was widely claimed that young Lebanese simply didn’t do drugs, just as it’s widely claimed today that they don’t have sex.
Ms Ghandour hopes this maturation on the subject of drugs extends to sexual health so researchers can obtain the kind of frank data that informs good policy, the kind of data Marsa could be about to uncover. And it needs to be uncovered.
“I can tell you that HIV is on the rise,” says Abbas. “There’s also a lot of human papillomavirus and gonorrhoea.”
The center is in an inconspicuous apartment building without any clear signage. If you don’t know it’s there, you won’t know it’s there.
“It’s always a challenge to advertise in public when it comes to sexual health,” says Ms Abbas. “It’s a sensitive topic and remains a sensitive topic.”
It’s no surprise then that the common inability to talk openly about sexual health on the public airwaves extends to the classroom, where many sexual health advocates would like them to be discussed.
Most students are given no sexual health education at all in Lebanon. Ms Abbas went to a catholic school and received a single session on sexual anatomy, but that was it and that’s as good as it gets.
“They don’t discuss sexually transmitted infections. They don’t discuss condom use. They don’t focus on the importance of prevention of STIs. They don’t talk about being LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender). They don’t talk about consent between sexual partners.”
Typically, this information vacuum is filled by adolescent misconceptions and myths about sex that kids are always going to spread when they’re not given the proper information.
Ms Abbas says the most common are things like; you don’t have to wear a condom until the end of sex to prevent pregnancy or STIs; you can prevent pregnancy by pulling out; or that people with a higher socioeconomic background tend not to have STIs, ergo they’re safe to sleep with.
It’s simple to draw a direct line between these misconceptions and sexual health problems amongst young people, and when they get into the Lebanese medical industry, the results can be heartbreaking.
“One client came and told us she went to a very well known hospital in Beirut and she was refused the service of getting her pap smear and she was shamed for being sexually active outside of marriage,” said Ms Abbas. “This is a big hospital in Lebanon, it’s one of the best.”
It underlines just how great the challenge is for organisations like Marsa, and how important its data is, when big hospitals don’t want to give sexual healthcare and many universities don’t want to research it.