The Fires of Shame; the Burn of Desire

3 March, 2024
In its outwards eruption, my personality could be described as “incendiary.” But not in sex with others. No. That is: frustratingly, not where combustibleness would have been most useful.


Joumana Haddad

“Good sex is like a good bridge. If you don’t have a good partner, you’d better have a good hand.”

Mae West


I’ve had many lovers along the years. Some were good, several were bad, a bunch were outright ghastly. The majority were mediocre, and a few — only two or three, really — were great; but the best sex I’ve ever had has always been with myself.

In the beginning it was because I was shy. I wouldn’t dare voice my desires and my needs, mainly due to the fact that I was ashamed of them. They were my “dirty secret,” at such discordance with what I was taught and raised to believe a decent lady should be like, what she should want, the way she should behave, and the thoughts she was allowed to express, that I couldn’t willingly bring myself to share any of my unbridled fantasies with my early partners.

My first sexual experience was, quite orthodoxly, with my first husband. I was a twenty-year-old virgin, with countless debauched notions and images in my head because of all the depraved stories I had clandestinely read early on in life, but with zero practical experience — barely a kiss or two as an adolescent which had made me feel guilty and “soiled” for weeks afterwards.

…on the inside, I was a covertly active volcano, just waiting to explode.

How does a woman, especially an Arab woman, escape her conservative upbringing and survive it? That is the urgent question I’ve been asking my whole life, even until today. Books surely aren’t enough; nor are movies, nor porn. And all the world’s efforts at soul-searching and self-awareness are, more often than not, insufficient to save that little girl from all the brainwashing, vagina-blaming, slut-shaming and religious, moral and patriarchal incarceration she’s subjected to from birth. It takes a superhuman will and Herculean strength to break the shackles. That is why each and every liberated Arab woman out there who, among other things, owns her body and enjoys it, is a heroine in her own right.

In striking contrast, I grew up to be anything but timid in the other, “public” fields of life. I gradually developed a strong, untameable and defiant character, one that was reflected in my social behavior, in my views and opinions, and most of all, in my writing. I was provocative, insolent and confrontational. Whether in love, or in work, or in friendships or with family or on paper, I always said what I thought without filters, or the slightest hesitation, or fear of red flags. Was it revenge? Was it expiation? Maybe both, maybe neither. I used to think: “Perhaps I’m simply two people, or more. Aren’t we all?”

If that isn’t denial, I don’t know what is.

But it is also the truth.

During my childhood, I was what one would call a “good kid” on the outside. Polite, well-mannered, rather docile, with only a few bursts of rebellion every now and then, masterfully restrained by my strict parents. But on the inside, I was a covertly active volcano, just waiting to explode. A “bad girl” who masturbated to the words of the Marquis de Sade. Instead of being horrified by his vicious stories, they made me horny. When I read The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, I nicknamed myself “Joumana Jekyll.” The same bookish twelve-year-old who had innocent features and went to mass and studied hard and ignored boys and was always among the first in her class was also turned on by indescribable sexual brutality.

In its outwards eruption, my personality could be described as “incendiary.” But not in sex with others. No. That is frustratingly not where combustibleness would have been most useful. Despite my rawness, despite my cheekiness, despite my free streak, under the sheets I would transform into this other woman. A woman I didn’t like, to say the least: A coy, tongue-tied, self-conscious virgin. I look back at her now and can’t help but roll my eyes. Even later, when I became more — way more — sexually disinhibited, and engaged in practices that were quite audacious and progressive (sometimes, often even, not out of craving or enjoyment but solely because I wanted to defy my education and prove to myself that I was indeed open-minded and unconventional), even then, I wouldn’t admit to my partners what I really wanted, expected and longed for.

I was a receiver, not a demander. And on the rare occasions where I actually got what I sought, it was only by “coincidence”; that is, only because what I fancied was in tune with what my partner fancied, and our sexual personas clicked spontaneously. No initiative or assertiveness on my part, only luck. And one cannot, realistically, build their sexual happiness on the weak foundation of sheer luck, especially not a woman. Except if she’s okay with being constantly and repeatedly disappointed. Which is exactly what I was.

Needless to say, this dissociation between the social me and the private me, which lasted a long time — too long — exasperated me. I constantly had the feeling that I was failing myself, not to mention that I was a phony and a coward. On top of that, I was obviously not a sexually satisfied woman. Not in my relationships with men, at least. “What a waste,” I’d think. “All these bodies, all these experiences, all that exertion and sweat and originality and expertise, for almost nothing.” After each sexual encounter, I would wait to be by myself and, just like a schoolkid who had to do her homework all over again, in order to get it right this time, I would masturbate, thinking of all the gestures and words and situations that would have excited me. Then and only then, would pleasure come, immediately followed by self-disdain. A great deal of it. A form of self-flagellation, really. Pretty much in the Catholic tradition in which I was raised. Except that my “sin,” that famous “taste of the apple” whose price I was paying wasn’t the sexual act itself — which I considered to be my absolute right — but rather my reluctance in engaging in it the way I desired due to my spinelessness. And so the only one I’d been sinning against was myself.

Later on, I learned to dissociate from myself during the actual performance. In my body I was with the man, kissing, licking, biting, scratching, moaning and whatnot, but in my head, I was elsewhere, with someone else, someone faceless, doing — and most of all being done to — what I actually craved. In some instances, it worked, and I would get off. But I would despise myself nonetheless. Then one day I read a quote somewhere, that we are at least four people during sex: the actual couple engaging in it, and the others invoked in each of their imaginations while in action. That consoled me at first. So, I thought, I’m not alone in this plight. There were others out there suffering this kind of sexual schizophrenia.

But soon, knowing that I shared this predicament with a certain percentage of humankind was no longer consolation enough. Not to someone like me, a big-headed perfectionist and, on top of that, someone so proudly direct and transparent they couldn’t tolerate this kind of duplicity. I was physically — as well as metaphysically, emotionally and intellectually — exasperated and exhausted by my ailment, and I needed to heal. I had to. It wasn’t just the lack of gratification that was insufferable to me, the self-proclaimed epicurean. It was also, and mainly, the incompatibility between who I thought I was and wanted at any cost to be (liberated, brazen, proactive), and the woman who couldn’t bring herself to use the expression “I want” with her lovers. Every person who knew me, even only slightly, firmly believed I was leading this crazy, outrageous sexual life. Meanwhile there I was in the bedroom, wary as a squirrel, unable to utter a phrase as simple as “talk dirty to me!” let alone “please slap my ass!” And even when I was indeed leading a crazy, outrageous sexual life, I wasn’t enjoying it. It was more of an act, as if I were watching myself on a screen, applauding my impudence, yet not deriving any physical pleasure from it.

“What was all that for?” I’d ask myself afterwards. What’s the value of such a feat if only aimed at proving to myself that I can? Sex is not a competitive sport, and there are no medals to be won. If the reward isn’t pleasure — wild, overwhelming, holistic pleasure — then it isn’t worth it.

The issue wasn’t that I lacked information or awareness. Quite the opposite. My mind was overflowing with material and studies and data about sex. I was what you could call an expert, and many were those who came to me for advice or guidance. And I would give it to them, and it would work. But I remained impervious to my own theories and their possible implementations. It wasn’t until my late thirties that I managed to begin gathering my courage and hinting at what I would like, what I might enjoy, and what would pleasure me, while engaging sexually with a man. However, mere hints aren’t enough for some men, whether out of thick-wittedness or arrogance or indifference, so it wasn’t, admittedly, the best plan.

It didn’t help that what I enjoyed wasn’t what one would describe as “politically correct.” It was rather quite subversive or “un-woke,” as one might call it nowadays. I was never a “missionary” type of girl, nor a fan of all the other customary positions and practices, however creative or Kama-Sutra inspired or ostensibly decadent. I was, strictly and desperately, cerebrally excitable: it was all about words, images and power dynamics for me. The tangible side of the act was an extra, a final push, the “straw that would break my orgasm’s back.” And what excited that deviant brain of mine was in such contradiction to my public, acutely feminist persona that I involuntarily used to send men the wrong message. 

Many thought I was a dominatrix-type, while what turned me on was in fact being dominated. I needed a space of decompression from the stress of being constantly in control, and that space, for me, was sex. But what man would dare explore that aspect of me impulsively, uninvited, un-urged to do so, when I was shouting my lungs out all day long for equality and self-empowerment? What man would dare pull my hair, or give me an order, or choke me (gently, please), when I was, clearly and objectively, an intimidating w/bitch who wouldn’t hesitate to kick him in the balls in case of a faux-pas? As a result, most lovers would tiptoe around, so to speak, my bed, being tragically considerate for fear of offending me, while all I wanted was to be “offended.” Yet offending me would require a certain boldness, as well as the ability to separate the public sphere from the intimate one, and would require most of all a certain creativity, that many men, I’m sorry to say, lack in bed. 

I’m not putting all the fault on the other person here; I know that I hold a great deal of responsibility in not expressing my wants unambiguously. But at the same time, sex, for men, most men at least, with the exception of the naturally kinky ones, is quite linear. This is not an accusation but rather a compliment. I even say it with a good, sincere amount of envy. They enjoy it quite easily; obviously to different extents with different partners, but they almost always end up enjoying it. So, they are not necessarily enticed to be inventive and experimental, or extend themselves beyond what they usually like to do. They do have fantasies, of course, many of which are porn-derived, but the lure of such fantasies lies more in the physical dimension than in the cerebral one. It’s about what they do, not about how they approach it and the ambiance they generate.

It is worth mentioning that, amidst all my sexual debacles described above, very few astoundingly few men actually asked me straightforwardly what I wanted, what would pleasure me, or if I was enjoying what they/we were doing, or if I had climaxed. And I guiltily confess that many times I lied and faked in order, not to preserve their ego, no, but not to hurt them. Every sexual act is perceived by men like a test that they must ace, or else they feel like inadequate little boys. And that kind of empathy robbed me of many a precious orgasm. Do I regret it?

I used to. Not anymore.

An important additional fact is that, in the Arab world specifically, many men suffer from the Virgin/Whore syndrome, so there’s a mental disconnect in their minds between the woman they lust after and wish to fuck, and the woman they envision as their potential partner. In short, most consider sex “dirty” and a form of disrespect. And sex is indeed dirty — but only if done right, as Woody Allen once said. Yet for men, this dirtiness is reserved for the women they think of as “whores,” not for the women they admire or love or respect in the non-sexual realm of life. This dichotomy produces a great deal of frustration and misery for many women. How many, for example, have assumed that they were with a forward-thinking, progressive partner, only to discover, once he’s been put to the test, that he’s as conservative and traditional as the next guy, or even their father?

Is it really contradictory to be a sexual masochist and an empowered, dignified, respectable woman? Definitely not, and I wish I had learned that sooner. But it wasn’t out of internalized humiliation or fear of judgment that I wouldn’t readily confess my desires, especially after I had emancipated myself from what I was taught and the way I was raised. I couldn’t care less about the judgment of others, especially the Neanderthal ones, which I didn’t frequent anyway. I had a sixth sense about men who were like that, even those, especially those, who tried to hide it, and I discarded them very early on. I never liked being an emotional victim, nor felt the kind of attachment that many women feel for the pricks who treat them badly.

What restrained me were two factors. The first was a longing to be understood and “seen” without having to explain myself. It could be out of naiveté, or romanticism, but I’d always believed that attaining pleasure with a sexual partner shouldn’t require too much work, or that, at least, it would be better and greater if we didn’t have to work for it, if the harmony occurred “naturally.” The second factor is something more visceral, innate, related to my childhood; an unconscious conviction that I would be abandoning or betraying my mother were I to soar sexually the way I wanted to soar. This, in itself, deserves a Freudian level of psychoanalysis. But I’ve always been more concerned with the repercussions of this complication on my sexual life rather than with its roots and motives. I’ve always been a results-driven person, and the real issue, for me, was centered around the question: why was my sexual pleasure so difficult to attain when I was in others’ company, and so smooth when I was on my own?

At first, I blamed my intellectuality. After all, my sexual awakening happened in my head first and foremost, which resulted in my drive being more cerebral than instinctive and “animalistic.” My kind of pleasure needed a set-up, certain theatricals even. The mood had to be created from scratch. The man’s physical seductiveness wasn’t enough, nor were his moves or touches if unaccompanied by a twisted imagination and perverse language. I also blamed masturbation, and believed that it had sort of corrupted or “broken” me. The solitary act of sex is so user-friendly, so uncomplicated and inexhaustible that it’s hard not to have an insatiable predilection for it once we get used to it.

Then, one day, more specifically in my forties, I stopped scrutinizing and blaming and questioning. I was finally old enough and experienced enough to accept myself the way I was. I let myself go.

And that’s when I soared.

Oscar Wilde once wrote that everything in the world is about sex except sex itself. “Sex is about power,” he wrote, and he was totally right. It’s about the power we exert, or the power we forsake, or both, alternatively, depending on our sexual tastes and preferences and sometimes even moods of the day. Personally, it took me a long time to understand that in consensual sex there is no place for shame, or embarrassment, or timidity, or idealism. There are no faux-pas, no right and wrong techniques, no normal and abnormal desires, no good and bad ways. But first and foremost, in consensual sex there is no place for political correctness. It is a moment of absolute freedom, above and beyond appropriateness and rationality.

It took me a long time to understand all of the above, and to act on it. Yet despite it all, the fact remains that the best sex I’ve ever had was, and is, with myself. Not because any of my partners are bad lovers, but because I am my own best lover.

And that, I finally realize, is not a predicament, but a superpower.


Joumana Haddad is an award-winning Lebanese poet, novelist, journalist and human rights activist. She was the cultural editor of An-Nahar newspaper for numerous years, and she now hosts a TV show focusing on human rights issues in the Arab world. She is the founder and director of the Joumana Haddad Freedoms Center, an organization promoting human rights values in Lebanese youth, as well as the founder and editor in chief of JASAD magazine, a first of its kind publication focused on the literature, arts and politics of the body in the Arab world. She has been repeatedly selected as one of the world’s 100 most influential Arab women. Joumana has published more than 15 books in different genres, which have been widely translated and published around the world. Amongst these are The Return of LilithI Killed Scheherazade and Superman is an ArabThe Book of Queens is her latest novel, published in 2022 by Interlink.

Arab sexualityArab women's bodiesdesireintimacylove and sex

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