cairo — The muted giggles begin as soon as Dr. Heba Kotb is introduced and makes her way to the podium. It’s not exactly the most dignified reception from her colleagues at Cairo University, but she’s used to it. As students and professors at this conference devoted to youth psychology twitch nervously in their seats, Kotb announces the title of her lecture: “Forbidden Information.”
Although she’s a professor of forensics, it’s Kotb’s reputation as a frank sexologist with her own phone-in sex advice TV show that has created the buzz in the room. A few PowerPoint slides into the lecture, she pauses, allowing the question “What is the most important aspect of youth sexuality? ” to linger on the screen overhead. Already, beneath their head scarves, several members of the overwhelmingly female audience are burning fire-engine red.
“Masturbation,” Kotb finally says, the word spinning over itself on the slide above her head. More giggles and nervous whispers. But Kotb presses on, speaking quickly and clearly in Arabic, with short interjections in English, the default language of psychology. “An adolescent’s questions about sex require dialogue,” she says. “Answers should be sincere, serious, direct, and respectful, but given in a scientific way.” Other presenters have suggested similar communication strategies when tackling universal teen issues — addiction, self-esteem, depression — but this is sex. And this is Egypt. It’s one thing to address bullying or bulimia, but a teenage boy’s need to masturbate is altogether different. In this room, at least, academia has bestowed some respectability on the subject matter. That’s rare for the demure thirty-nine-year-old mother of three, however.
Kotb’s Cairo-produced show, Kalam Kibir (Big Talk), which is broadcast by satellite across the Arab-speaking world, is a huge hit. Each week, people of all ages call in looking for expert advice: “My wife doesn’t want to have sex anymore,” “My husband can’t give me an orgasm,” “I come too fast,” “I can’t get an erection,” and so on. Kotb responds sincerely, stressing communication between partners. The show is respectful, serious — and scandalously entertaining.
But Kalam Kibir has also made Kotb a target of criticism. “Some imams say if you teach adolescents about sex, they will go ahead and try it themselves. I ask them, ‘Do you think they won’t try it anyway?’ ” she says. “Sexual literacy is always better than getting the wrong information.”
Not only has Kotb become the go-to sex expert in the Middle Eastern media, she is now frequently asked to make TV appearances in the West. The day before her lecture — which was being filmed for a special on Spanish TV — she had returned from a live appearance on Italian television. To Westerners, Kotb is a bright light in a sea of religious intolerance and repression, and should be encouraged. “People shouldn’t deny that sex is an important part of their lives,” she says, sounding like Canada’s own Sue Johanson. “When they have bad digestion, they do something about it. Sex shouldn’t be kept under the table.”
But as Heba Kotb blazes a sexual trail in the Islamic world, she is guided by more than science. “All information must refer to the basic rules of religion,” she says after the lecture. On Kalam Kibir it is not uncommon for her to cite the Koran, and she can find all manner of quotations supporting a woman’s right to pleasure, the importance of foreplay, even the blessings of “doing it” from behind — though not in the behind. “I’m very proud of being a Muslim, because my religion addressed many of these sexual issues long before they were addressed by science.”
At the same time, Kotb does not take questions about birth control on Kalam Kibir because, she says, “this is not my job.” And while teen boys should masturbate for sexual release, teen girls “have no need for it whatsoever before marriage” — marriage being the only legitimate context in which sex can be cherished and enjoyed. “This is a divine order that has proven to be for our own good.”
When the subject of homosexuality comes up, specifically the growing body of evidence suggesting genetics predisposes some toward their own sex, the scientist in Kotb is trumped by tradition. “All divine religions are clear about homosexuals: they are sinful and they have to be punished in the next world. It’s not that God made these people evil. Until 1978, all the scientific literature was saying this was true. Then studies came out saying the opposite. Well oh my God! What should I follow? Something that was very fixed since Adam to the last one on this earth or something that is changing?”
When homosexuals call her show, Kotb gives them advice, but she may also refer them to her private clinic to be cured. “I’ve had many, many patients like this who went though my program, and now they are having wives and kids — even their dreams and daydreams are changed.”
Bridging science and religion is no easy feat, but Kotb appears to be slowly getting her message across to a highly conservative audience mostly in sexual denial, and she is resolute in her convictions. “My own research demands that I have faith in what God said.”