Let's talk about sex (or not)



 
As a sexual health worker in a country where talking about sex is still a taboo, Raja Farah had turned to Facebook as an outreach tool. His Facebook page, Sexual Health in Lebanon, soon became very popular ā€“ until Facebook shut it down for 'obscenity.'
 
By ALEXANDRA SANDELS
 
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Raja Farah (C.) tried in vain to convince Facebook that his page was not obscene but purely educational. R.R.

BEIRUT, November 21, 2008 (MENASSAT) – "I masturbated. Will I ever be able to have sex with a man or have I destroyed my sexual desire?" read one of the messages Raja Farah, 30, received on his Facebook group, Sexual Health in Lebanon. 

The page, created by Farah in the spring of 2007, sought to raise awareness about issues relating to sexual health and education in a country where these topics are rarely discussed in schools. In the beginning, the group mainly consisted of Farah's friends but it soon grew in popularity with hundreds joining.

But last summer, Facebook shut down Farah's page, claiming it contained "obscene or inappropriate" images.

"One day, when I logged onto Facebook, there was a message telling me that my group had been closed. The message said that I had uploaded obscene or inappropriate images to the group," Farah told MENASSAT. 

According to Farah, there were never any photos on his page, and he checked the site every day to make sure no one had uploaded any images.

Farah says he contacted Facebook, explaining to the administrators that his group was "purely educational." 

He never heard back from them.

Farah has several years experience in the field of sexual rights. Ten years ago, he was one of the co-founders of Helem, a organization for gay and lesbian rights in Lebanon. He then worked on HIV/AIDS issues and completed a Masters degree in Humanitarian and Development Program Management in the UK.

Since coming back to Lebanon from his studies, he has increasingly focused on sexual health and education. 

'Facebook clinic'

But with little funding available and not enough "open-minded people to work with," as Farah puts it, the Internet soon became instrumental in his work. 

"How do I reach out to these people, I asked myself. I thought of Facebook, which is extremely popular here," Farah told MENASSAT.

Apart from a site featuring information on sexual health, Farah's Facebook page also played the role of a discussion forum where members could talk about various topics related to sexual health and get advice from Farah. 

Each week, Farah would post a new discussion subject where group members provided their input on issues such as abortion and premarital sex. The discussion at times sparked debate, especially the thread on abortion where many members felt that the practice was wrong.

At one point, Farah also distributed a quiz on sexually transmitted diseases. He found the results quite worrying. 

"The lack of knowledge was shocking. I was surprised over how little they knew," Farah said.

For instance, many of the respondents sill held the believe that aids is transmitted through touching or kissing.

"The problem is that this is coming from 18- to 25-year-olds, not from 13- to 14-years-olds," said Farah.

Farah attributes the poor of knowledge to the lack of sexual health education in the schools. Few schools in Lebanon have a comprehensive robust sex education program.

In a recent article on NowLebanon, 17-year-old Abd Rahman Loutfi said he first heard the word STD on an episode of The Simpsons. He had to google it to found out its meaning on Wikipedia.

Blogging

Lebanon's Ministry of Education did revise the country's national curriculum, adding a course about reproductive health to the life sciences curriculum for 12- to 14-year-olds. But pressure from religious circles allegedly led to the removal of the course. The main arguments were that sex education should be left to the family and religious community, and that talking about it could promote promiscuity.

Likewise, Farah is convinced that his page on Facebook was shut down due to complaints from other users in Lebanon.

"I just hope they didn't shut down the page for one complaint."

Farah has not given up. Back in Beirut from a two-month training program in Sweden on sexual health issues and how to approach them in the Arab world, he now plans to start a blog on sexual health in Lebanon.

The site is still in the works, but Farah hopes to feature a variety of things such as discussion forums and guest writers.

"There needs to be more openness about sex. If people are open about it, there will be less guilt and it will foster healthier relationships."