"Many people don’t know that condoms offer protection from most sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), but that you have to use one properly to protect yourself,” says Hamed Sinno, looking directly into the camera. Sinno is a singer in the Lebanese alternative rock group Mashrou'Leila and often speaks about his experience as a gay man. Now, Sinno has a new role: teaching people how to use condoms. Sinno features alongside Lebanese actress Yumna Ghandour in a video made by the NGO Marsa that offers a practical and funny guide for using condoms.
Several people took to social media to commend the video, praising a bold move in a relatively conservative society. Others, however, criticised the content, calling it indecent. That infuriates Sinno, who says it is lamentable that people find talking about sexual health more offensive than the fact that the number of people infected with STDs in the country is increasing. According to Ismaël Maatouk, a Beirut-based dermatologist who specialises in STDs, there’s been "an increase in the number of cases of STDs, like syphilis, in the past few years.”
For Diana Abous Abas, the director of Marsa, the most important thing is that this video is starting conversations.
"We need to encourage conversations: sexuality remains a topic that is hard to talk about in public"
Because of a lack of sexual education [in schools], almost all education depends on initiatives launched by members of civil society. At Marsa, we don’t skirt around topics. Our slogan is "bila hia", which means "without shame”. Some people might find the video shocking, but, to its credit, it has been encouraging discussion and conversations in a country where sexuality remains a topic that is hard to talk about in public.
Marsa runs a centre that is open to people of any gender or sexual orientation. All visitors remain anonymous. We offer free HIV tests as well as free medical consultations and appointments with psychologists. We don’t want our patients to be afraid of being stigmatised or sent away, which is what happens sometimes in Lebanese hospitals when unmarried men or women show symptoms of HIV.
"Using a condom is a shared responsibility”
At our centre, we gather information about sexual health in this country. This is precious in Lebanon, where there is very little formal research. We’ve noticed that a lot of people don’t use condoms… Or don’t know how to use one correctly. This video says that using a condom is a shared responsibility. Neither men nor women should be embarrassed about having condoms on them.
"The LGBT community in Lebanon is more aware of STDs”
One thing that is great about this video is the way it breaks down the debate around these issues. I read the comments and what shocked people the most was seeing a woman put a condom on a plastic penis. It’s seriously taboo for some people. But, in my opinion, the fact that the woman in the video does this without any shame will help other women.
Our society is much more open than many other Arab societies, but it is still very patriarchal. Women might be afraid of saying no to unprotected sex with a partner. However, women shouldn’t be forced to go along with their partners if they don’t trust them.
I’ve been going to the Marsa centre since it opened. The doctors there are welcoming and never judgemental. At first, not many people went to the clinic. Now, I sometimes have to wait a few days for an appointment there.
The Marsa centre in Beirut.
I think there is much more awareness about STDs in the gay community in Lebanon than in the general population. I’ve never had unprotected sex, but I was also helped because I grew up in a very open family.
Early on, I watched online videos to learn how to put on a condom. It wasn’t like I had the opportunity to learn that at school. There’s nothing in terms of sex ed in Lebanese schools. [Editor’s note: In 1995, sex ed classes were introduced for students between the ages of 12 and 14 in Lebanon, but they were halted in 2000 after criticism by religious groups].
"We hesitate before going into a pharmacy to buy condoms"
Hind (not her real name) is 36. She also goes to the Marsa centre.
What I like about this video is that it doesn’t just preach to the choir. I think it has the potential to also reach people who don’t have much exposure to this kind of message. In certain social circles in Lebanon, people talk about sexuality openly. However, I come from a very socially conservative milieu, where the subject was taboo. When I was younger, I couldn’t even imagine having sex outside of marriage. I ended up learning a lot from friends who were much more open than me.
It’s still hard for young people in Lebanon to explore their sexuality. They lack private places. If they live at home with their parents, it’s hard to bring a girlfriend or boyfriend home. If they try to get a hotel room, it’s common for staff there to ask if a couple is married and if they have a certificate to prove it.
Young people do figure out ways to have sex. But, because they are doing something that society frowns upon, that increases the risk of unprotected sex, particularly as they might have sex quickly to minimise the risk of being caught.
Lovers by the beach in Beirut. DR
"Having a condom with you is proof that you are sexually active"
Sometimes, you have to be quite cunning because getting condoms when you aren’t married isn’t always easy in Lebanon. You go to a neighbourhood in Beirut where no one knows you but even then pharmacists will sometimes check if you have a wedding ring. It’s this kind of micro-aggression that makes buying condoms difficult. Most people hesitate before going into a pharmacy to buy condoms, especially women.
I always carry a condom, but a lot of young people are afraid of being caught with a condom in their pockets. It’s proof that you are sexually active and that’s hard for a lot of people to admit.
"The number of STDs has been increasing for the past ten years"
Wissam Kabbara, a professor in the School of Pharmacy and the American University in Beirut, agrees that sexual education campaigns are important.
There’s been an increase in the number of STDs reported in Lebanon over the past ten years, but that might be because more people here are getting tested for STDs, which would push up the numbers. These days, there is much less stigma with taking these tests, mainly thanks to the programme launched by the Lebanese Ministry of Health to fight HIV.
Talking about sexuality doesn’t mean that more people are having more sex. In reality, there’s just been an increase in awareness of the risks involved and the need to protect yourself. That should be a major argument for the authorities who are still scared to talk about the issue with young people between the ages of 15 and 24 – which is actually the population most at risk of contracting STDs because of the lack of knowledge and information.