Other people's sex lives have always been a source of fascination, and nowhere more so than in the Middle East. Early travellers in the region brought back tales that shocked and titillated Victorian England. Later, in the 1920s, Rudolph Valentino brought the first of many oversexed sheikhs to the cinema screen. Now we have the ubiquitous image of Muslim women: repressed, submissive and silent. Popular though these exotic stereotypes may be, they shed little light on the reality in the Middle East today - a reality further obscured by taboos that make Arabs reluctant to discuss sex in public. This is the situation that Sexuality in the Arab World, based on a conference held at the American University of Beirut, attempts to address.
One ground-breaking chapter considers the live-in maids (typically from Sri Lanka or the Philippines) who form an essential but socially invisible presence in better-off Lebanese households. With little or no privacy and even less opportunity to develop sexual relationships, many are consigned to sleeping on balconies or kitchen floors. Often they are regarded as asexual beings, though in some households they are viewed as a potential temptation for husbands and teenage sons.
Such glimpses of everyday Arab life may be interesting in themselves, but they are more than just a matter for idle curiosity, as the book indicates in a quotation on its opening page: "As sexuality goes, so does society. Equally, as society goes, so goes sexuality." Attitudes to sexuality reflect the state of society and society, in turn, is intimately linked to politics. It's no good complaining about religious extremism, the lack of democracy and so on, unless we understand the society that fosters them. Political reform requires social change, too.
But there are pockets, at least, where change is already happening. Traditionalist attitudes are coming under pressure from globalisation and the challenges of modernity - including foreign travel, satellite TV and the internet. The ensuing tug of war takes many forms. It can be seen in Tunisia, where the book describes young women torn between two competing visions of feminine beauty: the svelte "western" look popular among students and the plump "voluptuousness" favoured by their families. For some, this results in a constant struggle to lose or gain weight as they alternate between home and university, risking their health in the name of social acceptability.
Given the book's origins, it is inevitable that much of the authors' research focuses on Beirut. In some ways this is fortunate: Beirut is surely the only Arab city where university students can be persuaded to talk frankly in their classroom about sex. Their views, documented in Roseanne Khalaf's essay, range from traditional insistence on chastity before marriage to approval of sexual experimentation and "the freedom to choose same-sex partners". Between these extremes, there's a student whose parents allow relationships "as long as no sex is involved" - the parental definition of which, in this case, includes hugging and kissing.
The wildly divergent attitudes in Beirut are epitomised by two female students - a shy Druze whose face is masked by a white veil, and a daring postmodernist with piercings in her tongue. For both women, Khalaf notes, these highly visible statements became impediments to expressing their views, because the rest of the class could barely understand what they said.
In one of two chapters about homosexuality, Sofian Merabet explores the creation of "queer space" in Beirut - a half-private, half-public world of illicit encounters that the authorities generally prefer not to notice, despite a Lebanese law forbidding "all unnatural intercourse". Though Merabet does not make a connection, there are striking similarities here with pre- legalisation Britain, as described in Matt Houlbrook's recent book Queer London.
Another chapter examines Beirut's embryonic gay community and the growth of Helem, the first gay and lesbian rights organisation to function openly in an Arab country. A "gay identity" is clearly emerging in Lebanon, but there are questions as to how much of it has been borrowed from the west. In this, as elsewhere in Arabs' changing perceptions of their sexuality, the internet seems to be playing a major role.
Brian Whitaker's "Unspeakable Love: gay and lesbian life in the Middle East" is published by Saqi Books