Sexual Values in a Moroccan Town*

Douglas A. Davis
Susan Schaefer Davis

All human societies impose rules on the form and meaning of sexual behavior. As Freud observed a century ago, such rules are partly learned during early childhood, but they are fully expressed only during the years after puberty, when increasing sexual drive and new opportunities for sexual contact lead the individual to confront the restrictions imposed by society. Straight/gay, faithful/unfaithful, sexy/frigid: the words we use to describe the sexual side of ourselves reveal a lot about who we think we are. The study of sexual behavior and values is thus a means of understanding both cultural patterns and the shaping of individual personality.

Sexual attitudes and feelings are usually among the most private aspects of a person's life, and even in the case of the most thoroughly studied individuals it is unlikely for the biographer to have full access to the secrets of the bedroom (or, for that matter, those of the nursery, the kitchen, or the bathroom). The ethnographer or cross-cultural researcher who wishes to understand sexual values starts with the realization that these are shaped by broad social forces such as religion, language, or ethnicity; by family and community or neighborhood-level influences such as gender, birth order, or socioeconomic status; and by such individual factors as identification, anxiety-tolerance, and imagination.

Whatever one thinks about Freud's notion that sexuality is the central problem of personality development, any adult who has tried to have a frank conversation with a teenager about who did what, and with what, and to whom, will acknowledge that accurate information about sexual actions is hard to come by and that erotic feelings are often mysterious even to the person who has them. As part of our research on adolescence in Morocco (see Davis & Davis, 1989), conducted as part of the Harvard Adolescence Project (which sent field teams into seven different cultural settings) in 1982 and following years, we returned to a Moroccan town we have studied since the middle 1960s and attempted to learn in detail about the family relationships, friendships, sources of pleasure and conflict, and marriage and career plans of a group of teenagers. Sexuality touched each of these topics but, despite the fact that we are well known and trusted in this community and speak Moroccan Arabic fluently, it was hard to get anyone to be completely frank about their own sexual behavior and sometimes impossible to reconcile what we heard from individuals about their own behavior ("Who? Me? Never!") with what the same young people said about their peers ("Everybody does it."). We are confident about the generalizations we make below, because we have lived in this community for years and were able to compare individual's statements with those of their friends and neighbors, but like the rest of the members of the Adolescence project we came away with a real sense of the complexity of obtaining accurate information about sexuality.

Islam and Sexuality

Like other major religions, Islam has lent itself to a variety of interpretations of the role of sexuality (Bouhdiba, 1985). Sexual pleasure is recognized as an essential part of human life, and some Muslim writers have described it as a foretaste of paradise. On the other hand, most Muslims view sex outside of marriage as sinful and dangerous to the social order. Thus Muslim societies have usually placed great emphasis on marriage as an essential part of adult life, and the seclusion of women in many of these societies serves the function of keeping both female and male sexuality under control. The traditional emphasis on female chastity is changing in a town like Zawiya, but gender differences in sexual behavior are much greater than in most European or North American settings, as we will see.

The Setting

We describe in this chapter the sexual side of adolescent life in a small town in North Africa, whose Arabic-speaking Muslim young people we have come to know as part of our 25-year interest in their community (Davis, 1983; Davis & Davis, 1989). In the semi-rural town of Zawiya in central Morocco, the changing sexual attitudes and practices of teenagers have been influenced by many of the same factors seen in the US and Europe: coeducational public schooling, television, popular music, and travel to large cities. On the other hand, Moroccan society is strongly shaped by the values of Islam and by traditional Arab views concerning honor, modesty, and gender. The picture we give here is of one relatively traditional town in a country with remarkable diversity. While we believe many of these observations about sexuality could be made of other small towns in Morocco and the Middle East, Zawiya is quite different from both the truly remote villages of the Atlas Mountains or the Saharan fringes and the cosmopolitan centers of Casablanca or Tangier.

Zawiya in 1982 was a town of roughly 12000 population located in a fertile agricultural area in north central Morocco. While Zawiya has the look of an impoverished country town, with few paved streets and no restaurants, modern stores, or movie theaters, a provincial city of 50,000 population 2 kilometers away provides all these amenities. Train and bus connections make it possible for Zawiya residents to visit major Moroccan cities within a few hours. The young people we studied in the early 1980s were therefore still in close touch with the traditional family and religious values of their parents, most of them uneducated country people, but they had knowledge of a world of other possibilities from their experiences in school, their travels to visit relatives in large cities, and their daily exposure to TV and radio.

The youth of Zawiya today are coming of age at a time when social roles and institutions are undergoing significant and rapid change. Morocco was controlled by France from 1912 to 1956, and the current generation of Moroccan youth are being formed in part by the tension between traditional religious values and modern political and economic ones. Parent-child relationships are interesting in such a community, as illiterate parents try to help prepare their children for a world far beyond their own experience. Young children of both sexes are affectionately and indulgently cared for by their mothers. Although both boys and girls now typically attend at least elementary school, girls remain under closer maternal influence during the elementary school years as they help with a variety of child-care and housekeeping tasks. Since Zawiya houses have not had running water until the past few years, girls often spent hours a day getting water from one of seven public taps. After puberty, girls are still likely to be kept closer to home than boys, even if they continue in school, and they have many more responsibilities in the household. Boys, on the other hand, typically have much less supervision by parents during adolescence, and many of them spend hours hanging out with male friends. In the later teen years relationships outside the family are especially important for adolescents in most cultures, and these include friendships between like-sexed age-mates and romances or sexual relationships between males and females. As Zawiya teenagers make the long walk to high school in the nearby larger town, or leave home to take jobs, they have increased opportunity for interaction with the opposite sexÄÄand this has led to conflicts between traditional and modern sexual values.

Sexual Attitudes, Sexual Acts

Like most predominantly Arab societies and much of circum-Mediterranean culture, growing up in Morocco involves learning strongly-differentiated gender roles. Boys and girls have a very different experience in the family as preschoolers, they are subject to different levels of constraint as they reach sexual maturity, and they have different expectations from friendships with the other sex.

The most striking features of adolescent sexuality in Zawiya today center on three factors. First, there is a clear double standard, in which males have a good deal of sexual freedom and are assumed to be sexually active, while females are much more restricted in opportunities for sexual activity and are expected to remain virgins until marriage. Second, there is a much greater range of sexual practices by males than by females, including homoerotic play and masturbation. Finally, courtship, sexual values, and marriage choices are undergoing significant and rapid change as a result of increased access to education and electronic media.

Chastity and the Double Standard. The sexual behavior of males has always been subject to much less restriction than that of females in Morocco, and even in traditional communities men sometimes sought sexual outlets other than the wife. While the extra-marital activity of a man could bring scandal on his family, or provoke violence from a cuckolded neighbor, it is understood that males will on occasion consort with prostitutes or attempt to seduce married women and virginal girls. Young men in Zawiya today often attempt to have sexual relationships with young women classmates and friends, while still expecting both to protect the virginity of their own sisters and to marry a virgin themselves. A young man may decide not to marry a girl because she has given in to his own sexual advances. The responses from 100 young people ranging in age from 9 to 21 whom we asked about the qualities wanted in a mate emphasized good character and honorable reputation, along with physical attractiveness, as central concerns shared by both sexes (Davis & Davis, 1989, pp. 125-126). The hope is to combine love and mutual respect for a mate of whom family and community will approve, and among more educated youth we often heard about intentions to combine career and family and to share two incomes. At the point of actual marriage, however, many young men from backgrounds like Zawiya are drawn to younger and less educated girls, and they expect these brides to defer both to themselves and their families. If they do select someone of similar age and education, she is likely not to be a neighborhood girl but someone met at school or on the job in the city.

Even in an age when most American young people are sexually active, brides in the US usually wear a white dress signifying sexual purity. When a marriage is celebrated in a traditional semi-rural town like Zawiya, the wedding festivities often culminate in the bride's and groom's retreat to a bedroom nearby. After a brief time, a female family member will bring out blood-stained sheets for triumphant display to the crowd, attesting to the bride's virginity and the groom's potency. Since many young couples today have in fact been sexually active before the wedding, however, the display of the sheets can pose a problem. We heard of cases where the bride brought a vial of her own blood into the bedroom, or where the groom cut himself, or where animal blood was used. This custom is changing and has been abandoned in many middle-class urban weddings, and often couples will begin living together after government civil marriage papers are signed and celebrated with a small family party. This saves the expense of a large wedding; it also means that demonstration of the bride's premarital virtue never becomes an issue.

Girls do fear loss of their virginity, and thus possibly of opportunities to marry, and they are well aware that the risks of sexual intimacy are mostly theirs. Yet despite strong traditional censure of the unwed mother, premarital pregnancies do occur in this community, and in these cases the Moroccan family is usually pragmatic. We heard several reports of young women who left the community before giving birth, but there have also been recent instances of a young woman's giving birth at home to a child who is then raised by her or her parents. Abortion, which in the past was provided by midwives or knowledgeable older women, has become widely available in recent years through private doctors in nearby towns, and some unmarried young women are reported to have had several abortions. The difference between the traditional emphasis on chastity as a matter of family honor and the actual behavior of young people and their parents in a community like Zawiya should caution the anthropologist not to mistake a statement of the social norm (what is thought to be right or desirable) for a valid generalization about normative (typical) behavior.

The Variety of Sexual Acts. Social scientists now generally recognize that the range of normal sexual behavior includes a variety of feelings and acts, including homoerotic and autoerotic (masturbatory) experience. In American society, however, despite the general relaxation of sexual prohibitions over the past several decades, and despite widespread recognition that homosexuality is fairly common in most societies, few teenagers admit readily to homoerotic feelings or homosexual acts (Coles & Stokes, 1985). Morocco seems to be distinguished from the US not so much by a different proportion of people who are homosexual as by a relative absence of the homophobia that makes homosexuality the focus of so much fear, hostility, and anxious humor in America. In Zawiya, various forms of homoerotic play, including nude swimming and group masturbation, were reported as fairly common for boys in the early teen years. Older males sometimes engage in homosexual acts, sometimes including interfemoral and anal intercourse, but these young people do not think of themselves as homosexuals but rather as going through a phase. Homosexuality in adulthood seems to be rare and is still considered shameful by most Moroccans. Separate terms are used for the partner who plays the active and the passive role in intercourse, and the term for the passive participant (zamel) is an insult and a frequently seen graffito on walls near Moroccan schoolyards. In contrast to what we heard from young men, most young women in Zawiya seemed never to have considered the possibility of female homosexuality, and both sexes stated that lesbian relationships were very rare.

Another striking difference between the sexes in Zawiya was with reference to masturbation. Kinsey's researchers, surveying Americans in the 1940s, found that most males and a majority of females recalled masturbating in the years following puberty. This topic was very difficult to discuss with young people in Zawiya, however, and we concluded that masturbation is viewed more negatively in this traditional Muslim community than in most American groups. A few boys and young men admitted to masturbating, and estimated that most males did so, but no young women either admitted or described female masturbation. Generally, we were struck by the much greater range and frequency of sexual experiences reported by males, although both sexes were fascinated by romantic images.

Inducements to change. As part of our research in Zawiya, we asked adolescents about their exposure to influences that we suspected might change their ideas of traditional gender roles. These included watching television, listening to radio or cassettes, reading books, attending films, and travel to larger towns. We took detailed educational histories and asked people in and out of school to describe their daily activities, so we could determine the effects of schooling on attitudes and activities. It is easy for those of us growing up in societies where almost everyone has attended public school to overlook the profound effects on a traditional society of suddenly uprooting all young people born in a given year from family and neighborhood and compelling them to spend most of their waking hours together in school. Indeed, the unverified assumption that adolescence is a universal lifestage seems to us to grow directly from the institution of a lengthy moratorium between childhood and adulthood during which youth are prepared by employees of the state for a life different from that of their parents.

We asked about preferences for Arab or Western programs on radio, television and cassettes. A wide range of music is available on Moroccan radio stations, including popular Moroccan groups in Arabic and Berber, Middle Eastern romantic ballads, and both French and American rock and country music. On television, Egyptian romances share the airwaves with American evening soaps ("Dallas," "Dynasty"), crime dramas ("Columbo"), and sitcoms ("The Cosby Show").

One apparent effect of TV in Zawiya has been on attitudes toward marriage. Traditional Arab cultures specified a parent-arranged marriage to a patrilateral parallel cousin (father's brother's son or daughter) as the ideal, but cousin marriages are now quite uncommon in Zawiya, and most young people expect at least to play a role in selecting a spouse. Today's educated young people have more idea of what they want in a spouse. This inclination is fed by romantic magazines and television programs. A recurrent theme of Egyptian TV dramas, for example, is the love match opposed by parents, who prefer a rich older man for their daughter; the love match usually triumphs. As one young Zawiya woman said, "Girls today learn a lot from films. They learn how to lead their lives. They show the problems of marriage and divorce and everything in those films. TV explains a lot. TV has made girls aware--boys too, but mainly girls." While most of the roughly 100 Zawiya youth we asked "Who should choose the spouse?" answered "the parents" (64% of females and 55% of males), about 25% of each sex wanted to take part in the decision. The number saying they wanted to be involved increased significantly as youth increased in age and in level of education.

The two sexes in Zawiya have a very different exposure to cinema. Of girls, 80% had never been to a movie, while 40% of boys went occasionally and another 40% went weekly or more often. Like television, movies in the nearby city offer exposure to a range of cultures. In addition to Egyptian, French and American films, Italian westerns, Hindi fantasies and Oriental karate films are popular. The most important influence on gender relations may be the soft-core European films, portraying sexual behavior that is banned on television. Young men's sexual fantasies, and their expectations of girlfriends, seem to be changing as a result of exposure to these imported images. As guides for adult living, the TV, pop music, and movie images available to youth in Zawiya seem to influence fantasies and premarital behavior, but these imported notions are often of little relevance to the actual relationships these young Moroccans are likely to experience with a future spouse.

In terms of media preferences, significantly more girls than boys preferred Arabic entertainment on radio, cassettes and television. For radio, 83% of the girls preferred Arabic programs compared to 35% of the boys; for cassettes (mostly music) 85% of girls and 56% of boys preferred Arabic. On television, 44% of girls and 12% of boys preferred Arabic programs. While boys on the average were more educated than girls (and thus more comfortable with non-Arabic languages), it appears these differences are due to sex rather than educational level. Young men as a group are more deeply involved with Western media and the assumptions about relationships and sexuality implicit therein. While both Western and modern Middle Eastern media are preoccupied with love and romantic encounters, the former are more sexuality explicit and less compatible with traditional Moroccan and Muslim ideas about marriage.


The sexual side of life for these young Moroccans is characterized by rapid change, sharp gender-differentiation, and some contradiction between traditional and modern expectations of a relationship. Sexuality can be problematic in such a community, since sexual activity either involves, for the young man, persons unsuitable for marriage (prostitutes, "dishonored" girls) or, for the young woman, a need to conceal her actions and feign virginity at marriage. Because of the double standard, the sexes approach each other with contradictory motives, and often with distrust, so that maintaining emotional intimacy is difficult. On the whole, however, we have been impressed with the respect these adolescents still show for parental and traditional religious values, even as they prepare for an adulthood very different from what their parents have known. The youth of Zawiya still tend to assume they can have new social roles, and new kinds of relationships, without openly challenging family and religious values they share with their parents.

Suggested Readings

Bouhdiba, A. (1985). Sexuality in Islam. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Coles, R., & Stokes, G. (1985). Sex and the American teenager. New York: Harper & Roe.

Davis, Susan S. (1983). Patience and Power: Women's Lives in a Moroccan Village. Cambridge, Ma.: Schenckman.

Davis, Susan S., & Davis, Douglas A. (1989). Adolescence in a Moroccan Town: Making Social Sense. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Mernissi, F. (1987). Beyond the veil: Male-Female dynamics in modern Muslim society. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

A revised version of this paper appeared as

Davis, D.A., & Davis, S.S. (1993). Sexual values in a Moroccan Town. In W.J. Lonner & R.S. Malpass (Eds.) Psychology and culture. Needham Heights: Allyn and Bacon, pp. 225-230.

Copyright © Susan S. Davis and Douglas A. Davis, 1993. All rights reserved.