• Sarah Taylor

Review: Sex and Lies, Leïla Slimani

A rigorous examination of gender and sexual politics in Morocco

 

During lockdown, I read two books by Leïla Slimani.


Perhaps better known, I raced through Lullaby (French title: Chanson Douce, 2016) in a couple of days. Lullaby tells the dark story of a Parisian nanny, Louise, murdering the two young children under her care. The parents, French-Moroccan lawyer Myriam and her husband Paul, a music producer, initially think Louise is the ideal nanny – she cooks, cleans, and is tremendously devoted to the two children. But cracks start to show, and Louise starts to become obsessive, needy, and dangerous. Lullaby begins hauntingly: “The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds”, and the rest of the novel delves into the lead-up to the murders. It was Slimani’s second novel (her first Adele/Dans le Jardin de l’Ogre was published in 2014) and it quickly became a bestseller, translated into nearly 20 languages, and winning the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2016. 

I really liked Lullaby: it was addictive, sharp and the perfect page-turning distraction in lockdown. Yet I found myself enjoying her first work of non-fiction, Sex and Lies (Sexe et Mensonges: La Vie Sexuelle au Maroc) more. Sex and Lies was published in 2017, and was recently translated into English in 2020 by Sophie Lewis. It is a collection of essays interrogating sexual politics, misogyny and female sexuality in Morocco, a typically conservative North African country. Slimani is French-Moroccan; she was born in Rabat and moved to Paris to study as a young woman.

In the introduction, Slimani discusses the context behind Sex and Lies: she describes how the initial reaction to her first novel Adele (which centres on a young woman suffering from a sex addiction) was layered with hints of sexism and orientalism. “Some French journalists expressed surprise that a Moroccan women could write such a book,” she writes “[...] As if, by culture, I should have been more prudish.” Whilst touring Morocco to promote Adele in 2014, Slimani was approached by many people, mainly young women, who wanted to discuss their own personal experiences with sex, sexual restrictions and laws in Morocco. Sex and Lies is the collection of these testimonials. Slimani hears from a range of female voices – including middle-class divorcees, sex-workers, doctors, and lesbians – as well as a male sociologist and a policeman from Rabat. Slimani states how the book isn't a sociological study nor a long-form essay on sex in Morocco. Instead it is a highly personal collection of experiences as told to her directly by these women. The purpose is reclamation and imposition: “by speaking up,” writes Slimani, “women empty one of their most potent weapons against wide-spread hate and hypocrisy: words.” 

The sexual politics and laws in Morocco are severe: sex before marriage, abortion, homosexuality and adultery are all punishable by imprisonment. Many of these penal codes are steeped in misogyny, and young Moroccan women are expected to show virginity certificates before marriage, may consider hymen restoration surgery, or “agree to anal sex so as to preserve their hymens.” Of course, the laws affect gay men as well, and Slimani discusses Article 489 (which bans homosexual acts) and homophobic violent attacks. However, Slimani focuses more on the hypocrisy she encounters between the genders: women are expected to be virgins, mothers, wives. Men, on the other hand, are not required to provide virginity certificates and  “boast of going to see prostitutes on a regular basis.” Honour killings and violence against women are common; after divorce, women “automatically lose the care” of the children; and in some cases a rapist who marries his victim may no longer be liable for the crime. 

This gendered double standard is not uncommon, and is certainly not specific to Morocco. Misogynistic hypocrisy exists everywhere in the world: young girls are taught their virginity is a sacred and valuable asset, are shamed for sleeping with multiple men, and there are multiple discrepancies between the way single men and single women are treated (especially towards middle age). None of this is new or surprising, and Slimani doesn’t spend too much time focusing on this. 

Instead, she picks apart the hypocritical gap between Morocco’s public conservative values and the acceptance of illicit sexual acts that occur in private. “The key thing was to be discreet”, one woman tells Slimani. Morocco has the fifth-highest porn use in the world, and Slimani’s use of testimonies show that most people are engaging in sexual acts privately. She highlights the case of Fatima Nejjar and Moulay Omar Benhammad, two senior figures in the governing Justice and Development Party, who are caught in “a sexual position” by the police. Nejjar is widowed and speaks openly about fornication, Benhammad is married. They were arrested for adultery and publicly humiliated. 

This is where Sex and Lies’ main argument lies: that the nation’s severe sexual repression has turned into sexual obsession. As long as there is secrecy surrounding sex, there will also be shame. Slimani argues for a sexual revolution of sorts, with vocal testimonials and women’s experiences to confront “this most monumental taboo of all.” Her arguments are clear and powerful, and she states that as long as a woman’s body is still controlled by the state, she cannot be liberated.


Perhaps Sex and Lies could have featured voices from male homosexuals, who are also victims of severe sodomy laws. Similarly to women, gay men’s bodies are discussed and shamed publically, and that viewpoint would have added some diversity and a nuanced discussion into how patriarchal laws affect men too.


Nevertheless, Sex and Lies is a powerful and interrogative collection of essays. In her conclusion, although she forecasts criticism of either “sowing the seeds of fundamentalism,” “opportunistic Islamophobia” or of selling out to the West, Slimani is hopeful and positive. It is from the Moroccan women whom she meets, “who were moving beyond the rules and customs, and even beyond the reach of others’ opinions”, that future change can happen.