This story begins in a small German city. At its center is a market square surrounded by carefully restored historical buildings. Two church steeples rise over the town, which also boasts a large factory and two top-tier high schools. Behind the bike stands is where the cool guys have always kissed the girls while the boys in advanced-placement physics got nothing. At least they could hope for a Nobel prize one day.
The town has a society for preserving local customs, an amateur theater and a brass band. The people living here are just as happy and just as sad as anywhere else in Germany. When, in summer 2015, refugees began pouring in from all over the world, the townsfolk were concerned and helped where they could. It is thanks to them that the refugees could move from shelters into apartments and that the foreigners soon became neighbors. Today, the small town, my hometown, is home to 1,200 refugees, mostly from Syria, Eritrea and the Maghreb.
Following the sexual assaults perpetrated by foreigners in Cologne on new year's eve 2015, the mayor assembled all those working with refugees in our town and said: "We don't want a repeat of Cologne here." Everybody nodded. A discussion followed as to whether more surveillance cameras on the market square might prevent sexual assaults or whether a private security company should be hired to support the police. They dispersed with thoughtful expressions on their faces. A short time later, my telephone rang and the town doctor was on the line, a woman we all just call "Frau Doctor." "Could you imagine holding a sex education class for refugees in my practice?"
Since that call, around 20 men between the ages of 16 and 36 have been coming to the doctor's brightly lit office once a month. "Welcome," I say at the start of every session, "let's talk about sex." And every time, 20 men stare at the floor as their faces redden. But I'm familiar with the reaction. It happens everywhere I talk about sex.
I took my first steps in Kenya and, because my mother worked as a doctor in many different countries, I also learned several languages. I learned Arabic on the streets of Algiers – and learned in nine countries what it means to not have a homeland. When I fell in love for the first time, I learned to kiss in secrecy, but mostly I learned that different cultures have entirely disparate approaches to sexuality. Ten years ago, I decided that sex education would become my focus. Back then, I stood in front of the mirror and practiced saying the word "penis" in 11 different languages.
قضيب (qa’dib) – pénis, लिंग (limg) – firaha, pene – ஆண்குறி (ankuri) – عضو تناسل (uzu-i-tanasul) – آلت تناسلی مرد (ālat-e tanāsoli-e mard) – غینړ (g̠ẖīṟṟṉ) – azzakari – biliti
I haven't blushed since.
At this point, our story is leaving the small German city behind for a moment and heading all the way to India. Ten years ago, like so many 19-year-olds, I wanted to save the world, so I founded a small clinic in a large New Delhi slum together with my best friend. One of my first patients was a mother of four who sat in front of me on a plastic stool and told me that she had a problem with her penis. I thought I had misunderstood her and said: "Oh, you mean you have a problem with your vagina, don't you?" The woman shook her head. "What's a vagina?" she asked and pointed between her legs. "I have a problem with my penis."
For the first time, I understood that there are people all over the world who are unable, even after giving birth to four children, to name parts of their anatomy. I resolved to delay saving the world for a bit and to offer sex education, contraceptives and family planning in the slum.
My colleagues at the time didn't understand my decision. "That won't help anything," they said, and "you'll see what comes of it." So, before I got started, I asked my grandmother for advice. Born in 1922, she was the one who ultimately told me about the birds and the bees. I was 13 at the time and was reading "The Robbers" by Friedrich Schiller. There was a passage I didn't understand about Amalia and my grandmother told me that the robbers in the piece of classic German literature intended to rape her. She pulled an atlas of anatomy off the shelf and explained to me what the differences are between the penis and testicles, vagina and clitoris. She spoke seriously and without blushing about sex, birth control and the right to say "yes" or "no" to sex.
"You have to do what must be done," my grandmother said when I asked her if I should provide sex education in the slum. So, I first began speaking with the women there about their bodies, about contraception and about giving birth. Men threw rocks at me and threatened to set the small clinic on fire and I began giving the women padlocks, which proved surprisingly effective in protecting their shacks from rampaging men. Ultimately, the men, whether resigned or simply curious, began turning up for the sex education classes as well. For the last 10 years, I have been referred to in this Indian slum as "the woman who always talks about sex." Outsiders are always able to find me by using that name – in a place that is seven times the size of the small German town to which this story now returns.
Before I began talking about sex with the men here, a handyman installed a second mailbox next to the door of the practice for all questions about sex, birth control and family planning that the refugees might have. When I opened the mailbox for the first time, several folded-up pieces of paper with drawings of giant penises spilled out. Super, I thought to myself. It was the best thing that could have happened: All of the penis myths at once. Like winning the lottery.
Can you break your penis?
Is it true that women who menstruate aren't virgins anymore?
Will my penis become harder if I dunk it in ice water?
Once we have all gathered in a circle on our colorful chairs and the men are staring sheepishly at the floor, I answer the questions from the anonymous mailbox. My Arabic is the type spoken in the Maghreb. For the men from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, I sound uncomfortably like their older sister. For the men from Syria and Yemen, I'm more like a strict aunt with facial hair. They know that the atmosphere in the room isn't likely to lighten up.
But before even the first question is answered, I explain over and over again the intricacies of male and female anatomy. Penis pictures are enormously helpful in that regard because basic knowledge is paramount. Sex education begins with the correct terminology for all parts of the body. For many men, it is liberating to be able to properly name their reproductive organs. The childish appellation "tallywacker" or the more locker room "fuck stick," terms that exist in every language, are extremely unhelpful when it comes to formulating desires and needs.
Penis pictures are helpful in showing that the penis, contrary to what many men believe, isn't a bone and, even when erect, never reaches a length of two meters. From here, it is just a small step to the insight that a penis never becomes hard as steel, even if this myth is a persistent one. On a large white piece of paper lying in the middle of the room, I draw the outline of a female body and have every man in the class sketch in where he thinks the vagina is located. Almost all of them put it about where the belly button is located.
Can you get pregnant from kissing?
Is menstrual blood an aphrodisiac?
My mother says that my wife shouldn't breastfeed during her period. Is that true?
Sometimes, chance occurrences during the class are also helpful. On one occasion, a man's nose suddenly begins bleeding profusely – providing the perfect opportunity to explain that menstruation isn't something unclean or unnatural, but a normal, recurring bodily function. The man, sitting in front of me with a tampon in his nose, is amazed by how much it can absorb.