Leïla Slimani is no stranger to taboo. Lullaby, the first of her novels to be published in English, tackled the shocking topic of infanticide and was followed by Adèle, the story of a woman addicted to sex. Both titles earned Slimani a plethora of prestigious literary awards, with Adèle sparking a huge conversation in France about female sexuality. Her latest work, her first nonfiction book, pushes the boundaries even further.
In Sex and Lies, the French-Moroccan author takes aim at a strict society in which women, she notes, are either "virgins or wives". The book features a series of first-person essays through which Slimani gives voice to young women living in Morocco, where sex outside marriage, homosexuality, prostitution and abortion are illegal.
We hear from Moroccan women who are fighting to push the boundaries while exploring their own sexual identities and indulging in sexual relations behind closed doors.
In the following extract from Sex and Lies, Slimani speaks to a prostitute about her relationship with sex and love and how she navigates life in Casablanca.
F is a prostitute. I’ve no need to ask her to be sure. I’ve only to watch her, as the men in the room are doing. She is sitting at a hotel bar in Casablanca. She’s a pretty girl, wearing too much make-up and looking altogether too polished. Perhaps she’s trying to look like one of those Arabic pop stars our Moroccan boys dream about. F is twenty-five and looks much older.
My parents came to Casablanca when they were young, to get out of poverty. They’re from the south of Morocco. They are country people and, though they’ve been living in the city a long time, at heart they haven’t moved far. I grew up in a poor neighbourhood, with three sisters and two brothers. My parents are illiterate and they didn’t take much interest in our education. I stopped school young, but I like reading and seeing films. I think I could have been a good student with a bit of help. You know, every day you’re meant to kiss your parents’ foreheads in thanks for being able to study. But I’m ignorant and there’s nothing I can do.
We didn’t talk about sex or love with my parents. There are things you don’t do. They were working long hours, they were always worried, always tired. They brought us up the hard way. They yelled at us all the time. And they used to hit us. My sisters and I helped our mother with the house and looking after our brothers. By twelve I could do everything, I knew how to keep a household.
I hated it where we lived. I used to get hassled by the boys, there were lots of drugs and lots of violence. When you’re a girl, you have to fight to make people respect you. I always wanted to come here, to the centre of Casablanca, where the shops and the best restaurants are, where I could have worked in a shop or as a waitress.
The boys from good families all want to be like in the porn films.
In my neighbourhood everyone knew some girls who went with men. Young girls and older ones. I remember one woman whose husband had left her. I think she had two or three children. Everyone knew that that was how she could afford her children’s milk. You mustn’t think people don’t know. Even my mother knows perfectly well what I do.
I started working in a hair salon when I was seventeen. I was already quite mature: I had breasts, I looked older than I was. But I didn’t like the work and I wasn’t very good at it. It was my boss who found a way for me to do massage instead. And that’s how it started. In the beginning I was doing massages at a hotel, and from there I got some regular clients. My mother would like me to marry a foreigner so I can get the papers and go abroad, so she doesn’t complain. She’s pretending not to know.
I’ve met some very kind men. There are older ones who give me presents and help me. But otherwise it’s hard, very hard. I try not to think about the future because otherwise I just sit and cry. I’d like to get married, have children, but I’ll have to get far away from here. It makes me feel sick. I’ve seen too much of this in my life. The men here treat us like dogs. Even the middle-class ones, they’re always coming to us. The boys from good families can’t sleep with middle-class girls their age, so they come and let off steam with us. They all want to be like in the porn films. You have to flatter them a lot, tell them they’re tigers in bed – that keeps them happy.
Moroccan men have the devil between their legs. They always say it's women's fault, but the problem is with them.
A group of us girls go to the nightclubs. We’ll sit in a corner, order a bottle of white wine and wait. The owners know us and so do the regulars. In the beginning I wasn’t careful and there were situations with fights and thefts. Sometimes I was really frightened. But now we always go to the same places and we’re careful.
If I’d listened to my father, I’d be a maid in a house or perhaps a waitress, earning a pittance. Or even worse, I’d already have four kids and a husband who’d beat me. Whatever you do, it’s very hard for women in this country. If you haven’t got parents with money or an education either, you can’t escape. Of course, I fear God and I know very well that what I do is haram, but I don’t have a choice. What would my family live on without me? My father died five years ago and my mother doesn’t work. It’s me who gives money to my brothers and sisters. My younger brother has a full beard and wears the jubba, but he never judges me. He’s very good to me.
I’ve been pregnant twice. I aborted them through a girlfriend who knew a doctor. It was hard. I got sick and I couldn’t work for weeks and weeks. Luckily, my friend and I live together in the same apartment. She goes out with a pilot who rents the apartment and comes to see her regularly. He’s a Muslim. He’s very nice and very in love with her. In the streets round about, of course they know what we do, but how could they not? They know life isn’t easy for anyone. This is poverty, that’s all.
Things have got very difficult in Casablanca. There’s a lot of competition. The African women also do prostitution and they’ll work for next to nothing. I’ve heard they also pass on diseases, and that’s really frightening.
Moroccan men have the devil between their legs. They always say it’s women’s fault, but the problem is with them. I would like to go to Europe, have a job, be a mother too. Here there’s no one who can help me to get out. Who’d want a girl like me?
Sex and Lies by Leïla Slimani (translated by Sophie Lewis) is out now, published by Faber & Faber, $18.72 CAD (paperback). First published in France by Éditions Les Arènes. Available to buy here.