Myriam Boulos invites Lebanese women to share their sexual fantasies

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“The project is about exteriorising everything we were taught to bottle up,” says Boulos, who seeks to unpack notions of desire and how they are often entrenched within our political realities

In 2021, amid multiple crises in Lebanon, Myriam Boulos put out an open call on Instagram: “If you identify as a woman and want to share your sexual fantasies, send me an email.” The result is an ongoing series of co-authored portraits, Sexual Fantasies, which unpacks notions of desire and how they are often entrenched within our political and social realities.

“The project is about exteriorising everything we were taught to bottle up,” says Boulos. “Growing up in Lebanon, I felt like my body was public property, and people, mostly men, assumed they were entitled to it. At a time when the patriarchy was invading the most personal corners of my life, I realised that sex and intimacy were also a space in which I could reclaim myself and invent new worlds that go beyond the oppressive and abusive system we live in. Intimacy is political, and taking back what belongs to us is a constant work of deconstruction. I see sex, like photography, as a medium to experience and feel things. It’s a way of approaching life and being present.”

Boulos was born in Beirut just two years after the official end of a 16-year civil war. Her childhood was spent living in the shadow of the conflict without context, as her parents’ generation refused to talk about the war. Despite this attempt at a protective bubble, Boulos recalls feeling a sense of “endless uncertainty” about what the future may hold. Her primary coping mechanism was photography. At 16, she began using the camera to question Beirut, its politics, and its people to better understand her place within it.

© Myriam Boulos.

When the revolution began in 2019 – a reaction to ongoing government corruption, the failing economy, and the country’s dilapidated infrastructure – Boulos was there with her camera. She spent two years documenting the collective pain and euphoria born from citizens putting everything on the line to fight for a better life. Compacted by the pandemic and a devastating explosion in Beruit’s harbour in 2020, life for the Lebanese was more fragile than ever, rendering Boulos and her community in what felt like a never-ending nightmare. The artist found herself caught in a cycle of processing life through photography, simultaneously affirming her survival while repeatedly reliving these traumatic events through people’s stories.                                       

Initially, making Sexual Fantasies was an attempt by Boulos to interrupt this anxiety and focus on something independent of the country’s turmoil. It was about holding space for female pleasure and how fantasies are a world in which you can retain control during times of uncertainty. And yet, for both artist and sitters, visualising their sexual fantasies became a tool of resistance. Formed by, and in opposition to, the beliefs around her growing up, the tender and emotional images embody a movement of women intent on asserting agency over their own lives and bodies in a subversive act of defiance.

“I want to take this whole world we all have inside of us and make it visible,” explains Boulos. “I wanted to undo this impulse we have as women not to take up space. In most cultures, [women’s] pleasure is shamed. It doesn’t have a place in our lives – it’s almost taboo. The revolution was not just happening on the streets but also within us. The project is about confronting the patriarchy and [also acknowledging that] the biggest tyrant we need to rise up against is the one within ourselves.”

© Myriam Boulos.
© Myriam Boulos.

In life and art, so many aspects of women’s lives are deemed unserious for critical, academic and creative study – simply because they belong to the world of women. Socially and politically, subjects like masturbation, menopause, birth, menstruation, work and sex have been rejected, shamed, ridiculed and dismissed in the culture – often by women themselves. Boulos’ project speaks to this inculcated sexism and the nefarious ways patriarchy cultivates the unconscious. What makes this project particularly radical is that the stakes are so high. Boulos and her collaborators have taken on the challenge to make a subject of sexual fantasies – contending with experiences that are immensely vulnerable and private – at significant personal risk.

While the open call was spontaneous, the genesis of Sexual Fantasies precedes the revolution. It can be traced back to Boulos’ early works, which offer glimpses into the rising dissent emerging in underground spaces across Beirut. Boulos spent two years documenting the city’s fragmented nightlife in Nightshift (2015) – illuminating the normalised oppression of women and the LGBTQ+ community – while also describing the collective freedom born in these sacred spaces. In contrast, Tenderness (2018) depicts sexually liberated lovers and individuals shot naked in the city, offering a more poetic riposte to state violence. “It was our way of reclaiming our streets and bodies,” says Boulos. “Everything that is supposed to be ours.”

The project is now expanding; Boulos collaborated with women in Paris and Berlin this summer, while continuing the work in Beirut. Through this complex entanglement of power, politics, territory and liberation, the artist illustrates how revolutionary it is for women to exercise such powerful desire in Lebanon and worldwide.

Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.