Sexuality is, of course, about sex as we are taught in awfully clinical ways in hush-hush biology classes. It’s about having babies, or not having them. And it’s about being sexual, and recognising that humans are sexual beings. It is about our bodies – what we like and dislike about them; it’s about pleasure, pain and shame. It’s about our identities, our beliefs. It’s about safety and health, and about rights and diversity. Sexuality is spiritual, sacred and holy. Sexuality is also about discrimination, violence and humiliation. If sexuality is so complicated, what do we make of it? Well, recognition of this complexity is the first step towards understanding sexuality.
Let us first start with sexuality as sex. When we hear the term sexuality, on most occasions we connect it to the act of having sex, and that, too, of a particular kind - heterosexuality, which refers to the act of sex between a man and a woman. In a conventional sense, then, heterosexuality would mean procreative sex between a man and a woman. Isn’t this the way we learn about the birds and the bees in our biology lessons?
In actuality, though, there’s a lot more that constitutes the idea of heterosexuality. In biology classes and in society it mostly gets referred to as marital, monogamous, procreative sex. But we do know that heterosexuals have all kinds of sex, and also outside marriage. But in some way procreative sex within marriage is considered the norm, the most legitimate form of having sex. Any other kind of sex is considered deviant. This is why homosexuality (sex between two men or two women) is pronounced unnatural, abnormal and illegal.
The fact is that sexuality is not just about who one has sex with or how one has it. It is about power. It is about dominant and subservient relationships, about inheritance of money and property, and about lineage. Homosexual relationships challenge this power structure. The premium put on marital and reproductive heterosexuality has to do with ensuring that family property is inherited only by legitimate children. It also posits a relationship in which men are seen as dominant and as heads of families. If homosexuality gets legitimised, this system of male hegemony and lineage will be disrupted. Sexuality of the heterosexual kind then works along with other systems like marriage, family and property succession to maintain the married man as the repository of all decision making power.
Clearly then, sexuality is not just about having sex, but also about power. Where sexuality is about choice, rights, diversity and responsibility there can be no power to abuse, as in marital rape or child sexual abuse. Because our sexuality is a part of our very being and contributes to our cultural, intellectual and political identities, there cannot be one sexuality that we call ‘normal’.
Recognition of the diversity of sexuality allows us to think of sexuality as identities much beyond heterosexuality: homosexual (gays and lesbians), bisexual, transsexual, transgender, asexual, hijras, kothis, panthis and the list can go on. These diverse identities are not mere nomenclatures but are accompanied by distinct lifestyles and cultural practices. For instance, hijra refers to a ‘traditional’ male-to-female transsexual/transgender cultural community; kothi refers to an effeminate homosexual/bisexual man; panthi refers to the masculine partner of a kothi. These are some of the many indigenous terms that Indians use to describe their sexuality, apart from the more popular gay and lesbian.
This hierarchy of sexual practices is also highly gendered. Men’s sexuality is projected in an unabashed fashion – bulging muscles and virility as the marker of a real man. That is never the case when it comes to women’s sexuality where shame gets attached to their bodies to restrict their mobility and other freedoms. For example, the idea of impurity attached to menstruation does not allow women to access places of worship or the kitchen. Women who ‘flaunt’ their sexuality are called ‘loose’ or ‘immoral’, and if they get sexually violated, then such violations are passed of as ‘they asked for it’!
If we want this diversity of sexualities to be respected, it is necessary that the right to choose is recognised. Every individual must have the right to choose his or her sexual partner, practice, identity and lifestyle as long as such choice does not result in someone else being coerced or their privacy being infringed upon. Thus, free and informed consent between adults is a fundamental principle of sexual rights. But of what use is it to talk about sexual rights, when sex is an extremely inhibited subject? How would we even talk about sexuality beyond its heterosexual norm when anything outside of married, monogamous and procreative heterosexuality is considered taboo?
This is, however, not the situation any more since the time AIDS has been devastating millions of lives in India. Sex is one of the primary means for the transmission of the HIV virus and one of the most effective strategies for combating AIDS is to allow people to access information and services on safe and responsible sexual practices. After all, criminalising sexual practices and stigmatising persons will not take care of the spread of the virus. What is required is that people, irrespective of their caste, class, gender and sexuality must be guaranteed, as a right, access to condoms, information on safe sex, anti-retroviral drugs and other health facilities. It is the stigma associated with AIDS that needs to be criminalised, not the infected.
The root of this stigma lies with non-heterosexual sexual practices being implicated as ‘high risk’. If there is any such practice, it is unsafe and non-consensual sex, and not sexual practices of gays, hijras and those with multiple sexual partners. As statistics clearly show, heterosexual sex is the most common route for HIV transmission. AIDS is not a ‘gay disease’ as it is wrongly referred to as, but a disease that spreads because of ignorance and stigma. This is also why laws that criminalise homosexuality (like Sec. 377 of the Indian Penal Code) must be repealed, because they pose a barrier to working with vulnerable groups like homosexuals who will shy away from accessing information and services for fear of being identified, arrested and stigmatised.
HIV/AIDS has provided an opportunity to talk freely about sex and sexuality, and also challenge the associated norms that result in breeding stigma and discrimination against a whole range of alternative sexualities. Most importantly, today the need to engage young people in uninhibited discussions around sexuality must be recognised as a means to not only warn them against safe sex, but also to instil in them a sense of responsibility and respect for diverse sexual practices and identities.
This open talk about sexuality is also connected with issues of censorship. While on the one hand there is an increasing acceptance of safe sex being talked about in the context of AIDS, yet if there is anything related to sexuality in the popular media it meets with controversies and censure: the bans on bar dancers and IPL cheer girls’ costumes. But interestingly, we also see gay themes being openly accepted in Bollywood cinema, in a film like Dostana. While there seems to be a certain level of acceptance of alternative sexualities on celluloid that has not in any way abated the violence, discrimination and humiliation faced by the sexually marginalised in India. One can say that Dostana was accepted because John and Abhishek were in reality straight people in the film, but when it came to Deepa Mehta’s controversial Fire, there was severe vandalism against the actors and the film on the ground that it shames ‘Indian culture’ and its women because there are no lesbians in India. One wonders who carved the Khajuraho sculptures and wrote the Kamasutra!
Sexuality then has a contested existence in India. There’s either an eerie silence when it comes to talking about sex and sexuality, or a surfeit of hypervisible symbols. And these exist simultaneously: even as you see an increasing openness in talking about sex to counter HIV/AIDS, you simultaneously have highly conservative opinions blaming permissiveness for the spread of the pandemic. We talk about ‘danger’ and ‘fear’ as the only feelings that can be associated with sex and at the same time compulsively consume ‘pleasure’. On the one hand we’re consuming condoms and aphrodisiacs, gyrating Rakhi Sawant music videos and Midnight Hot lingerie on Fashion TV, and on the other, we want dance bars to be closed down and IPL cheerleaders to be banned in the name of protecting ‘Indian culture’. We want liberalisation of the economy, FDI to flow in and de-regulation of the private sector, but we don’t want sex workers to be given labour rights.
We return to the question that we began with: what do we make of sexuality then? Having recognised its complexities and interconnections with identity, rights, culture and health, we can safely say that sexuality is about respecting free and informed consent regarding ones choice of sexual practice and partners, challenging stigma on the basis of sexual identity and practice, resisting sexual violence, taking safe and responsible sexual decisions, looking at sex as something pleasurable and enjoyable, and believing in our bodies and the bodies of our sexual partners as autonomous and lovable. So it’s not just about sex, silly!