Straight from the heart December 3, 2008Posted by nitinkarani in English, Gay & Lesbian.
From India Today:
|Straight from the heart|
|November 20, 2008
SEX SURVEY ’08: HOMOSEXUALITY
The “coming out” of sexuality is a significant development of post-liberalisation India. Provoking outrage in some and getting approval from others, sexuality today is a bitterly contested domain.
One of the most visible examples of this struggle is currently on view at the Delhi High Court where the decriminalisation of homosexuality is being debated.
Drafted by Lord Macaulay in 1860, Section 377 of the IPC criminalises “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal” with punishment by imprisonment extending up to 10 years.
In 2001, Naz Foundation, an NGO working for HIV/AIDS, filed a petition in the Delhi High Court demanding the decriminalisation of consensual sex among adults.
The petition is supported by Voices Against 377 (a coalition of human rights groups and individuals), the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) and the Health Ministry. The petition is being opposed by the Home Ministry (thereby placing the Government in a peculiar paradox), an NGO called JACK (which believes that the AIDS threat is a hoax) and V.P. Singhal (brother of Ashok Singhal of the VHP) who believes that criminalising homosexuality serves to uphold “Indian culture and values”.
It is ironic that for Singhal, a piece of colonial legislation should come to the rescue of “Indian culture and values”. I describe the dramatis personae and their scripts in some detail because this unfolding narrative could be an allegory of contemporary India’s contestations around sexuality.
The India Today-AC Nielsen-ORG MARG sex survey is bad news for traditional moralists but for everyone else, an opportunity to learn how diverse our sexual cultures are. Responding anonymously, men and women from four metros and seven major cities share information about their sexual preferences and practices.
The survey demonstrates the decline in conventional inhibitions and a greater openness to a range of sexual practices that lie outside the ambit of marriage, monogamy and heterosexuality.
There seems to be an increasing willingness on the part of the people to talk about their sexual lives when anonymity is guaranteed. Clearly, the silence around hitherto taboo topics like queer sexuality, extramarital relationships (unfortunately called “adultery” in the study) and pornography are definitively broken. Take the findings on pornography for instance.
According to the survey, three out of every five men and one out of every five women “approve” of pornography. Since pornography has always been considered a male preserve, it is worth noting that 21 per cent of the women respondents approve of pornography out of which 45 per cent have been inspired to be sexually more inventive. Video is the most popular format with the highest patrons in Hyderabad (68 per cent) followed by Kolkata (59 per cent).
It’s interesting to note that one out of every 25 women who watch pornography admitted to having made their own porn videos.
Therefore, not only are women watching porn, they are also participating in its production.
However, it should not be assumed that the videos are being produced for public circulation but possibly as part of sexual play in intimate spaces.
Today, home videos permeate all parts of people’s lives and the erotic space is no exception. The Internet sexual adventures of Savita Bhabhi, an illustrated porn series, could qualify as “home porn”.
Historically, the pornography debate has been fraught. The traditional moralists and some feminist groups (albeit for very different reasons) have opposed pornography. The traditional moralists view it as a preoccupation with sex that is not related to the purpose of sex, which is reproduction. They view pornography (and all sex outside marriage) as a threat to traditional family values.
The feminist view of pornography has a contentious history in the West. The antipornography feminists known as the “radical feminists” demand censorship of all pornography because it is believed to encourage a culture of rape and violence against women. In the 1980s and ’90s, this position found its strongest supporters in Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin whose crusade for censorship took inspiration from slogans like “pornography is the theory and rape is the practice”.
The anti-censorship feminist position, whose politics I share, draws attention to the difference between sexist speech and sexually explicit speech. All sexually explicit speech is not sexist just as all sexist speech is not sexual. Therefore, it is the sexism in the genre that has to be fought and not the genre itself.
Anti-censorship feminists repeatedly draw attention to the overwhelming data that fails to show causal links between pornography and violence including those used by radical feminists to support their position.
To this end, they quote an important 1987 study which reads: “Should harsher penalties be levelled against persons who traffic in pornography? We do not believe so. Rather, it is our opinion that the most prudent course of action would be development of educational programmes that would teach viewers to be critical consumers of the media.”
In India, pornography is common but usually discussed in whispers. Any public debate tends to be met by hysterical outrage. In 1996, filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt commented that those who wished to watch pornography should have the right to do so.
This provoked some social and women’s organisations to demand his removal from the governing council of the FTII, Pune.
Similarly, when the late filmmaker Vijay Anand as chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification suggested setting up theatres for the exclusive screening of adult films, he had to pay with his resignation.
Similarly, the findings on homosexuality are likely to put the Home Ministry’s arguments about Section 377 in jeopardy.
The dominance of heterosexuality notwithstanding, 16 per cent of the men and 6 per cent of the women surveyed are homosexual.
Moreover, 16 per cent of all men have had homosexual experiences. One out of five men and one out of 10 women “approve” of homosexuality.
Twenty one per cent of all women surveyed in Ahmedabad and 17 per cent in Bangalore claim to be lesbian. Nineteen per cent of all women in Lucknow and 15 per cent in Patna admit to having lesbian fantasies.
These figures provide a challenge to the affidavit submitted by the Home Ministry in the 377 case which states: “Indian society strongly disapproves of homosexuality and the disapproval is strong enough to justify it being treated as a criminal offence even where consenting adults indulge in it in private.” Clearly, the Home Ministry has to catch up with the people of India. The findings will come as no surprise to those who work in the area of sex and sexuality. They have for years known that role-playing, sexual fantasies, pornography, intergenerational relationships and sex with sex workers are common.
It is said that writing and talking about sex shapes the way in which it is perceived.
Meanings given to sexualities are socially organised and sustained by a variety of languages embedded in medicine, psychology, religion, moral treaties, laws, social and cultural rituals.
The history of movements and language of sexuality reveal that terms of self-identification keep mutating with changing contexts. For instance, the term ‘queer’ has a complex history. It first emerged as a term of social opprobrium and self-description. In the ’70s, the gay liberationists abandoned it because of its connotations of self-loathing. In the ’90s, it was revived to suggest a diverse range of nonheteronormative sexual behaviour.
Similarly, the sex workers of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee prefer to call themselves sex workers in order to challenge the term ‘prostitute’ which, as their flyer explains, “is rarely used to refer to an occupational group who earn their livelihood through providing sexual services (but) is deployed as a descriptive term denoting a homogenised category, usually of women, who pose threats to public health, sexual morality and civic order.”
In order to foreground the notion of sex work as labour, they have been demanding the right to form a trade union.
On the other hand, the sex workers from Veshya AIDS Muqabla Parishad (VAMP) in Sangli, Maharashtra, call themselves “women in prostitution” and see themselves engaged in an occupation (dhanda) which is not to be equated with a profession.
The most useful part of this distinction is that it compels people to recognise that women may move in and out of prostitution, which is no different from any other occupation. Consequently, self-descriptions may vary over cultures.
Were we to regard sexualities in all their complexity, we will find that our available resources of words and understanding are limited. Therefore, it is vital that open-minded sex surveys abandon old-fashioned expressions like “adultery”, “kinky sex” and “virgin” in favour of a vocabulary that is free of stigma and moralism.
Sexuality studies and surveys must expand their gender categories to include ‘transgenders’ if they are to understand the complex range of genders and sexualities that our society inhabits. Like the characters in Mahabharata, the world cannot be divided into ‘male’ and ‘female’. Our bodies are only one indication of our genders and sexualities. For the rest, it is important to remember scholar Carol Vance’s wise observation that the “most important organ in humans is located between the ears”.
—The author is the Zakir Hussain Chair Professor at the A.J.K. Mass Communication Research Centre, at Jamia Millia Islamia.