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Sexuality in Modern India: Paradoxes and Myths

By Parthiv N. Parekh Email By Parthiv N. Parekh
August 2014
Sexuality in Modern India: Paradoxes and Myths


There is perhaps nothing about the human experience that is at once, paradoxically, the most divine, yet also the most devilish in the mischief it has caused throughout human history. Reflecting this confounding nature of the beauty and the beast that is sex, Indian spiritual traditions have held both its embrace as well as its abstinence as a gateway to the divine—its embrace in the yogic practices of tantra, and its abstinence in the yogic prescription of brahmacharya, which encourages celibacy.

How can it be that the same phenomenon has been held as both a slice of heaven and a pitfall to hell? Is it any wonder that grown-ups, even the wise ones, find it confounding to grapple with this basic instinct? What chance, then, do hormone ravaged youngsters have?

It is this that highlights the importance of why societies must strive to get it right—in not letting pop psychology, pseudo-experts, or prurient interests set the agenda for the place of sexuality in societies. By that standard, our generation is failing our youngsters. There is perhaps no other generation in history that has made sex so pervasive and pedestrian. This is evident not only in how naked and in-your-face sex is in commercials, movies, and other mass media, but also in how prolific and easily accessible pornography is in our times. It is this in-your-face omnipresence of sex—as opposed to a mystical cloak that it used to enjoy in generations past—that is creating a generation of youngsters that is thor-oughly incapable of handling its relentless onslaught.

From prudishness and repression, modern societies have gone to the other extreme—a faux and uber liberalism surrounding sex. There is a segment of society—liberal elites in academia, self-proclaimed “sexperts,” and counter-culture hippies for whom nothing is off-limits about sexuality. In the name of liberalism, they justify unlimited license and look down upon as prudish, those who suggest that sexuality may need to be handled with traditional restraints and constraints. I am reminded of Richard Dawkins, a zoologist famous for his popular science books, who used to say it’s good to be open-minded, but not so much so that your brains fall out.

It is precisely the failure of societies to distinguish promiscuity and perversion from sex in a committed relationship which is raising a generation of youngsters who think nothing of casual sex, while ignoring the baggage of woes that come inherent with it.

In India, that transformation from prudishness to extreme permissiveness has happened a tad more rapidly than in America, which has been experimenting with the so-called sexual revolution since the 1960s. Impressionable youngsters in India are bombarded with perverted sexuality with the ease of a click on their ever-present mobiles. And so we have statistics such as rape being the third most popular genre of porn in India—and the actual occurrence of rape rising to alarming, if not epidemic levels.

There is a particularly disturbing opinion offered in some circles that suggests that this faux and uber modern liberalism surrounding sex—the one that is debilitating youth—is nothing but a return to India’s “gloriously liberal” sexual past. In this line of thought, the ignorance and repressiveness of the illiterate rural class is often stacked against the “liberated” urban yuppies who claim they are falling back into the “progressive” mind-set of an ancient India that produced the Kama Sutra treatise and the Khajuraho carvings.

But such an appraisal doesn’t stand up to scrutiny beyond a cursory comparison. For example, not many may know that the Kama Sutra, the much misunderstood and misrepresented work of Vãtsyãyana, is full of sexist prescriptions that are the very antithesis of progressiveness—it contains lessons, for instance, about when it is appropriate to force marriage upon a woman and when a man can handpick ripe servant girls for his indulgence! And one could similarly argue that there is nothing necessarily liberated or liberating about sexual debauchery such as orgies and bestiality that are depicted in the Khajuraho carvings.

More importantly, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that either the Kama Sutra or the Khajuraho carvings were representations of the mainstream thought or practice of their respective eras. Consider a modern parallel: just because pornography is abundant and easily accessible, does that mean it defines the mainstream sexual mores of our times?

By all means there is a need for modernity, acceptance of sexual orientation, sex-education, and the like in India, but to go the other extreme—the way of the so-called “glorious” past of Kama Sutra and Khajuraho—is like, well, letting our brains fall out.

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