Our unwillingness to talk about sex risks us from realising the possibilities of critical discussions on larger societal problems.
By Brian Horton
“So why do you want to work with only the transgender community?”
It was the middle of a call with a corporate representative interested in talking about transgender issues in the workplace. Given that people across the LGBTQ spectrum are invisibilised in corporate spaces in India, I found it strange that this particular person was only interested in talking about transgender persons (mostly hijras and transwomen).
In response to my question, the representative explained that “we want to give them choices and options as well as to save them from their…historic professions”.
The palpable hesitation in the speaker’s voice as they said historic professions, instead of sex work or prostitution, said as much as the intentional censorship of any immediate reference to sex. Even the recent Transgender Bill passed by the Union Cabinet strategically skirts the issue of sexuality (and 377 of the Indian Penal Code) all together while promising to rescue hijras from begging and sex work.
At every turn, the sex in sexuality is in danger of being silenced by our own discomfort with talking of desire, flesh, and well… sex. This imposed censorship risks us realising the possibilities of critical discussions about everything from gender inequality to sexual consent to the resilience of casteism.
Throughout my fieldwork as an anthropologist studying LGBTQ social movements in India, I have encountered discomfort, and at times, disgust regarding the topic of sex, particularly sex between non-heterosexual and/or cisgender-identified persons.
Often this disgust or discomfort does not register as plain and outspoken revulsion. Rather, it becomes more banal dismissals of sex talk as something that is “not Indian”. Sometimes there are no words, just the cacophony of cliquing tongues and monosyllabic sounds of disgust, “chee”.
Much like the turn to describing reviled things, people, and ideologies as “anti-national”, such claims of national or cultural inauthenticity amplify compulsions to remain silent about everything from sexual dissidence to our own experiences of desire.
Once, during a “Hug a Queer” rally organised by an LGBTQ youth group at Marine Drive, I watched as members of the public chided the event organisers.
At one point an older man on the footpath with his family began shouting down the organisers claiming that this is not done, homosexuality is against the culture of the Mahabharata and the Shastras, and that this should be something reserved for the privacy of the bedroom.
Such a visceral reaction is not simply to hugs or even to alienated young people searching for affirmation. The invocation of tradition and culture aims to silence newness, moments where individuals attempt to challenge the status quo, here by talking openly about sex and desire.
And the shame around sex and sexuality talk is not just limited to uncles shouting down those challenging the heterosexual and normative limits of sex. Last week, The Telegraph reported that an expert panel working on recommendations for adolescent education was pressured by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) to strike the words “sex” and “sexual” from their final document.
An anonymous member of the expert panel cited that the ministry’s justification was that the usage of the words sex and sexual might offend people.
It is ironic that an effort to empower young people with knowledge think that we have come to the point where the mention of sex – even in an effort to empower young people about their sexual health – is subject to being labeled as offensive.
But what could possibly be offensive about sex, let alone talking about it openly?
The booming 1.252 billion population of India suggests that someone must be having sex. However the ways in which it is policed, relegated to the private sphere, and sanitised out of the public domain suggests the disruptive and subversive potential of sex.
And when it does enter into the public consciousness, it is often so wrapped in metaphor and metonymy (and patriarchy) that the subversiveness of it is muddled by a parade of stylised images of lovers dancing in the rain, extinguished flames, and kissing flowers all set to a Lata Mangeshkar tune.
“Why must you people talk about it”, is a question LGBTQ persons in this country are often asked about speaking openly about sex and sexuality
My answer to this nettlesome question is simply, because heterosexuals talk about it so often. At the office water cooler, at weddings where aunties and uncles talk about who is next in the matrimonial firing squad, in films where heroines clad in wet saris dance to the tunes of male protagonists, our world is dripping in sex.
Even without uttering the words sex, erotic, the names of organs, or positions, heterosexual sex is not only privileged, it is the singular lens through which sex can be imagined.
So talking about sex for LGBTQ persons incites us to imagine an otherwise and other side to the limited frame of public discourses on sex and sexuality.
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