Tue12122017

Last updateSat, 22 Jul 2017 6am

You are here: Home | Agenda | Sexual rights in India | Limiting sexuality

Limiting sexuality

By Geetika Bapna

The discourse on AIDS has conflated sexuality with sexual behaviour alone. Thus, kothi sexuality is understood only as a high-risk group. There is a biological reductionism that dislocates sexuality from social, economic, cultural and gender relations

A group of men had slipped into women’s clothing. Some of them were wearing false breasts while others sported bras on their flat chests. Dressed in flamboyant costumes, their female dressing was typically accompanied by ‘feminine’ jewellery -- bangles, nose-rings as well as gaudy make-up. Few of them sat in one corner of the room, busy plucking their facial hair and getting their eyebrows in shape. Some others danced to the hip Bollywood numbers in most sensuous ways.    

This is a brief account of my first visit to the weekly support group meetings organised by Naz Foundation -- a non-governmental organisation in New Delhi working on issues of sexual health.

The men described above identify themselves as kothis. Kothis define themselves as homosexual men who take pleasure in dressing in ‘women’s’ clothing. Therefore the kothi identity is simultaneously a sexual as well as a gender identity.

Kothis identify themselves as homosexual men. However, the articulation of same-sex desire in a culture where homosexuality is criminalised inevitably brings with it social constraints. The pressure for marriage is one of the important ways in which regulatory processes reinstate their hegemonic control over acceptable sexual roles. Consequently, many kothis are married. It is in fact within this conformity with acceptable sexual roles that sexual dissidence is produced. But the kothi identity is further complicated, as it entails not only sexual dissidence but gender dissidence as well: not only are these men sexually attracted to other men, they also see themselves as ‘women’ and adopt ‘feminine’ gender roles in relation to those men.

Theorists of drag have tried to analyse the complex phenomenon of cross-dressing. Marjorie Garber sees transvestism as disruptive, seeking to destabilise the binaries of sex and gender. Garber suggests that cross-dressing is essentially subversive. Theorists like Judith Butler and Anne McClintock suggest that not all drag can be seen as radical and disruptive of normative sex and gender codes. In the context of the kothi, sexual speech and the discourse on clothing and body parts are important ingredients of the practice that we understand as drag. From the feminist perspective, while kothis do interrogate normative gender codes, they simultaneously reiterate conservative understandings of female sexuality as ‘passive’, firmly locating women in the mould of victims and not only eclipsing any possible sexual desire or agency on the part of women but simultaneously reiterating normative masculine roles. The following narrative exemplifies this.

“Today people do not enjoy sex as much with women as with a kothi. They like it with a kothi because a woman cannot offer sex to a male partner as openly as a kothi can…I get attracted to a man. I have a girl-like disposition… speak like a girl. My body language is like a woman. I want to grow my hair. I like to wax, to make eyebrows, to use nail polish, facial massage. This is what it means to be a kothi…some kothis hate women. But I do not share this sentiment. We have this much strength that we can marry a woman and produce children…A kothi can tell his wife about his sexual preferences. Some women accept this, others don’t. Those who do not accept it should not be told. A kothi is already risking so much by marrying a woman. It is not easy to marry.”

-- Excerpt from an interview with a kothi

The excerpt points to an understanding of female sexuality that is clearly influenced by notions of sexual conservatism and passivity, where reproductive sexuality is the only imaginable form of sexual expression within heterosexual relations. The reference that the subject makes when he says, “Women cannot offer sex as openly as a kothi” suggests that with women one cannot have oral and anal sex, or indulge in other forms of sexual expression. Not only is there a negation of any possible sexual desire or agency on the part of the women in their lives, there is a simultaneous reaffirmation of the normative patriarchal masculine roles. Clearly many kothis are married. A complete silence on the issues confronting these women suggests that sexuality within conjugal relations still remains de-politicised and under-theorised.

The global sexual health movement

The global public health movement around male sexuality, in the wake of the AIDS crisis, is the context in which large sections of male populations in South Asia having same-sex relations are being mobilised. These public health interventions have focused on sexual behaviour rather than on sexual identity. In India, in the field of sexual health, many prominent activists argue that the language of identity and western constructions of sexuality are markedly inappropriate in delivering culture-specific HIV/AIDS health services to some men in South Asia. Instead of the term ‘gay’ or ‘homosexual’, public health activists have opted to use the term ‘men who have sex with men’ (MSM).

MSM is a diverse group, kothis being a part of it. And it is argued that within MSM there is no straightforward relationship between sexual practice and sexual identity. Use of this term is necessary for effective health interventions, because MSM do not possess a gay self-identity, do not see themselves as bisexual, yet are not conventionally straight. As one prominent health activist notes: “South Asia has an incredible diversity of identities, desires and frameworks of expression -- a true queer space. Hijras, transvestites, transgendered, gay identified men… men/males who have sex with other men/males, in all its variety of terminologies, behavioural choices, desires and constructions. Are we truly saying that we should reduce this diversity into the singular construction of a gay identity?”

Within this sexual health discourse under which the kothis are being mobilised, there are a number of separate strands that must be clearly delineated. There is an inherent tension within the strategies embraced by these public health interventions. Many of the sexual health discourses define kothis as passive, penetrated, effeminate homosexual men. There are a plethora of other sexual identities within MSM that are narrowly defined on the basis of specific sexual practices and behaviours. Terms such as gandu (one who is penetrated), khush (happy gay) jankha (effeminate gay man, mtf transvestite) are some examples of the terms that are used within the MSM community. However, many of these terms actually bracket and stifle diverse sexual practices within fixed identity categories. The kothi group, which itself is extremely heterogeneous, would hardly fit within such a narrative. And the sexual as well as gender practices of many kothis clearly disrupt such a narrowly defined account of sexual identities.

There are two other important implications of such institutional interventions, which need to be critically evaluated. In many of the arguments made by public health activists, there is a claim for indigenous identities as against “gay” identity, which is seen as western and thereby elitist and something that needs to be rejected altogether. Ruth Vanita points out in the introduction to Queering India, that it is “significant that it is usually those who have already obtained most of their basic civil rights and liberties in first world environments who object to the use of these terms (gay and lesbian) in third world contexts”.

The discourse on AIDS, which is one of the notable ways in which sexuality as an issue has come to the forefront of debate and discussion, has simultaneously limited our understanding of sexuality and, in a curious way, has conflated sexuality with sexual behaviour alone. Given this context, kothi sexuality is often understood only in terms of a high-risk group, multiple penetrations, and STD treatment services. In other words, there is a biological reductionism within these discourses that dislocates sexuality from social, economic, cultural and gender power relations.

Further, as a recent report points out, the HIV/AIDS pandemic has led to an extension of the notion of safe sex -- from that which prevents unwanted pregnancy to that which prevents the transmission of HIV.

What are the implications of such shifts in meaning for the feminist struggle? The discourse on AIDS and sexual health has been able to raise questions about sexual behaviour without actually opening up a discussion about the larger structures of polity, economy, culture and society within which sexuality is produced and regulated. Such a limited understanding of sexuality has simultaneously served to obscure its multiple as well as complex sites of articulation. So, not only are the assumptions about femininity and female sexuality that are reaffirmed through kothi identity disconcerting for feminists, but equally limiting and problematic are the understandings produced about male sexuality, divorced as they are from any social underpinnings critical to an understanding of issues of sexuality.

(Geetika Bapna is a researcher from Delhi who works in the areas of gender, sexuality, feminist theory and kinship studies. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

References

Butler, Judith, 1993, Bodies that matter: On the discursive limits of sex, Routledge, New York
Garber, Marjorie, 1992, Vested Interests: Cross Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, Routledge, New York
McClintock, Anne, 1995, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest, Routledge, New York
Vanita, Ruth, 2002, Queering India: Same-sex love and eroticism in Indian Society and Culture, Routledge, New York

InfoChange News & Features February 2006