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Introduction: Recognising, claiming and celebrating sexual rights

Where does sex live? And where does sexuality reside? In our minds, bodies… in our cultures, attitudes, laws, in our pants, our wallets, in our politics, identities, in our very beings. Wherever we go sex and sexuality follow. They are there, everywhere, obvious by their presence and conspicuous by their absence.

There’s either an eerie silence when it comes to talking about sex and sexuality, or a surfeit of hypervisible symbols. And these happen at the same time: even as you see an increasing openness in talking about sex to counter HIV/AIDS, you simultaneously have highly conservative mores blaming permissiveness for the spread of the pandemic. And it’s not just about AIDS; it’s about anything remotely connected to sex and sexuality. You celebrate the strides made by women in ‘Indian’ society, and at the same time make them responsible for ‘attracting’ and ‘provoking’ sexual assault. We talk about ‘danger’ as the only feeling that can be associated with sex, and at the same time compulsively consume ‘pleasure’. On the one hand we’re consuming condoms and sex toys, gyrating Rakhi Sawant music videos and Midnight Hot lingerie on Fashion TV, and on the other we want dance bars to be closed down in the name of saving today’s youth from becoming bad boys. 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.

The ‘great sexual revolution’ has only just begun in India.

What makes it so difficult to map this revolution is its immensely fluid and discursive nature. Some people would want to locate sex and sexuality in certain spaces… mostly private. The state seems to work on exactly this understanding; it constructs certain spaces where it can regulate sexuality, where it remains an unnamed state subject. Some others would talk about a hierarchy in which sexual rights receive least importance. Whereas some will take ahead the feminist bastion of ‘personal is political’ to support the notion of ‘sexual citizenship’.

For some sex still remains a non-issue, for some others it is paramount to their very existence. For some it’s beautiful, dazzling, brilliant… for others it’s depraved, decadent, immoral, and for many it’s all that falls in between dazzle and decadence. Sex is indisputably innate to our being and at the same time remains a highly contested functional terrain.

So what do we make of sex and sexuality? Are sexual identities as important as caste and religious identities? Is openness about sex a Western import? Do we need the law in our pants, to regulate and tell us how to and how not to have sex? What’s so queer about ‘Queer’ identities? Will sex education be responsible for increasing promiscuity among young people? Can activists engage in claiming the right to pleasure as strongly as the right to food? Can development workers use the lens of sexuality to try and make their interventions more open, participatory and plural?

The attempt of this issue of InfoChange Agenda is not to simply find answers to these difficult questions, but to try and complicate our understanding of sex and sexuality. On the one hand we will search for answers; on the other hand we will explore more questions. Questions that trouble us, questions that make us confront our own discomfort with sex and sexuality, questions that force us to rethink and interrogate activist interventions. Is it only the moral brigade that is complicit in perpetuating a conservative sexual morality that views sex and sexuality as inherently ‘dirty’, from which ‘good’ and ‘decent’ people ought to be protected?

We can openly disclaim having put together a comprehensive collection of pieces, but can confidently declare that the contributions to this issue engage in a process of bringing theory and practice closer together. The contributors are mostly practitioners, engaging with issues of sexuality in India, sharing experiences that have been instrumental in shaping their point of view. To that end, this collection recognises the need to create a theoretical discourse on sexuality in India and at the same time make that discourse accessible, relevant, usable, useful and, most importantly, open to inputs from those who matter: the sexually marginalised, people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA), activists, counsellors and everyone who actively engages with issues concerning sexuality, rights, development, discrimination, autonomy, access and social justice.

Sexing the journey

The journey of understanding and working on sexuality in India is not of recent origin. From the creation of the Indian nation state till today, sexuality has been knowingly or unknowingly central to the agendas of both the state as well as other non-state actors. Partition marked the passage of the Abducted Persons (Recovery and Restoration) Act, 1949, to bring back, albeit forcibly, the women of ‘your community’ to ‘your country’, in order to protect their chastity from being tainted by the Other and to preserve the honour of the nation.

Soon after Independence, one of the first tasks on the government’s agenda was to put in place ‘population control’ measures. India’s policy on population dates back to 1952 when the family planning programme was launched. In the early years, the poor (both men and women) were seen as perpetuators of the problem. Male and female sterilisation was the foundation of the programme.

India took a heroic stand at a Bucharest Population Conference where Dr Karan Singh declared: “Development is the best contraceptive.” Back home we were plunged into the Emergency and the main slogan of the Indira Gandhi government was also population control. The government went hammer and tongs after men. The vasectomy nightmare is said to have reversed Gandhi’s fortunes in 1977. By the late-’70s, the blame shifted to women who were seen as producing too many children -- leading to a women-centred programme. Sterilisation of women was the magic formula. Female sterilisation, which accounted for 45% of all sterilisations in 1975-76 and fell to only 25% in 1976-77, rose to 80% in 1977-78. Throughout the 1980s they accounted for about 85% of all sterilisations and in 1989-90, 91.8%.
The state’s engagement with controlling sexuality through ‘population control’ policies later found a boost with the HIV/AIDS scare in India. The threat of the pandemic did more than strengthen the state’s moral arms: for the first time ever the state was talking about sex. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently urged people to shed their inhibitions and address issues of sex and sexuality more openly to arrest the further spread of the disease. A National AIDS Control Programme was launched in 1987 with the programme activities covering surveillance, screening of blood and blood products, and health education. In 1992, the National AIDS Control Organisation (NACO) was established. NACO carries out India’s National AIDS Programme, which includes the formulation of policy, prevention and control programmes.

While the state’s engagement was restricted to addressing sex and sexuality as a pathologised health issue, in the 1980s, the rape of the tribal girl Mathura in Maharashtra saw sexual violence becoming a contentious issue being raised by women’s groups and human rights groups across the country, challenging the state to bear accountability for stopping sex crimes. Civil society also questioned the conservative foundations on which the justice delivery mechanism was operating, particularly the judicial construct of ‘immoral’ women. Sexuality continued to be of critical concern for the judiciary, with landmark judgments like Vishakha articulating the right against sexual harassment in the workplace.

Sex thus remained an issue that the state either addressed within its own constructed notions or was made to take on due to mounting pressure by the women’s movement’s mobilisations on sexual assault. All this primarily through the operation of law. Even before Independence, India had the archaic 1860 Indian Penal Code (IPC) that was informed by Victorian morality and the diktats of the church. Marital rape was not and still is not a crime; all forms of consensual non-procreative sex is criminal; there is no law against child sexual abuse; and the invisible arm of the law clearly discriminates and oppresses marginalised sexualities.

The state uses absurd logic to keep in place discriminatory laws like ‘unnatural offences’ in the name of protecting children from sexual abuse, yet not legislating for a specific law to make child sexual abuse a crime. It is accepting huge amounts of funding from all possible sources to counter HIV/AIDS, but is still not proactive in passing an anti-discrimination law for PLWHA.

Yet at the same time the law also remains the most potent and powerful tool for claiming sexual rights. The only sad part is that any interaction between law and sexuality in India is mostly looked at either as a morality issue or that of law enforcement, and not of rights.

Sex today

In a globalised, ‘modern’ and ‘liberal’ India, sex and sexuality’s addresses and residences occupy much larger spaces, much beyond state policies on population control and the law’s regulation of sexuality. It’s in the cover stories and centrespreads of magazines that seem to obsess about the ‘libido quotient’ of Indian women, and do gloss-talk about the emerging identity of the metrosexual male. Sex and sexuality is indeed in our pants now: in the way we dress, why we dress the way we dress, and being told how to and how not to dress in colleges, universities and workplaces. 

In the use of our performative spaces, both functional and liminal, sex, sexuality and their derivatives are hierarchised and mediated through the public/private, good/bad, aggression/submission, pleasure/danger, permissive/censorious, majority/minority, rights/wrongs binaries. Somehow that doesn’t give us an opportunity to explore, complicate and celebrate the myriad hues of what sex and sexuality can offer in terms of idea, identity, power, politics and freedom.

Most often it is our own ways of calibrating pain, privileging one form of disadvantage over another, that does not allow space for a multiplicity of voices -- sexual voices at that -- to flourish, to shout out loud and tell us why sex and sexuality is not only important but an existential exigency for each one of us. Thus we fail to recognise sexual needs as natural urges, demands, claims and rights. Civil society interventions have made certain headway, thanks to the window that HIV/AIDS has opened up. But such interventions have mainly addressed sexuality for the purposes of perpetuating the rhetoric of ‘safe sex’ (as if sex otherwise is always unsafe). 

Very seldom have these interventions engaged with questions of inalienable and non-derogable human rights against discrimination, stigma and torture and for equal treatment for people of alternative sexualities or for those whose ‘images’ get tainted due to the sexual nature of their work. Commendable, however, are some civil society interventions that have attempted to create safe spaces, especially for young people, to talk, ask questions without inhibitions, to provide knowledge for making informed and responsible sexual choices.

This issue of InfoChange Agenda is not an attempt to merely take stock of where civil society work stands with regard to its relationship with sex and sexuality. It’s more about disrupting and puncturing the almost impregnable comfort zones that we’ve created for ourselves: where we decide what’s important for others, rather than listen to their voices. In these zones, rights disappear and questions of disadvantage are not a priority. This issue is about questioning the development community’s predominant focus on an understanding of disadvantage that has to do with victimhood and misery and not with agency and celebration. This issue is not telling us that sex and sexuality should be part of the development agenda; it’s telling us to open up, to listen. It’s inviting us to start visiting the many addresses of sex and sexuality.

InfoChange News & Features February 2006