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Let's talk about sex

By Meena Menon

Sexuality is often considered a frivolous diversion from the more critical problems of poverty, war, drought or violence against women. But it is precisely in destructive times like these that people become dangerously closed about sexuality. That's why we need to discuss issues of sex, sexuality, obscenity and morality more openly

 When I was a hardcore activist in the mid-’80s, poverty was the issue; violence against women was the issue; drought was the issue; famine was the issue; floods was the issue. Sex and sexuality were issues that could not be addressed. Somehow we did not have the moral right to do so.

As part of the Beedi Kamgar Union, where 90% of the workers were women, we were working in those days with devdasis who, even then, were doing sex work. We also had an STD clinic for sexually-transmitted infections. Still, none of the middle class activists could even talk about sex and sexuality. The STD clinic existed, but most of the women had to access it through the back door.

Twelve years ago, when we started discussing HIV/AIDS with the government, most of the discussions would be held in whispers. We were going to the government and saying: “The condoms are awful, they’re rupturing, life depends on this; this is no way to deal with the AIDS epidemic.” And most of the bureaucrats would tell us: “Hush, you don’t have to say it so loudly, why don’t you give it to us in writing. We’ll try and talk to the companies involved.” And we would say no, if our lives as sex workers depend on the quality of condoms then you should start talking about the quality of condoms. But even that was difficult. In Sangli, on an occasion when condoms were not given to us (we need 350,000 condoms a month), we organised a protest demonstration and the slogan in the protest demonstration was, in Marathi, ‘Nirodh amchya adhikar ahe. He tumcha baapacha nahin,’ (‘Nirodh -- a brand of condoms -- is our right. They are not your property’). The zilla parishad was furious: they could not believe a group of women could actually come into the well of the zilla parishad and demand and shout for such a thing as a condom. We had been using condoms in the family planning programme for 40 years by then, and nobody in the government had even bothered to open one. If they had, they would have found that the ring came off, the rubber remained in your hand; they were powdered, not lubricated, and nobody was willing to use them.

Today there’s been a shift. The HIV/AIDS epidemic has helped bring sex and sexuality out of the closet and forced us to start addressing it. Even the state has started addressing it. But not nearly enough.

Why is there this reluctance to talk about sex? Sex between consenting adults is beautiful. This is something that has to be said over and over again. It’s such a simple fact. Of course, the operational term is consenting adults. The issue is further confused by the tendency to club love with sex. When you say, “I’ve fallen in love” does that mean you’ve had sex? We don’t know. But if love is not sex and sex is not love, and if sex is possible and extremely pleasurable without love, then the converse should also be true, which is that you’re in love and not having sex. But this is difficult to grapple with because every time you’ve had sex you say you’ve made love, you don’t say “I’ve had sex”. This need to couch sex with love has become a very serious and important reason to engage with this issue.

The other problem is that if it’s love it’s pure, and if it’s sex it’s impure. That’s another thing I’m constantly grappling with: What is purity?

These are the questions that made me want to learn more about sexual morality, sexual sacredness, sexual feeling, sexual pleasure, sexual preference, sexual diversity, sexual health and sexual rights.

In Thinking Sex Gayle Rubin says: “The time has come to talk about sex. To think about sex. To some, sexuality may be an unimportant topic, a frivolous diversion from the more critical problems of poverty, war, disease, racism, famine and nuclear annihilation. But it is precisely at a time such as this, when we live with the possibility of unthinkable destruction, that people are likely to become dangerously closed about sexuality.”

If issues of sex and sexuality are not considered priority issues, why is it that sexuality is always subjected to such rigid norms governed by both state and society? If it is so frivolous to talk about sex, why are there so many rules about it? We should just be leaving it alone!

This is an interesting paradox, but one that leads to innumerable problems. Why is it that we are so repressed that we cannot have pleasurable relationships? Why is it that today in the field of HIV/AIDS, sex workers are safer than married women are, when it comes to contacting HIV from their sexual partners? Why is it that men and women are not able to talk to their sexual partners about these issues within marriage? Why is it so simple and easy to talk about sexuality with sex workers? I think these are issues that we need to constantly come back to if we’re trying to understand sex and sexuality.

The time has come to sit down and unravel what the state and society have done to our understanding of our own sexuality.

Issues of female sexual conditioning are very clearly brought out when we conduct sex education classes. All the girls from rural Maharashtra will ask about menstruation, about childbirth. Their entire expectation of a sex education class is talking about reproduction. Then you shift rooms and go to the boys’ class. The boys won’t even ask you about contraception or reproduction. All they want to know is: What is masturbation? Is it okay? Will it give me high blood pressure? You will be surprised at the things boys ask you.

Why is it that I have not met a single girl who has asked me one question about sex and sexuality? Why does this happen? What is this female sexual conditioning that keeps telling us not to ask questions, not to talk pleasure? Sex workers are not very different. I thought that sex workers knew everything about sexual pleasure. But they’re all brought up with the same conditioning. The whole thing about sex work is that it is supposed to be pleasurable for the man. There is no concept of sexual pleasure for the girl or the woman. And in situations where there is sexual pleasure, you’ll be surprised to hear that most women will say, “Last year I had that kind of experience!” And this from women who have an average of four to five clients a day, and work at least 20 days a month!

So this is not an issue for women who are from “good families”. It affects all women. It is an issue of sexual conditioning that says, “Be pure,” for any expression of sexuality is “impure” and “obscene”.

The word ‘obscenity’ crops up much too often these days. What exactly is the definition of obscenity? The law in India says “it shall be deemed to be obscene if it is lascivious or appeals to the prurient interests, or if the effect of any one of these items even if taken as a whole can tend to deprave and corrupt persons”. What does lascivious mean? Let’s look it up in the Oxford dictionary: “To feel, express, or cause sexual desire.” So if you feel, express or cause sexual desire you’re being obscene. And prurient of course is to have or show excessive interest in sexual matters.

Sexual conditioning causes you to believe that to express or feel sexual desire is depraved and morally corrupt; therefore you’re constantly denying an interest in sexual matters. What were the processes of socialisation that did not allow the expression of sexual desire or sexual pleasure? I remember a sex worker from Andhra Pradesh once telling me that there’s an ancient Telugu saying that the woman you’re in a relationship with should be a good woman who feigns innocence but is hot in bed. That is the paradox. Just look at what this type of conditioning is doing to us.

(Meena Seshu is a human rights and HIV/AIDS activist. She is the founder-head of SANGRAM, Sangli, Maharashtra, which builds the capacity of sex workers to organise themselves into collectives, negotiate condom use with their clients, and assert and defend their rights. She was awarded the Human Rights Watch award in recognition of her work in 2002. This article is based on Seshu’s public lecture in Pune in May 2005, organised by the Centre for Communication and Development Studies)

InfoChange News & Features February 2006