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Talking about sex

By Meena Seshu

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. Meena Seshu, human rights activist and founder of Sangram, points out why we need to discuss issues of sex, sexuality, obscenity and morality more openly, and what we can learn from sex-workers

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 in 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 so 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 a thing called condoms. 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 remaining 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 helped us 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 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 devoid of 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. This is another thing that 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!

It is an interesting paradox, but one that is leading to innumerable problems. Why is it that we are so repressed that we cannot have pleasurable relationships with our very own? Why is it that today in the field of HIV and Aids, sex-workers are more safe than married women from 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 a 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 State and society have done to us, as human beings, in our understanding of our own sexuality.

Sexual conditioning

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 that you're going to talk 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 is, what is masturbation, is it okay, will it give me high blood pressure. You will be surprised at the things boys will 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 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 see that most women will say " Last year I had that kind of experience!" And this in 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 within "good families". It affects all women. It is an issue of sexual conditioning that says, "Be pure," for 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? Lets look at 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.

The ban on dance bars

The recent issue of the state government ordinance calling for a ban on the dance bars of Maharashtra centres around "obscenity" and "morality". The bar girl is not a new phenomenon in Mumbai -- in fact the first licenses were given in 1960. Helen's cabarets used to be danced in those bars. And then the era of Helen went and the era of Madhuri Dixit came. For 30 years and more, youth have not been depraved by these bars?

What is really behind this issue? Outwardly of course, there are five reasons. Youth are corrupted by the sexualised environment of the bars; non-Maharashtrians are running the trade; Bangladeshi women dancers are causing a security problem; bar owners are traffickers of young girls; and bars encourage prostitution.

Actually, no prostitution takes place in these bars, much less is it connected with the bar owner if the woman uses the bar as a contact place to solicit clients. Closing down the bar is not the solution, the place of contact will simply shift. So to believe that you're closing the bars to see that prostitution in the bars doesn't happen is not valid. The second thing is the issue of trafficking. Trafficking is a criminal offence and bars owners found guilty of it should be booked under the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act (ITPA). Closing down bars is not the way to deal with trafficking. Trade in humans will continue because of corruption and poor implementation of existing laws. And why should trafficking be moral or immoral? Trafficking is simply a criminal offence. Clubbing it with such a subjective issue as morality reduces the efficacy of the law.

The second thing the law does is dump children and women together. The result is that women get infantilised, children don't get any rights, the issue gets into the subjective realm of "morality"... and the trafficking is never dealt with. What is dealt with is the girl, who is picked up because it's alleged that she's been trafficked --even if she shouts herself hoarse that she hasn't been trafficked - and rescued and rehabilitated, while the traffickers go scot free.

Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra , RR Patil, says that 75% of the bar girls are Bangladeshi, because anybody who comes from West Bengal has become 'Bangladeshi'. But surely that is an issue for the immigration authorities? If the minister believes that stopping the bars girls from dancing is going to stop his immigration problems, I think he's got the wrong end of the stick.

The issue of non-Maharashtrians in Mumbai is a complicated and complex one. Everyone has a human right to move, live and work wherever they want to. But first we need to understand why the poor move to Mumbai. Who or what circumstances are responsible? Is it voluntary? Forced? Is it possible to continue to live in conditions of scarcity, strife, poverty and unemployment, wherever they are? And is it wrong to dream of a life of economic security? If you talk to some of these women from North Karnataka in Kamathipura you will find that they left North Karnataka because of extreme drought. The minute they constructed a dam over there, most of these women actually went back! We cannot look at what is happening in Mumbai in isolation from what is happening back in their hometowns.

The government has stated that they will rehabilitate only the 2-3% of bar girls who are Maharashtrians. Everybody else can go back to their 'home' states! To do what there? And if they've been living in Mumbai for 20 years, is it not government's responsibility to do something about these residents. If they've closed down a livelihood option, isn't it their responsibility to ensure that some kind of alternative livelihood is provided? Recently, in Goa , this is exactly what happened. Women who had been in Goa for 40 years were asked to go back to their states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. They had paid electricity bills, water bills, some of them had even paid taxes. And they were asked to leave on grounds that they were outsiders! And there was not a voice from the NGO world in Goa about this, because the NGO world believes that if they're sex-workers they deserve to go back. In the Goa raid they just brought in bulldozers and razed the settlements -- entire colonies of women -- and then asked them to leave, forced them into trains and buses and back to their hometowns.

In the case of the bar girls, the biggest danger is that they will go onto the streets. I'm extremely worried that they're going to become sex-workers or street-walkers, and I'm extremely worried that none of the HIV programmes or condom programmes will even reach them because once they go underground, they're invisible. We're going to be the reason why many of these bar girls are going to contract HIV/Aids. And I think this seriousness is just not making any impression on the minister concerned.

Finally, the issue of protecting youth from being morally depraved. Does the government really believe that it can stop young people from engaging with sex and sexuality? What the youth of today need is information, education and dialogue. With the kind of wide-ranging global exposure ensured by the communication and IT industry, it is criminal to limit the young under the guise of protection. The young have a right to information, they have a right to education, let's open up the subject and give them the information.

What we can learn from sex-workers

I've learnt the value of openness and dialogue from the sex-workers I work with. Here are women who are actually able to look men in the face and tell them things that neither their wives nor the ones they have cloaked sexual partnerships with, can dream of saying. Whereas men constantly tell you that they come to the brothels because the sex-workers are so open and because they find a sense of liberation in the brothel. There are sex-workers who sincerely believe that they help men go back and work better, be better husbands. And they believe that it is sex and sexuality that triggers that: if you have a better sexual life, chances are you'll be a better human being.

Negotiating safe sex is something any sex-worker can do quite easily today. Yet we as women who are not sex-workers find it so difficult to do. And I think if there is one thing we can learn from sex-workers it is that we should be less biased and more open.

Once, in a discussion with sex-workers, we asked, "You've sold your body for 20 rupees? And pat came the answer, "We've bought male sexual power for 20 rupees!"

These women, who have been thrown out of the mainstream, who are neither good women nor bad women, they're just not women, have been able to negotiate these spaces -- with the men in their lives, with the families they live with -- because of their understanding that multiple sex partnerships can exist devoid of love, in a commercial situation, openly, without the cloak of a relationship or marriage. We need a better understanding of these women, who have always been considered worthless, base, debauched and deviant. We have a lot to learn from them.

We prefer to see sex-workers only as victims of commercial sexual exploitation. But they're not just victims. They have a lot of agency in their lives. They're able to deal with issues of sexuality. They have a lot to teach us. They can teach us to be free and more open, so that we can learn to be better human beings.

(Meena Seshu is a human rights and 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 Open Space, an initiative of the Centre for Communication and Development Studies)

InfoChange News & Features, June 2005