The strong emotions it undoubtedly arouses gives to the world of sexuality a seismic sensitivity making it a transmission belt for a wide variety of needs and desires: for love and anger, tenderness and aggression, intimacy and adventure, romance and predatoriness, pleasure and pain, empathy and power. We experience sex very subjectively. – Jeffrey Weeks (The languages of sex)
The Sexuality, Gender and Rights Institute (SGRI) organized by CREA at Khandala was a week long engagement that introduced me to the fundamentals of understanding the concepts of sexuality and gender. It brought out a great deal of introspection, questioning and challenging of the ways in which we perceive these words and how we define them according to what we deem is ‘culturally appropriate’ or ‘morally sound’.
Carole Vance, one of the resource persons at the institute boggled our mind with an exercise that we thought would be pretty simple to handle. If we had to explain to someone from outside our planet the answer to “What is Sexuality?” what would we say? How would we explain what it means to someone who has absolutely no idea of the word? After many attempts at trying to explain the term to this imaginary Martian from outer space, I realized how difficult it really is to define the term and come to a definite answer, because anything I thought had a cultural implication or was bound to some normative understanding of it. If we tried to explain it in terms of the body, then is it in reference to the two widely accepted sexes of male and female? Is it only limited to the body, or is it influenced by the ways in which we perceive sexual interests? After a lot of discussion on how it could be explained, I understood sexuality to mean, in its simplest terms, a body of practices that are erotic.
A Belgian film that was screened, “Ma Vie en Rose” (My life in Pink) beautifully explored the theme of socialization and the role it played in assigning gender roles to a child. The film made me think about the burden of expectation that family and society binds upon its children to conform to what are traditionally ‘male’ and ‘female’ roles and how anything outside these categories was unacceptable. While a boy is supposed to have masculine qualities, a girl should have feminine qualities. How about a boy who wants to dress up like a girl? Or is interested in other boys? Can a child be forced to play an assigned role? Who assigns these roles and how do they get formed?
One of the oldest models that defined these terms relied on the biology of sex of a person as the foundation that determined sex roles. That is, the reproductive capacity of a male or female was the basis of qualities that men and women must have. From there came the ideas of aggression, physical power, intellectual ability, temperament, work and numerous other factors that were meant to be for men and the opposite for women. The terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ were used to describe these interests, and those who did not conform to these practices were gender non-conformists.
Sex is an either/or phenomenon – appealing or appalling, rarely in between. – Murray S. Davis
I learnt about the concepts of sexual hierarchy (borrowed from Marx’s idea of the class hierarchy), sexual legitimacy, sexual dissidence and erotic justice. There was an interesting exercise that we did in groups, where each group had to make a pyramid that showed sexual legitimacy in a sexual hierarchy. The most sexually legitimate behaviours are the ones that generally fall topmost in the sexual hierarchy, as they are the ones that are widely accepted by social and cultural norms. The ones believed to be deviant/non-conformist would fall bottommost in the hierarchy. So just like how we divide our society based on class and caste, so do we in terms of sexual practices. What is also interesting to know is that erotic life is entitled to erotic justice, but who decides what justice means especially when one rejects sexual legitimacy?
The institute also touched upon issues of representation of suffering through images, and more specifically sexual suffering. What are the issues that come into play when we speak of what needs to be shown and what shouldn’t? Can the representation of sexual suffering be seen as sexy or voyeuristic? How is it sensationalized in order to fulfil a commercial interest?
Continuing on the idea of representation, Shohini Ghosh took us through Bombay cinema and pointed out interesting techniques used in filmmaking that smuggled transgressive ideas into the big screen. These include the dream and song sequences that conveniently hide the ‘realism’ in the film, yet utilize such techniques that are out of the main narrative text as subtexts. She brought to our notice the various layers hidden in the agenda of certain Bollywood films and how every viewer interprets meanings subjectively. I saw how some of our films were cleverly structured to hide sexual subversion overtly, but nevertheless found a place on the screen.
The institute covered a wide range of other topics. These included topics like consent, social purity, violence, intersex, same-sex love, sex work, sexuality and disability, pleasure, censorship, children and representation, human rights, section 377, the Justice Verma Committee and advocacy. It gave me a diverse understanding of a wide range of critical issues that revolve around these topics. More than providing answers, it raised many questions in my mind. I realized how important it is to question and not accept what society gives us, and be open to interpretations, perceptions, arguments, challenges and disagreements.
Our sexuality permeates every sphere of our lives, and our cultures determine its shades of tolerance and acceptance. It’s a never-ending process of struggle and claim to rights that will go on for generations and evolve and change the more we investigate, examine, study and observe. I want to end with a quote from one of the readings that was given to us, which sums up the heart of most debates on sexuality.
No matter how sex is played out with what gender, power is the heart, not just the beast of all sexual inquiry. – Amber Hollibaugh (Desire for the Future: Radical hope in Passion and Pleasure)
By Zulfiya Hamzaki