Dear men and women,
There’s a nude sculpture of Yakshi – the mythical being of Hindu mythology – in the Malampuzha garden of Palakkad, Kerala. Yakshis are considered as the guardians of the treasure hidden in the earth and often depicted as beautiful and voluptuous with wide hips, narrow waists, broad shoulders and exaggerated spherical breasts. So, why am I telling this and how is this relevant to the topic?
I, just by simply posing for a pic with this sculpture, raised many eyebrows in the garden. So, I know many people have by now felt a little qualmish after reading the title of the article itself.
On Women’s Day, when on one hand we talk about gender equality and women’s rights, why our community on the other hand discourages women from being confident in their sexuality?
(Mind you, being ‘sexy’ and being ‘sexual’ are different)
Now, you ask me what gender equality and women’s rights has to do with women’s sexual liberty. But before that, let us talk over the stereotypes about a sexually liberated woman.
The first sexist hetero-normative assumption for a sexually liberated woman is that she is not normal. Why so? Is it because our view of women as less sexual stems from our view of women as less human?
The virgin/whore dichotomous belief comes from the second assumption that women who talk openly about sex is a ‘slut’. Talking about sexual desires doesn’t mean that a woman is interested in casual sex. Along with physical intimacy, an openly sexual woman wants to and has a right to experience emotional intimacy too.
The third assumption – that openly sexual women are kinky – freaks me out. Just because she’s open about sex, people assume that she’s sexually adventurous. Men deduce that she’s into ménage à trois or sodomy or literally anything or everything they want.
A woman can be completely vanilla and have high sex drive, and someone can be super kink and be less sexual. These things are not related.
Another ridiculous assumption about the sexualities of women are made based on their race: Latina women are “spicy,” Middle Eastern and South Asian women are simultaneously “exotic” and “repressed,” Asian women are “submissive,” black women are “wild” or “animalistic”.
It is to be understood that any skin colour, race, creed or religion of a woman do not determine the degree of sexuality in her.
Well, we don’t really have these stereotypes about men, so why do we treat women as unusual?
The most important piece of a woman’s sexuality did not directly relate to what women believed about their own sexuality, but more so the roles assigned to them through the beliefs, superstitions, and decrees of the Church, the law, and men. These three entities came to define female sexuality and sexual identity in the Middle Ages.
There were an abundance of superstitions and beliefs about women’s sexuality during the medieval period. Medieval women were assumed to be far more insatiable than men and a woman’s lust would have been considered her ultimate sin. Aside from these beliefs, medieval men did not take female sexuality seriously except insofar as it threatened male privilege or the natural hierarchy of genders.
New England Puritanism (1630-1660) and the Victorian era (1837 -1901) was downturn when hypersexuality was often treated as an exclusively female disorder, diagnosed on the grounds of as little as masturbation alone. Moreover, this era led to the creation of counter image of mid-nineteenth century ideal of the Victorian lady – Jezebel – an African ‘black’ woman with sexual appetite. The idea that black women were sexually promiscuous stemmed from Europeans’ first encounter with African women. Unaccustomed to the requirements of a tropical climate, Europeans mistook semi-nudity for lewdness. The practice of polygamy among Africans was attributed to uncontrolled lust, and tribal dances were construed as orgies. This image also gave the impression that black women could not be rape victims because they always desired sex, thereby legitimizing sexual assault of black female slaves by white males.
As far as my home-country India is concerned, there are historical evidences, like the sculpture of Ajanta caves, the Kamashastra and many more, showing sexual liberalism in ancient India. Built around 9th to 12th century, Khajuraho in central India showcases some of India’s most famous ancient works of art, depicting romantic themes and situations. Then when did India became regressive on matters of sexuality?
The period of sexual liberation was cut-short with British occupation of India. Victorian values stigmatized Indian sexual liberalism. The pluralism of Hinduism, and its liberal attitudes were condemned as “barbaric” and proof of inferiority of the East. A number of movements were set up to work for the “reform” of Indian private and public life. Paradoxically while this new consciousness led to the promotion of education for women and (eventually) a raise in the age of consent and reluctant acceptance of remarriage for widows, it also produced puritanical attitude to sex even within marriage and the home.
Stereotypes about sexuality can impact perceptions of sexual assault. The very idea that a woman’s sexual purpose is to be the object of man’s desires is catastrophic. It perpetuates discrimination, violence and humiliation. Stereotyping can impede access to legal rights and protection for victims of violence. It also impacts the reproductive and sexual health and rights of women and girls. The Executive Director of the Ethiopian Centre for Disability and Development,Yetnebersh Nigussie highlighted that women with disabilities are believed to be sexually inactive and therefore unsuitable for marriage. They are also the least likely to acquire an education for fear that they could be abducted, raped or subject to other forms of violence in school. Further, women with intellectual disabilities in particular, including when they are victims of sexual violence, were seldom considered reliable witnesses in courts.
What can be done?
Alike men, women’s wants and needs are also to acknowledged. Any attempt to demystify sexuality must involve men first. As Harish Sadani of Men against Violence and Abuse(MAVA) says, it is impossible to talk about gender equality and women’s rights, without first sensitizing men on these issues.
A very patriarchal notion of sex and sexuality is propagated – sometimes unconsciously and inadvertently – within the family that conditions the minds of children, especially boys, about what is acceptable. I feel it is the parents’/ partner’s role how they shape their children’s/mate’s attitude towards sexuality. Sexual emancipation, circumscription of sexual violence and elevation of women’s rights can be promoted through open dialogue only. Last but not the least, the media should also cease to stereotype female sexuality.
Wrapping up my letter, I hope it encourages healthy and open discussion and equal acceptance of male and female sexuality.
By the way, HAPPY WOMEN’S DAY 2017.
just another deviant woman
- “4 Bogus Stereotypes You Might Believe About Openly Sexual Women” Suzannah Weiss, everyday feminism(Oct 20, 2016)
2. “Women of Color Seen As Always Sexually Available” Jaclyn Friedman (Oct 29, 2011)
3. Stereotypes of Hispanic and Latino Americans in the United States wikipedia.com
4. “Where the ‘Spicy Latina’ Stereotype Came From – And Why It’s Still Racist Today” Katherine Garcia, everyday feminism (Dec 7, 2015)
5. Judith M. Bennett et al., Sisters and Workers in the Middle Ages (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 176, 179, 87, 101.
6. Vern L. Bollough and James A. Brundage, eds., Handbook of Medieval Sexuality (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1996), 199, 44.
7. Frick, Katie L. (2002). “Women’s Mental Illness: A Response to Oppression“. University of Texas at Austin
8. White, Deborah Gray (1999). Ar’n’t I a Woman. W.W. Norton & Company.
9. West, Carolyn (2008). “Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire, and Their Homegirls: Developing an ‘Oppositional Gaze’ Towards the Images of Black Women“. Lectures on the Psychology of Women (4)
10. “Tracing Sexuality in Indian culture” Shweta Kothari, HuffingtonPost (Aug 30 2014)
11. “Indian concepts on sexuality” Kaustav Chakraborty and Rajarshi Guha Thakurata
12. “EXOTIC FEMININITY: PROSTITUTION REVIEWS AND THE SEXUAL STEREOTYPING OF ASIAN WOMEN” Devyn T. Dougherty, UNIVERSITY OF NORTH TEXAS (Dec, 2014)
13. “The harms of gender stereotyping” (June 20, 2014)
14. “Let’s talk about sex” Divya Gandhi and Julie Merin Verghese, The Hindu (May 08, 2016)