The Veil of Morality
By Gulshan Banas
India often appears to me as a cultural paradox. We’re the land of Kama Sutra, Rati Rahasya and other explicit displays of sex in sculptures and paintings that celebrate human sexuality and yet we also have one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world – including sexual violence. We recently studied sexual motivation in class (a very giggly and extraordinarily attentive class) – we learned that sex is one of the most powerful human motivators, so powerful that lack of sexual satisfaction can end relationships. It is one of the most joked about (quite obscenely, at that) and one of the least talked about (seriously, that is) aspects of humanity. Indeed several paradoxes exist in our society, several hypocrisies – but none to as great an extent as sex.
Switch on your television, flip through a magazine, drive by a billboard on a highway – “sex” will be thrown at you from all directions. It’s literally everywhere you look, but the paradox here is we’re far from being a sexually liberated society.
To write this article, I did research on pornography, erotica and history of erotic depictions. I’m generally quite liberal in my attitude towards depictions of sex and sexual orientations, and keeping this attitude in mind, I proceeded with my research. I watched a video on the history of pornography, desperately tried to find a definition of pornography (it is the explicit depiction of sexual matter, using a variety of media) and came across several viewpoints on pornography, along with a complicated distinction between pornography and erotica (which I definitely didn’t understand!). I even read parts of what is considered to be the first English prose pornography.
It is quite a scary task to be writing on sex and pornography, will I be criticised for my opinion? I would go against the general stream of opposition to pornography here and state that I believe there’s nothing wrong in it. Wait a second, and take a deep breath and I shall do the same, for my ears are red. Let me explain why I hold this view.
Perhaps I am more liberal towards sex than many other people, but I believe it is paradoxical to the point of being hypocritical that we would do something in our private life and condemn the same in the public sphere. What is wrong with the depiction of sex in the public sphere? Absolutely nothing. It is an important aspect of human life, and as human beings we have a natural tendency to explore our motives and express them in the form of art. There is, however, a point of difference between art and pornography – most would claim. Why? In our time, and indeed in the recent history that precedes it, art has been linked to being “elite” and “cultured”, as evidenced by paintings selling for multi-million dollars. Pick up any Robert Crumb comic, you’ll find artistic depictions of sex – that are certainly not “cultured”. And why should they be? Are sexual pleasures, enjoyed privately, truly cultured and sophisticated?
How old are these “explicit depictions”? About 30,000 years old – archaeologists recently discovered cave paintings depicting sexual intercourse in Australia. Venus figurines and mother goddesses found all across the world, in almost all cultures, depict enlarged and highlighted female genitals. Frescoes from Pompeii, about two thousand years old, depict the sexual act – not just between one man and one woman, but one woman and many men, or only men. Indian sculptures in temples have explicit depictions of copulating couples. The state of orgasm is often described as “peak experience”, and perhaps that’s why sex and depictions of sex have been linked to spirituality in many cultures.
So why does our mainstream culture forbid and condemn the depiction of sex? Susannah Bright, an American writer and sex-positive feminist notes that all commercial media are sexist, the problem people have with pornography is that is openly depicts sexual intercourse. Pornography often depicts dominant female characters as “dominatrices” and women enjoying sex and actively initiating it. It often shows sexually-liberated women – who enjoy sex as active participants, not passive receivers, who go beyond conventional sexual behaviours. It goes in opposition to the traditional ideas about sex.
I am not advocating pornography nor implying that it only has positive aspects. Depictions of children, of rape and coerced sex in porn are horrifying. However to blame pornography as causing child molestation, sexual abuse or rape would be seeing only half the picture. For these have existed even when pornography was not as commonly available as it is today. Pornography has been criticised for promoting rape myths, as well as trivializing sexual intimacy and monogamous relationships. However I believe that casual sex and monogamous or multiple sexual relations are individual choice, and a sexually-liberalized society should appreciate and respect individual differences in sexual behaviours and attitudes.
Pornography may often force and coerce women into perform certain acts, which is wrong. But coercion and forced sex even exists in marriages as marital rape, and yet no one advocates the banning of the institution of marriage.
Social change should be aimed at the acknowledgement and understanding the sexuality of women.
Whether pornography is an art or not is beyond my capability of judgement, however I perceive depictions of sex in art to be quite natural expressions of human motives and emotions. Censorship of depictions of sex has also existed for a long time, and has often been associated with political and religious motives (as in medieval Europe) and linked to a stringent control of the sexual act itself. When human sexuality is denied expression, women perhaps suffer the most – because their sexuality is the first to be denied.
As a woman, I want my society to accept my sexuality, I don’t want to be dominated by a man and I want space for the honest expression of my sexuality. For me, depiction of sex in art is a process of social liberation from redundant ideas about sex. It is a process of gaining mutual respect for man and woman as equally active sexual partners.
As for pornography, like any other social media, it is a tool which could bring about a positive change in how society perceives sex or it could promote redundant ideas of male dominance and aggression. “Feminist pornography” is an upcoming area in the porn industry. So let’s not keep hushed up about sex anymore and instead celebrate our sexuality as a part of our selves. Lets challenge these old-school ideas present not just in pornography, but all media, that women are passive. Let’s be honest with ourselves.