Let’s talk sex


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I see myself as an agent provocateur. In that role, I found myself in the early ’90s constantly asking, ‘And what about gender?’ at many meetings organized ostensibly to talk about rights in development. I remember the looks that flashed across many faces when they heard that question. They seemed to scream ‘Oh my god, she is a feminist!’ I was damned. A decade later, I find myself at meetings organized around women’s human rights and still asking questions. This time it is ‘and what about sexuality?’ A different range of looks now flash across people’s faces, ranging from ‘pervert’ to ‘Oh my god, she is a lesbian!’ It has been a no win situation all the time. Two decades of being an object that is scary and therefore will ask scary questions that will not always have an answer.

But are these questions so unaskable? Aren’t gender and sexuality an inherent part of our lives? Should we not be asking questions so that we can open up some debates that might actually change the world somewhat? What is it about these words that makes people quake? What is about these words that seem to indicate that a can of worms will come leaping forth and there will be no way to trap them?

For the last decade I find that I am feared even more because I talk about sexuality and sexual rights and also provide training on these issues. Gender, in comparison, seems such an easy word. And so I attempted to look at what it was that made people so scared and what is it about these two words that renders people incapable of including them within their work.


When I started working in the field of ‘development’ or whatever else one wants to call this term – I guess in these days of political correctness I should be saying ‘when I started out working on issues of human rights’ – gender was meant to be a political term. It had fallen into our laps after years of not having any way to indicate that women should be accounted for and that it was not all right to go to a male village elder and ask him to talk about the problems of village women. Gender was a way to stop men from saying that my wife does not work when she was a housewife and more importantly, that it was not okay to say that women do not count if they do not contribute financially. Gender ushered in a revolution that led to many new discoveries like Practical Gender Needs and Strategic Gender Needs, outlined by Caroline Moser.1 It led to the discovery of frameworks – the Harvard Analytical Framework, and gender analysis; it led to quibbles about gender equity2 and gender equality,3 about what is better; and of course to the wonderful world of gender mainstreaming.

Then it stopped being a political tool: it became something that every organization did mainly because that is what their donors and women’s groups insisted. All training modules began with the difference between sex and gender, where sex was seen as biological and gender as socially constructed, alongside a long litany of woes of how many hours women worked and how little men worked. More and more women were being deputed to attend this ubiquitous gender training, and organizations claimed to have mainstreamed gender because their staff had attended one such gender training!


Disillusioned by what was going on, I was pleasantly surprised to see that sexuality had crept into the lexicon of the women’s movement and even seen as a powerful political tool. Suddenly I could see the futility of just talking about gender roles and was made to notice a larger, more complex heteronormative4 world. I saw that gender non-conformity troubled many people – friends who were living together were made to feel that they were courting eternal damnation, marriage was thrust down our throats, young girls were withdrawn from schooling because the secondary school was far from home and the parents were not assured of her safety and/or were scared of her desires that could result in pregnancy. The women’s movement in India seemed reluctant to utter the L word (lesbian) and all references to sexuality were necessarily linked to violence.


So I assimilated gender and sexuality and replayed the age-old sex vs. gender debate that I had been exposed to in my head. Conventionally sex is biological and represents the genitalia of men and women, while gender is socially constructed and refers to roles being played. Yet my thinking and all the learning I did had told me that sex too can be constructed and that there is nothing stopping someone from changing from one sex to another. Therefore, I learnt to alter my definition of sex to: Sex refers to the biological characteristics, which define humans as female or male. These sets of biological characteristics are not mutually exclusive as there are individuals who possess both, but these characteristics tend to differentiate humans as males and females (World Health Organization). And to this I added that sex can be altered or constructed in case someone wishes to do so.

Then came the world of sexuality, which encompassed within it gender, sex and so much more. Now one had to take into account feelings, behaviour, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure, intimacy and reproduction. One had to discuss how sexuality is experienced and expressed in thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviour, practices, roles and relationships. And one had to accept that while sexuality can include all of these dimensions, not all are always experienced or expressed. One had also to account for the fact that sexuality is influenced by the interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, ethical, legal, historical, religious and spiritual factors (WHO working definition on sexuality).


So suddenly we in India are faced with this new world of sex and sexuality and are trying hard to find ways in which all of this can be translated into a language that other people can understand and use to challenge their own thinking. The challenges are many.

How does one deal with issues of fluidity? Most of our life we have dealt with a world that has included only men and women and now the world has offered up to us a chance to look at this anew. There are manly women and womanly men, there are masculine looking women and feminine feeling men – the permutations are endless. If we do not construct our world as binary, we are allowed endless possibilities and we would not have to define ourselves any which way.

How does one understand consent? We have spent many hours reforming laws in India arguing that consent is the bedrock upon which we judge whether a sexual act is rape or not. We acknowledge women’s agency to be able to say yes or no and yet when it comes to issues of sex work or women who identify themselves as lesbian or woman loving woman, we are not willing to see them as women who consent to those identities. We talk of rescuing them and we talk of perversion or deviant sexuality.

How does one understand young women’s sexuality? We are reluctant to think about young women as being sexual and feel that they can be sexually active only when they reach the stipulated legal age of adulthood. And yet this is a country where young girls get married and become mothers before the stipulated legal age of adulthood.

Does one address issues of heteronormatavity and homonormatavity? Clearly we inhabit a world where men and women are seen as partners who marry and have to create a family and do not seem to include within that any other combination. At the same time, within communities of same sex partners, we push for a uniformity of desire and are therefore unable to include women who may desire both men and women, or would like to have women who finitely identify as lesbians.


What of violence as oppressing all? Whenever we conceive of sexual harassment or violence, we only look at women and do not include within that men who face sexual harassment because they do not conform to the norms of ‘masculinity’ or women who do not pass as women because they do not quite fit the norms of ‘femininity’.

Similarly when thinking of sexuality and disability, the worldview we subscribe to very often only includes within it able-bodied people and no others.

Sexuality offers us a world that we can re-interrogate and renegotiate and yet we would like to stay bound to the understanding that we have had over the last hundred years. The world is changing and we need to start addressing that change so that women who inhabit this new world have more options available to them and are able to live lives that are not restricted and can move towards a future that is charted by them in accordance with their desires and dreams.



1. International Labour Organization, South-East Asia and the Pacific Multidisciplinary Advisory Team.

ILO/SEAPAT’s OnLine Gender Learning & Information Module http://www.ilo.org/public/english/region/asro/mdtmanila/training/unit1/gneeds.htm

2. Gender equity means fairness of treatment for women and men, according to their respective needs. This may include equal treatment or treatment that is different but considered equivalent in terms of rights, benefits, obligations and opportunities. In the development context, a gender equity goal often requires built-in measures to compensate for the historical and social disadvantages of women. Gender and Household Food Security, International Fund for Agricultural Development, Rome, 2001. http://www.ifad.org/gender/glossary.htm 

3. Gender equality entails the concept that all human beings, both men and women, are free to develop their personal abilities and make choices without the limitations set by stereotypes, rigid gender roles, or prejudices. Gender equality means that the different behaviours, aspirations and needs of women and men are considered, valued and favoured equally. It does not mean that women and men have to become the same, but that their rights, responsibilities and opportunities will not depend on whether they are born male or female. ABC of Women Worker’s Rights and Gender Equality, ILO, Geneva, 2000.

4. Those punitive rules (social, familial, and legal) that force us to conform to hegemonic, heterosexual standards for identity. The term is a short version of ‘normative heterosexuality.’ http://www.cla.purdue.edu/English/theory/genderandsex/terms/heteronor mativity.htm