As adolescents, my friends and I referred to ‘sex’ as the ‘three-letter bad word’. In an all-girls missionary school, we learned about intercourse with a clinical precision. Our Biology teacher’s body language made it amply clear that questions were not welcome. Sex was, but a means to an end, even though (thanks to American rom-coms) teenage imaginations ran amuck with wild fascinations of our own.
Almost a decade hence, when I look around me, matters of sex are still discussed in between hushed silences. While we have an erotic tradition of over a thousand years old, we currently also see the incessant proliferation of anti-Romeo squads, determined to curb healthy relationships between young men and women. There has been a huge spike in honour killings, there is no concept of sex education in our schools, and until very recently our film certification board was eager to shoot down almost any film where a woman is in control of her own sexuality.
Seema Anand, the author of the book The Arts of Seduction, says that this ‘bizarre’ shift in attitude is a ‘reaction to the emancipation of women’. Drawing from the Kama Sutra, Anand’s book is a guide to having great sex in the 21st century. She adds that India’s attitude towards sex changed from a joyous pleasurable experience to one of domination and repression a long time ago. As long as sex was the privilege and pleasure of the man it was fine. After all, ‘boys will be boys’. If it was violent (as in rape), then ‘she was asking for it’.
She describes how a woman’s narrative begins right at the top, as an all-powerful goddess. The fact that she can create life makes her godly and worthy of worship. But somewhere along the way, the narrative changes from one of power to disenfranchisement.
“And if you look carefully it is a very subtle little shift. The role of the woman does not change, the nuance changes. She still creates life but no longer because she wishes to, rather because she is told to. She is told when and with who. Desire becomes a duty. It is no longer her power, it is now her job, it is what enslaves her.
So the one thing that changes is the woman’s right to her own body, her right to her own sexuality. And literally by taking away this one thing you have changed her status from ‘free human being’ to ‘possession’.”
The author feels, “The idea that desire could be reciprocal, however, that women may equally want to act on it – that is unacceptable. It is like opening up the gates to hell because that will once again lead to the toppling of power. With education and economic independence women are coming the realisation that their bodies belong to them and that their desires and pleasures are no less important – it is equally their right. And that, in turn, is leading to violent repercussions.”
When it comes to our attitude towards sex (as a society), Anand asserts that we’ve almost lost the idea of being human beings and turned into animals – “sex is justifiable violence, it is male privilege and female subjugation, even the language is one of misogyny and abuse.”
We do talk about sex constantly but mostly in the form of dirty jokes and innuendo. We think that telling crude jokes makes us ‘modern’, and coarse conversation can pass off for seduction, but the moment one tries to speak about desire or pleasure seriously, it becomes taboo.
The London-based mythologist and narrative practitioner informs, “And at the mere mention of the Kama Sutra we are ready to express shock, horror, consternation – the book that tried to introduce ultimate degrees of refinement and elegance to sexual pleasure, the book that sought to elevate seduction to unimaginable heights of beauty and subtlety, worthy of the one species that God created in his own image.”
Personally, the author is fascinated by the literary and cultural heritage of the Kama Sutra which is all but lost to us. This is the book that inspired 1,500 years of Sanskrit and Tamil classics, old paintings and sculptures. One that created the traditions and metaphors of sensuality and pleasure that went on to inform the vocabulary, arts and practices of ancient and medieval India. Here is a text where violence of any kind, even in extreme heights of passion, is unacceptable. She thinks the world desperately needs the Kama Sutra.
“Vatsyayan warns the men constantly against using too much force, telling them gory stories of how such-and-such hit out too hard during orgasm and killed his mistress or such-and-such was so rough he maimed his lover. He empowers the women not to accept this kind of behaviour. He says – if the love bite is too hard, tell your lover to stop, and if he still will not listen bite him back, twice as hard, till he does….
And the language – far from using abusive language the Kama Sutra describes even the genitalia in terms of exquisiteness – the vulva is the ‘chandan mahal’ or ‘fragrant palace’, the clitoris becomes the ‘madan chhatri’ or the ‘umbrella of the love god’. As Naomi Wolf says imagine a young girl growing up in a world where every slang word for her body “used metaphors of beauty and preciousness and every description of sex centred on her pleasure” – how differently she would think of herself, how differently would the act of sex be viewed and how different a world it would be.”
Anand says that culturally Kama Sutra was a book of enormous importance, the first text that acknowledged the right of women to be equal participants in the act of love and equal recipients of its pleasure. Unfortunately, there are a lot of translations (often terrible) which reduce it to a book of weird sexual positions and graphic paintings, none of which is its true identity.
“I wanted to unravel those metaphors, to dig up the ancient myths and stories, to unsilence the narratives that made sex such a poetic experience for Ancient India. I wanted to put the seduction back into sex and reclaim the refinement and joyousness of sexual pleasure for the human race.”
The author has tried to rewrite it so that there is something in here for everyone. In her book, Anand has discussed everything from how scratching plays a role in lovemaking to dildos, love bites to the way different phases of moon aid in harnessing one’s sexual energy. Every chapter has an advice section, which breaks down the formulaic structure of the ancient text into suggestions that can be easily followed – “whether your interest is purely academic and you want to explore the myths and stories or whether you want to spice up your sex life or whether you want a different narrative to pass on to your children – it’s up to you.”
In her words, “It’s time to change the story.”