Two recent high-profile missives have brought the question of sexual liberation to the forefront again. The petition by five openly gay persons, with illustrious careers, to decriminalise homosexuality, and filmmaker Karan Johar’s admission that he’s okay without sex, are powerful assertions of individual sexuality.
Sexual liberation is nothing but recognition and assertion of this right to be sexual in ways the individual deems fit. Johar has given out a well-timed reminder that the said right also embraces the right to say "no", even when it comes to non-coercive, consensual relationships.
This brings us to the monogamy conundrum.
How did polyamory become synonymous with sexual liberation? Can one choose to stay with one sexual partner and yet claim to be liberated sexually? Does it necessarily have roots in what is ridiculed as “middle class morality”? Can one be a fierce liberal in thought and action without personally espousing libertinism?
Apart from the fact that these five prominent persons risked prosecution by speaking out directly, what is remarkable about the petition is its emphasis on the 20-year-long relationship and cohabitation of two of the petitioners: journalist Sunil Mehra and classical dancer Navtej Singh Johar. An emotional interlude to stand guard against the oft-repeated charges of promiscuity and immorality against the LGBTQ community, it could also be seen as what Homi Bhabha called the mimicry of the oppressor – the prudish heterosexuals. You want morality? Here is morality.
Short history of monogamy
Sexuality is that one slippery turf that makes conservatives and liberals trip democratically. This egalitarianism makes sexual prudery and promiscuity mirror images of each other. Human society’s gradual veering towards monogamy for various reasons, ranging from economic, martial as well as political, came with an undesirable side effect – step-motherly treatment meted out to the entire gamut of desire. Monogamy, a pragmatic practice of convenience, soon turned into dogma. Upon its heel followed violence. This, in a nutshell, is a workable history of the not-so-old practice of taking a single sexual partner.
Resistance to monogamy is nothing new. In India many communities, like Nairs in Kerala, Kinnauris in Himachal Pradesh, Todas in Nilgiris and the Galo tribe in Arunachal Pradesh, have been traditionally open to the idea of multiple sexual partners. Obviously, it has to be solemnised through marriage.
The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 put an end to polygamy, and perhaps tightened the noose of morality around sexual behaviour. Compounded with the adultery law, the land of Kunti, Draupadi, Dashrath and Krishna was expected to find virtue in the one man, one woman arrangement.
If today men and women are exploring their options in cities and small towns, the latter being more sexually adventurous as per some surveys, they are in effect rebelling against the dogma of monogamy.
The mainstream sexual revolution of the 1960s in the West can be seen as a desperate attempt to break free of the shackles of Victorian morality, which earlier came under fierce attack in the roaring 1920s. Building upon the legacy of the ’20s, armed with the ideas of Wilhelm Reich, DH Lawrence, Sigmund Freud, Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing amongst others, the ’60s saw a boom in polygamous relationships. The second wave of feminism fanned this fire, coupled with a better understanding of female anatomy courtesy Anne Koedt’s The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm.
A steep rise in the number of unmarried people in the ’60s and ’70s in America is an indicator of how society shunned what it saw as an impediment to the assertion of sexual agency. It may have appeared that the obituary of the old sexual order would soon be written.
But human beings have a talent of turning each radical idea into dogma over a period of time. After monogamy, it is now the turn of polyamory. After being attacked by puritans for decades, free sex seems to have become a necessary badge of honour. Can one be truly liberal, liberated, unless bulldozing the oppressive monogamous superstructure around oneself? Do the same rules of engagement apply here as in the fight against casteism, racism, communalism et al?
Lessing’s Anna rued how a liberated woman was still playing a part to be seen as liberated. A check-list had to be followed. Why else would a cigarette-smoking, financially independent writer be assumed to also be sexually promiscuous? It’s a curious case of patriarchy marrying libertinism. Although such assumptions are equally damaging for both women and men, the latter have far less to lose in the process.
Can or, more importantly, should a person choose to be monogamous without religious or social coercion? Does this choice automatically relegate her to the status of a conservative? Isn’t there a danger of free sex becoming a peer-pressure phenomenon, just like cigarette smoking or beer guzzling? Not as hazardous maybe, if done with caution, yet equally reductionist. How many people can really decline, like Karan Johar, the invitation to an orgy? You haven’t arrived unless you have participated in at least one.
What is sexual agency?
Coming back to the filmmaker, who with utmost finesse, has established how getting enough of, or chasing, sex may not be a marker of success, happiness or liberalism. Karan Johar dislodges sex from its haloed platform. The way homosexuality is not synonymous with promiscuity, promiscuity in turn is not synonymous with liberalism. Those who don’t get this equation right either trample on individual rights or turn into apologists for liberals who rape.
In the end, it should suffice to say that sexual agency allows for both laissez faire as well as virginity. The number of sexual partners is a poor index in assessing an individual’s worth even in purely sexual terms. It isn’t always the middle class morality – which a once celebrated journalist, now a rape accused, wanted to be left outside his doorstep – that forces people to stay monogamous.
It is a misleading fact universally acknowledged that a sexually desirable and desiring man or woman, in possession of sexual agency, must be in want of more than one partner. Intellectual promiscuity could be more rewarding for some, especially those who appreciate Plato.
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