Friday, 25 September, 2009

Comstockery

PRONUNCIATION:

(KOM-stok-uh-ree)

MEANING:

Noun: Overzealous censorship of material considered obscene.

Differing meanings of sexuality permeate our vocabulary, our expressions, our words, but really? What does it take to define sexuality? Seeing myself, as consciously possible to be someone defined within the ‘youngperson’ category, what does it take to illustrate sexuality?


Why is it that sexuality as regarding young people becomes even more contentious and forbidden? The ideals of an innocence which we as adults look back to, with fondness and longing sometimes seems to be a web we have created, an excuse to believe that not everything is gray. The dictionary defines childhood as the state or period of being a child, where a child is seen as a person between birth and full growth or any person or thing regarded as the product or result of particular agencies, influences, etc. While the first definition is most definitely the one we are looking for, let us for variety’s sake consider the 2nd.


‘any person or thing regarded as the product or result of particular agencies, influences, etc’


The concept of Choice comes up often in debates around matters of rights. But of course we all understand that choice also exists within restraint. That very restraint which defines a child; our choices are in itself a product or result of certain agencies, influences etc. So what is it about choosing to be sexual that scares us so much?


A couple of observations will follow. And these are only mine. No references, no footnotes, no sources. Apologise to all those who believe that real writing has to be sourced.


In the end most of it seems to centre around 2 factors, one internal and the other external. Firstly, how sacred we consider the body to be. By sacred I don’t mean only holy or pure, but rather more, untouchable. Meant to be seen as an object of beauty, to be leched at, but from a distance, to be touched but only by strangers.


What I mean is this; when it comes to the bodies of women close to you, its sacredness and virtue is undeniable, the second the body in consideration is that of an unknown woman it becomes property, to be felt, seen, measured and enjoyed. Sacred also in the sense that the body which is more ‘used’ is unclean, not to be respected. But who measures what is sacred and what is not? What is used what is not? And when did use become an anathema? However much we might reiterate that sexuality is not just about sex, it does sometimes come down to that. Sex; the act, as well as Sex; the biology.


While discussing what sexuality means in training session last week, one of the participants very pertinently asked what the difference between sexuality and personality was. If sexuality encompasses everything, is influenced by everything and in turn influences all. How does it differ from how we describe ourselves as people? The answer given to that was; that sexuality specifically has to do with who we are as sexual beings. But the answer and question in itself now seem fundamentally flawed.


The question is not how sexuality is different but rather why we try to see and define the same as different from all other processes of living and growth. And that’s where questions of sacredness come in. The debates are numerous and the questions more so.


If we consider young people (seeing it from a solely age point of view), and the idea of sacred, the untouchability of the body comes into stark relief. My body is a temple, and even I’m not allowed to touch it so. I’ve taken part in a not too large, but decent number of workshops with the supposed ‘urban educated’ of Delhi on issues of sexuality. In most cases, sexuality or the expression of the same is still measured by the number of people we sleep with, how long we have been Confused and what all we question as ‘normal’.


Most don’t know where their vagina is located and admit that while it is okay for women to masturbate they themselves don’t do so. The Hypothetical, Abstract women masturbate. With men the picture is different, of course they’ve had wet dreams and of course they pleasure themselves, its natural, What becomes ironic is not just that women don’t talk freely about such issues but rather that they truly never thought that they to have a right to pleasure,( or correct anatomical knowledge to do so). It might sound silly and stupid but do we not know that women too can pleasure themselves.


Such incidences are symptomatic of many larger issues, gender issue remain at the bottom of understanding of sexuality and identity, but even identification of the same takes time.


Sexuality and health awareness is coated in the language of rights. Of affirmativeness, of positivity. But the question remains of what is culturally suitable? Queries surrounding sexuality and culture form a beautifully blurred image in my mind. Is the language of rights too universal?


Sexuality education and the coming of HIV has made private habits of people a matter of public debate, the oft talked of distinction between public and private spheres once again holds us enthralled. Heated passions and questions of morality are thrown about, but once again, can the state tell us what we can or cannot do in our homes? Why is it that when it comes to young people, the debate changes course, it’s no longer a question of confidentiality and privacy, but rather of morality and culture? If women are considered the symbols of Mother Nature and the Motherland, the ‘young people’ occupy a similar culturally sacred space in our collective consciousness. Young people are the ‘future’, the inheritors of culture, ethnicity and national pride. We are the ‘leaders of tomorrow’.


And what do we do with everything that is considered sacred and essential for survival? We preserve it, protect it, and hide it from harm. But the problem here is that we, as people, have this tendency to not listen, to at some level rebel. I don’t mean a great consensual declaration of rebellion, but rather little acts of thinking which make us want to do things our own way. Not always right, not always wrong. A book on participatory processes I was reading, said something which stayed with me. Participation is not a onetime process. You can’t expect people to turn 18 and suddenly become responsible citizens. Participation is about ownership and ownership grows, with responsibility and realisation of its importance. I believe that it’s the same with issues of sexuality and what young people should know. ‘Responsible behaviour’ (whatever that might be), doesn’t come from not knowing or ignorance and nor does it come with censored knowledge, but rather with ownership and understanding of our bodies, gender and all things sexual.


Going on to the external factor, marriage it seems is seen as the root cause of stability in society, the essential unit in political, sociological and all other such processes. Sexuality in all its glory is seen to threaten this stability, hence destroying the ‘moral’ fabric of society. Again many strands are present in this thinking, for example:


Sexuality= promiscuousity= unfaithfulness and divorce.

Heterosexual marriages= procreation= right marriage.

Understanding of gender issues= women negating traditional roles= instability in married life.


There are many, many more such connections, but we shall leave it at that. In essence, when sexuality issues come to the fore, traditional understandings of nature and societal processes are shaken, and in the end it is stability of society and ‘human kind’ which is valued more than dignity and rights of an individual.


In essence, the paradox/ absurdity/conundrum remain. Sexuality is intrinsic, powerful, deeply personal and individual. Its repercussions and expressions are the very foundations upon which our societal systems are based.


Yes, things are changing, ‘times’ are more liberal and free, But what does it really mean in today’s world to be liberal, not only in politics, but in thought and action?


Ishita Sharma


1 comment:

Crystal Haidl said...

This is a beautifule site, incredibly thoughtful post and The YP Foundation's projects should be a standard for the world to follow.
I am the founder of a fledgling campaign called America's Sexuality Day, to be celebrated each March 3rd, starting in 2010.

We found you googling "comstockery." The word was coined by the writer George Bernard Shaw, after his play, "Mrs. Warren's Profession," which was sympathetic to prostitutes,was indicted in New York in 1905 under America's national censorship law, the Comstock Act of March 3, 1873.

Interestingly, in 2001 an Indian organization, Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, founded International Sex Workers' Rights Day for March 3 each year,and it is honored now in Europe, the US, Australia and Canada. While America's Sexuality Day is using America's date of Congressional censorship to honor and celebrate sexuality,I don't know if it was merely coincidence or a link to the forementioned that ISWRD chose March 3, as well.