Feb 13, 2013

Dissecting Kamasutra

What kind of understanding does the Kamasutra, the so-called complete treatise of human sexuality, have of female sexuality? To begin with, it asks this question, “Do women even enjoy sexual intercourse?” In dialectic fashion, the argument proceeds as follows,

“Women do enjoy it” says the first person. “But they cannot tell you the nature of the pleasure they feel.”

“Women emit from the beginning of the act to the end, which is proof that they enjoy it” says the next, “besides, if they have no semen, they cannot have an embryo”.

 “But in the beginning a woman does not seem very excited,” says another.

“Excitement builds up in a woman like a potter’s wheel that goes around slowly at first and gains speed later” says someone finally.

Any student of literature would recognize this series of half baked comparisons as “false analogy.” This so called “knowledge” is nothing but assumption. The assumptions go several folds deeper, touching upon many misconceptions prevalent today:

That woman naturally knows about sex: “Sometimes people train horses or dogs instinctively, without knowing the science of training animals. Similarly, many women are found to be instinctively versed in Kamasutra.”

That women dress provocatively to attract men: “When woman likes a man, under some pretext or other she shows her limbs to him.”

That women say no when they mean yes: “When a man first makes up to her she naturally shrinks from him, even though she may be willing to unite herself with him. She hangs down her head and speaks in indistinct words. But when attempts are repeated, she consents.” 

In a carrying over of social values into the bedroom, women are also naturally assumed to be the submissive partners: “Men are the actors, and women are the persons acted upon”, because “The characteristic of manhood is roughness, while weakness is the mark of womanhood.”

And so it follows, that it is okay to use force sometimes: “If she meets him once, and again comes to meet him better dressed than before, or comes to him in some lonely place, he should be certain that she is capable of being enjoyed with a little force.”

But again and again, one goes back to the first question and the damning assumption it leads to, that when a man enjoys sex, a woman also necessarily enjoys it: “When two things strike each other, like two apples, or two rams, both feel the same shock. Similarly, men and women feel similar pleasure in sex.” That female sexuality is more than mere penetration seems not to have penetrated the writer’s blinkers. The prevalent misconception that a rape is somehow a lesser crime because the victim also enjoys it, finds the backing of this and other such statements in our “venerable” scriptures.

It is not that the Kamasutra has nothing positive to say about women. “When women are forcibly approached by men, they sometimes suddenly become haters of sexual connection, or even of the male sex,” says the treatise wisely. However, muddled by the stereotyped gender roles of its times, most of Kamasutra’s “positive” nuggets are limited to wishful romanticizing, impossible for a normal woman to attain: “Woman is a monogamous animal, and loves but one” or “Woman loves without regard to right or wrong.”

It is clear that the writer never consulted a woman to find out what exactly she experiences. As a result, though the Kamasutra is well informed about a variety of sexual behavior including so-called “foreign imports” like homosexuality, use of objects, and oral and anal intercourse, its knowledge of female sexuality is woefully scant. What actually is female sexuality? What turns a woman on? Or off? What is a woman thinking when she is “showing her limbs” and a man makes advances? Do women feel the same pleasure as men? Do women “emit” (and is “emission” the only proof of pleasure)? And if not, then does she not have an embryo? Many young women have no clue. With the doors of communication closed between (most) women due to social taboos, many women turn to mass media, but mainstream erotica is unfortunately just as misguided as the Kamasutra. Reading and writing being out of women’s reach, erotica before the last century had been exclusively by and for men. No wonder, mainstream erotica is but a compilation of male fantasies with little reality check, the description of female behavior in such literature coming across as either speculation or romanticizing (both laughably off the mark).

Armed with a confused attempt to live up to their idealized images, and cloaked in layers of misconceptions, most young women approach intimate relationships with trepidation. When reality does not match assumptions from scriptures, and women end up manifesting a mindboggling variety of behavior, it leads to the ultimate misconception, that women are “mysterious creatures.” In fact, as my cousin, a student of literature, put it, mystery is nothing but lack of communication. Women just need to communicate more to the readers of Kamasutra and its ilk. But to have enough confidence and knowledge to refute these dominant ideas, women first need to learn about themselves.

Women need to know how their body functions, and not through mirrors of idealization or false analogies with inanimate objects like a potter’s wheel. Women need to inform people, that they do not naturally know about sex, that women choose their clothes for various reasons—none of which is an invitation to use force, that they usually mean “no” when they say “no”, that being acted upon may not be pleasing to every woman, and finally, that no two women are the same. Women need to resurrect their images from   the morass of “mystery” in which it has sunken.

What women need is a corpus that tells them like it is (ninth grade “health and population” is a step in the right direction, but as yet, it is too medical to convey how society construes sexuality). Women need unbiased sources which they have been hitherto denied: narratives from experienced women. No wonder, women are flocking to buy Fifty Shades of Grey, a book worthless as a piece of literature, but nonetheless highly educational, giving an insides view of a woman’s mind and body like never before. Even though it is fairly regressive in terms of values, its phenomenal success has opened the floodgates for women’s erotica, with hopefully more realistic storylines. With a body of realistic literature to lean on and quote, hopefully, the next generation of women will be better informed and more confident of their sexuality.

All references from Richard Burton’s 1883 translation of Kamasutra

P.S.The Kamasutra quite a vast and comprehensive treatise with lots of themes to write about, but this is just what leaped to my eye. 


Anonymous said...

I think many women (in the US) grow up sexually repressed for fear of being labeled a "slut". What strikes me as interesting is that in this specific case it seems most of these insults come from... other women, not men!

I'd imagine growing up female in this sort of environment can only add to the list of things you mentioned causing confusion about sexuality. In my opinion, sex is as much about a transparent level of comfort with ones partner, a mutual vulnerability to each persons desires, as it is about pleasure.

Anonymous said...

Sewa, I am sure the Kamasutra does have strange notions about how women experience their own sexuality and how they should be handled as sexual "objects." However, I find myself feeling a little wary of thinking of "the Kamasutra" as a bounded text that does not lend itself to multiple translations and interpretation. The text you refer to specifically is Richard Burton's translation of 1880s. I wonder if there are multiple version of the texts and multiple translations. I wonder if your exploration of the text and its "representation" of women's sexuality would be different if you read t against the history of colonialism in the Victorian era. I also wonder if there is any space in the text you look at where the meaning of women's sexuality allows for interpretive flexibility to locate women's agencies. Also we might be wary of looking at a text from a time not of our own with eyes of our times. However, thank you so much for sharing your insights.

curly locks said...

Dear Annonymous 1, I think the same fears apply to Nepali women, and if you look deeper into American society, you will find similar misconceptions, though maybe without as clearly traceable a source !!

curly locks said...

Dear Annonymous 2, thank you for such a thoughtful comment. Let me respond to your comments one by one.

Kamasutra's ideas of women's experience of their own sexuality is not so much strange as non existent, it views women's experiences from an outsider's lens, so it is no wonder that ti describes the manifested symptoms than the root causes.

I am sure the text would have come off slightly different in different translations, but I am also sure that the essence would remain mostly the same. I am sure there are other versions, but this was the only one I found online. If I find others, I will surely make comparisons.

About reading a text that is not of our time, here I must insist that even though the Kamasutra is not contemporary, the ideas it represents are. Women everyday face the misconceptions that are outlined in the book, which is why it was so easy for me to relate to the book. I don't know what gender you are, but I'm sure you agree if you are female, and if you are a male, have probably found yourself thinking along these lines at some point.

Regarding women's agency, the Kamasutra divides women into two types: the wife and the courtesan. Or, in other words, the classic Madonna-whore syndrome. The courtesan is allowed plenty of agency in attracting rich men, but her experience of sex is not addressed. I think I will write about this topic at some point.

Once again, thank you for your thought provoking comment, it helped a lot. Keep reading!

Gaurav K Sharma said...

The females these days want to explore more on Kama-stuff and finally end up with cheesy life-styles, at the best vulgar modernity and lost there, losing out on the values and true purpose of life.. .

BN Patnaik said...

is there any escape? Aren't we condemned, as males and females,not to know each other and yet live our lives on beliefs and assumptions about each other? Ignore the word "condemned", isn't it, putting it differently, isn't it part of our destiy, predicament as humans? Self-knowledge (in the relevant domain), which gets into the discourse at some stage is great and is certainly redeeming, but relationship is always with the other. That's terribly important. (I have very often thought of the Buddha in this connection, but have found no illumination about relationships from him. I will tell you why I failed in this respect, perhaps in a later mail) In fact that's life in the world. How much can one know the other? And then, what is a relationship? What must one legitimately expect from it? Must two people indulge each other? Does it lead anywhere at all? There is the following in the Upanishads (which one, I cannot recall, but certainly one of the principal Upanishads): Knowing the transitory nature of things in the world, enjoy the world. One of the most illuminating and elevating thoughts I have come across in life. But on the plane of mundane relationship that I have in mind here, I do not know how far it helps.

About the author of KS not consulting women when he made such definitive pronouncements on them, women were never consulted in those days of knowledge creation and dissemination. We might criticize that attitude today, but that was it at that time. Neither Rama nor Lakshmana consulted their wife when they decided to go on exile. We can forget about Krishna, especially when it is Sarala's Krishna. Who did he REALLY consult! In any case, this attitude is not restricted to just one culture. Bertrand Russell writes about how Aristotle observed that women have fewer teeth than men. Aristotle had four wives and it never occurred to him to count their teeth, says Russell ("Impact of Science on Society"). The point that he was making was that Aristotle was not an experimentalist, that at that point of time in that culture, empirical confirmation for one's observations was not highly valued, in fact, not required at all.

I wonder if the author of KS asked men either. He wrote on behalf of them. He imposed his own attitudes, fantasies, etc. on them. I can say it with some confidence because I don't like certain things in KS such as institutionalizing some women as courtesan. There must have been such people then too, although I agree evidence would be difficult to get, since the dissenting points of view were hardly ever parts of knowledge discourse those days. But the all creators of knowledge at that time, not just the author of KS, I tend to think; generalized the personal and offered the same as proper knowledge.

BN Patnaik said...

The basic question in your critique, I thought, relates to KS's position on whether women enjoy sexual act. I find this question problematic because this act involves more than just the woman and as such it's an instance of an act of a relationship. Relationship is not merely physical, it's mental too, and in this instance separating the mental from the physical is a questionable proposition, I think. So women and (men too!) enjoy or not enjoy this act depending on the nature of relationship with the other. Ahalya enjoyed union with Indra (in some versions she didn't know that the man was Indra, a "whitewashing" in your phrase) but did she, with Gautama? Wasn't it with him an act of duty connected to procreation?

In the context of eating food, does one enjoy the food or the feelings with which it is offered and much else (the value of humble food for Krishna in Vidura's house as against Duryodhana's royal food in his palace? I don't really have to go to scriptures; it's an ordinary experience. But let me quote from Odia Bhagavata composed in the 16th century: shraddha na thai antargate / tahs mu bhunjibi kemante (there is no pleasure in the person offering me food / how can I eat that food). The same holds for sexual union as well and by looking at the sex act as physical, KS ignores the complexities of it and even trivializes it.

I entirely agree with you that the response of the body in physical terms is no indication of enjoyment. But my problem is with the experience of pain. I am unclear about it, I do not understand my uneasiness fully, so in this mail I do not want to say anything about it.

Thanks a lot indeed for making me think about these. Your piece is insightful as I said, and what I like is that it is not only a censor of the KS attitudes, it goes beyond it and comes to grip with the women's problem today in this specific domain. I would only say that what you have said applies to men as well. They are equally clueless, equally confused and helpless, and as badly educated as women.

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