Love, Sex and Desire in the Diaspora

For many South Asian women to simply talk about sex, sexuality and/or desire are topics which are difficult to discuss. Even as I write this, I feel like I'm walking on eggshells and having to be overly cautious with what I want to say - which says a lot if you think about it...

As of late, I have found myself feeling increasingly drawn back to my roots, history and how ancient Asian history, culture and societal values impact the lives of those living in the South Asian Diaspora.

Granted it's quite confusing, challenging and incredibly disorientating because of the seemingly contradictory attitudes, statements and texts that I am coming across, as well as, having to unlearn a lot of Asian cultural ideas/practices that I've been brought up with.

Nevertheless, it's given me plenty to think about and discuss; I believe that history plays a very strong role in defining our present lives and attitude towards the construct of ethnic/racial identities.

There's a collective reluctance to openly discuss South Asian women's bodies, welfare and aspects of womanhood that are all too often swept under the carpet or wholly ignored - which has devastating consequences on our self-esteem, self-confidence and emotional health.

In conjunction with my current project, I realised that this unwillingness to talk about women's bodies in South Asian cultures has had a serious effect on the way that Asian men and women view things like sex, love, relationships, menstruation, body confidence, self-esteem etc. It's led me to think about the way that South Asian cultures, today, regard love, sex and desire.

Whenever an explicit sex scene (or if anyone kissed each other) came on TV or unexpectedly in a film it would always be awkward - especially if an older relative was in the room.

I remember people clicking their tongues in disapproval, shifting uncomfortably in their chairs, rolling their eyes or purposefully looking anywhere but at the TV screen. Such scenes and any mention of desire are usually regarded as being dirty, sinful or only reserved for married couples. In all honesty, this approach to sex and desire doesn't work; it only makes it more taboo.

For many South Asian women to simply talk about sex, sexuality and/or desire are topics which are difficult to discuss. Even as I write this, I feel like I'm walking on eggshells and having to be overly cautious with what I want to say - which says a lot if you think about it. I find this deeply ironic because we have Vedic texts such as the Kama Sutra (whose original message has been severely distorted by the way) which shows us that sex was considered to be a form of art.

But you'd have never thought it when considering how sex is discussed and regarded in South Asian cultures. If you contrast that idea of sex as an art form to our lives on a daily basis, the tensions are clear to see: a shroud of shame surrounding sex addiction, sex outside of marriage, abortion, STIs as well as a general lack of sexual awareness.

There is an emphasis placed on women demanding them to be modest, sexually naive or self-sacrificing. I've seen many South Asian women who feel compelled to maintain an idyllic cultural identity, that often comes at the expense of desire, in order to keep up appearances. I'm sure that this social norm probably affects South Asian men as well, however, I can't speak on behalf of them because I can only draw on my own experiences as a South Asian woman.

If you combine a reluctance to discuss Asian women's bodies with a sense of shame surrounding sex, the result is inevitably not going to be very good for anybody.

There's nothing wrong if one chooses to dress or conduct themselves modestly, in the same way, that there's nothing wrong if one chooses to dress in a manner that they are comfortable with.

It comes down to perspective and it's about having respect for everyone and their lifestyle choices regardless of whether you agree with/believe in it or not.

There are numerous temples in southern India of statues in erotic poses, literature and art as well as The Kama Sutra which openly acknowledge sex as a natural and normal thing.

If this was the case, thousands of years ago, where, when and how did it all change so drastically?

With regards to history, I'm not too sure when an exact turning point occurred for Asian attitudes towards sex to swing in the opposite direction. Was it the strict Victorian values that the British imported to India during the Empire?

It certainly would appear to be that the British Empire had a significant impact on India in almost every area as a nation. In addition, it is also worth noting that certain attitudes toward sex and sexuality (homophobia, promiscuity, ideas of female modesty and purity etc) in contemporary Indian society - and in parts of the Diaspora - also exist in Victorian beliefs about desire and sex.

Did Indians, during the Empire, feel as though they had to discard specific attitudes, practices and principles in order to gain approval from their colonial masters and show that they were not 'heathens?' Or does it go further back to the times when the Mughals were present in the sub-continent?

The only way we will know, is if we educate ourselves about South Asian culture pre-colonialism and unlearn current ideas and belief systems that we have built around human sexuality, expressing our emotions and women's bodies.

This post originally appeared on Chayya's blog, Avid Scribbler