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The Meaning(s) of Sex: A View from India

Anjali Arondekar

Edited by Sanjay Srivastava
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 320, Rs. 825.00


Can there be a more opportune time for an extensive discussion of sexualities in postcolonial India? Each and every day, it seems, we are confronted yet again by the systemic sexual violation of subaltern subjects, marked by one or more intersecting vectors of difference: caste, class, gender, sexual orientation. Even as feminists repeatedly remind us that such privations are not just of the here and now, but a long-term effect of paternalistic systems of culture, economics and politics, historical amnesia around such issues persists and even festers. Thus, the Mumbai Commissioner of Police’s recent call for an end to the ‘promiscuous culture’ leading to crimes of sexual violence against women should not be dismissed as a harmless gaffe or a misuse of the colonial mother-tongue; rather, it should serve as a stark reminder of how much misinformation exists within public spheres around issues of gender and sexuality. What is most needed now is not reactionary moral policing of subjects and/or their sexual practices, but more sustained analyses of sexuality’s imbrication with all aspects of life in contemporary India.   Sanjay Srivastava’s edited collection, Sexuality Studies, provides just such an intervention as its contributors weigh in on a range of issues on sexuality in India. Colonial sexology and pulp literature, family courts and prostitution, queer subjects and Hindu nationalists, these are just a sampling of the provocative conceptual couplings the collection has to offer. As Srivastava succinctly notes: the book explores ‘why is it that we talk about sexuality at this moment in time and in the ways that we do.’ The collection converges with an extant and growing body of scholarship on sexualities in India, but diverges from previous work through its sustained focus ‘on sociology or historical sociology’, on an interest in ‘the network of social contexts—power, kinship, legality, class gender—through which sexual cultures are produced, controlled and contested’ (p. 2).   Srivastava’s introduction argues for more contextual and historical understandings of sexualities within India that do not reify native difference or rehash well-rehearsed binaries of eastern versus western cultures and epistemologies. That said, Srivastava’s criti-que of the centrality of Michel Foucault within sexuality studies appears a little flat-footed and ignores the wealth of scholarship on Foucault and empire and/or Foucault and histories of racialization (pace Ann Laura Stoler, for example). Of equal importance is Srivastava’s invocation and problematization of the red ...

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