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Defining Sexuality

Carol Upadhya

Edited by Sanjay Srivastava
Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 410, Rs. 695.00


I would like to pose a simple question—what does it mean to study sexuality—before discussing Srivasatava’s edited volume on ‘sexualities’, ‘masculinities’ and culture in South Asia. Is the category of sexuality the same within the theoretical apparatuses of anthropology, history or literature? Does it include only sexual ideologies, practices, patterns and norms, or does it necessarily extend to gender relations, constructions of masculinity and femininity? And by extension, can sexuality be understood without reference to the traditional anthropological categories of family, kinship and marriage, and now, within the wider terrain of commodity and popular culture? These questions may seem naïve, but given the ubiquity of the concept of sexuality (like gender) in social sciences and cultural studies discourse today, it is beginning to look like other such categories (such as ‘development’ or ‘capitalism’) that everyone believes they understand, but which are deployed in so many contexts and ways that they have become virtually meaningless.   The papers collected in this volume illustrate this problem. While all of them are interesting and original in their own way, it is difficult to connect them within a single debate or set of questions, despite the fact that that the volume is clearly organized around a theme. This is not a criticism of the editor or of the volume, but rather a reflection on the way in which the category ‘sexuality’ has developed within academia.   That problem aside, Srivastava in his introduction provides a comprehensive if somewhat confusing (reflecting the state of the art) review of the rather thin literature on sexuality in South Asia. He points out that discussions of sexuality have tended to revolve around the theme of ‘semen anxiety’ – as in brahmacharya and Gandhian discourses — representing a homogenization of sexuality into a single normative ideal to the neglect of actual practices and local ‘sexual landscapes’. He argues for moving away from a religion-centred understanding of sexuality and locating it instead within the broader contexts of media culture, the state and development. Srivastava also makes a welcome plea for a return to the ethnographic method in the study of culture and social life, which has tended to be overshadowed by postcolonial theory and cultural studies: “…the disdain for ‘ethnography’ in its various forms … has led to a situation where we do not have as theoretically sophisticated a sense of the post-colonial present as we do of the colonial past” (...

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