Victor Ivan is right to pointing out to different sexual norms which existed in Sri Lanka at the time of Robert Knox. But such comparisons could be misleading. For example, while it is true that low-caste women went about bare breasted well into the 19th century, there is nothing laudable about this ‘tradition’. It was imposed upon them by a rigid, unforgiving social hierarchy.
It was a humiliating condition they were born into by feudal law. Such customs still occur with some tribes in Africa and South America, though the South American tradition has nothing to do with feudalism. Westerners, who are not supposed to be tribal, may go topless or bare all in select places which guarantee their privacy and safety. The bra, a capitalist invention, was accepted without debate as a necessity by everyone in the ‘civilised’ world ,including the followers of Karl Marx, from a medical and aesthetic point of view.
The topless, cuckolded paradise which Knox describes with some distaste is hardly the right model for a modern, sexually more liberal Sri Lanka. Sexual liberation isn’t about topless bars or nudist beaches, or not the main focus at any rate. It’s about the average person’s (including those non-heterosexually inclined) right to enter into physical relationships with a partner of choice without fear of stigma and legal persecution and for creating a space for discussing and depicting sexual and personal intimacy outside of home, and in art, including movies, painting, theatre and literature.
An intimate sexual relationship based on mutual consent begins in an ordinary manner, based on friendships, conversations and mutual attraction. The problem in this regard is that our society’s status quo puts the female on an unequal footing. Men are regarded as aggressors. Women are usually on the defensive. This is evident from the way they form protective groups at social gatherings. While not as severe as in some parts of India and in Pakistan, there is an invisible ‘purdah’ in operation. Women enter marriage with the deep-rooted belief that they are unequal partners. Their husbands can often decide the way they should dress and behave, and whether they should give up their jobs after marriage.
These inequalities have existed in Western societies too, at different times in their social history. Simone de Beauvoir’ classic work ‘The Second Sex’ first published in 1949 deals with how women have been conditioned to accept their assigned roles throughout history. But, while women’s lives have changed hugely throughout the Western world since then, the situation in Sri Lanka seems not only to stagnate; it is retrogressive.
Various reasons have been given for the gradual transformation of Sri Lanka from Knox’s cuckold’s paradise to today’s puritanical pressure cooker. In any case, we do not know if what Knox saw applied to the entire island. In the north and the east, the Tamils and the Muslims had their own rigid sexual hierarchy, customs and values. The Western and southern coastal areas were under the Catholic Portuguese for 150 years, and they required that women gave dowries and prove their virginity at marriage (as followers of the cult of the Virgin). Their dress code for women was much more stifling that what the Sinhalese and Tamils were traditionally used to.
The Dutch and the British who replaced them may have actually imposed an even more stifling morality. The vagrancy laws under which couples are still being harassed was introduced during British times. Anyone reading Jane Austen will know about the dowry problem in England. The moral and physical destruction of Tess of d’Urburvilles in Thomas Hardy’s novel by that name has familiar echoes in our contemporary society. The Sinhala cinema till the 1970s thrived on a formula of feudal landowners seducing village damsels. Today, the feudal landowner has been replaced by the political, business and professional classes who use their privileged positions to obtain sex, just as Hardy’s immoral landowning nobleman did with Tess of d’Urbervilles.
Going back to Europe, Galileo’s younger daughter took a nun’s wows because he could not raise enough money for her dowry. Frenchwomen too, required dowries until early 20th century, as mentioned in a biography of Simone de Beauvoir. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoi made a profound and humane study of a married high society woman who dares to have an affair. But, while these stifling social conditions and moral codes have disappeared from Europe, they have taken root of our society, as a glance at classified advertisements for marriage partners would reveal.
It’s more important to find a way out of our current malaise, or at least a compromise, rather than delve into historical reasons. If we can discuss the politics and legality of everything under the sun, why can’t we discuss the politics and legality of sex? Victor Ivan devotes his second article to the problems of sexual abuse, particularly child abuse, and cites several histories.
This is an area of huge concern. Unfortunately, it narrows down the broad sweep of his first article to the twilight zone of sexual abuse. What is needed now is a platform for discussing the stifling lid imposed by our politicians and their bureaucracy including the police on the wider arena of day-to-day expressions of intimacy between consenting adults, and of ways to make life inside this socio-cultural pressure cooker more tolerable.
To change the legislation, there have to be new developments in our thinking. You can’t pass legislation that will benefit unmarried couples, homosexuals or transvestites unless a majority feels that they should benefit.
You can’t pass laws protecting sex workers unless a majority accepts that theirs is a necessary profession, as much as drivers, plumbers or nurses – or a ‘necessary evil’ at any rate (a term once used by the Indian supreme court to describe that country’s police force). But, if we accept that these are ‘minorities’ in this context, the majority (society at large) must show more tolerance towards them; if not, they will never relax their hardline views about those who are ‘different.’
A principal argument of the traditional lobby is that ours is an Asian culture; hence, the sexual mores and manners of the West cannot be imposed here and are not acceptable. In reply, one can point out that there are marked differences when it comes to male-female intimacy (as well as its gay version) throughout Asia.
To begin with, kissing in films and in public is allowed in several South East Asian countries including Japan, China, South Korea and the Philippines. That’s a good starting point. More nudity and on screen sex is allowed in this region than would be imaginable in Sri Lanka and the Indian subcontinent.
Pre-marital sex was frowned upon in Mao’s China. Today, attitudes are very liberal. These are countries with unique and proud cultures as old as ours, or even older. But they understand that cultures overlap in today’s world, and that there’s no such thing as cultural purity, which is a moronic first cousin of racial purity, and that sexual frustration is a huge impediment to socio-economic development because such frustration can result in loss or productivity at the workplace and lead to greater sexual harassment in workplaces and public transport, with greater costs legally as well in terms of social harmony. These countries have accepted that the best way to defend one’s culture is not by making women wear longer skirts. What’s happening in South East Asia today, especially in China, shows that liberal attitudes to sexual relationships is not a special Western privilege based on racial or related parameters. It’s more likely a phenomenon produced by greater economic development and resulting socio-economic mobility.
This is not to say that more relaxed views on sex and sex education will automatically bring about a dramatic reduction of sex-related crime. Human pathology is too complex for such a facile argument. But it is equally facile to argue that draconian laws restricting the sexual freedom of an entire society consisting largely of mature adults capable of caring for others would eliminate or reduce sex offences. Offenders merely go out of sight.
China and Japan are more tolerant towards gay relationships. Japan has no laws against homosexuality. But these countries have been historically more open about it than us, or indeed, the West. Both countries have a tradition of erotic art depicting both heterosexual and gay lovers. India depicted only heterosexual lovers in its ancient art up to Mughal times. Thereafter, Indian society became a pressure cooker with one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world. When Hindu extremists storm an art gallery and trash nudes painted by a top artist, that’s a far cry from the India which constructed the temples of Kujaraho.
So, the time is apt for an involved discussion towards a more sexually liberal society. But who’s going to do it? The intellectual groups which spearheaded the ‘quiet revolution’ which brought this regime into power last year should be spearheading such a discussion, but they avoid it like the plague, and I really can’t see, not even in my wildest dreams, the president, or the minister of culture, or the opposition leader, trying to convince the parliament to change attitudes and legislation on this vital issue.
In the final analysis, liberation is too big a word for what is needed here. If we draw a parallel with politics, all revolutions have failed in the past (that doesn’t mean they are not needed. Their failure has been sufficiently analysed). The current ‘quiet revolution’ may not last beyond this regime because politicians (and a police force and a military) used to abusing laws and rights cannot be taught otherwise in two, three or even five years. But the outlook need not be bleak.
One stumbling block to any discussion is the idea that sexual liberalisation, like democracy, is Western. Though modern democracy had its origins in Greece, it disappeared for centuries before its gradual re-incarnation in the West since the 18th century. Today, democracy is a global phenomenon, functioning in different parts of the world in different ways. Some African countries are more democratic than parts of Eastern Europe and Asia.
The origins of liberal sexual values are less clear cut, and it’s a misconception to see it as Western phenomenon. In the same way that our democracy is not Western democracy but works in its own frighteningly meandering fashion to oust corrupt regimes, ways and means can be found suitable to the Lankan temperament to achieve a greater relaxation of the rigid moral code and a liberalisation of relevant laws benefiting Sri Lankans of differing sexual persuations.
There has always been a deep-rooted fear that westernization would lead to a decadent society. But Sri Lanka has never been a westernized country, though a very small and superficial segment of it gives that impression. The so-called westernized micro-culture is as conservative when it comes to morals and sexuality as everyone else, sometimes even more so. Nor is it correct to think of the West as decadent. Whatever decadence is visible in its socio-economic structure is present everywhere albeit in less visible forms.
Rather than getting entangled in a culture war, what is needed now is commonsense, compassion and the will. A more astute approach to education will necessarily play a big role in that context.