Victor Ivan, founder editor of the Ravaya newspaper, had recently discussed a taboo subject in two ground breaking articles.
This is in response to President Maithripala Sirisena’s outraged remarks after a female fan threw a bra at pop icon -Enrique Iglesias.
His writing here is ground breaking because, as I recall, Ranga Jayasuriya (One of the Daily Mirror columnists) is the only other journalist to have written about the sexual dilemmas of Sri Lankans in recent times.
He said bluntly and with courage that Sri Lanka needs a sexual revolution. Everyone else avoids the topic like the Ebola virus.
Victor’s Ivan’s writing was timely and fills a void because the print media in both Sinhala and English (And presumably in Tamil) avoid any serious discussion of the fundamental questions related to sex and sexuality in Sri Lanka.
Views are highly conservative and puritanical, defending the stifling status quo. Writing about sex is approved of only if it is crime-related, or when it becomes gossip.
Hence, the subject is effectively taboo, and ‘sex’ amounts to a dirty word rather than a noun, which clinically states one’s gender and preferences.
Victor Ivan’s thinking in this context is laudable because many journalists of his generation share the same horror of this taboo word. The younger generation by and large share the same horror and prejudice. If anything, they seem to be even more puritanical than their predecessors, coming out with titillation, gossip and dirty jokes using the internet instead of any serious exchange of views.
The very word leads us to a hidden world, where things are assumed or taken for granted, rather than known, identified and discussed based on empirical data.
In a modern society, this amounts to a huge social malaise, and it doesn’t help that almost all our top intellectuals and thinkers are Victorian prudes.
Discussing sexuality, as I have discovered, is the best way to alienate ‘thinking’ people, both men and women. Their minds go blank the moment you say ‘sex.’
The problems imposed on our society by this Puritanism and refusal to discuss a subject so vital to our reproduction, well being and safety are enormous.
As Victor Ivan points out, sexuality and its relationships are a private matter, which doesn’t call for State meddling. But sex and sexuality requires Legislation, and laws are getting changed and updated all over the world in this context. It’s the legality of physical relationships between men and women that cause such headaches and fear in Sri Lanka.
The greatest obstacle to any discussion and relative relaxing of gender-related behaviour is the perception that liberal sexual mores are Western, hence unsuited to our culture. This is a gross misconception.
A study of history will show some non-Western cultures to be more liberal than the West at certain stages of history, as mediaeval European chastity belts gave way to stifling Victorian morality.
It is sobering to realise that D. H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover was banned as pornographic in 1928, and had to be printed in Italy.
An unexpurgated edition could not be published openly in the United Kingdom until 1960.
The Western sexual revolution is a relatively recent phenomenon of the 1960s. Some of its features are, broadly, lack of insistence on female virginity, social acceptance of couples entering into physical relationships without legal marriage, more liberal dress codes for women, and reduction of social stigma and legal persecution of women who adapt such dress and behavioural patterns. This is not all but should sum up some of the more evident facets of this phenomenon.
There is too, much confusion regarding what sexual activity is. For example, kissing on the lips in public view unacceptable within Sri Lankan culture.
But the modern view is that it is an erotic act rather than a sexual one. It is a prelude to love making and a symbol of a couple’s affection for each other, and not limited to heterosexual couples.
The Oxford Dictionary defines sex as a physical act in which sexual organs of humans come into contact, and lips are not sexual organs.
But kissing isn’t allowed even in our films or theatre. After the ‘bra tossing’ incident, British newspapers said that Sri Lanka was a country where kissing in public amounts to an offence.
This confusion arises from deep seated prejudices resulting from a lack of sex education.
While discussing the morality, as we always do, we must keep in mind the legality of sexual relationships. This is where we are truly backward, perhaps not in comparison to Iran or Saudi Arabia but among modern nations.
The legal age of marriage has changed over the past two centuries. Divorce and inheritance laws have been modified. So is legislation regarding sexual offences.
Prior to mid-twentieth century, societies in general approved of heterosexual marriage but considered same-sex relationships illegal. British Playwright Oscar Wilde was convicted of sodomy (Homosexual relationships) and sentenced to two years hard-labour in 1895.
This ruined him socially and physically, and he died at the age of 45.
Now, modern legislation allows homosexual and transgender marriages throughout the European Union, while we still carry the burden of antiquated British laws.
Italy is the last among Western European countries to continue with a ban on same-sex marriages. After the European Union declared this to be a violation of Human Rights, Italy is now facing a Parliamentary vote on the issue.
Abortion is now legal in many countries. So is prostitution; If not, the rights of sex workers are better protected than they were a generation ago.
Sex education is taught in schools and does not raise eyebrows any more than bioscience or mathematics do.
Last but not least, there is the vital question of dress. Women can get whipped for wearing jeans in some countries, while jeans are thought of, if they are thought of at all, as conservative dress in others.
Where women’s dress code is concerned, Sri Lanka has taken one step forward and two steps back over the past fifty years. It is the same with attitudes and legislation, which assures a vulnerable second-rate status to women in sex-related situations, whether these happen within wedlock, out-of-wedlock, dressing for work or leisure, abortion, and the ever-important and ever-neglected question of sex workers.
In our region, Bangladesh is the only exception to this sorry picture because it allows female sex workers to obtain legal status, with an affidavit signed by a Magistrate.
When a chief Minister of an important Province in Sri Lanka admonishes women school teachers for coming to work with the belly button in full view, this archaic Puritanism has found its full, stentorian voice.
When our President gets enraged over a bra, it finds its full flowering in the sad State of men, who think of the belly button as an object of arousal, and not a part of the anatomy important only to the invisible intestines.
As for the bra, it may be interpreted as sexy only by those addicted to slick advertising. The rational mind will see it correctly as a supportive garment to be thrown away after use.
In this country, the legislation regarding practically all sexual activity is archaic. Non-heterosexual relationships are illegal and risk social stigma. Abortion is illegal. Police can raid not only brothels but any place, where two consenting adults may be having sex.
Or they may be sitting inside a car and can still get prosecuted under antiquated vagrancy laws.
People are expected to find complete fulfilment within marriage, which is a gamble in the best of circumstances. What about those who are not married? No one has adequately explained why even happily married people, including senior diplomats, watch pornography.
Educators, politicians and parents have such a horror of sex education that no realistic project to introduce this important subject to schools can even be thought of.
Providing a cue for this important debate, Victor Ivan looks at the history of sexual mores in Sri Lanka. He quotes two sources – Dr. Nandadeva Wijesekara and Robert Knox, the Englishman who lived as a captive in Kandy under King Rajasinghe II.
He also quotes from a number of international sources, including Mahatma Gandhi and several British figures. But, getting back to Dr. Nandadeva Wijesekara, he quotes from a 1955 research work in which Dr. Wijesekara studies the behaviour of newly married couples on their honeymoon.
What he has given there is apparently not a happy picture of marital bliss. It sounds more like an erotic bull fight between two clueless parties.
Knox’s views are perhaps better known. Unfortunately, Knox was not a trained observer, and his prejudices are obvious. Knox paints a picture of a more sexually liberal Sinhala society where almost every man in the kingdom was cuckolded. One has the impression that he doesn’t quite approve. The England he left behind was full of Puritanical zeal.
Some of the habits mentioned by Knox, such as offering sex as a means of hospitality, were prevalent in some primitive societies ranging from Polynesia to the Arctic zones. But this is not what sexual liberation is about. It is about the right to choose, or refuse, and enter into relationships, long lasting or temporary, without fear of arrest and stigma.
It is about women dressing according to their personal choice rather than society’s dictates, and men mature enough to accept that evolutionary laws have made homo sapiens female sexually attractive, though a different set of laws seem to work for birds.
(To be continued).