Sexuality as an object of enquiry is relatively new in the Indian context and is not helped by the silence and violence around it. These come from a mixture of ignorance and fear, both of which have long histories in the subcontinent. A large part of the silence is perhaps because what would render it audible to us requires historical and linguistic knowledges we do not any longer have. The violence is a more visible history, marked on bodies, especially women’s bodies, and from the colonial period through the social reform movements to the nationalist moment—across region and religion—we have the articulation of the ignorance and fear in some discernible forms.

The postcolonial moment instead of paying close attention to these histories and learning from them has opted for a teleological narrative that posits the present as liberated and all-knowing. Sexuality Studies edited by Sanjay Srivastava opens with a claim to go beyond the usual framing of sexuality in India—the ostensible celebration of the sexual in the Kamasutra and the repression that the colonial and nationalist periods bring (Gandhi’s ascetism)—yet remains mired in precisely that framing. Not only does the presentism persist in how the past is read, modern India is miraculously capable of inhabiting both and much more; indeed it is produced as an entirely ahistorical space of excess, ruled by the Internet and the media rather than the state, Srivastava glibly informs us.

Srivastava claims that sexuality is unstable, contested and in flux and posits it against what he calls the “mainstream” (how is this idea of a stable mainstream any less spurious than the idea of a stable Indian tradition that he dismisses?); he asks why we talk of sexuality now and in what ways but does not ask Jeffrey Weeks’ entirely Foucauldian question which he cites (“what are the meanings this particular culture gives to homosexual behaviour, however it may be caused, and what are the effects of those meanings on the ways in which individuals organise their sexual lives?”) which he misreads as a question about the individual’s relation to society!

Srivastava miraculously separates Foucault’s analytic framework from his political project (which would render Foucault meaningless) to ask whether Foucault is relevant to understanding India, and decides that he is not because India’s multiple and fragmented public spheres are not like the European public sphere. Such a banal answer only shows that Srivastava does not even understand Foucault’s questions. Similar short shrift is made of Freud who is dismissed as a biological essentialist whereas sexuality is not about a drive at all but linked to multiple social contexts in Srivastava’s deracinated world.

Srivastava dismisses Foucault’s claim that Western cultures produced a more scientific account of sexuality (scientia sexualis) and the East produced more ars erotica. Apart from this being a lazy reading of Foucault (who includes Rome in the cultures that produced ars erotica which is by no means the East!), Srivastava’s point is not clear. Is it that we did have a scientific account of sexuality much like the West’s or before the West’s? In either case, he misses Foucault’s point, which is that the West’s scientific discourse was the most oppressive machinery that produced sexuality as a regime.

Sanjam Ahluwalia repeats Srivastava’s dismissal of Foucault in the opening piece of the volume which might have been the most promising in its introduction to the figure of Alyappin Padmanabha Pillay (1889-1956) who was part of an international community in the mid-20th century that was trying to generate a culture of expression around the sexual in India in the quasi-scientific language of sexology. Ahluwalia is so eager to retrieve this figure from what she sees as the dustbin of history that she does not give us even the most elementary account of his intellectual formation, his historical context, his education, his background. She appears to have no sense of the history of sexology and accuses all the major anthologists of 19th and early 20th century sexology of not including Pillay when he wrote much later and does not seem himself to have much understanding of the sexologists and the very elaborate frameworks they had already been developing when he was barely born.

Indeed the accounts Ahluwalia offers of Pillay’s opinions suggests he was a classist, heterosexist, homophobic and laughable quack (his aesthetic theory about penis size—that it matches human size—must surely go down as the most incredible guff ever) and it is not clear why he merits a place in the history of sexology at all. This is not to say that Pillay is not an interesting character but to generate that interest would require a more historically attentive account that locates Pillay in the larger social and political processes of his time which might well produce him as interesting for what he did not know and why he did not know it than its opposite.

Together, these two essays show us exactly what is wrong with the study of sexuality in India. While Srivastava asks us to historicise sexuality, he does none of that himself, producing an account of the sexual as always hybrid, diverse, mired in the quotidian, embodying different meanings, unstable and yet full of illusory solidity.

All these are fanciful words but bring us no clearer to understanding sexuality historically. Ahluwalia produces Pillay as a subaltern sexologist marginalised by whom she refers to as the normative sexologists, forgetting that the sexologists even in Europe were not normative at all. Her insistence on restoring him to a place at the table of Western sexologists defeats the purpose at two levels: it marks Western discourse as the only important discourse to which we need to add lost, non-Western figures; and it completely ignores the local contexts that produced a figure like Pillay. In her eagerness to produce Pillay as part of a “global phenomenon” of “constructing sexualized subjectivities”, she misses the opportunity of producing a narrative of a late and anachronistic Indian sexology and how it circulated locally.

Most of the other essays in the book suffer from one or both of these problems. The only other historical essay on the Battala prints from Calcutta also simply trots out the tired narrative of the bhadralok policing of female sexuality as repeated by these genres of cheap, pornographic print cultures. Once again, the particular class and caste configurations of the producers of this material, the caste and class consumers of this material, are all missing. Reference is made to the different Bengalis in use in these texts but no account of form is offered which shows us what effects this has. Only plot summaries are given. What we get is a generalised account of the fear of women’s sexuality, the policing of it, and an abbreviated reference to male voyeurism. This is hardly news.

The rather naïve dismissal of Freud and any account of the psychic in most work on sexuality is also responsible for the emptiness of most of this work. In both Pillay and the Battala accounts, we see fundamental structures of sexual desire, anxiety and relentlessly repetitive reiterations of heteronormativity ,to name just three psychic formations deeply embedded in gendered psyches that need unpacking. To dismiss the psychic because a bad variant of it dominates the scene in the form of the deeply problematic work of figures like Sudhir Kakar and Ashis Nandy is to throw the baby out with the bathwater and leaves us with no historically deep account of the sexual and its persistent patterns.

We are in urgent need of a re-thinking of the sexuality question in India and the first and best step is to jettison the illusion that we are in a glorious present which is unprecedented in its understanding of sexuality and its contradictory position in India is indicative of its radical potential or scintillating future. 

The essays on the contemporary that form the rest of the volume range from the unimaginative to the alarmingly vacuous. Of the lot, Paola Bacchetta’s “queering” of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the account of RSS founder Hedgewar and Atal Behari Vajpayee as queer is surely down there with Pillay’s prattle on penis size!

Jyoti Puri and Svati Shah represent another category of essay that is endemic to the study of sexuality in India: diasporic Indians located in the Western academy (particularly the US) who come back to the mother country to interpret it and make it intelligible both to the Western academy and themselves. The resultant scholarship is full of neat paradoxes and exposed faultlines but with no sense of the structural causes of those paradoxes and faultlines, of differing social densities or of the limitations of their own conceptual tools in understanding. Puri offers no account of the production of the Naz petition and the 2009 judgement as coming out of the neoliberal moment and settles for clever theorisations of governmentality while Shah is simply unable to see the class and caste character of the sexual minoritisation argument.

Paul Boyce and Diepriye Kuku (in a marvellously meandering and meaningless essay) represent another genre rife in sexuality studies here: the pious ethnography among NGOised “subjects” who both use and exceed the tools of their own construction and represent a fluid indigeniety, uncoerced either by neoliberal sexual governance or abiding (Western) categories. Once again, there is no sense of the structural, no political critique of the processes of liberalisation and globalisation that produced these NGOs which suddenly produced these identities, or any sense of the psychic and its investment in embedded sexual patterns and categories.

Finally, Sanjay Srivastava himself, Christiane Brosius and Shilpa Phadke hold the flag for the last kind of essay that floods sexuality studies in India: the pop feminist one. All seem to have read no feminist theory produced over the last several decades and offer utterly empty accounts of liberal sexuality and “fun” had by women, with neoliberalism being the largely lovely lubricant for changing sexual landscapes. Such writing is actually simply unaware of even the constitutive contradictions of femininity worked at by decades of feminism let alone the twisting of feminism by neoliberalism and the consequent production of a “feminism” that is so easily won it ought to have made them suspicious.

But no real feminist impulse informs this work. Pleasure (read feminism) seems to be a domain floating above all structures for this kind of work. Women swim back and forth “between tradition and […] consumerist modernity” [sic] (Srivastava); pink chaddis, Valentine cards and the Internet all lead us to a pink future; “fun” is the new politics that is both radically unregulatable and yet tepidly politically correct and safe (Phadke). With feminists like these, who needs patriarchy?

We are in urgent need of a re-thinking of the sexuality question in India and the first and best step is to jettison the illusion that we are in a glorious present which is unprecedented in its understanding of sexuality and its contradictory position in India is indicative of its radical potential or scintillating future. It is incredibly naïve to believe that the battle is a simple one between the liberal and open-minded fun-loving, on the one hand, and the bigoted and the backward on the other, that feminism (indeed post-feminism!) has arrived, that we are all “queer” and at the party.

Our understanding of the contemporary is as, if not more, flawed (and certainly more unpardonable) than our understanding of the past. We need to go back to the drawing board, to the historical coalface and learn that we are formed by long processes of consolidation and contestation and are not free-floating figures unmoored from history who can simply decide who we are. Sexuality Studies is just the kind of un-self-reflexive (unaware of its own conceptual tools), unmoored (from structure and history), self-congratulatory (because lacking any sense of the psychic that might produce self-doubt) book that we would do well without.