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Review: Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought*

Rianna Price | Lancaster University
Issue 01 - September 2020
Durba Mitra, Princeton, United States, Princeton University Press, 2020, pp.296, $99.95/£82.00, ISBN: 9780691196343

Durba Mitra, Princeton, United States, Princeton University Press, 2020, pp.296, $99.95/£82.00, ISBN: 9780691196343

  he status of the prostitute in the colonial Indian medical, moral and legal imagination has received various scholarly attentions over the years, but none so thorough and evocative as that of Durba Mitra’s Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought. The premise of the book is deceptively simple: to explore the ways in which deviant female sexuality, commonly evoked through the figure of the prostitute, was consolidated, replicated and imbricated into colonial social thought. Mitra thoughtfully contends that the various labels and taxonomies ascribed to these women, whose only crime was often to be widowed, Muslim or of a lower caste, ‘served as a seemingly endless resource that could be used to explain nearly all forms of social behaviour, ancient and modern.’ Drawing together seemingly disparate archives, sources and ideas, Mitra effortlessly and com-pellingly argues the case for how women’s sexual deviance lay at the root of the imagined social ills of colonial Indian society. Her work is a groundbreaking and thoroughly necessary reinterpretation of the role of women in colonial Indian society.


      Mitra sets the store of her pioneering work out clearly in the introductory chapter of her book, stating that women’s sexuality was linked to ideas of social progress, especially through the racialised lens of colonialism, which constructed ideas of female sexual deviance in order to create ways to think about Indian society. Her endlessly fascinating work lies in using the figure of the prostitute to examine the social structures that have ‘organized, disciplined, violated, and left a void in the place of women’s desires’. Her argument locates female sexuality as a pertinent and important site for the creation and maintenance of Empire, as well as using it to understand contemporary norms of Indian social life. Mitra offers an interestingly unique and prescient angle on the broader debate, by focussing specifically on deviant female sexuality adding a further, much needed, dimension to the discussion. Mitra artfully and captivatingly shows the ways in which archival evidence, colonial reports and sociological writings articulated the fears about Indian women’s sexuality and how the colonial state responded through surveillance and social reform. Moreover, her work cleverly interrogates these archival sources and, rather than attempting to recover the lived experience of these women, she skilfully uncovers the means by which these categories came to be seen as axiomatic. Through these means, Mitra undoubtedly asserts that India’s lack of progression became inextricably linked to the social fact of female sexual deviance, through her innovative reimagining of the colonial archive.


      Starting with Anglo-European and American Philologists, Mitra dexterously traces the ways that a very narrow selection of ancient scriptures and texts were used to articulate deviant female sexuality in the many forms of the prostitute. The conceptualisation of the prostitute did not correlate with the sexual economy of India during this time. As Mitra deftly shows, the category of prostitute became a catch-all for any women not confined to an upper-caste, monogamous, Hindu marriage. Those who fell outside of this narrow scope, according to these ancient texts, had the potential to be, or already were, a prostitute of some form. Mitra then moves on to explore the ways in which the legal system, through the Indian Penal Code (IPC), was used as a method of surveillance and curtailment for those deviant women. The Contagious Diseases Act provided the means by which female sexuality was monitored; the law itself suggested that all Indian women were capable of being prostitutes, due to their base desires and inability to restrain their sexuality. Mitra succinctly and interestingly observes that male sexual practice, with the exception of Section 377 of the IPC, went largely unregulated and unobserved.


      The designation of women as prostitutes and the various acts which sought to regulate aspects of their sexuality were closely linked to the regulation of male sexuality although, as Mitra tirelessly proves, less stringently. Another, complementary, angle which could yield interesting insights into this is that the legislation was designed to combat male homosexual relations and make it easier for men to access women. The legislation, while designed to target women, primarily had men in mind to regulate their sexual behaviour and to prevent homosexuality. This angle could add another layer of complexity to Mitra’s insights about how

colonial legislation targeted women; officers would rather have women procured and trafficked for men than allow same-sex male interaction.


      Through targeting and objectifying women as little more than prostitutes, the colonial authority could obliquely control male sexuality in order to prevent homo-sexual interactions. The deviance of women became a surrogate focus for the actions of men in the colonial space. Regulating sexuality in this manner allowed the colonial state to uphold heterosexual norms. This tallies and further underscores Mitra’s assertions that the colonial state used various institutions to inculcate hetero-normative, monogamous marriage. The fact that homosexual desire was part of the stimulus for the legislation makes it all the more damning that the colonial state chose to place the burden for heterosexuality and monogamy onto deviant, commodified women. I am by no means suggesting that this represents a lacuna in Mitra’s work, far from it in fact. This small observation further supports Mitra’s overarching arguments about how women accused of deviance were treated by the colonial state.


      Following on from the use of law as a tool of surveillance and so-called ‘social-reform’, Mitra brilliantly and decisively tracks the ways that medico- legal, sociological and literary forms re-articulated the discourses of prostitution and progress. Again, Mitra navigates these seemingly disparate elements with ease, drawing from wide swathes of evidence that reinforce her overarching discussion; the deviant female body as a reflection of social ills and the cause of India’s broader struggles. Through the varied lenses of Sati (widow immolation), the illegality of widow-remarriage, polygamous Kulin Brahmin practice, abortion and non-marital sex, Mitra reaffirms that the vast majority of women were collated under the broad labels of the prostitute and that, she ‘encompassed all associated forms of deviance: social, sexual, criminal.’ Mitra articulates these complex ideas, navigates broader debates about sexuality and provides a plethora of evidence to support her assertions. I would recommend that anyone studying (post)colonial gender, sexuality or prostitution reads Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought. In fact, I would suggest that everyone reads it, as not only are the ideas immeasurably complex, they are beautifully and engagingly written, as well as wonderfully presented. It was truly a pleasure to read what will, I’m sure, become a seminal text in the studies of sexuality in India.


*This review was first published in the South Asian Studies Journal (Rianna Price (2020): Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought, South Asian Studies Journal (Routledge, 2020) DOI: 10.1080/02666030.2020.1788278)

Rianna Price is a current History PhD student at Lancaster University. Her research is on the legacy of colonial homophobia and medicine in post-war India. She is particularly interested in the intersections between the queer and psychiatric in the wider socio-cultural histories of India. She has recently published an article on her research in The Conversation.


Twitter: @Rianna_Price


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