Sex is a natural human desire, but how do different communities and cultures perceive it?
There is a popular myth that men think about sex every seven seconds, or up to 8,000 times a day. While research has shown that the number is actually lower – on average around 34 times a day for men and 18 for women – sex is, for the lack of a better phrase, a hot topic. We may dedicate a similar amount of thought to other simple pleasures like food and sleep, but it is the element of sex that makes bestsellers out of books like Fifty Shades of Grey.
According to Rudolph Brasch, the first exhaustive discussion on sex occurred in the Bible. He dubs it the first comprehensive sex “manual,” which indicated early on that sex and religion are not divorced from each other.
But the first literature that treated sexual intercourse as a science was Kama Sutra. Written as a manual on all things relationships, family and social grace for young men, its section on sexuality is unsurprisingly the most popular. The word kama does not indicate sexual desire alone, but designates a wish or longing that is devoid of sexual overtones. Hindu philosophy has dealt with issues of sex and sexuality at great length. The Bhagwat Gita, the religious text of Hindus, added a flavor of sacredness to sex.
The themes of lust and temperance find their way into Islamic thought as well, where sex has never been a taboo subject. In fact, the third and fourth chapters of the Quran are dedicated to family, women and relationships. Sexuality and relationships in Islam are not understood in terms of reproduction and pleasure alone — the maintenance of social order is central to it. In Judaism, too, sex between a husband and wife is a scared act requiring thought and commitment and, importantly, its purpose is to satisfy the woman’s needs.
Somehow, the openness about sex has been lost in modern religious practice, despite a relaxation of social norms. Indeed, many aspects of our sexual behavior stem from the Stone Age and persist to this very day. As much as we would like to deem ourselves rational beings, a lot of our choices are governed by basic biology. Men, always unsure of their paternity, will seek out more partners to ensure the survival of their genes. Women will pick the reliable, father-figure as a partner when they are not ovulating, in which case they opt for the alpha male type with a better set of genetic information.
Perhaps it is this innate drive that has inspired people over the ages to seek ways to enhance and facilitate sexual pleasure. The invention of the condom by ancient Egyptians, the first sex toys dating back to the Paleolithic and the Orgasmatron are all testimony to our need and appreciation of physical desire.
Why is Sex Relevant?
The playfulness of sex carries with it an inevitable dark side. Entrenched ideas about sexuality create a politic around the human body – most of the time the body of a woman – perpetuating traditional gender roles, expectations and practices. Early this year, Yemen set the official age of marriage for girls at 18, after the tradition of child brides was tackled by social groups. Yet this is a practice that continues across the developing world, along with female genital mutilation (FGM), robbing girls and women of education, choice and physical pleasure.
Even though there is now greater awareness of the many sexual minorities and the challenges they face, there is a simultaneous increase in the intolerance toward those who defy social norms. Homosexuality, decriminalized in most countries across the globe, is still a punishable offence in places like Malaysia, India, Kenya and carries the death penalty in Saudi Arabia and Sudan among others. The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community faces hatred and persecution in Russia and South Africa, to name but a few, and sex workers across the world face not only social discrimination, but outright danger to their lives.
The United States continues to grapple with issues of everyday sexism. In the 1970s, the second generation feminists launched a vociferous campaign to ward off the evil of “rape culture” in American society. They drew the public’s attention to normalization of rape – a concern that continues to plague societies worldwide.
Thus, the notion of sexuality cannot be confined to utilitarian reproduction alone. It is a foundation upon which relationships are built and nurtured, a common building block of life irreverent of religion, sexual orientation, age, class or caste. When we talk about love and sexual desire, it provokes us to question not only existing social structures, body politics and gender relations, but what it means to be human in the first place.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.