Models embrace during the Sex and Relationships photoshoot in February 2019. Each religion has has shaped sex culture for thousands of years. GARY GHAYRAT/THE STATESMAN

Hinduism, the historical past, and the presence of sex in pop culture in India

Temples from India’s ancient period have statues that depict sexual acts and not just between men and women. It includes homosexuality, transgenderism and orgies. This means in the historical past, it was part of the culture. Legal texts, epics and methodological texts also talk a lot about sex. Sex was seen as partly religious, as an act of union, Aishani Gupta, Ph.D. candidate in the history department, said.

“The Kama Sutra, composed about 2,000 years ago, found its way to the western market as an exotic oriental book about sex positions,” she said.

The present is different though.

“Southeast Asia was governed by the British for about 200 years and brought Victorian moral codes and ethics. There were evangelical and protestant people preaching ethics. There was solidification of race, gender and class hierarchies and it seeped into Indian culture. British and Indian culture hegemonized,” Gupta said.

Contemporary peoples are very bipolar on the issue. There are a lot of references to sex in pop culture, sometimes explicitly in Bollywood. A movie may show kissing or even sex.

“In general, there is this moralistic approach prevalent in society. You are not supposed to talk about [sex], especially with your parents. It’s kind of awkward. You can’t have the talk with your parents and this is across all religions in South Asia,” she said.

People enjoy it and accept it, but they’re afraid to speak about it in public. Tinder culture is available and prevalent in urban areas like Calcutta, Gupta said.

“Live in relationships are not a big thing. In India, in metropolices and bigger towns, they still have it. A lot of families are okay with it and most families don’t support it. Although the Supreme Court has legalized live-in relationships,” she said.  

In 2018, India decriminalized homosexuality. The law banning homosexuality was instituted by the British in the 1800s.

“The British were concerned about their armies in India. Men had needs and would go to prostitutes,” Gupta said. “They would have prostitute zones around fortifications, but they also took to one other. The British government totally freaked out and they passed this law banning homosexuality and sodomy.”

From personal experience, she says that some people consider homosexuality as a mental illness. People are afraid to come out and many are forced to marry against their will. There are a lot of divorces over this. Transgender people are feared and shunned because most people believe that if you have both genitalia, you have some powers or curse people, Gupta said.

“There are some religious places, especially in Southern India that worship this idea of being trans,” Gupta said. “One of the main gods of Hindu mythology, Sheva, one of his forms or avatars is half man and half woman. He and his wife are joined together.”

Judaism, modern ideas about sexuality, and inter-faith marriages

In the Bible and from the words of rabbis in the Talmud, sex is something done during marriage. There isn’t an idea of abstinence or celibacy and relationships are thought of in terms of holiness, Joshua Teplitsky, an assistant professor specializing in Judaic studies in the history department, said.

“In the ancient world and middle ages, who you had sex with didn’t make you a different kind of person,” Teplitsky said.  “In Jewish, texts there are sometimes prohibitions against same-sex sex, but not against same-sex sexuality and maybe not even against same-sex love.”

Before the modern era, people didn’t identify themselves through their sexuality. A sex act may have been what you did, but not who you were. People today see themselves through their sexuality, Teplitsky said.

“The biblical story of David and Jonathan, for example, stands out where two men express love for each other,” Teplitsky said. “It is one of the few stories of the Hebrew Bible that talks about love.”

The internet has been a place for people to meet and talk about different issues and topics. There are networks of gay Jews and strictly Jewish orthodox women that talk about sex and sexuality and romance. There are two-spectrums to the idea of transgenderism, with people who are open activists and others who don’t acknowledge that transexuality exists. In between, there are people who want to understand and include them.

“Jews are relatively small in number and understandingly concerned about losing members in the group. There are people who think that intermarriage actually draws greater connections Jews and other kinds of people,” Teplitsky said. “In this moment in American history, there may be more non-Jews related by extended family marriage to Jews than any other time in history.”

Judaism has instructions about clothing and modesty. Some of them apply more to women than men. It is about channeling sexual relations toward modesty.

“At other times, Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors have dressed very much like each other. It’s similarly now,” Teplitsky said. “If you were to walk out to the main part of college, I’m not sure you can discern who is Jewish and who is not based on the type of clothing they wear.”

Sikhism, arranged marriages, and the modern impacts of the caste system

In Sikhism, religion and culture are intermixed. Arranged marriages still occur, but it’s not written that it’s required to be a Sikh. It rather has become a cultural norm. There are still those who don’t have arranged marriages and they’re called love marriages, Simrat Kaur, vice president of the Sikh Student Association, said.

“Marriage is more about the coming together of two souls coming together in order to become closer to God,” Kaur said. “It’s the idea that your parents have better judgment in that than you do.”

For most Sikhs, marriage is arranged. Parents have connections to other people in society. They may talk to another parent, mention their sons or daughters around the same age. Then it goes to the son or daughter and the parents ask do you want to meet this person, and then if the son or daughter agrees, they meet. They either go on a date or a couple of dates and say yes or no.

In marriage, if somebody is not Sikh, they might have to convert since the temple might not let them marry. Other temples might marry the couple, but this is based on the type of Sikhism practiced and the community in that area.

In a more cultural perspective of Sikhism, premarital sex is looked down upon. Sex shouldn’t be lustful because lust is a sin. If premarital sex is lustful, then it is not allowed. Sikhs don’t talk about sex with their parents, so “the talk” isn’t really something they have. Being a virgin is important because it indicates purity, Kaur said.

The younger generations have become more comfortable with modern concepts of sexual identity, but even there they have grey areas. There’s nothing written against sexual identities but it can be seen as a type of phobia.

“Sikhism is more of an idea about love and respect for all humankind,” Kaur said.

Culturally, some people still believe that you have to marry within the same caste. Although, religiously, Sikhism was created to challenge the caste system. The caste system even applies and follows people living in the United States, she said.

“A lot of people have this confusion of like yes, I follow Sikhism, but, technically, I don’t believe in the caste system, but culturally, I want to make sure that my kids get married into the same caste, ” Kaur said.

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