Love and Sex in the East and West
Sheetal Kaur Kandola, MSc | Research Coordinator
I am a second generation American and the only daughter of immigrants from India. I feel blessed to be born in America, and to be inheriting a deep, rich, and complex culture from my ancestors. I come from a lineage of regal farmers and Warrior Saints. I am grateful to my parents for giving me the opportunity to pursue my passions. However, growing up in rural Southern America was quite the challenge. Being brown, big, tall and a female of color within a homogenous society, I was confronted with a lot of abuse, hate and discrimination.
As women of color living in America, we are taught to be strong; we learn from our mothers, sisters and daughters. Social norms are built on respect and the culture of silence and shame shrouds abuse. Many communities of color are so marginalized that such accusations would play into the mainstream bias of minorities being ‘anti-women.’ Thus, we (women) put on a strong face and thick skin to try to deal with abuse internally. Unfortunately, many women suffer in silence.
As a survivor, upon realizing it was not my fault or my shame to carry around, I found compassion for myself and others. I also realized no matter what color, culture or creed, a lot of women have unfortunately experienced something similar. When I realized I was not alone, I began to see my strength, my courage and my potential, and I started looking at life more positively. I found a community of women and felt hopeful for the future. I began to see myself as a person who is thriving. The greatest gift I discovered was simply myself — pure and divine. My new-found inner strength inspired me to be a leader in global mental health and sex education.
Due to my experience, I strongly feel that comprehensive sex and mental health education taught in schools can majorly impact all children, especially those dealing with adverse or traumatic events. Not only will a student be able to access help if needed, but also learning about sex and mental health can prepare a child to build healthy relationships, learn how to identify emotions and respond to others in a constructive way.
Personally, I strive to learn about how different cultures view sexual violence and what they are doing to help remove stigma so victims can feel supported. I hope to educate adolescents to understand how sex and mental health are related, and to help others talk to youth about sex in an open and honest manner. Comprehensive sex education and trauma-informed care are lacking in the current educational systems and need to be taught to children from a young age. I feel the East and West could work together in combining philosophies about how to deal with sexuality and sexual assault. In India and the US, sexual assault and abuse has finally come to the surface. Whilst this may be frightening for some, it is a reality for a lot of people hiding in shame.
Being raised Indian in the West, I was exposed to many different expressions of sexuality. In America, there is an openness and acceptance about being sexy---with sex toys, strip clubs and liberal fashion choices. However, the American media often has a very narrow idea of what it means to be sexy and beautiful. Generally, it has been posited as a European standard of beauty consisting of a blonde, tall and thin look. In addition, in the US, people will openly kiss, touch and hug in public and kids in America start dating sometimes as early as 9 years old. Contrary to the US, India, does not allow sex shops and strip clubs and traditional clothing is relatively more conservative. In India, curvy women are seen as ideal bodies, however, they have recently started to import western standards of beauty by selling face whitening creams to make women “fair and lovely.” Moreover, a public display of intimacy is only really accepted by people of the same gender in a platonic fashion and many Indians do not have any experience dating until it is time for marriage.
Globally, sex, and love in some contexts, is considered a taboo topic. Due to this repression of sex, adolescents may feel shame and guilt if they are not educated about what is a good touch and a bad touch, or what the best ways are to protect themselves. In reality, the abuse is a result of this suppression. Many women in India and the US feel ashamed to discuss their abuse due to fear of not being believed, being ignored or not being taken seriously. Many abusers count on the basic fact that the culture blames the victim, because the stigma associated with sexual assault would force a woman to keep quiet. America and India both need shifts in ideology to embrace open, honest discussions about sex. Cultural relativity is defensible and attractive, and a source of hope; it means Indians and Americans do not have to continue the old ways if they are no longer working and they do not like them.
In pre-colonial India, sex was never seen as something taboo or simply for procreation. Sex was viewed as a sacred vehicle in order to unite with the divine. Sex stood for sacred energy exchange. Similarly, yoga which literally means “unite” is yoking yourself with the Supreme. In addition, Ayurveda, also known as the science of life (Ayur = life, Veda = science or knowledge), offers a body of wisdom designed to help people stay vibrant and healthy while realizing their full human potential. Only recently, have people started to understand the philosophy of yoga, Ayurveda and sexuality a bit more.
Modern day India struggles with women’s empowerment and suppression of sexuality, yet this is the land that gave us the Kamasutra all the way back in the 2nd century. Kama is the Hindu God of love, and the word “kama” means desire and “sutra” means guide. “Kama” is one of the four goals of Hindu life, so pleasure is part of life’s purpose. The ancient text has a large assortment of sex positions, but it goes beyond physical touch to dissect sensuality and the art of human love. A lengthy portion is dedicated to skills of seduction and physical beauty is meant to be emphasized much less than the ability to create beauty. For example, Ayurveda and the Kama Sutra recommends the best time to make love is between 10pm-11pm then replenish the body with oil massage, rest, and nourishing food and drinks like almond milk with dates, figs and saffron. Ancient India teaches us that sex is a great creative force that can be useful in elevating us if we have the right understanding. I recommend reading Kamasutra (not the Cosmo Kama Sutra sex manual) to learn about human behavior, secrets to a lasting relationship and the art of living.
The Kama Sutra is ahead of its time in the way it approaches, contextualizes, and describes how to best achieve ecstatic expression of life’s beauty. As time progressed and invaders came to India, they began to sexually assault and abuse the women and children. For this reason, people did not feel safe and began to cover themselves in order to not be recognized or raped. Thus, bringing us to a present-day suppression of sexuality that the whole world is now waking up to.
I am, of course, only skimming the surface here. Sexuality and Kama Sutra goes much deeper, and more importantly, it does something Western sexual studies shied away from: it uses the L-word. According to ancient India, only when we really make love can we turn sex into a transformative experience. I believe that now the West has embraced yoga and meditation, people are more open than ever to the idea that sex creates not only a physical, but also an emotional and spiritual bond between people. According to the Kama Sutra, there are four distinct types of love, each of which has its own place in the pyramid of self-realization. There is love by habit, or love that results from constant and continual performance of some act. There is love that proceeds entirely from ideas, which is called love "by imagination." There is mutual love, and finally there is love that isn't named as such, which is obvious to everyone but the lovers themselves. The Kama Sutra implies that this is the most powerful love of all, for love is not categorized, boxed, or burdened by expectations or judgment. For, if love is expected, then it will always live in the moment to come.
The famous Indian sensuality, referenced incessantly around the world by mentions of Tantric life styles, Kama Sutras and erotic arts, will change the face of the world again in coming decades as westerners are looking to eastern practices for spirituality and self-realization. In addition, American sexuality, due to #metoo and other body positive movements, has been changing the face of what consent means and what it means to be beautiful and inclusive. The newer generations have been trying to re-define the sexual and sensual vocabulary on their own, rather than being influenced by external and commercial influences. In fact, people are already understanding that talking about issues and focusing light on dark areas which create ignorance, ill-health and many social evils like rapes, disrespect to women, abuse of children and suffering in general, can lead to better outcomes. These outdated ideas and the violence, it all comes from a place of misunderstanding. If we can give people education and seeds of being aware, we will create much greater change, balance and peace within ourselves and around the world.