Natural Is normal?
By Nivedita Menon
Asia Citizens Web
recent episode of a lesbian couple in Kerala having to seek court intervention
to stop police persecution initiated by their parents, starkly underlines
the fearsome question that lies unrecognized at the heart of the furore
around Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code: Is it natural to be normal?
Introduced into Indian statute by the British parliament in 1872, this
section penalizes sexual activity "against the order of nature".
So? A handful of perverts should worry. At most, the wider body of ubiquitous
"human rights activists" who hold the absurd belief that as
long as consenting adults are involved, sexual preferences are private
matters from which the law should keep out. Should anyone else care?
Well, here's bad
news for normal society --"normal" sexuality is no private
matter. The assumption is that "normal" sexual behaviour springs
from nature, and that it has nothing to do with culture or history.
But if we recognize that sexuality is located in culture, we have to
deal with the uncomfortable idea that sexuality is a human construct,
and not something that happens "naturally." Consider the possibility
that rules of sexual conduct are as arbitrary as traffic rules, created
by human societies to maintain a certain sort of order, and which could
differ from place to place -- for example, you drive on the left in
India and on the right in the USA. Further, let us say you question
the sort of social order that traffic rules keep in place. Say you believe
that traffic rules in Delhi are the product of a model of urban planning
that privileges the rich and penalizes the poor, that this order encourages
petrol-consuming private vehicles and discourages forms of transport
that are energy-saving -- cycles, public transport, pedestrians. You
would then question that model of the city that forces large numbers
of inhabitants to travel long distances every day simply to get to school
and work. You could debate the merits of traffic rules and urban planning
on the grounds of convenience, equity and sustainability of natural
resources -- at least, nobody could seriously argue that any set of
traffic rules is natural.
Let us apply this
argument to sexuality. First of all, if "normal" behaviour
were so natural, it would not require such a vast network of controls
to keep in place. Take some random examples. Item one - gendered dress
codes. Imagine a bearded man in a skirt in a public place: why would
this shake the very foundations of "normal" society? Unless
"he" is recognizably a hijra, and that puts him on the margins
of normal society in a different way. Just the wrong kind of cloth on
the wrong body, and the very foundations of natural, normal sexual identity
start to quake! Two - the disciplining of thought through schools, families,
the media, education, religion. All telling you that desire for someone
of the same sex is a sin, or insane, or criminal. Three, if all else
fails - violent coercive measures to keep people heterosexual, from
electric shock therapy to physical abuse to using the coercive apparatus
of the state, as the parents in the Kerala incident did. Four ñ
laws. Why would we need laws to maintain something that is natural?
Are there laws forcing people to eat or sleep? But there is a law forcing
people to have sex in a particular way!
The point of real
interest though, is that human beings do not in fact, live particularly
"natural" lives. The whole purpose of civilization seems to
be to move as far away from nature as possible. We clothe our naked
bodies (indeed, the same people who condemn homosexuality as unnatural
would insist that natural nudity be covered up). We cook raw food derived
from nature, we build elaborate shelters from the natural elements.
We use contraception (again, most of those who condemn homosexuality
on the grounds that sex is only for procreation would not question the
need for contraception). Clearly, equating "unnatural" with
"immoral/wrong" is simply a way of suffocating debate.
But the more important
question is - what is the social order that the rules of "normal"
sexual behaviour keep in place? Why is it so crucial to ensure that
men have legitimate sex only with women? (Note the word legitimate,
because of course sex between people of the same sex is as old as human
civilization). Why the need to ensure that women only have sex with
the men they are married to (because again, everyone knows that the
rules of chastity and monogamy are enforced strictly only for women).
Remember the scene from the Hindi film Mrityudand in which the visibly
pregnant Shabana is asked "yeh kiska bachha hai?" It is very
evident that the baby is inside her body, that it is hers, but the absurd
question makes absolute sense in a patriarchal society -- who is the
father of this child, is what the question means. Whose caste does this
child bear, to whose property can he lay claim?
This brings us to
the institution of the family that is at the core of the present extremely
inequitable social order. A Delhi High Court judgement in 1984 ruled
that the fundamental rights to equality and freedom have no place in
the family. To bring constitutional law into the home, the learned judge
ruled, is like "taking a bull into a china shop." And of course,
he was absolutely right. The family in India is indeed premised on extreme
inequality -- beginning with the wife changing her surname on marriage,
to the property to which no sister has equal rights with her brother,
to the sexual division of labour, which legitimizes the unpaid domestic
labour of women. The rights to equality and freedom would certainly
destroy the family as we know it.
If families were
only about material and emotional support structures, then any such
group of people would be recognized as a family. Isn't it also more
likely that humans experience sexual desire in a variety of ways, of
which the heterosexual is only one? But the point precisely is that
only the heterosexual, patriarchal family is permitted to exist. And
this family is about the passing on of property and lineage through
men. The "normality" that this requires is produced, maintained
and rigorously policed by the state, laws and social institutions. It
is far from being natural or private.
In short, section
377 does not refer to some queer people out there, whom normal people
can gaze upon like anthropologists at a bizarre tribe. Section 377 is
about the painful creation of Mr and Mrs Normal -- it is one of the
nails holding in place the elaborate fiction that "normality"
springs from nature.