The Shame of Desire

This piece follows on from my post last week, where I discussed the history of sex in the sub-continent and how attitudes towards sex have drastically changed in contemporary societies across the Diaspora. I have been hugely surprised, and humbled, at the amount of interest that it has generated. It’s not everyday that I write about a topic, which makes me feel a bit on edge, and receive an overwhelming response. I thank you all for that; it means a lot and I appreciate it more than you can imagine. You can read last week’s post about ‘Sex and Desire in the Diaspora’ here.

This week is more of a contemporary lens on how love, sex and desire are viewed within the South Asian Diaspora. It is somewhat interesting to note that whenever love, sex and relationships are discussed within a South Asian narrative, it’s either saturated with an immediate expectation of marriage or the horrors of forced marriage, loveless arranged marriages, domestic violence, acid attacks and the insidious number of rapes/sexual assaults currently happening in the sub-continent. While it is vital that we continue to keep such contentious issues firmly in the public domain, it is also imperative that we begin to have open conversations about dating, sex and modern relationships in a healthy manner.

For a long time, I’ve often wondered why so many members of the South Asian Diaspora attach elements of shame to feeling sexual desire. In last week’s post, I established that centuries of successive colonialism (Mughals and then British) eroded a form of ancient Indian culture that was extremely comfortable with sex, sexuality and nudity. It is a stark contrast to see contemporary South Asian cultures that are now completely devoid of talking about sex and sexual desire,despite it having been alluded to in a variety of art, texts, poetry, songs and architecture.

The irrational fear (or reluctance) to acknowledge anything involving a human emotion with an energy level, as strong as sexual desire, is immediately stamped out. The end result of this behaviour is the manifestation of a guilt complex that becomes ingrained in people’s psyches. You don’t have to be psychologist to know how guilt has a way of eating away at an individual’s well being and happiness. At present, there already exists a lack of awareness and understanding about mental health problems across the Diaspora, which continues to destroy individuals and families. It makes me wonder why we would uphold attitudes that end up exacerbating people’s suffering instead of alleviating it.

If we delved into our heritages and histories, we would be extremely surprised to see how backward many of our ‘civilised’ and ‘modern’ ways of thinking are

In recent years, the idea of having sexual desire has long been associated with demon-like behaviour, evil, impurity, sin and clashes with the dogma that many religious and spiritual leaders dictate to their followers. This is clearly seen in modern depictions of deities; the most enlightened beings are portrayed as having ideal characteristics that we are expected to strive for; fairer skin, inner serenity and being fully detached from emotions like anger, lust and fear. There is nothing wrong with such depictions, because most of it acts as symbolism, which is what the bulk of Asian spirituality/philosophy consists of. However, such symbolism has started to be taken literally, as more and more pockets of South Asian communities clamour to ‘reclaim’ their heritage.

This itself is problematic on so many levels; such ideas do not take into account the fact that constructs of identity and culture are malleable and naturally change over time. Such beliefs result in a static and stubborn definition of what constitutes a particular identity. For example, I remember being at university and being told that I was ‘bad’ because I ate garlic and onions (which allegedly encourage anger and lust in people).This way of thinking often comes at the expense of those who do not adhere to their lifestyles or belief systems – which naturally leads on to other issues which cause fractures within the Diaspora as a collective group.

It is almost like rubbing salt into an open wound; as if it wasn’t bad enough that a significantly large and influential component of cultural heritage was almost wiped out, we suddenly see figures of authority within our very own communities uphold the very same principles that were historically imposed upon our ancestors in the sub-continent centuries ago. I generally have no qualms with people and their belief systems, unless it encroaches on other people’s lives and has the potential to cause harm. In this case, the messages that some figures of authority are sending out, are damaging yet go unquestioned.

In the eight months of conducting research and having various conversation with people of South Asian descent (across generations) only exacerbates how deep feelings of shame run with regards to sex and desire – despite it being a natural and normal human emotion I firmly believe that if more South Asians delved into our heritages and histories, we would be extremely surprised with how backward many of our ‘civilised’ and ‘modern’ ways of thinking are, in comparison to what was originally practised by our ancestors.


7 thoughts on “The Shame of Desire

  1. Pingback: Brown Bodies | Avid Scribbler

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