Body, Pleasure, Politics and Prostitution

by Zarina Rahman Khan and Helal Uddin Khan Arefeen

When we talk about body and pleasure it brings to mind the question whose body and whose pleasure for. Is the pleasure for men and women, i.e. is it mutual gendered ? In most cultures the object of bodily pleasure is woman and the person that enjoys is the man. Why does one think about body as an object of pleasure? We would not have thought it so if it was seen equally pleasurable for men and women. But the problem is, it is only the women’s body that is considered the object of such pleasure from time immemorial and across cultures. However, history shows that it was the body, irrespective of its gender that was considered pleasurable in primitive society which Frederick Engels calls matriarchy and where women predominated.

Improvements in primitive technology leading to agriculture created surplus which crushed matriarchy and replaced it with patriarchy or male dominance and subordination of women. From that time on we have seen in cultures, traditions, religion, values or ideology - whatever one may call it – construction of women’s body as objects of pleasure for men. And various types of institutions were created and organised for catering to the satisfaction of men’s sexual desires. For example, in ancient Middle East we find institutional practices in which women as objects of pleasure were offered to temple gods. In India even today we find temple women whose lives are dedicated to the sexual and domestic services of men. We also find prostitute castes across India and Nepal. Even among the untouchable castes in South Asia, for example, there is the practice of women providing sexual services to higher caste men and it is culturally approved. The ancient history of India abounds with stories of ‘accomplished’ women who were assigned with the duties of providing sexual services and companionship to the noble courtesans.

In the 18th and 19th century ‘babu’ culture of Calcutta it was the norm for the Babu, men of this class to spend their time for pleasure among the company of women in the brothels or avail sexual services of women they kept in residences maintained by them. Evidences from this period show that such ‘pleasure’ women were brought from Europe, China and the Middle East for providing sexual/ entertainment services to British Colonialists and the upper class Indians.

In this paper we discuss the issue of body, pleasure and politics in the backdrop of the institution of prostitution which has always been a part of human cultures and that of our own tradition. Preceding this, we have given a brief overview of the nature of male female sexuality in prostitution and similar institutions in order to understand women’s sexuality vis-a-vis the object of male pleasure. In fact the British institutionalised prostitution in this country. They legislated special laws, created red light areas and assigned law enforcing agencies to run and protect this institution. As a legacy of British Governance in Bengal we have inherited brothels established in each district headquarters at the same time that the municipalities were set up. The municipalities had the specific responsibility of collecting taxes and providing health and sanitation services to the brothels. Thus It is evident from the history of prostitution in this region that the whole mechanism has been devised to cater to the continued pleasure of men in society.

It is important to note that the law created vulnerability for women by labelling it ‘Immoral Traffic Act’ which brands prostitution as immoral rather than an illegal act as is in the case for the other laws. This upholds the ethical value of society imposed on women’s sexual norms. By the enactment of such law by the British, Victorian norms of sexuality percolated into the local ideology of women’s body and its use, which in turn strengthened the puritan notions. This ultimately marginalised women’s sphere of sexual freedom and choice. At the same time the state creates space for gratification of male sexual pleasure in an institution like the brothel, paradoxically disregarding ethical norms and legal sanctions. This law is carefully constructed for institutionalising the use of the body of women for the pleasure of men. Another construct of patriarchy, the social institution of marriage on the other hand, is for the use of women’s body for reproduction and domestic production as well as for sexual pleasure of man. In prostitution men can avail bodily pleasure/enjoyment free of the responsibilities of social reproduction. The state directly comes in to run this institution through law enforcing agencies in prostitution. In fact the whole responsibility of running it lies with the police and the court. What comes out of this analysis is the fact that the entire institution of prostitution has been created for the pleasure of men at the expense of the use of women’s body. Poverty is recognised as a crucial factor for pushing women into occupations like prostitution. Normative rules of sexuality and poverty are the vital combination that marginalises women and results in the continuous flow of women into this profession. It makes women’s situation not only precarious but highly vulnerable to exploitation and victimisation. This amply shows, the answer to the question whose body, whose pleasure. In this institution the body is that of the women and the pleasure derived from it is totally that of men.

Not only do men derive the pleasure out of women’s sexuality and physical attributes but also leaves women with the stigma of deep-rooted bodily pollution. In consequence, women live and die with this stigma. As prostitutes they are forced to segregate through the rules of operation laid down by the state and society. Traditionally, brothel ‘law’ prohibits women to wear shoes when they venture out in public space. The bare feet would indicate to the public that they are brothel inmates. This and other such codes of conduct specific to prostitution reinforce and perpetuate their segregation/isolation as polluted beings. Even death does not remove the pollution men leave on women’s body and mind in the act of deriving physical pleasure. Because of the unsanctioned/polluted nature of their sexual relationship with men, prostitutes are deprived from availing even the last mortuary rites or a proper burial.

We see that this whole institution is based on the presumption of use of female body for the pleasure of men. As a result, women become the victims of male pleasure. This is rooted in patriarchy created by the state and politics. Given this it is difficult to perceive of a reversal of this situation of women in prostitution and in society. It would require a change in the basic assumptions of the notion of the male and the female in society, a redefinition and reconstruction of male and female from one of gender to that of persons or individuals. This would be a process of transformation.

Reaching this alternative has to be seen as a process of transformation involving a series of progressive steps leading to it. These measures basically would involve mechanisms that can create space for the women to access rights and services as citizens. This in turn would lead to the construction of the alternative concept of their body and sexuality and above all a change in the definition of womanhood. The most important step towards the alternative is provision of trade licenses to the women as is entitled to other professions. This will not only give legal recognition of their profession but also provide them the moral strength to pursue with assertion and honesty an occupation constructed not by themselves but by the politics of a patriarchal culture. The license would provide them with the right to protection, right to access such services as health, housing, use of public space. This will also allow them to gain rights to motherhood and access to education and employment for their children. It is only in this way can an alternative mode of operation of prostitution bereft of the politics of exploitation of women’s body and sexuality be developed.

The authors are Professors of Dept. of Public Administration and Dept. of Anthropology respectively of University of Dhaka.