James W. Hicks, M.D.

Archive for the ‘Cultures’ Category

Sexuality in Sri Lanka

In Cultures on March 13, 2011 at 7:51 am

I posted previously about widespread bisexuality among men in South Asia, but I noted that women’s sexuality in South Asia has remained somewhat invisible. Equal Ground, an organization addressing the sexual and gender rights of the Sri Lankan community, has just launched a campaign to make women’s sexuality more visible. Check out their powerful poster, which reads, “A Woman Loving Another Woman is Also a Woman: Respect Her Rights.”

Homosexual acts are still illegal in Sri Lanka (if widely practiced by men who think of themselves as straight) and homosexual status is persecuted, but we should keep in mind that Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to grant suffrage to women, and it was the first country to elect a female head of state. Also, nearby India recently decriminalized homosexuality. So change may be under way.

If you are interested in bisexuality (and the history of women’s suffrage) in Sri Lanka, read the excellent historical novel, Cinnamon Gardens, by Shyam Selvadurai. He is also the author of another beautiful novel, Funny Boy, about growing up gay and gender atypical in Sri Lanka.

Bisexual Arabic Literature

In Cultures, Media on February 2, 2011 at 7:23 pm

With Cairo in the news recently, I was reminded of an Egyptian novel that deals with bisexuality. The Yacoubian Building, by Alaa Al Aswany, was a best seller in the Arab world when it was published a few years ago, and it was subsequently made into a popular movie. One of the main characters is Abd Rabbuh, a young police officer who is married but also having an affair with an older, gay man, Hatim Rasheed. Rabbuh has features of several sexual types, though his role is most obviously macho and versatile. The characters are portrayed sympathetically, though the plot requires a perhaps stereotypical tragic ending.

For another great novel featuring bisexual characters in Egypt, pick up Norman Mailer’s colorful epic, Ancient Evenings, set mostly in the 13th Century B.C. The narrator (Menenhetet) has sex with both men and women, as does his pharaoh, Ramses the Great. Menenhetet is portrayed as macho, while Ramses seems to be supersexual. The novel is fascinating for the way in which Mailer immerses the reader in an alien culture, in which sexuality, bodily functions, and religion are completely unmoored from contemporary associations and assumptions.

And back to Arabic, consider reading the erotic wine songs of Abu Nuwas, a revered 8th Century poet who wrote in Baghdad during the early Abbasid period. The classic poet is famous for his sexual relations with men (when he was a boy) and boys (when he was a man), but he also married a woman and loved a slave girl during his youth. He wrote passionate songs about both young men and women.

Bisexuality among Indian Women

In Cultures on September 17, 2010 at 6:56 pm

Very little is published about sexual behaviour among women in the Indian subcontinent. Women are universally expected to have a feminine appearance, to marry, and to have children. A woman’s virginity and fidelity are of much greater concern than a man’s, so premarital sex between women might be restricted and condemned more than between men, though perhaps less than between unmarried men and women.

It is likely that some women find opportunities to express physical affection and erotic feelings for each other away from the gaze of men. Intimate friendships between female friends have been celebrated in India, sometimes in frankly sexual terms, as in the 19th Cent. Mughal poetry called Rekhti. More recently, Deepa Mehta’s movie Fire, which tells of a love affair between two married women (Radha and Sita), was critically praised but publicly protested.

One small study of female university students in India found that one-third described themselves as “homosexual with certain heterosexual tendencies.” Only half identified themselves as straight. The remainder said they were lesbian, bisexual, or something else. (This is in contrast to the male students, of whom only 5% said they were something other than straight, but similar to the findings of a recent study of college women in the United States.) This provides a hint that a substantial number of women in South Asia may feel attraction and affection for their female peers, at least until they fulfill their familial duty by getting married.

A recent article in India’s weekly newsmagazine, India Today, portrays bisexuality among cosmopolitan couples sympathetically as a growing and “chic… phenomenon [that] is here to stay.”

The Kamasutra

In Cultures, Media on September 7, 2010 at 8:40 pm

Since I refer to this blog as a “kamasutra,” I should give a shout out to the original, which was written seventeen hundred years ago by the sage Vatsyayana in what is now India. The Kamasutra was written for metropolitan playboys in pursuit of women, and it catalogued a variety of sexual practices without judgment. A fascinating and authoritative translation by Wendy Doniger was published in 2002 and is now available in paperback (the following quotes are from her translation).

Vatsyayana was well aware of the bisexual potential of men and women. The description of oral sex between men is among the longest and most ecstatic descriptions of a sex act in the entire book (which is saying something). Vatsyayana describes eight stages, from the initial placement of the lips on the head of the penis to the swallowing at climax. He reports men “who care for one another’s welfare and have established trust do this service for one another,” though oral sex was more commonly obtained from a masseur. A commentary by the scholar Yashodhara goes further, describing how men “take one another, in friendship, and give one another the sensual pleasure of ejaculation. They say, ‘You do it for me now, and I will do it for you later.’ Or both of them do it at the same time, by turning their bodies head to foot, losing all sense of time because of their passion.” These Indian sages were referring to men who were otherwise straight and interested in sex with women.

The same commentary by Yashodhara also describes oral sex between women: “Certain women in the harem, unable to get any tools, trusting in one another, excite one another with their mouth on the vagina.” Vatsyayana also describes how sexually unfulfilled women in a harem would “give pleasure to one another with the following techniques. They dress up a [girl] like a man and relieve their desire with dildos or with bulbs, roots, or fruits that have that form. They lie on statues of men that have distinct sexual characteristics.” Again, these were not lesbians in the modern sense but women who were otherwise expected to enjoy sex with men.

See also my posts on Sex Among South Asian Men and Bisexuality among Indian Women.

Sex among South Asian Men

In Cultures on August 8, 2010 at 9:45 am

A first time visitor to South Asia might think he or she is surrounded by homosexuals. South Asian men and woman commonly show physical affection for each other in public, for example by holding hands as they walk down the street or through the park. In contrast, such public affection is almost never expressed between a man and a woman. South Asian men also make strong eye contact in a way that can be misleading to a Westerner, who assumes that an unbroken stare indicates sexual interest.

Over the last decade, concern about the spread of AIDS in the Indian subcontinent has led several researchers to examine men’s sexual behaviour with other men, with surprising results. Even though almost every man gets married, rates of homosexual behavior were generally in the range of 10-50%.

Ten percent of single men in rural villages reported that they had had anal sex with another man in the previous year alone. The highest rate was found in Orissa, in the east of India, where nearly one in ten married men and one in five single men had had anal sex with another man in the past year. Two other studies found that seventeen percent of male college students and six percent of male slum dwellers in Chennai had had sex with another man in their lifetime. Among the college students, about half of the men who had had sex with men had also had sex with women. Nearly one third of male prisoners in Uttar Pradesh had had some sort of sex with a man, mostly anal.

Several studies have focused on truck drivers, because they are seen as a potential vehicle for the spread of AIDS. A survey of long-distance truckers in Lahore, Pakistan found that half had had sex with a man. Half of these truck drivers were married, and rates of sex with men were no different among those who were married than among those who were single. A survey of truck drivers and their helpers in Dkhaka, Bangladesh found one in five had ever had sex with a man, most often with a friend, and mostly anal sex. More than eighty percent of men who had had sex with a man in the previous year had also had sex with a woman in the previous year.

These surveys suggest that men are not having sex with other men because they lack opportunities to have sex with women. In fact, the men who reported having sex with other men were more likely to have had sex with women as well (even if they were not married), more likely to have had multiple female partners, more likely to have paid for sex, and more likely to have had anal sex with their wives. In most cases, homosexual acts appear to be just part of the repertoire for a South Asian man with a strong sex drive and/or close male friends.


In Cultures, Media on July 23, 2010 at 1:14 pm

In 2005-2006, the HBO miniseries Rome amazingly recreated the politics and personalities of the Roman republic on the verge of becoming an empire under Julius Ceasar. The acting, sets, music, and story are fabulous.

Among it’s other virtues, Rome portrays several different types of bisexuality in an accurate historical context.

Early in the first season, Octavian is taken to a brothel by the soldier Titus Pullo, where he is offered a range of men and women to choose from. It is taken for granted that men are ambisexual and might want to have sex with both genders.

Octavian’s sister, who has previously loved and been married to a man, is successfully seduced by her mother Atia’s arch-enemy Servilia, an older woman who had previously been in love with Julius Ceasar. (Yes, it’s a bit of a soap opera, but so much more.) Atia’s daughter is flexamorous. Servilia’s feelings are unclear.

Servilia also employs a 14 year old psychopath as an assassin who is supposed to poison Atia. This versatile young man becomes a servant by offering himself as a sexual bottom to the senior slave of Atia’s household, but he also flirts boldly with Servilia. For him it is all about the money.

In one episode, Lucius Vorenus’ fellow mobsters anally rape another man, reflecting the sexual violence that can be condoned within a macho sexual culture. Marc Anthony also rapes a passing woman and expects continuous sex from his slaves. He’s never shown having sex with a man (unless you count the orgies in Cleopatra’s court, where he shows off his new tattoos), but he is presumably supersexual.

Vorenus’ tavern manager in the second season, who becomes Titus Pullo’s girlfriend, is portrayed as atypically (for the time) manly and sexually aggressive, suggesting she might have metamorphic traits.

Julius Ceasar is involved only with women in the series, but the real Julius Ceasar was known in his time to have had a homosexual relationship when he was a young man. In fact, he was assumed to have been the bottom, which could have destroyed his reputation if he were not so strongly respected by his men as a soldier. He might have been flexamorous or ambisexual.

Desi Marriage

In Cultures on July 21, 2010 at 8:32 pm

A Uniquely Indian Perspective On Gay Marriage
by Sandip Roy
July 21, 2010

A commentary about Indian parents who bless their children’s decisions to get married, and perhaps have children, with someone of the same sex. New laws make it possible to satisfy old values.

This month also marks the one-year anniversary of the New Delhi High Court’s decision striking down the prosecution of homosexuals.

NYC Pride 2010

In Cultures on July 5, 2010 at 3:40 pm

A few marchers in the Pride Parade were too hot to post on my original blog.



New York City Pride 2010

In Cultures on July 5, 2010 at 10:31 am

Here are some photos and one video clip from the New York City Pride Parade last week.



A video clip from the Caribbean segment:

Three New Books about Muslim Bisexuality

In Cultures, Research on July 1, 2010 at 5:50 am

Westerners tend to focus on gay identity and gay rights when speaking about sexuality, but in much of the world, same-sex activity takes place between individuals who do not think of themselves as gay or lesbian and who are likely to be married. All men and women are seen as having the potential to feel affection and sexual desire for both sexes; the act, rather than the individual, is considered homosexual.

This is an oversimplification, but it’s important to emphasize that, while a wide range of emotions and desires are universal, the ways in which they are labelled may vary from one culture to another.

In the last decade, Westerners have become more curious about Islamic cultures, and three new books describe homosexuality in those cultures from different contemporary perspectives.

Afdhere Jama’s Illegal Citizens: Queer Lives in the Muslim World tells three dozen highly personal stories about real Muslim men and women (and transgendered individuals) living all over the world, from Africa to Southeast Asia. The stories are simply told but very moving, and few of the lives follow the trajectories of a Western coming-out story. The individuals are brave but not naive and find various ways to express their love while accomodating to their culture.

Michael Luongo is an author and journalist who has written about his own travels elsewhere. His new book titled Gay Travels in the Muslim World collects stories by predominantly gay Westerners (all men) about their experiences in Muslim countries. Luongo’s own chapter about Afghanistan is among the most fascinating, though a US marine corporal’s account of his encounter with an Arab man while on patrol in Baghdad powerfully shows how much we have in common. Several of the other stories disappointingly reveal a chasm in understanding, if not condescension and exploitation. Most of the chapters describe Muslims who might best be described as macho or versatile, though some might be gay in the Western sense.

Brian Whitaker’s Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East describes the political and religious context in which homosexual activity and identity are expressed and curtailed.

Three other older books provide greater historical, literary, and academic analysis: Islamic Homosexualities by Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe, Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800, by Khaled El-Rouayheb, and Homoeroticism in Classical Arabic Literature by J.W. Wright Jr. and Everett Rowson. These books remind us that, for most of the last millenium or so, homosexual love and desire was celebrated and protected more in the Muslim world than in the West.

Though the titles of each of these books refers to gays, lesbians, queers, or homosexualities, in reality they are each describing, for the most part, bisexual cultures and individuals.