What Lies in a Body Beyond Gender and Sex
March 2014
illustration

“Natasha” (pastel & acrylic)
© 

It would probably seem rather controversial to admit that the first ‘date’ I had with my husband, Denis, was at a lap dancing club in East London, particularly as he now works as a Buddhist priest. Reflecting on this evening from over eight years ago, when he invited me to join him and a group of male work colleagues to visit a ‘Gentlemen's Club’ following our team's Christmas party, I see that it was to set the tone of our future relationship… (No, I don't mean that we have a habit of paying to watch naked women dancing for us…) I mean setting the tone of openness, acceptance and vulnerability, which underpins the solidity of our relationship.

It was the recent release of the film ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ a black comedy based on the sex and drug-fuelled life of fraudulent stockbroker Jordan Belfort during the 90‘s, that reminded me of this unusual evening. The majority of ‘clients’ at the club were overweight, middle-aged businessmen, and the ‘dancers’ female, barely past their teenage years. The girls wore sexy silky underwear and corsets to greet and talk with the clients, until one of them agreed to pay for a private dance. Then, both would disappear downstairs to a large, darkened lounge with discreetly arranged sofas. I talked with some of the girls, who were curious to know why I was there in the midst of a room full of male clients, a question I didn't have an answer for in my drunken state. Thankfully, Denis knew the rules of the game, and refusing a dance for too long was seen as offensive. So he took me downstairs with one of the girls and we watched her dance for us, naked. It was a fascinating and excruciating three minutes. I sat with my hands tucked under my legs (no touching was allowed), as she grazed her nipples across my cheeks and danced without any passion or emotion, her eyes vacant and disassociated from her body.

I wanted to ask that beautiful girl why she was doing what she did, for men who viewed her as a sex object? Of course, it would have been easy to judge her for degrading herself to such depths for the sake of money, and yet what I saw of her situation was the clarity of ‘the deal.’ In any sexual-love-relationship (short term lover, cohabiting partner, spouse, etc.), there is the deal — telling the truth about what I will do for you in exchange for what you will do for me. To have clarity about the deal, contrary to imagining that such a practical agreement takes away the romance, in fact, allows us to open a door to be closer, more vulnerable, grounded and confident in who we are.

My thoughts from that evening, however, came after a long journey of mistakes and learning how to have a relationship with my own body and sexuality.

I was raised in a culture where girls are taught to be ashamed and secretive about their bodies and their sexuality. My first lesson in becoming a woman, when I started my periods, was to be banned from the prayer room. The fact of my body's creative process manifesting was seen as unclean and unfit for praying or touching the offerings of food blessed by the gods.

It was not until I went to university and studied Hinduism, as well as experienced the pleasure of sex beyond the procreation conversation, that I began to challenge my mother's unquestioning acceptance of traditions and customs passed down through the generations. In the Hindu Creation Myth, the Ling (phallus) of Lord Shiva, is the symbol of the cosmic egg, signifying that ‘creation’ was effected by the union of Purusha and Prakriti, the male and female generative powers of nature. As with the ancient Greeks, the Hindu priests and philosophers created their own pantheon of religious stories and morals for their four-tiered caste based society from the procreative acts of the gods and goddesses. I wondered at how society had twisted the whole notion of equality of the male and female energy of creation, to oppression worse than the most basic of human rights? Feeling that my sexuality was ‘sinful’ seemed an antithesis to celebrating the life I was gifted, whether by the gods or by my parents. Why would god give me the ability to experience sexual pleasure if it was unholy?

Of course, I don't blame my mother (anymore) for what I learned as a child. She lived in different circumstances and even though she went through the same teenage rituals herself and was married young, the mere mention of the word ‘sex’ still freaks her out. She recently told me that she had to leave the room during a family evening after seeing two naked actors walking about a hotel room in a film on television. She just couldn't stand the intense embarrassment she felt watching them.

Though it was not so in ancient Vedic times, in the patriarchal Hindu society of today, a woman is seen as a burden, a responsibility her father must bear until he is able to pay an adequate dowry for her marriage. While the demand and payment of dowries in India is illegal, the practice is still widespread (according to India's National Crime Records Bureau, in 2012, a woman was killed every hour in dowry-related violence). For a woman to cohabitate with a man out of wedlock, let alone the possibility of lesbian love or spinsterhood, is viewed as a social sin that brings shame upon her family. And even when married, she ‘belongs’ to her in-laws, where she does not have the freedom to express her sexuality as pleasurable; it is merely there as a duty to procreate.

I am fortunate to have been born into the generation of my time, having access to education and cultures other than my own (Denis is French), as well as the freedom to explore my sexuality (the bad and the good experiences). I am still learning that sexuality is a place far beyond gender and procreation. It is about having a relationship with my body… loving, nurturing and engaging in all that is… physically, psychically and spiritually… to appreciate being alive and breathing and to expand on the possibilities I have to communicate with others.

In January, I took up life drawing again, an activity I've not done since I left Art College over 20 years ago. In the second session, there were two models, a man and a woman. I was ecstatic that we had a woman to draw, as the previous week there had only been a man and I'd felt utterly bored drawing his angular and ‘boxy-shaped’ body for two hours. Yet in this second session, all my illusions of maleness and femaleness were turned on their head. My romantic memories of the soft-skinned, curvy, voluptuous, women from my college days, was replaced with a hard and angry looking woman, who kept fidgeting and moving about during her pose. Of the two models, it was in fact the calm and good-natured man who was a joy to draw.

The lesson? Make no assumptions! Always only look at the person who is there in front of me, man or woman. If I am willing to engage with this person here and now, the figure, the form, the light and dark, I am not even thinking about how this person ‘makes me feel.’ I am simply engrossed in and loving the process of drawing the body.

In the environment of life drawing, I once again feel liberated from the ‘norms’ of society. The naked body is celebrated for its beauty, whatever the size, shape, gender or colour. I don't feel ashamed to look in detail at the folds, creases and lines, and when I see the 30 different interpretations of the students in the room, I understand there is no wrong way to look when my intention is one of curiosity and communication… and intention makes all the difference.