When Caste Limits Love and Intimacy
Imagine your freedom to love and make consensual love with someone is restricted, prohibited, and surveilled for centuries. Imagine being violently punished for exercising this freedom. What kind of society and people would such harshness create? This phenomenon would create generations of sick people who have lost touch with intimate human bonds, romance and healthy sexual behaviour.
I may want to love a woman without having to think about her social position, but society has created and solidified a system that prohibits us from accessing each other. I never had an inkling of how she feels, behaves, or imagines life. I do not know her social intricacies, and she is ignorant about me, too. So we have not learnt to connect with someone from a different social location when we are most vulnerable, insecure, and intimate. By restricting our romantic and sexual choices, caste society has restricted the oppressed and oppressor from knowing love. We are all sexually distorted, for neither can access the other’s mind or body.
Consensual sexual intimacy is a remarkable form of communication that comforts the body and consoles our mental wounds. But when caste limits love and intimacy, it distorts the oppressed and makes the oppressor pathological. Atrocities involving sexual assault, harassment and the rape-killings of oppressed-caste women by oppressor-caste men are rampant in such a society, for it unapologetically begets violence. With caste comes our total inability to discuss consent—as was evident on the academic campuses I attended, where the oppressor and oppressed shared the same spaces.
Touch is among the most intimate ways for humans to connect. However, oppressor castes in India have used it to subjugate those they labelled as untouchable. Occasionally, all members of intermediary castes also became untouchable to the Brahmin. Further, caste endogamy means intimacy is socially acceptable only within caste groups. Society rejects and cruelly scorns intercaste marriages till today. Such couples face extreme violence. The Dalit male is often brutally killed, while women from oppressor castes face familial violence too.
Over centuries, this situation spread a fear that has paralysed the spontaneity of emotional and romantic ideas. Except for some spheres, such as academic life, India has hardly any genuinely democratic spaces because we all live in our caste ghettos. Caste is the antithesis of democracy and it has made our intimate spaces caste spaces, of, by and for members of our caste. The sexual and intimate wounds this has inflicted have remained unattended for generations. My self is starved for touch and being touched, but the oppressor self refuses to touch me, making the abnormality called untouchability a deeply pathological practice. But the oppressor has social, political and cultural power, so this pathology is normalised. The oppressor male makes maximum use of the culture industry he dominates—the media, cinema, literature, and music—to solidify this pathology.
When power concentrates in the hands of a group that wants to permanently segregate us, exploit the excluded and stunt our sexual imagination within patriarchal heterosexuality, it kills the sexual health of the entire society. The prime example of sexual ill health is child marriage. The other is the rape and rape-murder of Dalit women because of their caste identity.
The oppressor, too, is affected, for justifying sexual violence leaves him unable to empathise at a human level. Recall that caste society is not merely heterosexually patriarchal but essentially Brahmanical-patriarchal-heterosexual. As Dr BR Ambedkar proved, caste is not just a division of labour but fundamentally a division of labourers. It is also a division of sexual anxiety at the root of our sexual distortions. After all, anxieties and distortions vary based on caste location—not all males have it in equal measure.
Under inhumane religious sanction, an oppressor caste man has sexual access to all castes, a situation justified by the norms of the caste system he has established. On the other hand, an oppressed caste male is prohibited from forging sexual bonds with a woman outside his caste. Thus, the sexual anxiety of the oppressor caste is akin to a predator who controls religious sanctions alongside the social, political, cultural and intellectual spheres. In contradiction, the sexual anxiety of the oppressed caste male is of one too frightened to contemplate sexual relations beyond caste bounds. Mostly, his sexual fear lurks behind anger and restlessness. On the other hand, the sexual anxiety of an oppressor-caste male reflects in his acts of violence, humiliation and discrimination against the oppressed.
If the oppressed act out of deprivation, the oppressor acts out of power. Both are distortions, neither acts out of love and empathy, and both, in different ways, are defeated in sexual matters by the caste structure.
On academic campuses, I noticed the sexual anxieties among oppressed caste males and observed that women from oppressor castes saw it. The fear is primarily because of how sexual access has been structured in a caste society. The access an oppressor-caste male is given to an oppressed caste person by their caste location leads to scorn, humiliation, hurt and violence. This experience has been made a part of the psyche of the oppressed caste man, and he is instinctively aware of it.
In sexual matters, fears make us all over-conscious or over-functional, as Robert Jensen explains in his seminal paper, “Patriarchal Sex”, published in 1997 in the International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy. “I am afraid sex as sex is defined by the dominant culture, as practised all around me, and projected onto magazine pages, billboards, and movie screens. I am afraid of sex because I am afraid of domination, cruelty, violence, and death. I am afraid of sex because sex has hurt me and hurt lots of people I know and because I have hurt others with sex in the past. I know that there are people out there who have been hurt by sex in ways that are beyond words, who have experienced a depth of pain that I will never fully understand. And I know there are people who are dead because of sex.”
Sex hurts in a patriarchal society because it justifies systemic violence, and in India, the Brahmanical-patriarchal system hurts men and women of the oppressed castes enough to end in their killing. If oppressor-caste males intended to violate their bodies to dominate, show them their ‘place’, or for sadistic joy, their acts had religious sanction. They could use sexual acts to justify annihilating men and women from the oppressed caste. This hurting and killing continues even today. The subconscious fear of death is the inheritance of the psyche of an oppressed caste man. It makes him conscious, not to mention vulnerable, in the presence of members of oppressor castes. Fear makes us overtly reactive, temperamental, and, in the case of the oppressed caste male, defensively masculine at times.
Put differently, not all men in caste society are sexually suppressed, but those who wield caste power are pathological, and those without power are repressed in their imagination of intimate life. The oppressed male would find it nearly impossible to understand that consensual intimacy and sexuality can also crack open the cement of caste, allowing everybody more room to grow, like a sapling. If caste made me untouchable, my purpose is to touch someone’s core and heart so they can feel in their nerves and bones that I exist just like them. Those who get this metaphor get the intention of this essay.
Yogesh Maitreya is a poet, translator and founder of Panther’s Paw Publication, an anti-caste publishing house. He is pursuing a PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.
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