Role of Scientific Research in Changing Attitudes Toward Sexuality in India

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According to the ‘Global Competitiveness Report’ (2007-08) by the World Economic Forum, India ranked at 22nd position in terms of quality of scientific research institutions. Since then, the government of India increased funding for science research by 30 percent over a five-year period. Still, most research in India remains focused on agriculture and tropical medicine given the obvious demands of a large population (followed by other disciplines such as chemistry, engineering, technology, and space science).

Research into human sexuality has largely been carried out in the context of a disease paradigm, specifically since the 1990s with HIV/AIDS. Within this context, bisexuality has been grossly misunderstood as a behavioral disorder. As Section 377 grabs headlines all over the country, many Indians are finding themselves re-engaging in, or newly having, a dialog about sexuality. Perhaps this dialog can generate a greater interest in evidence-based science on sexual orientation.

Hand in hand with research, Indian youth may be the greatest hope in changing the country’s attitude toward sexuality, including bisexuality. Bi Magazine chatted with two young researchers – Bhavishya Kalyanpur and Harini Gunasekaran – who just completed their Masters in Applied Psychology at Pondicherry (central) University. Their thesis involved a qualitative analysis that would try to understand sexuality vis-à-vis the three top religions in India (Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity) and understand the nature of human sexuality at the domains of fantasy, attraction, and behavior. The following is an excerpt of that conversation.

Editor’s Note: Readers should refrain from assuming the sexual orientation of those quoted in this article just because the interview appears in Bi Magazine.

Bi Magazine: As students of psychology, what fascinates you about human sexuality and why?

Bhavishya Kalyanpur: What interests me the most is its diversity with all the permutations and combinations, and also the fact that it is quite unpredictable.

Harini Gunasekaran: The diversity and unpredictability, I agree. As well as how the normative culture fights desperately to hold on to its drab, rigid nature of sexuality while hiding all the vibrant beauty underneath.

Bi Magazine: Your research proposal abstract does not cite any Indian studies and papers. Why not?

BK: There are Indian studies, but not many within the range of our objectives and hence we have not considered them. However, the articles and books written by Indians on sexuality in the Indian context have been recorded.

HG: Most of the Indian research on LGBT issues is centered on the legal and health perspectives (mental health, HIV/AIDS). We are aiming at adding more on the academic perspective to the existing resource pool.

Bi Magazine: What is the current environment in India for human sexuality research?

BK: I think researchers in the country are not yet prepared to conduct such research. This is primarily because of the notion that sex is dirty and alternate sexuality is an unnatural Western concept. Hence the topic is only viewed in light of disease/ mental disorder. Even so, the situation is gradually changing and becoming better which gives good scope for research in this avenue.

HG: From the feedback we got from our participants, people were aware of the importance of such research and this could be viewed as the turning point that could facilitate more of such work.

Bi Magazine: Your abstract states: “Sexual orientation is a consistent, enduring pattern of sexual desire for individuals of the same sex, the other sex, or both sexes, regardless of whether this pattern of desire is manifested in sexual behavior.” Many would say that sexual orientation is more than ‘sexual’ desire. Your response?

BK: I think the problem is that there is no term that defines romantic and sexual orientation separately and both are assumed to be the same. Hence sexual orientation is used as an umbrella term.

HG: I believe that desire in itself is not just sexual. Every person’s experience of desire and experience of sexuality is unique. So, in choosing a definition in such cases, one can hope only to cover the essence of the phrase.

Bi Magazine: What is the perception of, and attitude toward, bisexuality in India? Is there any research that supports your answer?

HG: In India, the measurement of attitudes begins with an awareness of the existence of alternate sexualities. Bisexuality is apparent in rural practices of same-sex experimentation at early age, especially among men in rural areas. Evidence of such practices is reported in a 2009 study. We came across five participants who came from backgrounds (rural and urban) where same-sex sexual experimentation was considered a part of growing up before finally ‘settling’ into heterosexual marriages. Taking this as a crude example of bisexuality, people seem to be accepting of it, as long as you finally project yourself as heterosexual. However the term ‘bisexuality’ to such a pattern of orientation is either unheard of or unacceptable, like any other alternate sexual orientation.

Bi Magazine: What unique opportunities are there in the field of human sexuality research in India?

BK: I think the field of sexuality, particularly in India, is untouched and hence gives a lot of room for research. A lot of work can be done ranging from sexuality and sexual diversity education for school students to setting up organizations to help those in rural India understand their sexuality, as well as general awareness about sex as not just an activity for procreation.

Bi Magazine: What are some challenges to conducting research in human sexuality?

BK: The challenges we faced were mostly research-based difficulties. Recruiting participants from alternate sexuality was a little difficult, probably because of the current situation in the country. Even so we were able to get good enough representation. With the heterosexual participants it was their inhibition/ignorance in answering some questions. Also the method we chose (Interviews) was quite taxing on us due to the limited time period. A longer time period would have been nice. Otherwise it was a lovely experience.

HG: I faced a lot of apprehension from family, especially my mother. I spent quite some time convincing her that I will be all fine and that it’s ok to do research on alternate sexuality. As of now she is happy for me and proud of my work.

**Both are planning to pursue an M.Phil. program in clinical psychology. Kalyanpur’s goal is to teach and Gunasekaran wants to continue researching on topics of sexuality and create awareness about the importance of sexuality education. It remains to be seen how many others will join them in this quest with an equal measure of curiosity about the subject.

In the next – and final – article, Indian bisexual activists articulate their action plan toward equality for bisexuals

  1. India’s Stonewall – January 2014
  2. Bisexuality in India: How Section 377 Impacts the Discourse on Bisexuality – March 2014
  3. Desire, Bisexuality, and Sexual Orientation in India: 1970s to Now – May 2014
  4. Bisexual Women in the Fight for Visibility, Acceptance and Equality in India – June 2014
  5. Mapping a Positive Future for Bisexuals in India – June 2014
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About Author

Anil Vora

Anil Vora is based in Seattle, Washington and is a regular contributor to Bi Magazine. As a result of his series of articles about bisexuality in India, written exclusively for Bi Magazine, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs included bisexual content in their development of a global charter on LGBT rights. He has been a queer activist for more than three decades starting with HIV prevention, treatment, and advocacy issues and is now focusing on the health and wellness of LGBTQ elders.

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