Sex in Perspective

Hollande. Royal. Trierweiler. Gayet. Tharoor. Pushkar. Tarar. A person hospitalized. Another dead.

France and India popped up in the news simultaneously for similar reasons and certainly not at our bidding. True, we had compared the countries before on the blog (Dynastic Succession: What is the Difference Between India and France?) but there was no intent to push the matter further. Now that fate has intervened, however, let us leverage it for comparative speculation on other issues of general interest.

To recap, our message on political institutions was clear enough – dynastic succession was acceptable in France at one time but not so anymore; In India it remains very much the norm, something both the majority of the rulers and the ruled take for granted. The question we asked was what this said about the peculiarities of democratic governance in India – was it just the old monarchical system in a new guise? Our answer was that such was indeed the case – in India, we could still promise the people cake and get away with it; the guillotine was barely a glimmer on the horizon, Kejriwal notwithstanding.

We can now proffer some observations on the differences between France and India in the social domain of family life. It is inconceivable, for example, that a First Lady in India today could be the kind of live-in partner there is in France (although this might not have been all that impossible in the age of monarchy, something that William Dalrymple could be read to suggest in his excellent survey India: The Place of Sex – an interesting thought on the nonlinearity of history that we set aside for another occasion).

We can hazard some broad generalizations about marriage. We might say, for example, that compared to India, the institution is on its way out in some countries in the West, if not yet in France – more people are living together in unregistered unions than in those sanctioned by formal or traditionally contracted marriages. Marriages, when they are contracted, are done so at a later age in France than in India. And, family sizes are smaller on the average in the former compared to the latter.

Sex is related to marriage – ‘responsible’ sex being one among the reasons for marriage since procreation out of wedlock had various strikes against it and contraception was not reliable enough – but, as everyone knows, it has a life of its own. And when it comes to sex matters are not simple anymore. That is because sex, unlike marriage, is not an institution but a potent human instinct.  And that leads to both more similarities and more differences across countries.

The similarities stem from the fact that basic human instincts – the fatal attraction of older men for younger women, for example – give rise to virtually the same desires and temptations across time and space. How many times have we heard or read the same story that is in the news these days. Some things just don’t change – only the characters that embody the stories are new, which, perhaps, accounts for the abiding interest in the oft-repeated phenomenon.

The differences, on the other hand, emerge from the circumstance that the nature of relations between the sexes is culture specific in the sense that there are local norms pertaining to the extent of control or discretion that is called for in the exercise of sexual desires before, during, and after marriage. What, for example, may be considered appropriate sexual behavior for college undergraduates or a recently widowed woman with teenaged children?

Not only is the nature of the relationship culture specific, it varies across sub-cultures which makes this a subject on which one cannot generalize at the level of India let alone South Asia. In fact, I would be reluctant to generalize even at the level of a neighborhood in a large cosmopolitan city. The one thing to avoid would be to prescribe how someone else ought to behave based on the set of moral values to which I subscribe. My values are just my values – they are neither the only legitimate values in the world nor are others obliged to pay any heed to them. One ought certainly to be true to his or her values but there is no logical basis for judging others from the perspective that they provide.

There is thus a great deal of relativism in matters of sex. When individuals contemplate a partnership they would have some sense of the norms applicable to their relationship, the ease or casualness with which the union might be dissolved, and the dignity and options that would be available to them afterwards.

Despite the relativism though, there are some universals involved in matters of sex. For example, there seems little variation in the condemnation of sex without consent, or under false pretense, or involving individuals not old enough to be cognizant of their own well-being. But there is more beyond these obvious hard lines as the fallout from the recent incidents in France and India seems to suggest. It is that relationships involve some modicum of trust – albeit varying, with ‘till death do us part’ not taken as seriously as it once was – and that violating that trust hurts no matter what the expectations with which a particular partnership was established. Valérie Trierweiler, who herself displaced Ségolène Royal in the affections of François Hollande, ended up in hospital in a state of shock when an even younger woman entered the picture. Sunanda Pushkar could not survive the trauma of the thought of betrayal.

With pleasure on one side and pain on the other, discounted differently as they might be in different places, how is one to get away from the universal calculus of pain and pleasure? Many questions arise. How does one tradeoff one’s pleasure against another’s pain? How much room is there for relativism in the drawing up of this balance sheet? Is this a subjective determination that is almost always biased in one’s favor under the heady dictate of a powerful instinct?

Is it this subjective determination, increasingly freed from externally imposed constraints, that distinguishes one type of person from another not just in matters of sex but more generally? Could one make the case that a resolve, even within vastly varying moral systems, to not hurt others, by word or deed, would lead to a better world?

The minimizing of aggregate pain seems a desirable social objective, more so in a world today that is rife with the indiscriminate inflicting of misery on millions. Perhaps this is the compassionate element of the Buddhist and Jain worldviews that one ought to re-examine with care. But would this restraint have some downsides of its own? What might we need to give up to achieve a world less selfish and less prone to accumulate satisfaction at the cost of others? And have we ventured too far along the road to turn back now?

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