February 12, 2012

The Kama Sutra and the Transgender

Crossdreamer women who enforces their will on their male lovers with a strap-on? The Kama Sutra has it all!

I have been working on this blog for several years now, and I have learned one important lesson:

As human beings we have an amazing ability to reinterpret reality according to our own prejudices or cultural stereotypes.

Our fear of chaos, uncertainty and social exclusion tempts us to go firm and fixed world views, reality be damned.

History as a teacher

One way of getting around this kind of intellectual lock-in is to look at the views of other cultures and other epochs.

What is "self evident" to us is not to them, and by watching an alternative system of beliefs we can learn something about ourselves.

Recently I presented a case study from the early 20th century work of Magnus Hirschfeld, showing that the crossdressers, crossdreamers and transsexuals of his time struggled with many of the same challenges as contemporary transgender people.

Still, Hirshfeld has been instrumental in developing the language we now use to understand transgender conditions. Although I think it very unlikely, it could be that Hirschfeld's liberal view of cross-gender behavior has created the crossdreamers.

Would it be possible to go further back and further away and see if we can recognize crossdreamer behavior elsewhere and "elsewhen"?

The Gupta Dynasty and the Kama Sutra

Recently I watched a documentary about the influential Gupta dynasty of India (320 to 550 AD). This was a thriving and influential culture, and its most famous literary work is the Kama Sutra.

The Kama Sutra is now known as a manual for sexual positions, and that part is republished again and again with both ancient and modern illustrations.

The work  is much more than a sex manual, however. It is a review of the understanding of sex and sexuality of the time -- or times, rather, as it is a kind of compendium based on works written over several hundred years. 

Maybe, I thought, I could find descriptions of crossdreaming in the Kama Sutra? Unfortunately, the editions I found online did not give me much, apart from some small glimpses into the world of proactive women. 

However, I soon realized that the versions found online were shortened and censored, so I bought myself a complete version, The Complete Käma Sütra of translated by Alain Daniélou .


This version contains a translation of the complete Kama Sutra, as it was compiled and written down in Sanskrit by Vätsyäyana somewhere between 200 and 500 AD.

This version also has the advantage that it includes a medieval commentary on the Kama Sutra, written by a scholar called Yashodhara.

In this way we have two windows into Indian views of sexuality, one from around the fourth century, and one from the twelfth century.

I am now going to give you a glimse into the real world of the Kama Sutra.

Remember that the original work was based on different works written over several hundred years (from 4th century BC to 4th century AD). The editor, Vätsyäyana, tried hard to reconcile the contradicitons between the different input, to the point of arguing that customs will vary from place to place and from social strata to social strata.

Elitist and misogynistic

At the first glance the work is elitist, sexist and misogynistic. It is compiled for male members of the upper caste (Bramins mostly), and the view the authors have of women rhyme well with the kind of prejudices found in Europe and Northern America since the 19th century.

Quotation:

"Vigor and audacity are manly qualities. Weakness, sensuality, and dependence are female characteristics." (Chapter 7,para 22)

The medieval commentary reemphasizes this views:

"A man must have a strong body, be decided and audacious. These are both qualities of the ardent man [tejas], of him who likes beating. Lack of strength, the incapacity to hurt, even though the softest hands make her suffer, dependence, lack of character, the fact of desiring to be beaten by men, the wish to receive blows, all are part of women's nature. If, without having been beaten, she begins sighing during intercourse, what she wants to receive are blows in response to her sighs."

The text is extreme, but nevertheless rhymes well with the traditional Western dichotomy of women being weak and submissive and men strong and aggressive.

When the woman inverts the situation

The Kama Sutra, however, is a catalog of human sexual behavior, and the editor and the authors were keen at presenting all possible variations of such behavior. And they had clearly met women of a different kind:

"Sometimes, out of passion, custom, or temperament, the woman inverts the situation. This is only temporary, however, and nature ends by taking back its due." (Ch 7, para 23)

This is one of the most fascinating paragraphs about crossdreaming I have ever read. The author acknowledges that there are women who act like men in bed, both out of passion and temperament -- which must be based in her nature.

Still, this natural behavior is clearly unnatural, the author claims, and the roles are therefore always reverted back to the normal form of "normal".

This reminds me of Western doctors who in the 19th and 20th centuries proclaimed that all women were weak and asexual by nature, with the exception of those who were not.

The sexual women were presumed unnatural nymphomaniacs, prostitutes or their behavior was explained as "hysteria", which -- presumably -- had nothing to do with sex. 

The medieval commentator, Yashodara, adds that the boy, in turn, changes his own behavior, and starts whining and moaning:

"This does not last very long, however, and after a few moments, the situation reverts. He says, 'What is all this?' and rediscovers his true nature to fuck her. Since intercourse against nature is not possible for lack of the instrument, they go back to the old formula, being without any means of changing it."

But women are sexual beings in the Kama Sutra

Ah, the lack of a penis puts everything back in its proper place. Or does it? The schizophrenic nature of the Kama Sutra is revealed in another chapter of the same book:

"Vätsyäyana's opinion is that a woman, like the man, experiences the same sexual enjoyment from start to finish.

"How is it possible for two beings belonging to the same species and practicing the same act not to feel the same pleasure?

"Differences exist only in advances and in secondary actions [caresses, kisses, etc.].

"Vätsyäyana does not believe that there is any difference in the pleasure itself. Difference of sex is a fact of birth. It is generally admitted that the man is active and the woman is passive. The man's action is therefore different to the woman's. The man thinks that he is enjoying the woman while the woman thinks that the man is enjoying her. There is thus a difference in attitude and experience, but not in enjoyment." (ch 1 para 23 -26)

So, women are not asexual, but the active/passive dichotomy remains in nature.

Virile women

Or does it?

It is in chapter 8 of the book we find the examples that puts this theory to its test. This is the chapter on "virile behavior in women".

This is the chapter on female to male crossdreamers, and -- if we read between the lines -- we can also witness the male to female ones.

You see, the reason a man may submit to a woman, Vätsyäyana argues, is that he is tired after having made love to her the natural way:

"When the boy, wearied after is uninterrupted sexual exercises, seeks rest and is no longer dominated by passion, with his agreement, the girl descends to his anus [adhah] and, with the aid of an accessory [sähäyya], imposes her virile behavior on him." 

Turns out the lack of a penis was not so problematic after all.

"Whatever his intentions may be, she is decided on practicing this fictitious intercourse."(Chapter 1, para 1-2)

The presumably passive woman turns out to be assertive and aggressive!

Raped by a woman

The medieval commentator even admits that the man can be overwhelmed by the woman:

"If he does not agree, a struggle ensues, but she is determined on that kind of inverted intercourse known as virile behavior"

I am at loss here, but it seems to me he is describing the rape of a man by a virile woman.

However, he admits that the man may volunteer as well. The original version elaborates:

"She is determined to unite him with the instrument that she is inserting into his anus, so that he gets the taste [rasa] for one pleasure [rata] after another. This is one of the ways of proceeding." (ch 1, para 4)

The medieval commentator goes into more detail:

"There are two ways of proceeding with the inversion of roles. In the first case, she holds firmly the instrument [yantra] to unite the boy with this fake sex [shalya] in a doubled up position. Being excited, the girl grips in in her arms and, mounting him and bestirring herself, possesses him. Seeing that he is developing a taste for a sensation of pleasure that is different from the other, she lets the instrument slide once more into its target [sandhana]. He feels a pleasure unknown before, since up to then he had not had any inclination for that kind of experience."

Note how the medieval commentator tries to blame this on the woman. Indeed, the man will try to stop this behavior:

"However, he suddenly interrupts this pleasing sensation, since it is of a kind that is not acceptable for a young male [kämina]. In such a case, despite her efforts, the girl's desire is not fulfilled."

I find it hard to believe that this behavior would be so common as to favor a separate chapter in the Kama Sutra, hadn't it been for the fact that many of the men involved volunteered.

Moreover, I would argue that most men would -- due to differences in weight and muscular strength -- be able to defend themselves. The fact that they did submit on a regular basis leads me to believe they liked it.

In other words: The text does not only describe female to male crossdreamers (or "girlfags"), but male to female crossdreamers as well.

The fact that the text does not describe crossdressing, is not important here. Not all crossdreamers are crossdressers, and for all I know the taboo against crossdressing among the upper classes in India could have been stronger than the taboo about role reversal during intercourse.

Tearing the flowers from her hair

I have, of course no way of knowing the true nature of their transgender condition.

The text says nothing about gender dysphoria or transsexual tendencies, but it is clear that in ancient India there were quite a few proactive female gender benders, who didn't give a damn about "natural" gender roles:

"Tearing the flowers form her hair [which I suppose is a symbol of renouncing traditional femininity],laughing until she is breathless, in order to bring their faces together, she presses hard with her breasts against the boy's chest, forcing him to lower his head several times. She copies in every detail his previous behavior with her, dominating him in turn. Laughing, she mocks him, saying insulting words to him. Then again, if he shows modesty [which, I guess, refers to female behavior], wishing to rest from his labors, she mounts him [upasripta] and sodomizes him." (para 9)

The "masculine" aggressiveness is even clearer in the medieval commentary:

"She makes him lower his head with shame and presses her breast hard against the boy's chest, not to embrace him or bite him, but with the ferocious desire to force him into behaving like a woman [strairena] in all ways. Speaking like a man, she tells him violently, 'I will repay you for all the torments you have made me suffer.' "

Note that her "masculine" behavior goes far beyond "sodomizing" him with a strap-on. She also plays out the role of an aggressive dominant male in words and mannerisms.

Seduced by a girlfag

The mash-up nature of the Kama Sutra  is reflected in the next paragraph, which describes the way a virile woman will seduce -- as opposed to force -- a man into submission:

"Having made the boy lie down, the woman distracts his attention with her words, while she unties his undergarment [nïvï]. If he protests, she embraces him to calm his apprehension."

If he protests, the medieval commentator explains, she kisses him on the cheek until he agrees and the undergarment can be easily removed:

"Being excited, he allows the girl's hand to caress his sides, thighs, breast, putting him into an erotic mood. Then the boy is suddenly possessed by an object of copulation [sangatäya], which she slides without difficulty between his thighs."
Note that the Kama Sutra often appears to be formulaic, in the sense that it describes role playing games that can be played out by both parties. This helps them know how to behave in a "proper" way.

And I get the sense that the description of virile women also may be like this. In other words: If they both have read the Kama Sutra they may -- if they are both crossdreamers -- play the roles described in the text, symbolic resistance included.

Gay or not?

It is interesting to note that the Kama Sutra does not really talk much about homosexuality in the modern term of the word. It is the sexual behavior that is the focus in the description of virile women, not the sex of the partner.

Without taking a pause, chapter 8 goes on to describe how virile women, in the same manner, may overpower a girl:

"According to Suvarnanäbha once the girl is possessed [upasripta] by union with the instrument, the moment when her eyes start vacillating is the moment to make her suffer. This is the secret of young girls."  (para 16)

A virile woman is identified by her virility, not her preferences for boys or girls.

The hijra

The book also describes the hijra, nowadays identified as male to female trans women. In the Kama Sutra, however, they are used to illustrate the art of fellatio.

"People of the third sex |tritïya prakriti] are of two kinds, according to whether their appearance is masculine or feminine." (ch 9, 1)

No, this is not an early version of Blanchard's division between "homosexual" and "autogynephilic" trans women.

The medieval commentator explains that those with feminine appearance have breasts, while those with a masculine aspect have mustaches, body hair, etc.

This could be a way of distinguishing between intersex persons and what we now call male to female trans women, but I doubt it. There are still hijras around and most of them are not intersex.

Instead it seems to me this could be a way of distinguishing between male bodied persons who identify as women, and those we now call male homosexuals:

"Those with a feminine appearance show it by their dress, speech, laughter, gentleness, lack of courage, silliness [mugdha], patience and modesty." (p 2)

"Buccal coition  [fellation] as practiced by both kinds is part of their nature." (p 1)

"They perform the act that takes place between the thighs in the mouth, which is why it is called superior coition."

Moreover, they live as prostitutes performing fellatio on male customers:

"Those who dress as women are taken for prostitutes" (p. 5)

"Those who like men but dissimulate the fact maintain a manly appearance an earn their living as hairdressers or masseurs."

"Buccal coition can also be practiced with corrupt women [kulatä], lesbians [svairiniï], servants [paricharïkä], women who carry burdens [sanvahiki]." (p 25)

According to the Ächärya, the Kama Sutra tells us, this practice is not recommended. It is contrary to sound morals and is not a civilized practice [asabhya]. "One is defiled by the contact of the sex with the face."

So the trouble with trans women and homosexual men is not so much that they are what they are, but the fact that they perform the unclean act of fellatio!

This is also, by the way, why contacts must be avoided with people from the eastern area, Prächya, Arichchatra,  Saketa, or  the Saurasenas-- as they practice oral sex. 

But, as the medieval commentator notes:

"Anxiety over matters such as purity or impurity have no meaning in countries like Läta or Sindhy, where buccal coition between men or with women who make a business of it is allowed as freely as kissing on the mouth."

By the way, the Kama Sutra also describes marriages between men and between women. (p 36) Again, it is the oral sex that is found offensive, not the fact that two men live together!  Note also that while the female to male virile women love anal sex, that practice is not mentioned when it comes to the practices of the feminine and non-feminine "third sex".

I suspect this may be caused by the different chapters being based on different text that are not directly comparable. Or maybe anal sex was not common among "third gender" male bodied persons in India at this time.

I doubt very much that the dichotomy dominant/submissive or "top" and "bottom" was irrelevant to these androphilic men and trans women, though. In other words: The longing to be receptive as opposed to the penetrator would be as strong among them as among the male to female crossdreamers.

Crossdreaming is not a cultural phenomenon

It is abundantly clear that same sex intercourse was common in India at the time. But then again, we find such behavior in all cultures and most mammals. This should come as no surprise.

To me, however, the book also proves that other types of "gender bending" were common enough to require their own chapter in the Kama Sutra.

The existence of "virile women" (or female to male crossdreamers and "girlfags") proves beyond doubt that this kind of crossdreaming is not a product of modern Western society or the common era.

The fact that these women also had male companions who succumbed to being "sodomized" tells us that being submissive was not against their nature. And again: The fact that a pretty sexist society had room for this kind of behavior leads me to believe that some of these men were the male bodied counterpart to the "virile women".

The authors and the editors cannot admit that such submissive men exist, as their view of nature does not allow for it. They therefore try to explain this by saying that the man was tired after having normal sex or something equally implausible.

But this argument only serves to illuminate the prejudices of the day. Their implausible denial only confirms the existence of the male to female crossdreamers.

Censorship

The most popular translation of the Kama Sutra is accredited to Sir Richard Francis Burton, who -- in spite of the censorship of the day -- managed to publish the book in 1883.

The fact that he did so much to battle censorship and publish erotic literature makes it hard to believe that he censored the text on virile women, but the fact remains: His edition contains  none of the quotes I have presented here.

(You can see for yourself in this PDF version of the translation - chapter VIII).

Maybe he and his co-translators found the idea of virile women uninteresting or offensive. I do not know.

This was unfortunate, as the Kama Sutra did have a readership in educated circles and a text describing the very existence of "virile women" might have forced some doctors to take another look at contemporary women.

Or maybe not. Maybe the cultural counter forces of the times were so strong that the existence of crossdreamers in ancient India would have meant nothing to them.

After all, even scientists see what they want to see. Even now there are "experts" in the field of sex and gender who refuses to acknowledge the existence of female to male crossdreamers.

These days it is the dogma of sex selection that underpins their reluctance. Even in the 21st century women are to let the "sperm bringer" come to them. She is definitely not supposed to "sodomize" the man with a strap-on.

Ah well, Mother Nature does not care about what sexist men think. I can hear her laughing!

Reference: Vätsyäyana: The Complete Kama Sutra, translated by Alain Daniélou, Vermont, 1994.

See also my post on the girlfags of ninth century Bagdhad.

Discuss crossdreamer and transgender issues!