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social sciences

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While the hijras have maintained a place in modern Indian society, female-to-male transgendered persons are less accepted in India today, although they appear to have had a more visible role in the past. In pre-colonial Indian regimes, cross-dressed women acted as bodyguards and porters for Indian royalty (both kings and queens).

Ancient Indian Sexuality

Ancient Indian mythology is replete with stories of both male and female sex change, dual goddesses who mate, and gods and goddesses who take on attributes perceived to be both male and female, such as the Shiva.

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Ancient medical texts describe what Sweet and Zwilling translate as "masculine lesbian" females. Although they were pathologized, these women (like men with certain homoerotic sexual proclivities or impotence) were seen as essentially different. It was thought that either embryonic damage or the mother sitting on top of the father during sex caused their sexual and gender preferences.

The Kama Sutra (ca 3rd century C. E.) provides us with much of what we know about ancient Indian sexuality. The Kama Sutra 2.8 discusses "Virile Behavior in Women." Some of the sexual techniques described are quite graphic, including "the thunderbolt," "the wild boar's thrust," as well as "normal copulation." There is much scholarly dispute over whether this chapter refers entirely to women taking an active role in sex with men, or whether the latter section of it refers to sex between two women.

It is clear from another passage in the Kama Sutra (5.6.2), however, that gender-differentiated sex between women was socially accepted. Royal women are recorded in this passage as having homoerotic sex with their servants, whom they dressed as men, using fruits, vegetables, and dildos. A commentator on the Kama Sutra, Yashodhara (ca 12th century), indicates that women also had oral sex with each other in the privacy of quarters restricted to women (2.9.36).

Kama Sutra 2.9 also mentions a "third nature." It is widely agreed that some males who took on a third nature in the South Asian past dressed in women's clothing and performed oral sex. The text also refers to masseurs who performed oral sex on other men. Whether the third nature mentioned in the Sanskrit literature also refers to women is disputed.

The third-natured person in the Kama Sutra is described as performing oral sex, but not anal sex. It is noted that anal intercourse was practiced in South India (Kama Sutra 2.6.49), but the anus is considered the "bad route" in the commentary of Yashodhara, written approximately eight-hundred years later (2.6.49). While Yashodhara considers anal intercourse to be a perversion of Southern origin, he notes that oral sex with a third-natured person is not a form of "special copulation" (2.6.49).

With respect to male-male kama (desire), an active/passive dichotomy is apparent in the historical record as well as in present day thought. The male passive partner takes the receptive role in sex, and is more stigmatized. There is less stigmatization of an active partner in such a relationship, and in modern India the passive partner in male-male sex is called by different terms than an active participant.

The Muslim Conquest of India

Many aspects of Indian life, including sexuality, were changed by the Muslim conquest of South Asia that began in the eighth century. Islamic rule spread into modern-day India in the early eleventh century and culminated with the tenuous conquest of most of South India in 1707. The introduction of Islam had a more profound effect on North India, which was held mostly under Muslim rule until the nineteenth century.

While anal intercourse between men is forbidden in the Quran (4.15), the punishments prescribed are less severe than those in the Old Testament. Male-male desire is not taboo; however, acting upon such desire is prohibited. It is also worth noting that Islam is not a uniform religion, and a liberal form of Sufism in India called for contemplation of God's bounty through pleasure.

Indo-Islamic poetry suggests that men had sex with one another despite prohibitions, and there were only slight attempts to curb this activity. One poem is particularly revealing: "He is the king in Delhi who lies under the lover" (trans. Rahman). Indo-Islamic love poetry is usually written from the point of view of the older, sexually active (penetrating) male, but often indicates that the younger man in such a relationship held the power of rejection and was perhaps not as passive as his denoted sexual role might otherwise indicate. Less is known about female-female sexuality in Muslim India, though some illustrations and poetry are illuminating.

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