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Durba Mitra. Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought

Otávio Amaral
Bibliographical reference

Durba Mitra. 2020. Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 290 pages.

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1In Indian Sex Life, the Harvard University professor of Women, Gender and Sexuality, Durba Mitra, seeks to explore the presence of the prostitute in Indian imaginary as an epistemological concept that she believes to be the key to comprehending the consolidation of Indian social sciences. In fact, the author defines the presence of the prostitute as an official subterfuge that was used by the colonial government in order to control women’s desires and sexuality. Mitra opens her book by stating that “prostitution is the world’s oldest profession” (p. 2). In India, however, the failure to adhere to a normative sexuality—in other words, one that respects orthodox Hindu values of exclusive attachment to a partner within marriage—has become a heuristic element for modern social thought. How did female sexuality shape modern social thought? During the 18th and 19th century, inspired by Durkheim theories, deviance figured as an integral part of the scientific enterprise in India. To justify this hypothesis, Mitra founds her analysis on extensive research of colonial archives in the state of Bengal, where her family comes from. Since it was in Calcutta where the first master’s program in social sciences was founded at the beginning of the 20th century, in addition to the foundation of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1784—only 30 years after the British conquest of the territory—, this region in particular is a conducive space where archives provide an important amount of data concerning women’s deviance.

2In the introduction, Mitra states that her study is based on an exploration of two main notions: shame and stigma: for all women were potential prostitutes (p. 7). Nevertheless, women who did not respect the normative framework of a sexuality aimed at engendering and sustaining a conjugal life and who, on the other hand, were perceived as potentially deviant (e.g. devadasis, widows from the Hindu high castes, Muslims, working-class women) became scientific objects from which universal theories about female sexuality could be derived. The author organizes her study by disciplinary field (philology, legal sciences, demography, ethnology, popular literature). In each chapter, a range of work by Indian and international Indologists (who undoubtedly defended their analysis using the general social theories that were prevalent in Europe at that time) is explored in order to argue that female transgression served, in many ways, to construct a normative framework of women’s social life in India. It is from the point of view of women as a heuristic object that the social sciences were consolidated in India, particularly in Bengal.

3The first chapter is devoted to philological research published from the end of the 18th century until the 1950s. Mitra argues that, at the beginning of the development of sciences in colonial India, philology was a privileged disciplinary field. Besides, sexuality was central to the Sanskrit texts on femininity. The conception of kama (desire, love, sex) therefore becomes a legitimate object of knowledge. An example provided by Mitra is Sir Richard F. Burton’s The Kama Sutra of Vatsayana, published in 1883. Burton defined kama as “the Hindu art of love,” and his publications were spread in Europe with the justification of their being the key to understanding the history of Indian civilization. In this case, the orientalist analysis of Sanskrit texts, in addition to a selective translation of vernacular terms, accompanied by a fictional reformulation of the texts, gave rise to an exoticizing interpretation, which went hand in hand with the rhetoric of the colonial conquest. The author analyzes this as a “trafficking” of Western ideas in the name of the so-called “progress of Indian civilization.” The theory of the historian Santosh Kumar Mukherji presented in his book Prostitution in India (1934) is also described by Durba Mitra as a way of using empirical analysis to reinforce colonial discourses. For Mukherji, prostitution in the modern era was equivalent to promiscuity, which was a social product of the Hindu marriage system. According to him, the transgression of the Hindu marriage system is part of the local social structure itself, and finishes by being experienced through promiscuity. In order to sustain the system, there are imperatively cases of transgression/promiscuity. The empirical examples upon which this premise rests refer to all women living without the supervision of a man. Because of the “weak nature” of their uncontrollable desire, autonomous women could be defined as prostitutes. The only solution for this problem would therefore be heterosexual forced marriage, as long as it is the product of an evolutionary model of social and biological structures of reproduction. Therefore, female sexuality was “a primary index for stages of civilization” (p. 61).

4The following chapter invites the reader to reflect on the marked interest in women’s sex lives in the official questionnaires of the colonial state surveys. With the Indian Penal Code coming into effect in 1860, the years that followed included a massive policy of implementing public questionnaires that sought to conceive Indian society itself as a social fact. The colonial state sought to intervene legally in the private lives of its citizens as well as to apprehend the social practices of the population, including the sexual lives of women. It inaugurated “a process of objectification” (p. 65). But who were the prostitutes at that time? In 1881, the Bengal State census considered any unmarried woman over the age of 15 to be a prostitute. Undoubtedly, this policy ended up generating an epistemological prism within which the application of sections 366a (procuration of girls), 372, and 373 (buying and selling women) led to the consolidation of the imaginary of the “female prostitute.” Another official document that Durba Mitra focuses on is the Contagious Diseases Act of 1868. This act produced a new vocabulary pattern and a new descriptive method: the act of practicing prostitution became the perspective through which not only were marriage rates surveyed, but caste social structures, abortion and infanticide cases were particularly analyzed. In addition to that, the spread of sexually transmitted infections started being explained by the presence of prostituted women in the society. Lastly, from 1860 to 1930, several questionnaires were distributed by the local government under the pretext of making “scientific research” a tool for legal intervention. As a result, five “social types” of prostituted women were derived: the beggar woman belonging to a religious sect (in particular, Vaishnava); the polygamous woman from the Hindu high castes; the Brahman widow (who was supposed to control her sexual desires after her husband’s death); the Muslim woman (a category that highlights the marginalization of Islam in Bengal); and the working-class woman (when she did not limit her exclusive role to the domestic sphere).

5The third chapter analyzes the circulation of the concept of the deviant woman among the forensic authorities of India. For Mitra, various forensic descriptions at that time considered the woman’s body as a deviant fact per se. Cases of rape, abortion, and infanticide—also particular cases of virginity testing—used the female anatomy to argue that women are not capable of controlling their sexual desire. The criminal effect of the female body would thus be the practice of abortion. For example, the author presents A Manual of Medical Jurisprudence for India (1870) as an illustration of an “ethno-scientific” discourse about the female body. For the author, Norman Chevers, criminality should be seen as an inherent fact of Indian society, especially since Indian women have an essential tendency to transcend norms of social hierarchy and property. In fact, female identity itself is defined as transgressive and criminal. Women’s actions are perceptible through the analysis of their sexual life. In other words, transgression (as well as the violence to which women are subjected) is made present in their reproductive apparatus and its uses. As such, colonial doctors and administrators of the time argued that abortion, in this case, was a widespread fact in India due to women’s easy access to abortifacient materials (such as opium, spices, and a wide variety of flowers). As a result of the authority accorded to these medical discourses, social facts (such as abortion, polygamy, adultery) were interpreted from an analysis of the female body as well as from an idealized cultural feminine behavior. Anatomy and culture were thus intertwined in such a way as to make women the prime actors of crime in India.

6The circulation of the concept of the “deviant woman” was furthermore crucial to understanding the construction of colonial thought. Durba Mitra provides an analysis of the ethnological publications of the time. Anthropology being a young discipline that arises with the process of colonization, it is not insignificant to highlight that, in India, the framework of an evolving perception of cultural diversity was the norm. The whole population of the Indian subcontinent was then perceived as “primitive,” while being a fruitful object of ethnological analysis, in particular in the analysis of the circulation of women (cf. Lévi Strauss 1949). Women were used to promote an ideal-typical model of evolution (according to deviant sexuality): in the first degree is the beshya (the promiscuous woman); then the ganika (the woman with several sexual partners); the kulatadasi (the deviant woman of a specific clan); the barangana (a woman who expresses herself in the public space); and finally, the patita (the fallen woman). This logic thus produces a close relationship between the empirical field of India and the epistemological and universalizing trends of the time. Indeed, several social markers were transmitted through this evolutionary scale: caste hierarchy, religious diversity, discourses of difference, rights issues, etc. The potential Indian development was measured through the questioning of social customs. In the case of Bengal in particular, the propagation of the idea of the female prostitute was, according to Mitra, an ethical project built through an imposition of the patriarchal social structure of Hindu institutions.

7Once female transgression was intrinsically linked to the perspective of social analyses that could potentially serve the colonial state, the question dealt with in the last chapter of the book arises, “why do women become prostitutes?” (p. 176). As a reflection of this question, the author uses some examples from Bengali popular literature of the late 19th century to exemplify the journey of a few women. The autobiographies serve as a discourse of representation of the excesses of women’s sexuality. However, in contrast to discourses that attempt to claim agency for marginalized populations, Durba Mitra argues that the stories used in published novels and autobiographies served the ideology of the Hindu upper castes. In truth, most of the stories were about polygamous women, belonging to the Kulin subcaste, whose marriage system was not described in the classical shastras. The political outlets of these publications clashed with the daily reality of women’s lives, reinforcing colonial patriarchal politics. The ideal of sati—the woman who sacrifices herself the moment her husband’s funeral pyre is lit—is defined by the local imaginary as the point of the positive colonial imagination of Indian social life. In opposition to the sacrificial women, there is the deviant woman, seen by local Indologists as a product of modern society: the one who seeks to live autonomously. Writers and social analysts acquired then a discursive authority that generated “sensational delight for a reading public” (p. 202). Their work responded inevitably to the local population’s expectations.

8This book is inescapably a landmark of postcolonial and feminist social thought in India. It is a study that looks at a modern system of thought through sophisticated analyses of discourses on female sexuality. By examining a wide range of historical sources, Durba Mitra creates a taxonomy of the forms of authority imposed on women’s bodies in a specific context: the late 18th, the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. The colonial period is taken by the author as an element to be considered in the current feminist postcolonial critique. Mitra makes her thesis clear: women were imagined and condemned to be “prostitutes” to the detriment of a “progressive development.” However, the writing of the book seems to start losing its breath in the last two chapters. The last chapter, concerning Bengali literature, lacks specific examples and an analysis of the stories better articulated with the theory already established by the author in the previous chapters. Moreover, the author focuses only on cis-gender women. Mitra does not mention the presence of transgender women in Bengal throughout these centuries. Yet it is known that transgenders have been visible in the public sphere in India for a long time, even though historical sources can prove their existence from only the 18th century onwards. This materialistic perspective on womanhood does not seem to be in line with the breadth of the author’s proposal.

9Despite these criticisms, the book remains an important achievement for South Asian feminist thought. Dura Mitra reinforces a reflexive perspective on Indian social sciences. She explores the idea that official discourses have shaped the local imaginary to define women’s sexuality as an object to be condemned by the colonial State. Additionally, the book explores the fact that social thought is inescapably a product of reiterated discourses that were introduced by local authorities and ended up imposing specific forms of a sexually normative life justified by classic religious Indian institutions such as marriage and endogamy. In effect, Mitra demonstrates that the borders between cultural, scientific and imaginary spheres have been blurred by the recurrence of the presence of the prostitute as a legal and scientific category that had to be annihilated with the justification of an achievable development.

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Burton, Richard F. 1883. The Kama Sutra of Vatsayana. London: The Karna Shastra Society.

Chevers, Norman. 1870. A Manual of Medical Jurisprudence for India: Including the Outline of a History of Crime against the Person in India. London: Medical Heritage Library.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1949. Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Mukherji, Santosh Kumar. [1934] 1984. Prostitution in India. Delhi: Inter-India Publications.

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Electronic reference

Otávio Amaral, Durba Mitra. Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social ThoughtSouth Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 30 | 2023, Online since 27 February 2023, connection on 05 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Otávio Amaral

PhD candidate in Anthropology, Centre for South Asian and Himalayan Studies, École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), Paris.

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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