Colonised intimacy: Love and sex in Asia and the Middle East

Sexual liberalism has existed in these areas for centuries.

Photo: Heritage Images/Getty

Hackneyed cultural stereotypes permeate the world of love and sex. As attitudes about intimacy progress away from heteronormative, patriarchal structures, Western perceptions of love and sex in Asia and the Middle East remain prejudiced. 

For this article, a survey was conducted to determine the pervasiveness of these attitudes among university-aged students in what is, for the most part, a multicultural Sydney. In response to the question, “what are your perceptions of love and sex in Asia and the Middle East?”, respondents stated:

“Generally more conservative than Western countries. The notion of transgender people and homosexual relationships are generally looked down upon or ostracised”.

“Arranged marriages and relations are built only on a practical basis (family, kids and status) as opposed to love relationships”.

“Sex is taboo, women aren’t free to be sexually expressive”.

Ostensibly, Western perceptions of love and sex in Asia and the Middle East are that of oppression and unprogressiveness. However, these respondents are not alone in their musings. In the West, there exists socially and culturally constructed stereotypes about the intimacy behaviours of people from Asia and the Middle East.

For example, Khaled Diab writes of his experience as an Arab man receiving questions from Western women like “have you got another wife in Egypt?”, despite being in a monogamous relationship with his wife. A google search of ‘Arab men in a relationship’ reveals headlines such as ‘6 ‘cute’ things Arab boyfriends do that are actually super controlling’ or ‘what should Western women be aware of when dating Arab men?’. The profiling of Arab men as dominating polygamists is prolific. Arab women fare no better. A report through the Middle East Institute shows stereotyping of these women as “inexperienced, opportunistic, weak, or dependent”. 

Western women travelling to the Indian sub-continent are warned to refrain from ‘friendliness’ in the event that men from the region mis-interpret this as flirting. Further, rape culture is posited by the media as a largely South Asian problem. However, this year the United States issued a security alert for Spain in response to rising sexual assaults in the country. Yet this hasn’t altered the perception of Spanish men as ‘swoon-worthy’, in the same way it has for their South Asian counterparts. A google search of, ‘Spanish men in a relationship’ generates results such as ‘11 reasons why you should fall in love with a Spaniard’. South Asian women are characterised as being “caught between tradition and modernity”, running away from an apparent inevitability of arranged marriage. 

Chinese American Andrew Kung writes that he internalised Western stereotypes that painted him as “passive, emasculated … lacking sex appeal and a voice”. He goes on to list other adjectives about himself such as “effeminate” and “weak”. On the flip-side Asian-Australian Jessie Tu describes her experience with what she describes as  “yellow fever”, that is, predominately white men viewing her as submissive and accommodating, or as she puts it “sweet in the kitchen, tiger in the bedroom”.

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This year, an international dating site identified the world’s most attractive nationalities.  Swedish men achieved first place and ladies from Norway topped the women’s charts. The top 10 for each gender category hailed from Europe and South America. This infers that perhaps there lies a dominant view that safe, successful, satisfying intimacy is Eurocentric. However, what many fail to understand is that European colonisation of the Middle East and Asia brought ideas of the patriarchy, abstinence and homophobia that were not otherwise present. Therefore, although colonisation is not the only factor that informs many of the aforementioned stereotypes, it certainly stakes a large influence. 

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The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight, a 15th century Arabic erotic text was written to encourage intimacy for pleasure. The text is divided into male and female segments so as to place equal weight on enjoyment for both genders. A.L writes of 13th and 14th century male poets Rumi and Hafiz who lived in what is now Iran. They both wrote homoerotic verses, as did Abu Nuwas, a Baghdadi poet. 

To learn more, I spoke to Dr Lucia Sorbera, Chair of the Arabic Studies Department here at the University of Sydney. Dr Sorbera explains:

“In pre-modern Arab literature, sexuality was defined mostly in relation to the act, more than the identity of the individual”.

She goes on to highlight:

“In pre-modern Arabic (and also Turkish and Farsi) texts, gender was not necessarily narrated according to the binary male and female. This would suggest that pre-modern Arab societies were open to a plurality of options”.

Attitude changes in the Middle East can be attributed to penal codes introduced by the British that punished homosexual behaviour. France introduced similar laws. Further, John Colville reminds us that texts like The Perfumed Garden were mistranslated when discovered by French colonialists, and shaped European views of Arab men as lustful and their women as objectified.

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Between 400 BCE and 200 CE, a third sex is mentioned in ancient Hindu texts, the Mahabharata and the Kama Sutra. These people were known as Hijras. Annalysse Mason describes Hijras as a dominant transgender population in India, generally people assigned male at birth who identify as women. As Hijras do not conform to essentialist ideas of gender and sexuality, in early India they were considered divine beings or nirwaan, meaning closer to the gods. However, in the 18th century when the British arrived and saw a temple of Hijras for the first time, they experienced what Jessica Hinchy describes as ‘Hijra panic’. The colonial concern with Hijras was that their ‘deviant’ behaviours would threaten the conservative British social and political order. As a result, the Criminal Tribes Act was implemented which outlawed Hijras and forced them into the fringes of South Asian society. 

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In 17th century Japan, daughters of the Samurai class were gifted Shunga on their wedding night. Kukhee Choo describes Shunga as a sex education manual that was also purchased by couples for entertainment purposes as it depicted sexual activity in all its forms. The explicitness of the Shunga reflects the sexual liberation of 17th – 19th century Japan known as the Edo period. However, in the mid-19th century Japan opened its market to the Western world and Shunga was banned as it was deemed inappropriate by Western standards. This new period was known as the Meiji period. England was in the midst of the Victorian age and sexual frigidity was heightened. Consequently, Shunga slowly disappeared from the mainstream. 

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It is ironic that Western media now colours the Middle East and Asia as frigid and sexually unprogressive when it is colonisation that disrupted their liberal notions in the first instance. Sexual liberalism has existed in these areas for centuries.

I asked Dr Sorbera why she thinks there is a lack of knowledge in the West about sexual liberalism in the East. She says:

 “A hegemonic, monolinguist, Anglo-centric culture dominates the West, this doesn’t allow for representations of the nuances of other cultures and the spirit of other cultures, there is an ignorance that we perpetuate about sexuality in other cultures… This reflects the taboos that are still with us in the West, which are as complex and profound as all studies of sexuality and culture are”.

It is important to dismantle these colonialist narratives about the Middle East and Asia. It is also necessary to critically evaluate the narratives we receive about the rest of the world, particularly about intimacy, in a Western culture that can barely speak about 50 Shades of Grey above a whisper.

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