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Innovating Sexuality

bell hooks writes that when she first became a teacher and had to use the restroom in the middle of class, she had no precedent to follow[1]. None of her professors in the past had drawn attention to their bodies in such a manner, no instructor had stepped out in the middle of a lecture to answer a “call of nature”, done their business, and resumed class. I think of this as I stare at a set of blank screens in a Zoom meeting. Behind each of these panels is a workshop participant with their camera switched off. A few of their excuses, shared privately or as humorous quips, recall hooks’ dilemma. Some are eating/cooking lunch, others are in their pyjamas, lying in bed, and some are sharing space with parents, kids or siblings. All of them feel awkward about being embodied in this manner while listening to us appeal to their intellect.

The irony of this is not lost on me. We conduct sessions meant to work towards undoing gender roles and debunk sexual stereotypes, but conducting these workshops online means that the body that performs those roles and scripts is often rendered invisible. Like many others, we have had to shift ourselves to working virtually in the pandemic-affected world. In a bid to rise to the peculiarity of our current circumstances, many of us have been pushed to innovate and come up with new forms of working and collectivising. Some have attempted to hold unlikely conversations or tried forging global solidarities, while others have used this as an opportunity to experiment and come up with a parallel industry of endless webinars.

Having reaped its benefits, I see the appeal in such experimentation. But I also wish to pause and reflect on our drive to place education in the hands of innovation and inventiveness. While some of us can easily access the joy-ride of virtual learning, others may be held back because they struggle to find a decent connection (or aren’t allowed to by the State). The consequences of being cavalier about such discrepancies are varied-sometimes these platforms serve to control our movements through surveillance, in the garb of safety/security, and at other times are too fatal to be overlooked.

But, there’s another factor that mediates the processes of learning that I’m more concerned with, for the moment at least. While the world of education is built upon the desires and intimacies that come into being through our bodies, we struggle to articulate this relationship. Consider for instance, that when confronted with the underbelly of these intimacies, academic institutions fail to come up with adequate responses – we do not acknowledge that teachers and students are embodied as sexual and gendered beings, maintaining faith in some vague and intellectual saintliness. Diving into innovation in education can spell some messy consequences, especially if we do not sit back and consider the role of the erotic. I want to ask then, how might we think of sexuality as innovation, before we jump onto producing new technologies? Does the language of innovation, that of newness, invention and change, have anything to offer in rethinking structures of intimacy?

In a way of course, sexuality has always been a subject of “innovation”, in as much as we constantly find newer ways to express ourselves and our desires. It is precisely for this reason that our dating and social lives have been so easy to adapt and translate to various apps and websites. We form communities on the internet, discover more people such as ourselves, create safe spaces and find dynamic ways to express ourselves. This signals something paradoxical about both, our desires and innovations. Profiles on Facebook or Grindr merely amplify the edginess, excitement and playfulness of our “irl” (In Real Life) worlds. The promise of these innovations is to introduce us to other bodies anew, or to give us greater visibility: but that is the very nature of desiring itself. In that sense, sexuality is innovation, because our bodies perform in ways that we cannot always predict.

But this also means that the virtual world doesn’t necessarily hold any radical promise for change. Along with our pleasures, we also transpose the violence of hierarchies, such as age, beauty, religion or caste into the frameworks of “innovation” that we use. For instance, the disembodied space of the Zoom classroom reinstates a regime of visuality. Think carefully of the apparently superficial concerns of our workshop participants, and underneath, you will find a very relatable anxiety regarding how we present ourselves to the world. A non-binary person tells me they would rather keep their camera off lest their “femininity” is subject to further scrutiny. They can’t tell if people are staring at their screens or at their bodies, and if a person is used to standing out, how might they tell the difference?

Innovation’s relationship with sexuality as the introduction of new “products” is in many ways a failed prophecy. Consider the 2018 film Private Life[2] that features an artistic Manhattan couple, Richard and Rachel, who crave a child, and in their desperation, try everything from artificial insemination to looking for birth mothers online to achieve their goal. This tiresome cycle of IVF treatments and surgical interventions fails to echo the optimistic sheen that innovation promises, and instead, finds an unlikely resemblance in a Tamil story by Perumal Murugan, One Part Woman[3]. Set in the 1940s, the novel features another childless couple, Kaali and Ponna, who is coerced to perform all sorts of ritualistic tributes and undertake pilgrimages in order to give birth to an heir. It would seem that even when bodies differ, the regimes governing their intimacies remain similar, and the development of newer technologies can do little if we are persistently caught up in the inevitable failures of perfect heterosexuality.

At different points in Private Life, Richard’s and Rachel’s friends and family are aghast at their incessant attempts at “completing the family portrait”, while also wondering why a middle-aged couple such as themselves would want a child now? On the other hand, in One Part Woman, Kaali and Ponna themselves wonder if they really need children? They love each other dearly, and are happy to continue living as they are. But that happiness is unrecognized and rendered hollow through the eyes of their family and friends, those who claim to love them. If innovation fails both as a concept and a product, I wonder if there’s something of its spirit that we can still hold onto, to further explore sexuality?

Returning to the pandemic-imposed lockdown for now, I’m thinking of the necessary tools that we have had to come up with in order to alleviate loneliness. I’m thinking of activist networks enabled by innovative forms of communication. I’m also wondering what will be the next online platform my friends and I explore – Netflix Party, Ludo King, the sham that is online Scrabble, Whatsapp treasure hunts and game shows – struggling to hold onto intimacies that have helped us grow outside of our homes. Can innovation help us maintain the safer, daring and affirmative kinships we had developed outside of traditional quarters?

There’s something fatiguing about such persistence. How long can we stare at frozen screens or cracked ceilings and create the warmth of being accompanied by the ones we love? There is only so much innovation delivers. For the rest of it, we continue to imagine.

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Maybe the reason I am so skeptical of innovation is that it is so accomplished at offering solutions to situations that were previously impossible to even imagine. When we thought working as before could not be sustained, work found a way to bear down on us with greater intensity. When we decided that pleasuring oneself was just that, we were bold enough to reinvent touching. But were these really the problems we were facing? Perhaps it wasn’t so much that we wanted to sustain intimacy, as much as acknowledge our differing claims to it. Maybe it isn’t that we are compelled to reproduce, but that we need to stop treating kinship as insurance policies. Technology then, doesn’t necessarily eliminate desire, as much as remind us that it is perpetually deferred.

I remember a class from my first year of undergraduation – just four of us since most of my batchmates had chosen to bunk that late afternoon slot (you can tell by now, I’m quite the nerd). Our teacher asked us if we knew what characterised the Romantic movement in English literature. We spent the next hour trying to arrive at an answer from our own amateur encounters with poetry. By the end of the lesson, driven passionately by the verses she was explaining, our professor was tearing up. I would recount this experience to my missing friends time and again, only to be made fun of. Clearly, in their eyes, I was making too much of a silly moment or had a serious crush on our teacher. I don’t deny either charge.

But I think there was something more to the classroom that day: passionate and erotic energies emanating from all present. Here, the erotic could be defined as bell hooks did, as more than just sexuality, but also the passionate intensity with which we relate to one another. This is the relationship between the body and the classroom that we consistently grapple with. We need to remind ourselves in this age of “innovative” online programs and the replacement of the student with the Zoom-user, that learning is not passively receiving ideas or doing readings. It has everything to do with the way we seat ourselves in relation to others, the way we see other bodies move (or choose not to) in response to our speech. Ultimately, can innovation recreate education as an intimately shared process? There’s a chance, if we hold onto what the boring Romantics treasured so much: imagination.

[1] “Eros, Eroticism, and the Pedagogical Process”, Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks, 1994, Routledge

[2] Private Life, Tamara Jenkins, 2018 (Netflix)

[3] One Part Woman, Perumal Murugan (tr. Aniruddhan Vasudevan), 2013, Penguin

Cover Image: Unsplash

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Article written by:

Ishan is a student of South Asian Literature. He occasionally writes on films, literature, sexuality and masculinity.

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