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Does Sex Equal Grape? How Sexuality Relates to Money

A picture featuring a candid click of a man passing a street which has a number of women standing on the road.

In a 2005 experiment by an economist and a psychologist, capuchin monkeys were taught to use money to buy treats. During the study, a monkey apparently exchanged sex for money and used that money to buy a grape. An amazing and sobering event for many reasons. Was Charles Darwin right when he said that monkeys and humans share an ancestor on the genealogical tree? Is morality of any relevance to the effective use of our personal resources? Does sex equal grape? Is money necessary? This extract from a 2013 article on alternative monetary systems expands on the thought: “As an increase in gross domestic product (GDP) simply means more money changing hands,… it’s a fairly inadequate measure of human progress. Politicians of most countries now agree new measures would be useful, and there is a growing community of professionals who seek to audit various aspects of our happiness and wellbeing.”

People understand money in different ways. They make distinctions between token money and commodity money, between coins and notes and resources that can be exchanged for goods and services. They point out differences between an economy dependent on barter and one dependent on cash for commercial transactions.

As soon as you add sexuality to the piece about money, the first instinct generally is to reduce it all to sex, leaving the “-uality” like a little invisible tail feather that flutters away into the unknown. So let’s articulate a common concept that comes to mind when we think of sex and money. Money buys sex. Sex is a service sometimes traded for other goods and services. Sex and money as linked concepts lead to conversations about sex work and prostitution, trafficking, law and policy, marrying for money, about the happiness that money does not buy and the relationship commitments that sex does not promise.

Some ask questions such as, “How do sex workers pay taxes?” Historians and scholars delve into sacred sex as opposed to commercial sex. They unfurl narratives about the ancient past. In ancient Mesopotamia if a man offered money to a temple of the goddess Ishtar, women serving the goddess could provide him with sexual services. Those who have studied the history of sex work and prostitution have listed many such traditions of prostitution from around the world that may or may not involve an exchange of money for sex but are placed in a spiritual or ritualistic context, beyond purely commercial trade. Ancient civilisations– Greece, Rome, Japan, India, Nepal, the Incas – all appear to have practised some sacred sexual rituals associated with temples and prostitution.

Scholars continue to debate these interpretations of ancient lives and customs, but they remain a part of the history of the world. Different studies on the subject make reference to both male and female prostitutes in various temples across cultures. In this case, money goes as offerings to a deity and then returns to take the form of blessings in the realm of sexuality, birth, fertility, procreation and related human concerns.

Though in light of the information about the monkey who bought a grape, one could quibble about the word ‘human’. There have been other people who have hypothesised that some animals, and even some birds, exchange sex for money or resources, too. So, in a philosophical vein, both sex and money have an equalising effect on the status of living things. We are just species sisters and brothers to the penguin and the capuchin.

Returning to ourselves the word ‘sexuality’ in its entirety, a whole world opens out for consideration. Often, to be able to live true to your sexuality costs quite a bit of money. This cost, or a price you pay, takes different forms. Sadly, it does not always guarantee rights or respect of the individual’s choice.

Take the case of Aparna Mafatlal, who became Ajay Mafatlal in 2003 at the age of 46. Ajay stood at a unique crossroads where money and sexuality were both big issues. Ajay was part of a business family with a business empire and inheritance issues reared up as Atulya Mafatlal had been the only male amongst his siblings – till Ajay emerged from Aparna. Many people felt Aparna’s transitioning to Ajay was prompted by the desire to claim a share of the Mafatlal family property. Ajay had the purchasing power needed to go through with his transition but was forced to defend his decision and has been quoted in an interview as having clarified, “I have not changed my sex for the sake of property. I have had the mannerisms of a boy since I was six and underwent the change for personal reasons.” It is challenging enough to contend with one’s own gender identity conflict and to take a personal decision with such far-reaching consequences whilst being in the public eye through it all. Then to have one’s gender identity be treated as non-existent and unimportant in and of itself and only be seen as a strategy in the scheme of a family inheritance battle does not reflect respect for sexual rights and identity.

From certain experience stories shared by individuals, one can make the assumption that money and affluence, or the lack of money, are nowhere near as important as family and environmental attitudes to sexuality. Some people, such as Prince Manvendra of Rajpipla, experience disinheritance, and others experience being abandoned by their families for their non-normative expressions of sexuality. Some people are given mental illness labels and pushed into the psychiatric system from where it is difficult to re-integrate into a world where mental illness labels reduce the individual’s chance to earn a living, be taken seriously and live independently. In the words of Vyjayanti Vasanta Mogli who speaks of her experience of being forcibly put into a psychiatric ward after she came out to her family, “The psychiatric ward was like a prison complete with high walls and electric fence where I was treated like a criminal,” she recalls. “I was administered psychotic drugs which pushed me into depression and confusion. The doctor conducted torturous psychosexual experiments on me by forcing me to stay with other mentally ill women. She wanted to see how I reacted to their interaction and sexual advances. This same person has now changed her practice to make it easy for people to shop for therapies that are more in fashion now. I am not saying all doctors follow unethical practices, but LGBT people and their parents must know that there are doctors who follow trends just to adjust their current practices to what will get them more clients and money.” Some people risk their lives. Coming out to family, friends, and the wider social circle has had, and continues to have serious consequences around the world that include suicide and murder, sometimes state-sponsored, sometimes by family in the name of honour, or by society in response to homophobia.

Yet, money remains a much-needed commodity to enhance the individual capacity to exercise choice and freedom. Some people desire gender confirmation surgery (otherwise called sex reassignment surgery), as did Ajay Mafatlal, one of the first individuals in India to complete this. These procedures, of which there are a large variety, can cost a lot, from two to eight lakh rupees, according to some estimates. However, charges vary across countries, and these procedures are offered as a part of medical tourism, a legitimate, supportive and constructive way of making money in countries where they cost less than in the source countries from where tourists arrive for this purpose. So, for example, Betty, trapped in the body of Dale for 64 years, experienced depression for decades before she came to India and achieved her dream. She says, “This is affordable. This is an option that some transgender people can look at and not have to kill themselves because they can’t afford it”.  The same article reports that she paid about $6,000, which is far less than what she would have paid in her country of origin, the US.

On another note, when sexuality enters the money calculations of corporate strategists, it has attained high stature. It is reported that one-third of Fortune 500 firms in America provide healthcare coverage that includes gender confirmation surgery and related medical costs. Sexuality is beginning to achieve the status of a human right, moving beyond the moralistic or medicalised frame of reference and into manuals of corporate policy and HR strategies. The corporate world is key to the financial sustainability of many millions of lives around the world. Ordinary lives of ordinary people who buy groceries, choose to wear one brand rather than another, aspire to the next vehicle or smartphone, and save to pay insurance premiums on car, medical cover, fire, theft and life. Ordinary lives led by people of whom many live in conflict with their gender identity or are otherwise challenged by issues of sexuality. Some now find legal protection at the workplace they depend on to earn their money. Others find the workplace is changing to accommodate issues of gender and sexuality in healthcare coverage and expense reimbursement. This is a giant leap for all genderkind.

In India, some state governments may be taking a different kind of giant leap, also affirmative of sexuality and rights. In Kerala, free sex reassignment surgery may soon be instituted at some government medical colleges. Apparently, a survey conducted among the transgender people in the state last year found that nearly 81% of the estimated 25,000 transgender people wished to change their gender identity. According to Chilla Anil, Executive Director of Chilla, an NGO in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala,male-to-female surgery costs around Rs 2 lakh to Rs 5 lakh, while female-to-male surgery costs between Rs 4 lakh to Rs 8 lakh in private hospitals. This is not affordable for the majority of transgender people since they neither have a regular income nor the support of their families. In January 2017, a 41-year-old individual underwent free sex reassignment surgery in Kerala at the Government Medical College Hospital – a first of its kind at a government medical college.

Government hospitals in Tamil Nadu have been offering free gender confirmation surgeries to transgender individuals since 2010. There are, however, reports that these surgeries may not be of satisfactory quality. A deeper exploration of the medical, professional and infrastructural facilities as well as the intention of the medical institute is required to be undertaken at the same time as positive steps such as these are discussed. Here we need to see the trade-off between ‘it-costs-money’ and ‘it-is-free’, and the impact on the life of the person undergoing this life-changing procedure.

Sexuality encompasses freedom, identity, dignity, sexual expression, relationships, choices and most importantly, rights and respect. Money equals purchasing power, and can therefore improve and increase choices and freedom, but purchasing power may not necessarily buy rights and respect.

Cover image from Sabotage Times