Amrita Narayanan maps the links between sexual pleasure and the caste system of virtue, to talk about sexual health in terms of mind and soul, not only body.
Illustrations by Ishita Basu Mallik
Sex and Self: The Unconscious Caste System
Implied analogies between food and sex arise naturally in the mind; Indulgent adjectives jump off the palate when thinking about either: delicious, luscious, yummy, rich, tasty, rich. Most of us would comfortably speak these words out aloud when praising a good meal, but as Glitch so astutely pointed out earlier on AOI, we are far less generous in our verbal encouragement of relish when it comes to sex.
When we begin talking about sex, the indulgent adjectives we use for food peter out and are replaced at best by silence, at worst more static expressions that bespeak one’s value in the world. We speak infrequently with each other of the pleasures of sex, and enviously of the kind of person who is having frequent sex—a stud or a slut—or the impact their sex is having—a notch in the belt, a stain on the reputation, total chaos in their personal life. Or we become detectives, speaking of someone being “busted,” or “caught” in a sexual situation. The way we talk—or keep silent—about sex, speaks of our anxiety about crossing the pleasure taboo. Our inability to sink into and discuss in detail the pleasurable aspects of sex is because we feel somehow that this conversation will betray not simply what we enjoy but who we are.
Admitting, in words, to the indulgence of pleasure, seems to place us in a sort of caste system in which those who manage without pleasure, or who privilege affection over sex, are the highest caste. Historically, this taboo on pleasure does have an association—if not a direct link— with literal caste.
In caste, the pleasure taboo is most clearly seen in food, and one way of thinking about Brahminism, is that it places a higher value on certain kinds of food as well as a value on a detached way of eating, versus savoring and relishing of all kinds of food. In the deep south where I’m from, it’s still common to see an older woman stash chocolate in her armoire, to be eaten alone, secretly, while in the company of her family she loudly professes her long-suffering commitment to rice gruel. Here, middle-aged men speak about their favorite meals in clipped tones, that bely pleasure, and resemble talking about the weather, a l’anglaise. It is difficult to coax even indulgent words from them.
Modern life in the contemporary urban Indian scene, is comfortable associating pleasure with food. Food snobbery–-of different types—does indeed exist, associated more with class than caste. But modern Indian life includes an acceptance that a desire for fried chicken, pani-puri or pizza is worth indulging, even celebrating.
Sex too is making it’s own effort to clearly emerge from caste-like shadows around pleasure. Yet too often, how, with whom, and how often you like to have sex, seems to determine one’s value in the world. So, what we do in bed is intimately linked with our self-esteem.
Virtue and Sexual Health
Decisions about sexual pleasure are related to a part of the brain known as the ventral striatum. Located in the limbic system, the older part of the brain, the ventral striatum uses the neurotransmitter dopamine to make decisions about sex.
Problem is, that the medial pre-frontal cortex—the self-knowledge centre—links that decision to the overall sense of self, assigns that decision a unique value or significance, and chimes in with its evaluation. The self-knowledge centre uses social ideas about virtue that are embedded in the brain to evaluate sex.
So, while the pleasure centers might decide on a certain flavour of sex, the self-knowledge centre points out—sometimes, not so gently—the “caste” of this flavour.
That the need for sex is frequently conquered by the need for virtue, is the hallmark of all civilized societies, not just India’s. As Freud once said of a neurotic patient, “it would have been possible for him to be happier had it been possible for him to be less good”. Classical psychoanalysis talks of a narcissistic triad of “health, wealth and beauty” to which, modern psychoanalysis has added, virtue. What is virtuous, and how important that virtue is, varies from person to person, but gets decided fairly early in life by family and society, and then filed in our unconscious. When we engage in sexual behavior or fantasy our brain fishes out this information and uses it to assesses our overall sense of self.
Since the notion of what is acceptable and what’s not, the morality of our insides, gets decided early in life, it often means that we are so determined to defend our virtue that we keep our sexual fantasies a secret even from ourselves. Or, as the poet Amrita Pritam once wrote: “Baat kufr ki ki hai hum ne….”
So, What if Virtue Was Not On the Menu?
Good sexual mental health, means that we can know our own sexual secrets, and be comfortable with what we desire. Remember we’re talking about our own sexual desires, the ones that get suppressed, because they do not match certain ideas that we also have, of virtue.
A lot of our sexual mental health depends on our overall mental health, specifically the strength of our self-esteem: the more sure we feel about ourselves, the better chance we have to chose to engage in pleasure, rather than be bounded by ideas of virtue that came from our culture or family.
The poorer our self-esteem, the more likely it is we need to make “caste-based” choices about sex, such that our brain can use our sex choices (or abstentions) as fodder for self-esteem. Conversely, highly libidinous people who make decisions about sex without consulting their internal caste-system, are at risk of feeling sorry for it afterwards.
In the brain, self-esteem lies in a pathway, known as the frontostriatal pathway, which connects the medial prefrontal cortex, which deals with self-knowledge, to the ventral striatum, which deals with feelings of motivation and reward. The health of the self-esteem pathway is measured both in terms of its anatomical strength (which predicts long term self-esteem) and in terms of activity or “traffic” on the pathway, which measures momentary self-esteem.
When it comes to sex then, the activity on the self-esteem pathway gets going if choices that we make about pleasure are successfully discussed and approved of—or let slide— by our self-awareness and our value system.
Since the ventral striatum is as much affected by thoughts and fantasies as by actual sexual activity, how we think and talk about sex even to ourselves affects our self-esteem. You could imagine then if the ventral striatum is giving the “have sex” message and the medial prefrontal cortex is saying “sex is a useless waste of time”, you have a kind of congestion on your fronto-striatal pathway and it affects your self-esteem – simply put, makes you feel like you are not a good person.
The way we have sex is an important and utterly unique part of our identity, and the more benignly we can look upon our sexual desires the more we can enjoy not only the desires but our own selves. If our pre-frontal cortex is “casteist” – that is it values only very limited range or frequency of sexual behaviours – we risk our innermost desires being shushed up before we know it or feeling low after simply having a taboo sexual thought, maybe even one that is unconscious.
Sexual mental health means then that we deepen our capacity to know ourselves sexually.
This requires a particular kind of growth from our overall mental health by which we can welcome a range of consensual sexual thoughts and behaviours simply thinking about them as we sometimes can about food, as delicious or not delicious. One route to this is a kind of mindfulness, a practice of non-judgement, cultivated, for example in meditation.
But perhaps the easiest and most pro-social way might be to practice validating, smiling at or encouraging others’ sexual pleasures, as Glitch, speaking of her friends, suggested last week. When Glitch received disapproval from her friends she looked for more pleasure loving friends.
There is an important but radical lesson there: one of the best things you can do for your sexual mental health is to be part of a community that acknowledges that the banquet of pleasure is a legitimate part of the experience of being human.
And perhaps the first step to finding that community is being a community member who encourages and enjoys anyone who is “caught” feasting.
Amrita Narayanan is a psychoanalytic psychologist and writer based in Goa. She is the author of the short story collection, A Pleasant Kind of Heavy and Other Erotic Stories, and of numerous non-fiction psychoanalytic essays on women and sexuality that have been published in India, the UK and the USA.