VIEW: Sex and sensibility —Saleem H Ali
There was an observation that in most Western countries women can walk around without being stared at as sexual objects. Yet, what are we to make of the European tourists who flock to the sex salons of Thailand and Cambodia? At least 50,000 bachelor retirees from Europe and North America have permanently moved to these areas giving rise to the term “sexpatriate”
During the past few months some commentators in this paper have lamented about how suppressive Pakistani culture and Muslim norms have led our youth to lustful leering and Internet cravings for pornography. Yet little more than anecdotes are presented on the matter by these writers and there is hardly any careful analysis. The only data point cited recently was an obscure survey carried out by Google which ranked Pakistan among the top countries that access pornographic websites. Yet, this survey did not give the full picture of pornography media worldwide. Nor did it attempt to suggest that sexual deprivation or discipline was the cause of higher Internet access.
First, let us consider some statistics on the pornography industry worldwide; with annual revenues that exceed $57 billion it beats professional football, basketball and baseball earnings in the United States. Most consumers of this pornography are clearly not people in Pakistan or any of the countries ranked in the Google survey. Indeed, most of the consumers of this sector are in Western countries with few barriers on premarital sexual activity. Hence the argument that sexual suppression leads to pornographic subversions is flawed. Even the most liberal countries of the world are beset by consumption of pornography — only in those cases people buy the material rather than accessing it online. In the United States alone annual sales of pornographic merchandise exceed $12 billion.
There is then the ever-contentious issue of prostitution, which some modernists have called the ultimate right of sexual expression in the marketplace. Some recent writers have called prostitution “the oldest profession” though I suspect that that distinction belongs to professional hunting of animals for food. In Lahore, the fabled streets of Heera Mandi have been depicted in many novels and short stories as being the ultimate cultural experience. Commendable sociological work by researchers such as Fouzia Saeed provides a more nuanced and sobering picture of the lurid lives on these streets. Even some liberated societies, such as Sweden, have finally found that prostitution is not the answer. Sweden legislation that made it illegal in 1999 to buy sex considers prostitution “as an aspect of male violence against women and children”. The argument that banning such activities will only drive matters underground is a defeatist canard.
One can demand, by the same logic, legalisation of all crimes because we can never have 100 percent compliance. Rather than instinctive impulses, the question of regulation, discipline and self-denial of sexual activity should be answered on the basis of its overall impact on society.
If instincts were to be our sole guide to the regulation of human behaviour, there would be little support for the institution of family. However, biological evolution did not favour this and the institution of matrimony developed in all societies, usually in monogamous terms. Even polygamous relations were regulated by the cultures that allowed them. The hippie era of the 1960s threw up the notion of “open marriages” where partners could have extra-marital sexual relations, but that did not work and faded quickly.
In December 2005 Canada tried to resurrect this experiment by legalising “swinger sex bars”. Toronto now has over 13,000 registered “swinger couples” who frequently trade their partners. However sociologists are still wary of the long-term social impact of this practice. Open-marriage arrangements in the past frequently led to poor family relations, divorce and marginalisation by the society.
Most families in Western countries today, including homosexual unions, are moving increasingly towards monogamy, regarded as the most stable social structure. The key ingredient for success, it is argued, is not the genders of the partners but a commitment to each other that goes beyond sexual gratification. Humans are not alone in this regard — other species too have evolved to favour monogamous relations. The most notable example in this regard is the large oceanic bird, the albatross. Albatrosses mate only once in life and rear their chicks together for this has been the most effective reproductive fitness strategy for them.
Let us now consider the sordid ogling that some writers find most revolting in desperate Pakistani men. There was an observation in Daily Times recently that in most Western countries women can walk around without being stared at as sexual objects. Stockholm, a city I have visited, was mentioned as a model metropolis where sexual contentment has supposedly led to the perfect ambling environment for ladies. Yet, what are we to make of the European tourists who flock to the sex salons of Thailand and Cambodia? By one estimate at least 50,000 bachelor retirees from Europe and North America have permanently moved to these areas giving rise to the term “sexpatriate”. According to Canadian sociologist Richard Poulin’s detailed research on this sector, nearly 500,000 women of Eastern Europe and between 150,000 and 200,000 women of the countries of the ex-USSR now prostitute themselves in Western Europe. While Dubai is often criticised for this, such activities are more rampant in the West. As for the oglers, you can find plenty of them at Western beeches, bars and salons — even corporate boardrooms. While such conduct must be condemned, singling out South Asian or Muslim males as uniquely culpable is preposterous.
We should rather focus on what the East and the West might learn from each other in sexual norms. Freedom of choice in marriage and emancipation of women are certainly qualities the West has manifested more admirably. A rejection of rampant individualism, hedonism and momentary pleasure in favour of altruism, respect and restraint is the cultural hallmark of the East, of which we should not be ashamed.
Sex is a natural impulse, which should be humanly embraced. But as with all legitimate indulgences — from chocolate to cricket — we have to be disciplined in its pursuit. All societies must choose how they exert such discipline but some degree of restraint is definitely essential. Jane Austen would have agreed.
Dr Saleem H Ali is associate professor of environmental planning and conflict resolution at the University of Vermont and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org