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An Asian Focus on the Social Cultural
and Political Implications of Sexuality

by HyeRan Kim-Cragg

A Korean mother and her child went to a butcher shop to get some meat. The curious child was asking many questions and looking at interesting things. The owner asked this child, “How old are you?” “I am four,” said the child. Then, “what is your sex?” The child could not understand the question and so the owner changed the question, “Do you have a GoChoo?” Since the child was a boy and understood the question, he answered it with confidence, “Yes, I have it inside of my clothes.”

A three-year old girl was lying on the stomach and touching her vagina with her hands (this girl, when she wants to take a nap during the day, often does this). Her mother observed it and asked her, “what are you doing?” No answer. So she asked the question a bit differently, “what are you touching?” The girl answered, “GoChoo.”

Introduction

To many Koreans such stories as those above are not seen as strange stories. However, when you think critically about these stories, their implication is quite problematic. First, the criterion of defining sex is neither neutral nor objective. The story above contains a sexist view since sexual identity is determined by a male’s sex organ. The second story demonstrates that the girl identified her sexual organ as that of boy, something which was not taught to her by her mother or by her day care school. In other words, such learning is not acquired from formal or intentional education. Rather it occurs in the social and cultural learning environment. Somehow, this girl, although the mother tried to educate her in a way sensitive to justice issues, learned that everyone’s sexual organ is defined in terms of a male “Gochoo.” This story shows how influential and powerful informal socio-cultural teachings may be. These socio-cultural teachings seem to imply that female identity is an identity that lacks something (a woman does not have penis) which may easily imply that women are inferior to men who have it. Of course, such understanding is reinforced by such male-oriented “scientific” theories as Sigmund Freud’s Penis-envy psychology.

Naming the male sexual organ directly is something people feel uneasy about, and even more so when it comes to naming the female organ directly, something which is regarded as taboo. This kind of cultural bias and assumption implies that the female sex organs are unspeakable, verging on unclean, and in religious terms sinful, therefore, opposite to holy. Misogynistic views often developed from these kinds of devaluing assumptions about female sexuality. The examples in the writings of Church Fathers are many. Tertullian who said, woman and her vagina are “the gate to hell.” Jerome thought that what a woman really hopes for is to become a man. While opposing this kind of misogynistic Christian tradition, Eve Ensler boldly suggests that we should talk about the vagina in public by sharing our experiences of our vaginas. By participating in this communal and political action, as a way of challenging male-biased views on female bodies, we speak out who we are as women as the Subject of our own body rather than the sexual objects.

1. Clarifications on Terms related to Sexuality

It would be useful to clarify terms such as sex and gender as we discuss the implications of feminist thought for our understanding of sexuality.

Sex is a biological term that distinguishes between men and women. However, this term is often used to justify the role of women subordinated to that of men. (e.g., women are biologically weak therefore, men must take more difficult (and important) roles outside the home; engineering is an area that only men can do well, whereas cooking and raising children at home is the area that women can manage). Gender is a socio-cultural and political concept that developed after biological determination. In other words, it is a concept that was constructed by social interactions, cultural values, and other factors. This concept emerged from an oppositional understanding that female and male identity. But in the feminist gender perspective, women can have masculinity as much as men can have femininity. (e.g., some women are good at engineering, where as some men are good at cooking).

My understanding is that sexuality encompassing the features of both sex and gender, involves diverse experiences of sexual desire, sexual identity, sexual habit, sexual orientation, and various sexual relationships. In this understanding, sexuality is influenced by class, race, age, social value, cultural tradition, and institution. In short, sexuality is complex, fluid and multi-faceted.

Having acknowledged these terms, what we need to affirm is that sexuality is often taught in a negative or passive way. In educational terms we may talk of it as a null curriculum. This means we teach it by not teaching it. Too often the null curriculum of sexuality merely accepts the status quo. We therefore need to speak out in public. Our silence on the topic of sexuality is also in part the result of its status as ‘taboo,’ i. e., a topic prohibited because it is regarded as bad, dangerous, undesirable, and embarrassing. However, being silent often leads to the perpetuation of current male-dominated views on female sexuality. Again in educational parlance this becomes an implicit curriculum, things we don’t explain or justify in our teaching because they are simply assumed as true and accepted by everyone. Therefore, we must intentionally foster an open environment where we can talk about (female) sexuality and question these assumptions.

It is especially critical to overcome narrow views on sexuality dealing with homosexuality when heterosexuality is regarded as the norm, the desirable form of sexuality. Such a norm leads to compulsory heterosexuality for everyone. It means that we are socially and culturally conditioned and forced to believe that heterosexuality is natural or superior to any other forms of sexuality. Such forces are often at work in our formal and informal educational systems, in the form of socialization and indoctrination and sometimes go further with the use of violence and legal punishment to enforce the norm.

2. A Christian-dualist Understanding of Sexuality

Some of our most fundamental understandings of sexuality are deeply rooted in Western dualism, that is, an ideology that divides the spirit (mind) from the body and assumes that the body is the inferior of the two. Such dualism is elaborated in the assumption of two worlds, one divine and the other secular. This is accompanied by the oppositional understanding of what is sacred and what is sexual. While separating one reality from the other, sexist dualism is constructed as a way of justifying the domination of men over women. It associates the spirit, the sacred and the reason with men while women are associated with the secular/sexual, the body and emotion. Church father, Jerome, even questioned if a woman has a soul (believing that she does not), and therefore argued that women are doomed to be subordinated to men as they are unable to play any leading roles in society. Of course, in such biased understanding, female sexuality, is devalued and labeled as inferior, dangerous, and disgusting. Women have internalized this dualistic and discriminatory thinking. Furthermore, we have been conditioned to believe that sexuality and sacredness are irreconcilable opposites. Enough is enough! We cannot afford not to ignore the church’s misogynistic and patriarchal legacy: “the suspicion of the body, a distrust of pleasure and passion, a fear of intimacy.”

Those who influenced Christian thought over the centuries, for instance, St. Augustine in the 4th century, Clement of Alexandria in the 3rd century, and Martin Luther in the 16th century strongly supported sexist dualism. Augustine who once was a pagan, having innumerable unhealthy sexual relationships, was converted to Christianity and then “over-repented” for his previous delinquent life denying altogether human sexuality and the human body any place in the Christian life. He is the one who first suggested the connection between original sin and Eve’s sexuality, claiming that sexual desire, especially uncontrollable sexual desire leads us (especially men) to “hell.” He therefore taught the Christians under his care not to have any sexual intercourse even between husband and wife unless it was for the purpose of producing a baby. Similarly, Clement argued, “If a man marries in order to have children he ought not to have a sexual desire for his wife... He ought to produce children by a reverent, disciplined act of (God’s) will.” Martin Luther of Reformation, while having acknowledged the value of sexuality, regarded women’s body as the tool of procreation, which implies that women’s bodies cannot be appreciated in terms of their sexuality. In these theologians’ understanding, God is anti-sex and anti-women’s body and against sexual activities other than those for the purpose of procreation. Such views have not changed much in the 21st century. The Roman Catholic Church still teaches that the role of sexuality is mainly that of procreation.

3. A Biblical Understanding of Sexuality

We have examined Christian-dualist views on sexuality and found them to be quite negative. Let us then examine the scriptures to see whether we can derive a new biblical understanding of sexuality that can be positive and affirming to sexuality.

The Hebrew word yadah means ‘to know’ which is also used to refer to ‘sexual intercourse.’ Hosea describes God’s yearning for knowing us in an intimate loving relation, “I will betroth you to myself, to have and to hold, and you will know the LORD.” (Hosea 1:9) When Mary, the mother of Jesus, encountered the angel, Gabriel, who foretold her that she would have a baby Jesus, she replied, I do not know a man, which means, she had not had sexual intercourse with a man (Luke 1:34).

In the Hebrew understanding, knowing is not about a cognitive activity, heavily depending on acquiring objective knowledge. Knowing is about a subjective unity, as for example, the unity which occurs through sexual intercourse. Another insight from the Hebrew understanding is that sexuality (understood as a way of knowing) is not limited to physical realities. Rather it involves emotional, mental, spiritual, and social aspects as well. As argued earlier, “sexuality is influenced by class, race, age, social value, cultural tradition, and institution.” Therefore, to know somebody, to have a sexual relationship with somebody, means to know that person’s class, race, age, social value, cultural tradition and various things including his or her character, personality and upbringing. Such knowing, the nature of sexuality, cannot be possible unless you respect that person in mutual relationship. Such understanding challenges the sexist dualism that reinforces the domination of men over women because genuine meaning of sexual relationship as knowing, opposes one group’s control at the expense of the others.

In spite of many negative biblical interpretations of women and female sexuality as for example in the case of Eve and the snake, the etymological understanding of sexuality in the Bible is far from being negative or dualistic. It affirms sexuality as holistic and non-dualistic. It states sexuality to be something mutual and not oppressive. It proclaims sexuality as something holy rather than as something secular, something that involves our whole being and is part of the very relationship we have with God.

4. An Understanding of Homosexuality and Sexual Minorities

In India, scholars have claimed, homosexuality and bisexuality were more prevalent and less stigmatized before the British colonization. Since ancient times, there has been an acknowledgment of homosexual love. In the Kamasutra, the first literary classic on the matter of sex which was written in the 4th century, lesbian intercourse is described in detail, as well as male homosexual intercourse. These were thought of in terms of their being an integral part of human sexual life. The Kumasutra further teaches that “the final aim of sexual pleasure is spiritual... Sexuality is one of the bases of civilization.” As the British scholar, A. A. Macdonell admits, Indian religious traditions have often been more open and profound in their understandings of sexuality (including homosexuality) than the Western Judeo-Christian traditions.

In Malaysia, the pondan, the effeminate gay man, has traditionally been an accepted member of Malay village communities. He was respected for his artistry and was regarded as an important person in such occasions as weddings until fairly recent times.

In Islamic Sufi literature, although the Koran makes negative references toward homosexuality, homosexuality is positively described in terms of the spiritual relationship between God and man. For instance, Abu Nawas and Thousand and One Nights, classical works of Arabic poetry, regard homosexual men and women as respectful people. However tribal these references in the major Islamic and Hindu religious traditions are, they offer a better possibility for re-opening a dialogue with homosexuality than Christian traditions, where there is no single positive reference to it.

“Sexuality (is) encompassing the features of both sex and gender, involves diverse experiences of sexual desire, sexual identity, sexual habit, sexual orientation, and various sexual relationships.”

How did homosexuality become illegal and intolerable in Islam and Hindu traditions? In the case of India, it was when British imperialism rulers declared homosexuality a crime in the Indian Penal Code. The British colonialists who were stricken with Christian homophobia could not tolerate homosexual people in India. The situation of Malaysia is not so different. The Shariah laws and the Penal Code penalize homosexual people. The rationale behind such punishment is that heterosexuality is natural and normal. Christian colonial legacy was one rationale behind oppressing homosexuality. The other rationale behind this heterosexual discrimination is in part patriarchal traditions, reinforcing a woman’s role as giving birth to a son. An American lesbian feminist poet, Adrienne Rich, calls this heteropatriarchy. In this rigidly conditioned role, there is no place for women’s sexuality, let alone homosexuality. Homosexuality is totally against the patriarchal system which can only be sustained through the procreation of the son who would succeed the father, while requiring women to belong to men and serve their needs. Heterosexual marriage is even viewed as a tool in sustaining this system. “Marriage... gave man control over his wife’s body and reproductive processes” in Western society.

Many homosexual activists argue that the heterosexual patriarchal society where women are exposed to all kinds of sexual abuse, subordinated to men, and objectified as commercial commodities is immoral and irresponsible, unhealthy and undesirable. The critical matter is not to accept either heterosexual or homosexual or single or married as right but to commit ourselves to explore our given sexuality with a faithful partner without using it as tool of violence or control.

Sexual minority people are doubly oppressed by society and by their faith community. Paik Eun-Jung, who did research on the stress of Korean gay Christians, demonstrates that these Christians have faith that God listens to their identity struggles and accept the way they are. It is about recognition of their difference and respect of the identity that is also created in the image of God.

Lesbian women in Asia pointed out that homophobia is rampant even within feminist circles or progressive groups, in part because sexuality issues are often hidden from public discussions. Aruna Gnanadason further urges us to focus public attention on the rights of homosexual women and men, especially when their rights are violated with a misconception of homosexuality causing HIV/AIDS, although there is no link between homosexuality and HIV/AIDS.

Alina Rastam and Tan beng hui in Malaysia takes this human rights approach to homosexuality and sexual minority. The issue of homosexuality and sexual minority is not to choose or judge what is right or wrong. It is about fairness and justice to any discrimination against a person’s dignity and identity. Religion can contribute to practicing human rights because the common ground of every religion is compassion, tolerance, and respect of all beings.

5. Socio-Cultural and Legal implications of Sexuality

In many Asian countries, women’s sacrifices for families are seen as virtues or taken for granted as duties. Forces of giving up her dreams, including career, education, marriage, etc. for the sake of the family which usually for a male member of the family have been driven in order to sustain the social structure of patriarchy. Giving up her dream includes not being able to marry as well. In a society that is sustained through patriarchy, unmarried woman (therefore, not to give birth) is a big pressure or is even seen as faulty (she must be something wrong or missing, physically or mentally).

Dayanthi Samaranayake shares her male-dominated society’s views on women in Sri Lanka: “when it comes to educating children in poor families, priority is given to males. Widows and barren women are not allowed to come forward when special occasions take place as they are considered to bring bad luck... They become objects of sexual abuse and easy prey for abusers.”

“It is especially critical to overcome narrow views on sexuality dealing with homosexuality when heterosexuality is regarded as the norm, the desirable form of sexuality. Such a norm leads to compulsory heterosexuality for everyone. It means that we are socially and culturally conditioned and forced to believe that heterosexuality is natural or superior to any other forms of sexuality.”

The situation in India seems worse than Sri Lanka. As a Telegu proverb says, “bringing up a daughter is like manuring and watering a plant for someone else’s courtyard.” This kind of belief justifies such harmful practices as female genital mutilation, early marriages and female feticide or infanticide. The ethos of sacrifices has heavily restricted the way women can explore sexuality including pleasure. It is a socio-cultural and religious implication that sexual pleasure is regarded as sin, undesirable. However, Christian E. Gudorf argues, the real sin is not to please the partner’s sexual desire in mutual sexuality. In this light, Kwok Bun-Yi in Korea explores the meaning of masturbation as a way that women can embark upon a self-exploration of their sexuality. While quoting a Korean lesbian movie, she argues that masturbation can be “the most peaceful, economical, and clean sexual activity.” By peaceful she means free from inequality visa-vi men. By economical she means free from financial implications. By clean she means free from the danger unwanted pregnancy and sexual disease. Given its biased view and misunderstanding, masturbation as a part of female sexuality needs to be discussed further in public.

Women’s sexuality has been economically and socially commercialized and commoditized. P. Bethel Krupa Victor reminds us how the media in India reinforces sexual stereotypes of women as vamps, sex objects, servants of men and passive housewives, and at the same time, lures young men to so-called “sexual talks.” Take any daily newspaper and we can easily notice how women’s bodies are used to sell commercial products in the advertisement (e.g. cellular phones). Women’s bodies that are objectified and commercialized represent a biased concept of beauty as well: a woman with a long hair, big breasts, a big bum, but a thin waist, and tall and slim. Combined with racial features, a Western commercialized beauty of women, a woman with long blonde hair with blue eyes like Marilyn Monroe, becomes the standard. Such stereotyping of beauty is a serious problem because it can be very damaging to women’s self-esteem and self-dignity. This is not just true in Korea or Hong Kong but true throughout the whole world. The cosmetic business and the plastic surgery that derive from such biased beauty ideas prevent women from truly appreciating their different body shapes or facial features. They can also prevent women from exploring their inner beauty and get in the way of developing a holistic sexuality that is not limited to the physical aspect of women’s bodies.

Let us now move on to the legal implications of sexuality. In the case of Sri Lanka, the legal implications of sexuality regarding marriage are clear: women are supposed to belong to men. A woman cannot marry more than one man, while a man can marry up to 4 wives at a time. A woman must be a virgin, while a man may not be. A woman is compelled to give huge sums of wealth to a man as a dowry when they are married, while a man is not, although there in Muslim law there is supposed to be a payment to the woman who enters a marriage as a token of respect. Even this, however, is another example of how women’s sexuality is objectified in society and religion when the amount is calculated in terms of her age, beauty, virtue and social position. It implies that a woman’s value is judged according to how young and good looking she is.

6. Sexuality as Holistic and Holy: Overcoming Dualistic Sexuality

Viewing sexuality as non-dualistic and holistic can be drawn from earth-centred spirituality of eastern religious traditions, which recognize that the body and the spirit are profoundly united and holy. This spirituality is far from understanding the spirit as bodiless, sexless, and mundane. Rather the human spirit is understood as embodied life that is alive, present, and sensuous. The nature of sexuality is “vitality, playfulness, spontaneity, delight, wonder, celebration, procreation, and creativity of all kinds, a profound affirmation of all life.” Woman in Chinese letters is, literarily meaning woman’s sexuality, while man is indicating man’s sexuality. It clearly demonstrates that both identities of woman and man are determined by sexuality. Also, there is no hierarchical domination of men over women in this terminology, while (wo)man in English is derived from the word man that is often used to represent a human being. Another insight from this word, pronounced as sung, according to Lee Eun-Sun, is that in Korean Confucianism is a concept that contains the meaning of human holiness, dignity, and morality configured by the logic of the heaven, the logos of God (theology). In the eastern religious tradition, sexuality () and sacredness (), which is also pronounced as sung are inter-dependent, far from dualistic. Such appreciation and exploration of our Asian wisdom needs to be vigorously discussed. Debrah Haffner, director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, claims, “Sex is a means of grace, a connection to all life. Sin isn’t sexual activity. It is sexual exploitation. It’s sexual decisions that hurt us and others.” If sexuality most fundamentally lies at the heart of who we are, in short, if it speaks to our bodies, hearts and minds in the most primary and powerful way, then, it cannot lie but only tells the truth, therefore, it is holy. In terms of sexuality speaking the truth, it should set us free (John 8:32), free from the bondage of sexist dualism, from the demonization of women’s body as a way of dominating it from the denial of our sexual identity whether it is heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual, or transsexual.

Lest sexuality be used as a tool or weapon to oppress, it needs to consist of respect, trust, equality, and mutuality. These are no less than the values that we as Christian need to carry on as our sexuality because they are holy things. If we faithfully keep these values, then, we would truly appreciate what St. Paul meant: our bodies are holy temples of the Spirit. (I Cor. 12:12).

Therefore, tasks ahead of us are to explore such positive sources of sexuality and to encourage us to be passionate resource people who can assert, affirm, and celebrate our sexuality and sexual minorities’ sexuality. Such tasks also include resistance to commercialization and commodification of our bodies and sexuality, and to political and legal oppression against women’s dignity and sexuality. It is clear that women are the Subject of their bodies and their sexualities. Nobody can own or oppress our body or no laws can dictate what our sexuality is.

About the Author: HyeRan Kim-Cragg is a senior member of the Korean Student Christian Federation (KSCF). She holds a Th. D. from University of Toronto and is currently working as an ecumenical co-worker from the United Church of Canada at HanShin University as a guest professor. She is an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church in the Republic of Korea (PROK) and is passionate about educating feminist & postcolonial studies and promoting women’s leadership in the church and society.