In clicking through the archives of Cosmopolitan magazine's version of Kama Sutra, it occurred to me that mainstream media has effectively made the Kama Sutra a widely-accepted household name. We refer to the book nonchalantly, interpreting it as a comprehensive directory to pleasure and sexual exploration. Issue after issue of Cosmo (and other magazines like it) attributes complex variations of sex positions to this ancient book of forward-looking, sex-positive attitudes. Consequently, we see the Kama Sutra as an empowering tool for women to use when pursuing pleasure.
But have you really looked at the actual text of the Kama Sutra? I certainly hadn’t! Luckily, the translation is available online at http://www.sss-now.org/sacred_sex/archive/kama_sutra.htm.
Most people understand the Kama Sutra as a book meant to educate and enhance/expand a person’s sex life. Its philosophy combines sexuality and spirituality, associating intimacy with the quest for holistic fulfillment of mind, body and soul. However, reading through the translation I was surprised to find that not only does the Kama Sutra lack Cosmo-esque diagrams of people engaging in gravity-defying sex positions, but it also lacks the tone of women’s empowerment or even basic gender equality that I assumed was part of Kama Sutra's practices. What I imagined to be a progressive compilation of ideas towards sex, sensation and pleasure for men and women alike, is instead just another boy’s handbook on the best ways to use, gain control of and manipulate women.
This becomes apparent when glancing at the index. The chapters in the Introduction describe different arts and sciences a man should study in order to attain a well-rounded lifestyle. Scholars debate whether “females, not being allowed to study any science, should not study the Kama Sutra” finally coming to the conclusion that pleasure is not just a science, but an art (like singing, dancing, painting and the 61 other skills that all women should know). Therefore, to be a well-rounded, accommodating wife, women can study Kama Sutra. In other words; learn - but only for your husband's sake.
The second section of the book is on Sexual Union. The text truly does describe a variety of positions and methods for having sex. However, the less-than-progressive tone of these encounters can be summarized in the assertion that “men are the actors, and women are the persons acted upon”. The chapters are titled things like “On the Various Ways of Striking, and of The Sounds Appropriate to Them”, and “About Females Acting the Part of Males”. This last chapter is not about women employing the use of a strap-on or taking back power in the interaction, but simply about continuing to provide pleasure for a man while sitting on top – in “his” place. “When a woman sees that her lover is fatigued by constant congress, without having his desire satisfied, she should, with his permission, lay him down upon his back, and give him assistance by acting his part.” In other words; give pleasure, do not take.
The next three sections are titled “About the Acquisition of a Wife”, “About A Wife” and “About The Wives of Other People”. In these parts, the book describes courtship and the way a woman behaves in response to male attention, proposals or sexual advances. The descriptions range from old-fashioned but expected gender normative idiocy (permission for marriage from the father, “worth” of a woman) to offensive degradation. For example, if a woman falls asleep near him, it is the prerogative of a man to “put his left arm round her, and see when she awakes whether she repulses him in reality”. In other words; a horrific entry in the "Men's Shameless Confessions" section of Cosmo.
Overall, this book is not so empowering after all. But should we give kudos to Cosmo for putting a woman-friendly spin on the Kama Sutra? I didn’t even get started on its wholly hetero-normative assertions, an exclusionary phenomenon that Cosmo does maintain. Peek through the text yourself and see what you think! Is this “Sex Bible” a religion to which you truly want to continue subscribing? Share your opinion below!