Film actress Khushboo - the heartthrob of Tamil cinema in the 1990s - had commented in the media that pre-marital sex is okay "provided safety measures are followed to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases". She went on to say that "no educated man would expect his wife to be a virgin".
These remarks unleashed a veritable storm, with the Dalit Panthers of India (DPI) and the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) orchestrating a campaign against her, which comprised filing false cases in courts throughout Tamil Nadu, organizing protests and throwing footwear and eggs when Khushboo appeared before the Magistrate. The key objection expressed by Thol Thirumavalavan of DPI was: "Khushboo made the remarks on pre-marital sex to justify her own life's experience. She had no right to talk of the chastity of Tamil women." He went on to note, "It is not correct to advocate free sex. Marriages are based purely on trust. Both partners have to be faithful to each other if the marriage is to work...It is important to protect the institution of marriage."
Those who support Khushboo have tried to respond by bringing in the legitimate issue of freedom of speech and expression. They argued that even if we don't agree with her, we will defend her right to speak and any disagreement with her must be expressed only in conformity with democratic norms. As one sympathetic commentator - even while defending her right to free speech - said, "Perhaps she went a little far...and many of us may not agree with her."
There is a certain reticence here about grasping the nettle of pre-marital sex. It seems easier to talk about freedom of speech than to even engage with the substance of what Khushoo had to say. This reticence is troubling because it invisbilises the politics of sex and puts the subversive potential of Khushboo's remarks with the liberal framework of freedom of speech. The deeper question we should be asking is: What is so subversive about Khusboo's statements? In more specific terms, what is the challenge that pre-marital sex poses to the dominant institutions of marriage, caste and patriarchy?
If we go back historically, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar in 'The Annihilation of Caste' very presciently noted how central the institution of arranged marriage is to the perpetuation of the caste system. In fact, Ambedkar reposed the greatest faith in inter-caste (love) marriage as a way of subverting the caste system. As he noted, "Fusion of blood alone can create the feeling of being kith and kin, and unless this feeling of kinship, of being kindred, becomes paramount, the separatist feeling - the feeling of being aliens - created by caste will not vanish."
It is clear that this 'fusion of blood' will not happen if we leave it to our elders and betters. The only possibility of this 'fusion' is when the young take matters in their own hand by defying the parental dictate and look for love as conscious and free agents. It is this act of successful rebellion against the institution of caste that we derogatorily call 'pre-marital sex'.
Pre-marital sex is not bound by the markers of caste and community and, more often than not, sexual relationships based on mutual desire throw into question the possibility of the caste purity of the lineage. The subversive potential of pre-marital sex lies precisely in that it muddies the boundaries of caste and creates new forms of love and affection and new lines of alliance, which can profoundly shake the totalitarian nature of the caste system. A defence of pre-marital sex is necessarily an indictment of the politics of purity; it is a discomfort with (sexual) orthodoxy and a belief in the revolutionary possibilities of love.
Another great historical figure Frederick Engels similarly saw the horizons that pre-martial sex opened up. In 'Origins of Family, Private Property and State', he underlined the patriarchal assumptions underlying arranged marriage and the way in which what he called 'sex love' could provide a more egalitarian basis to a relationship. In his view, the revolutionary possibility of sex love lay in the fact that it "it presupposes reciprocal love on the part of the loved one; in this respect, the woman stands on a par with the man." Further, the question of sex love gives rise to a "new moral standard...for judging sexual intercourse. The question asked was not whether such intercourse was legitimate or illicit, but whether it arose from mutual love or not."
To take the cue from Engels, what pre-marital sex or sex love does is to alter the questions we ask about sex. What is also implicit in Engel's argument is that sons and daughters are not instruments of propagating a family line, but individuals with an assortment of feelings, desires, politics and preferences. What is called for is a shedding of the framework of morality and a re-look at the question from within the framework which views individuals as people first, and not just as vectors of societal values.
We need to reclaim the phrase 'pre-marital sex' from its derogatory, apolitical context and place it firmly within an understanding of the politics of caste and gender. Sexuality has always been a site where the conflicts with respect to control of women's bodies, preserving the purity of caste lines and ensuring the continuity of lineages have been played out. Sometimes these battles afford us rare opportunities to question and critique the dominant institutions of caste and patriarchy, and it up to us to recognize the political implications of sex and stand on the side of progressive forces.