Roadmap for Summer 2021 Research: Exploring the History of Sexual Science in Contemporary India

I am Arnav Bhattacharya, a Ph.D. candidate and rising 5th year student in the Department of History and Sociology of Science. I had been a part of the CASI summer research program last year and learnt a lot through the interactions and presentations of fellow participants. I look forward to another round of interesting and generative discussions this year.

 My dissertation, tentatively entitled Making Sex Scientific: A History of Sexual Science in India, aims to provide a comprehensive historical account of the production, dissemination, and consolidation of the scientific knowledge of sexuality in colonial and post-colonial India. In my thesis, I argue that unlike the West, the history of sexual science in India cannot be understood as a niche discipline confined solely to the clinical chamber of the sexologist. Sexual science in India was a diverse and methodologically heterogeneous field which brought together physicians, alternative healers, academics, police officers, socio-religious reformers, political leaders, colonial officers, and ordinary Indians themselves. I argue that this methodological heterogeneity enabled the popularization and mainstreaming of sexology and sexuality in Indian society.

I had initially decided to conclude my dissertation by the mid-20th century, but my research on the role of the Kinsey Institute in the history of sexology in India, conducted as a part of the CASI Summer Research Program last year convinced me about the need to extend the time period of my project into the late 20th century. Moreover, the feedback I received during some of the CASI meetings last summer also made me think about the intersections between sexology and the queer rights movement in India. Building upon the research conducted last year, during this summer I will be further expanding my research on the history of sexual science in contemporary India. By the end of the summer, I hope to have produced a significant portion of the written material for my chapter on sexual science in contemporary India.

The Sex and Sexuality digital archive that contains numerous collections on sexuality from the Kinsey Institute as well other archives and libraries across the world. (https://www-sexandsexuality-amdigital-co-uk.proxy.library.upenn.edu/) Available through the Penn Library.

My research focus will be on two broad areas. First, I will investigate the institutionalization of sexology in India in the period between 1947 to the early 2000s. What distinguished sexology in post-independence India was the institutionalization of the field as organizations such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) established their own affiliates in countries round the world. In India the IPPF founded the Family Planning Association of India (FPAI) in 1949 and over the 1970s and 80s it eventually grew into an umbrella organization involved in sexual counselling and sex education. Sexologists like Mahinder Watsa, who passed away recently in December 2020 at the age of 96 and had become a celebrity in recent years due to his witty sex column in the newspaper, Mumbai Mirror began his sexological career as a part of the FPAI. My research into the archives of the Kinsey Institute last summer made me aware of the involvement of Watsa and the FPAI in organizing several international sexology conferences in India between the 70s and the 90s which also led me to further investigate their roles in the institutionalization of sexology in India.

Watch Ask the Sexpert | Prime Video
Mahinder Watsa, perhaps the most celebrated sexologist in contemporary India is the subject of a 2017 documentary on Netflix called Ask the Sexpert.

Second, I will focus on some of the earliest civil society queer organizations in contemporary India such as the AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan (ABVA) (AIDS Anti-Discrimination Movement) founded in 1988 which produced the first academic report on homosexuality in the country, called Less than Gay. I am particularly interested in exploring the role that such organizations played in producing knowledge on sexuality and influencing attitudes of both experts such as psychiatrists and physicians as well as everyday individuals.

Less than Gay, the first academic report on homosexuality in India published by the ABVA in 1991.

 My methodological approach in studying the institutionalization of sexual science both with respect to queer rights as well as organizations such as the FPAI will involve a study of not just the organizations themselves but also their role in society and their impact on individuals.

In addition to the Sex and Sexuality digital archive, I will be relying on the digital archives of the FPAI, ABVA, IPPF as well as those of the National Archives of India, the British Library and the Wellcome Library.

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About Arnav Bhattacharya

I am a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History and Sociology of Science. My dissertation tentatively titled, "Making Sex Scientific: A History of Sexology in Modern India(1880-1960)" explores the history of sexual science in India, particularly exploring the ways in which sexual science interacted with medicine, public health, and hygiene and, sex education to formulate the sexual identities and experiences of modern Indians. More generally I am broadly interested in the history of South Asia, colonialism, nationalism, medicine, gender, and the global history of sexual science.