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Discussing Chastity

August 11, 2009

Last Saturday, I visited Madurai to interview a sex worker and speak with scholars about messages, expectations and beliefs that shape the childhood and identity of girls and women in Tamil Nadu. I particularly wanted to better understand the dimensions and role of the concept of chastity, specifically among Hindu Tamils. Chastity, meaning sexual propriety, fidelity and discipline, is a very important issue for people here because girls and women are believed to have great power (shakti) which, if not rigidly restricted and controlled, can be highly destructive. It is believed that promiscuity among women will anger the Goddess Mariyamma, causing epidemics and drought.

However, little mention is made of men who are not chaste. In fact, some Tamil men keep more than one wife, and this appears to be generally accepted by society.

I travelled from Pondicherry in a bus that reached Madurai before dawn. I dropped my bags in my usual penthouse (room #405, @ $5/night) at New Ruby lodge, and made a quick trip around the Meenakshi temple while the sun rose. The largest of all the temples in Madurai, the ancient Meenakshi temple is a major attraction for tourists and pilgrims.

New Ruby Lodge, Madurai

New Ruby Lodge, Madurai

The Penthouse

The Penthouse

South Tower, Meenakshi Temple, Madurai

South Tower, Meenakshi Temple, Madurai

South Tower detail, Meenakshi Temple, Madurai

South Tower detail, Meenakshi Temple, Madurai

My friends at CM Centre, Sekar and Vidya, arranged a very interesting day for me. I spent the morning speaking with them about ways that the importance of chastity is communicated to girls. Chastity is taught and enforced by teaching girls to keep away from boys as they grow up. From a young age, girls are discouraged from laughing, looking at or touching boys, and going outside of their home. Chastity is a theme in reading assignments at school, as well as part of discipline at home.

Tamil proverbs are one way that lines are drawn between proper and improper behavior.

The following proverbs illustrate messages that girls are given:

“If there is no man to rule a woman, then she becomes a concubine for many.”

“Loose hair, loose woman.”

“If a girl laughs, she’ll be ruined. If tobacco is left out, it will be ruined.”

However, I have a sense that some proverbs are interpreted in counter-intuitive, or paradoxical ways, making them somewhat similar to Zen koans, reflecting the contradictory content of ancient Tamil texts that honored and celebrated love, passion and female sexuality.

In the afternoon, I visited Mercy Trust, an NGO that works for the rights and welfare of sex workers in Madurai. There I interviewed Vimala (not her real name). Vimala is an orphan who often has been homeless since the age of 7 or 8. She doesn’t know how old she really is, but she estimates that she’s approximately 45. When she was 8, she was adopted informally by a couple who ran a brothel in Kodambakkam, Chennai. Vimala saw that the girls in the brothel were very unhappy, so she escaped when she was 12. She travelled to Madurai and lived on the street. In Madurai, a woman occasionally helped her, but Vimala discovered that this woman ran a brothel. Vimala ended up working for this woman, but not before becoming pregnant by a boyfriend who ran off after he learned that Vimala had conceived.

Vimala’s story shared many common elements with stories I’ve collected from other sex workers. In short, her life has been a train wreck. She never went to school. She was at one point forcibly sold to a brothel (in Kambam). She lives with an extremely abusive man who is married to another woman, and who tortures Vimala physically and psychologically.  She often doesn’t go home at night, preferring to sleep in the bus station.

At the end of our interview, I asked Vimala if chastity makes a difference in a woman’s life.

“It’s not like that,” she said. “If one has enough food, clothing, and shelter, then one can be happy and think about chastity. But if one is poor and homeless, then one’s mind is filled with worries about how to afford the essential things for survival. A poor person cannot afford to think about chastity.”

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Rohini permalink
    August 28, 2009 3:10 am

    Funny, I was going to write about repressed sexuality too! Especially in middleclass and lower middle class families, where chastity is affordable…

    • Brooks Anderson permalink*
      August 28, 2009 3:51 am

      Hi Rohini,

      I expect that many people will be very interested to read your thoughts on the subject. Please post about it, and please explain what you mean by the affordability of chastity.


      • Rohini permalink
        August 29, 2009 3:54 am

        it’s not affordable to people like Vimala. only people who live in a close community could afford to have pseudo values.

      • Brooks Anderson permalink*
        August 29, 2009 4:10 am

        So I think you’re saying that chastity has a price or at least an opportunity cost, and Vimala can’t afford the cost (or income she’ll forgo) of not selling her body.

        But what do you mean by pseudo values?

  2. Rohini permalink
    August 29, 2009 4:21 am

    chastity as the society defines it…

  3. Arun permalink
    September 3, 2009 11:11 am

    Hi Brooks,
    In India every one is confused and talking about the ” psuedo” this and that … The Hindu right talks about “psuedo secularism” when they say that minorities are pampered in India and Secularism applies only to the Hindu majority…..

    I think “psuedo sexuality” is so prevalent in India. Everyone is so coy when talking about sexuality in the open while forgetting that Indian history has been one of the most open and sexually liberated societies before the so called” Victorian values” were bought in to India by the Brits….
    India prostitution has been due to caste/extreme poverty/situations and rarely by personal choice… This is very different from the western world where it is personal choice triggered usually by social/personal problems like drug abuse/teen pregnancy…

    • Brooks Anderson permalink*
      September 5, 2009 3:53 am

      Hi Arun,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I think we run into trouble when we talk about commercial sex workers as a monolithic group, such as your comment that the situation of India’s prostitutes “is very different from the western world where (prostitution) is personal choice triggered usually by social/personal problems like drug abuse/teen pregnancy…”

      Actually, I think your comment shows that some women in both the West and India do sex work because of social and personal problems. Of course, women like Ashley Dupre, the call girl hired by former N.Y. Gov. Eliot Spitzer, probably entered sex work out of choice, but many in the USA are trafficked and in debt bondage. Actually, Ashley has started a blog in which she talks about her life. Several strippers and sex workers in the West are using the internet to tell their stories. I hope sex workers in South Asia will be inspired to do the same.

      In his book, Fallen Angels; the Sex Workers of South Asia (Roli Books, 2000), John Frederick writes that many people in South Asia “enter sex work of their own unfree will.”

      I find this term, unfree will, very helpful for understanding how women are forced to choose sex work by their circumstances. Since 2003, I’ve interviewed approximately 35 sex workers in Mamallapuram, Chennai, Villupuram and Madurai, in an effort to understand the reasons that women enter sex work. Often their predicaments were the outcome of a perfect storm of poverty, failed marriages, domestic violence, deadbeat fathers, debt, little education, a corrupt law enforcement system, and an economy that values women’s bodies more highly than their lives.

      I suppose that India’s traditional sexual values and mores were influenced over time by the culture of Islamic invaders, as well as by the British.


      • Arun permalink
        October 3, 2009 11:15 am

        Hi Brooks,
        Jus a question.. Of the women you had interviewed how many had entered this profession on their own free will??
        I am sure its a minority…
        Most of them would have been forced into this profession( if u call it one)
        Will try to read more on the factors in the US for women taking up this profession….i read this article which was very interesting (
        Drug addiction seems to be a big reason in US…

  4. Rohini permalink
    September 3, 2009 2:58 pm

    do you mean to say that its a personal choice and not a result of harsh poverty in other (western) societies? pimps are universal and so is sexual abuse. like you said people in India are not comfortable talking about it. there are no rehabs for the abused or social groups where they don’t feel left out.

  5. Brooks permalink*
    October 3, 2009 12:38 pm

    Hi Arun,

    Well, it depends how one defines free will.

    Of the nearly 40 women I interviewed, less than five reported having been physically forced into the profession. I mean fewer than five reported having been physically abducted and transported to a brothel and confined there against their will. I think only 2 women reported such a story.

    The overwhelming majority of women became commercial sex workers after their husband ran off with another woman. Such abandoned wives seem to see little opportunity for remarriage in the near future, and are in many cases left with children to provide for and rent to pay. In some cases, the women left extremely abusive husbands, and went for commercial sex work to feed themselves and their kids.

    Several women whose marriages failed lived for some years in a somewhat grey situation, having sex with a man who provided for the women’s needs (and her children’s needs) — not exactly prostitution in my opinion, meaning the women weren’t paid per sexual act. Such women were sort of kept as second wives — a chinna veedu sort of situation. But after the patronage stopped, the women took up commercial sex work.

    Generally, most of the woman I interviewed entered sex work after a failed marriage because they suddenly found themselves with bills to pay, and not enough money Some reported that they had deadbeat husbands who drank tremendous amounts, or gambled and ran up debt, and never paid for household expenses. Generally, men recognized that the women are in very vulnerable situations, and offered the women money for sex. Or, in other cases, female brokers identify such vulnerable women and recruit them.

    The women I interviewed tended to enter prostitution out of dire financial situations. I know people who would say that entering prostitution for money does not qualify as free will, which is why I previously mentioned John Frederick’s term, “unfree will”.

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