Durba Mitra. Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020. 302 pp., 15 b/w illus., notes, bibl., index.

Durba Mitra’s rich and compelling first book, Indian Sex Life, addresses how colonial and nationalist officials, scientists, and social scientists developed theories about Indian civilization, history, and progress through deployments of what Mitra terms “deviant female sexuality.” Mitra unpacks the ubiquity of this multi-layered and flexible concept across a variety of archives and disciplines, and further maps the circulation of social scientific thought in policy, law, and popular culture as a tool of entrenching colonial and native patriarchal authority. Focused primarily on upper-caste Bengali intellectuals and their global networks in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the book argues that the trafficking of the “prostitute” in the transnational networks of colonial India was, above all else, a proliferating economy of discourses (p. 14). In doing so, Mitra unseats historical projects which seek to recuperate subaltern sexualities, instead emphasizing that the methods and categories used in such projects derive from an epistemological schema of racist and casteist expertise. 

Indian Sex Life advances feminist critiques of colonial and nationalist constitution and the sequestering of the “social” sphere in late-nineteenth and twentieth century colonial India. The book is divided into five chapters, an introduction, and an afterword. In each chapter, Mitra traces the use of “deviant female sexuality” in colonial social scientific archives, as well as in works by upper caste colonized intellectuals who reshaped the concept in their own fashion. Chapter one, “Origins,” demonstrates how Indologists in Germany, the US, and British India conducted comparative and long durée readings of ancient Hindu texts such as the Kama Sutra to make claims about unchanging “Hindu nature” and India’s place in global civilizational progress, and to justify the conjugal control of female sexuality as a key feature of Indian modernity (p. 29). In making transparent the production of India as an episteme and as an example for the study of the “prostitute” by a global network of social scientists, Mitra brings to light the problematics of studying “sexuality in India” today, since the fusion of “India” with “sexuality” in civilizational and colonial histories long justified certain forms of racialized and patriarchal power. 

In chapter two, “Repetition,” Mitra traverses disparate legal spaces such as colonial surveys, the Contagious Diseases Act,[1]This act is often seen as a key site for telling a history of prostitutes or sex-workers as a bounded entity. Mitra instead shows how flexible the label of prostitute was in this legal regime, and how many women who were not ostensibly involved in the sexual economy for payment were still controlled through this ruling. the regulation of infanticide, and what she terms as the “B” files of these legal projects to argue that colonial ethnographies presupposed prostitution in constructed taxonomies of “fallen womanhood,” ranging from “Hindoo widows,” “runaway” brides, and polygamous lower-caste women to those who “inherited” prostitution from their prostitute mothers (p. 63). These ethnographies, she shows, then focused on collecting information in line with these assumptions in order to codify colonial, patriarchal, and religious authority. Chapter three, “Circularity,” elucidates the “circular form of reasoning” employed by doctors, policemen, coroners, administrators, and social commentators to read general social claims about sexuality onto the bodies of women who had undergone and, in certain cases, died from abortions (p. 101). Chapter four, “Evolution,” further describes the traffic of deviant female sexuality between the “sciences” and “social sciences” by focusing on studies of sexual evolution. Mitra shows how Euro-American ethnologies and civilizational theories about “progress,” by figures like Henry Maine and Max Mueller, were taken up by Bengali intellectuals and morphed into evolutionary theories about Indian social hierarchies, where women’s lasciviousness became a way to categorize and describe the evolution of race, gender, and caste in India. Finally, chapter five, “Veracity,” examines popular literature, particularly lay sociology, memoirs, and “autobiographies” of sex-workers penned by men, masterfully unpacking how authors deployed social scientific taxonomies to surveil women and to prove the purificatory nature of monogamous Hindu marriage. 

Mitra shows how colonial and native patriarchs relied on the “sign of science” to reify and separate their notions of the “social” from legal and political spheres, thus imbricating the disciplines of the “social sciences” in the desire to organize, control, codify, and narrate “society.”  Throughout the book, Mitra further explores how deviant womanhood became a way to constitute the Muslim and lower caste “Other,” both through accusations of deviance and through judgments on the inability of the men of these communities to control “deviant sexuality.” Thus, nuancing Anjali Arondekar’s argument that deviant sexuality was ubiquitous to the colonial project, Mitra demonstrates the ways in which deviant female sexuality, in particular, informed both colonial and nationalist constructions of the past, present, and future of India.[2]See Anjali Arondekar’s For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India, Duke University Press, 2009.

Through these appraisals of the Indian “social” and “sexual,” Mitra brings to light some key methodological issues with contemporary social sciences such as anthropology and sociology, which rely on universal categories to narrate and typify social experiences. The power of this book lies in how it shows categories, such as “prostitute,” to be non-neutral and non-universal by laying bare the power-laden historical discourses that constitute these concepts over time. Pushing back against studies which aim to narrativize the life and experiences of “deviant women,” Mitra instead emphasizes the often-contradictory reifications of the concept, showing how deviance is produced and reproduced as both an ontological given and an epistemological category. In doing so, she demonstrates disciplinary reliance on, and complicity in, totalizing knowledge, while also provincializing intellectual histories of these disciplines in a feminist vein: illustrating how concepts were shaped and produced by transnational networks of men in service of their own political goals and desire for mastery. 

One of the most striking aspects of the book is its commitment to following the pathways that take intellectual and conceptual history outside of the academy. In highlighting the social worlds of the social sciences in colonial India, Mitra puts on display the porosity amongst the realms of “science,” “society,” “law,” and “media,” highlighting the constant circular traffic between them. Indian Sex Life’s fifth chapter elegantly details how moral panic about deviant womanhood was channeled into popular literature through surveys and supposed “life-writings” published in periodicals like Calcutta’s Amrita Bazar Patrika and chapbooks sold at urban booksellers at the time. In following paper trails from the social scientific spheres of law and academia to that of “public” and widely consumed news, gossip, and memoir, this chapter puts on display the actual process through which patriarchy and gender norms are normalized in their historical moment. Moreover, in unpacking the role of pity, inevitability, and regret in the wide proliferation of “deviant” womanhood, Mitra engages the emotional value of social phenomena, bringing to light the ways in which caste, communalism, and patriarchy begin to take on strong personal and affective stakes. Mitra’s archives, and the consumers of these “popular” texts, are limited, of course, by the caste, location, and language-based political economy of chapbooks and similar writings at the time and the similarly hierarchical history of literacy in colonial India. Nevertheless, she hints at new ways of creatively reading and researching the lives and afterlives of social-scientific and intellectual concepts and the many roles they wittingly or unwittingly take on.

Mitra breaks new ground for histories of sexuality, intellectual histories, and histories of the social sciences through this expansive and archivally rigorous work. First, by examining intellectuals in the US, UK, and India in the same frame, she opens space for a conversation not only about India and Indian sexuality as it travels in the imperial world, but also for a multi-directional study of changing sexual norms in transnational contexts. Second, Mitra subverts traditional forms of intellectual history to tell this story, and future projects that trace the gendered intellectual legacies of colonialism will benefit from building on this book’s unique method. For instance, investigating biographies and tracing the citational, political, and interpersonal economies of scholars and texts in transnational networks could offer richer detail into the porosity between disciplines as well as the social and academic practices that emerge from the traffic of social scientific concepts. Digital humanities projects that visually map the material and social connections between different actors could lay out the shared genealogies between disciplines like indology, anthropology, sociology, and history to be able to sort and access archives. In other words, combining scholarly family-trees with transnational discourse analysis has the power to lay bare the repetitions, ideologies, and methods that become normative and therefore invisible in social scientific disciplines and pedagogy. 

Last, Mitra’s foray into popular literature provokes interesting questions about the alternative genealogies and histories of “deviant female sexuality.” While Mitra’s dismissal of “recuperative” projects that aim to “understand subaltern sexualities” is poignant (pp. 20, 178), might there be space to consider performative compliance with or the complex inheritances of these concepts that go beyond the annals of patriarchal upper-caste knowledge production? Where might one look for lateral, reformist, or progressive interpretations of religious and ancient texts, and what might emerge from engagement with these kinds of projects? If this story were extended into the post-colonial era, would it reveal different narratives within media and ethnographic sources? These and other possibilities that emerge from the path set by Indian Sex Life will only serve to nuance and enrich future histories and genealogies of the social sciences in South Asia and beyond.


1 This act is often seen as a key site for telling a history of prostitutes or sex-workers as a bounded entity. Mitra instead shows how flexible the label of prostitute was in this legal regime, and how many women who were not ostensibly involved in the sexual economy for payment were still controlled through this ruling.
2 See Anjali Arondekar’s For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India, Duke University Press, 2009.
Jiya Pandya: contributions / jpandya@princeton.edu / Department of History, Princeton University