Speaker Series: Durba Mitra book talk
Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought
Location: Democracy Center, Mandela Room
Open to the public and does not require RSVP or prior readings
Zoom conference: https://zoom.us/j/123059785
Facebook event: https://www.facebook.com/events/457463611798206/
During the colonial period in India, European scholars, British officials, and elite Indian intellectuals—philologists, administrators, doctors, ethnologists, sociologists, and social critics—deployed ideas about sexuality to understand modern Indian society. In Indian Sex Life, Durba Mitra shows how deviant female sexuality, particularly the concept of the prostitute, became foundational to this knowledge project and became the primary way to think and write about Indian society.
Bringing together vast archival materials from diverse disciplines, Mitra reveals that deviant female sexuality was critical to debates about social progress and exclusion, caste domination, marriage, widowhood and inheritance, women’s performance, the trafficking of girls, abortion and infanticide, industrial and domestic labor, indentured servitude, and ideologies about the dangers of Muslim sexuality. British authorities and Indian intellectuals used the concept of the prostitute to argue for the dramatic reorganization of modern Indian society around Hindu monogamy. Mitra demonstrates how the intellectual history of modern social thought is based in a dangerous civilizational logic built on the control and erasure of women’s sexuality. This logic continues to hold sway in present-day South Asia and the postcolonial world.
Reframing the prostitute as a concept, Indian Sex Life overturns long-established notions of how to write the history of modern social thought in colonial India, and opens up new approaches for the global history of sexuality.
Durba Mitra is Assistant Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality and Carol K. Pforzheimer Assistant Professor at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University. Mitra works at the intersection of feminist and queer studies. Her research and teaching focus on the history of sexuality, the history of science and epistemology, and gender and feminist thought in South Asia and the colonial and postcolonial world. Mitra is a faculty associate of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and is on the Asia Center Council at Harvard.
Mitra’s book, Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought (Princeton University Press, 2020), demonstrates how ideas of deviant female sexuality became foundational to modern social thought. She is a recipient of the 2019 Roslyn Abramson Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching at Harvard, which recognizes teachers for “excellence and sensitivity in teaching undergraduates.” Mitra is a founding member of xpMethod: Group for Experimental Methods in Humanistic Research, where she is the moderator for the GenderSex Collective. She co-organizes the “Architectures of Knowledge”workshops, which has led to collaborative research projects on digital archives in Mumbai, India, Lahore, Pakistan, and among diverse communities in the US.