The “Ellis Effect”: Translating Sexual Science in Republican China, 1911–49

Sunday, January 4, 2015: 2:50 PM
Murray Hill Suite B (New York Hilton)
Douglas E. Haynes, Dartmouth College
During the early twentieth century, a wide range of elite intellectuals in China, Japan, and India began to draw upon sexological concepts from Europe and attempted to popularize these ideas broadly within their societies.  This paper, co-authored with Shrikant Botre, examines the sexual philosophy of one such figure, R.D. Karve, a major sexologist and advocate of birth control in Maharashtra. It poses the question: Why did Karve appropriate western sexual science in such a radical fashion, rejecting almost all Indian antecedents for his views? Karve’s philosophy appears at first to have been purely a derivative phenomenon, bearing little sign of the hybrid qualities that marked sexual science in other contexts examined in this panel. Our paper sets forth two arguments. First, Karve’s philosophy was an intervention in an Indian politics of the body centering on the principle of brahmacharya (celibacy or sexual abstinence).  A wide range of Indian nationalists, including Mahatma Gandhi, were arguing at the time that brahmacharya was key to the rebuilding of the Indian male body and hence to the rejuvenation of the nation; Karve sought to undermine this notion by invoking the authority of the iconic figures of western sexual science. Second, Karve’s attack on the principle of celibacy constituted an Indian claim to “coevalness” with the West. He insisted that India was involved in the same battle against irrational religious authority that he saw as engaging Europe at the time; the ideas of sexual science were critical weapons in that struggle. In other words, Karve sought to reject both colonial and nationalist notions of difference.  Thus, while his ideas may have appeared to reproduce ideas of western sexual science, he in fact drew upon these ideas in a selective fashion in order to accomplish purposes that had a specific relevance in an Indian, colonial context.