Religion/Sexuality: Politics/Affect



Recent public outrage over painter M.F. Hussein’s naked depictions of Hindu goddesses, the pedophilia found in the American Catholic Church, and the longstanding consternation surrounding gods copulating with animals and humans, suggest the explosive politics and affect that arise when sexuality unexpectedly erupts within the religious.  In the interest of discussing how religion and sexuality stand beside each other in ways that generate unexpected political and affective fields, a two-day conference will be held at Johns Hopkins University (Supported by the Department of Anthropology, Program for the Study of Women Gender and Sexuality, the Humanities Center, and the Evolution, Culture, and Cognition Project) on September 19th and 20th, 2009.  We hope to explore the intimacy between religion and sex within the weave of everyday life by questioning how sex and eroticism stand beside each other as potentialities in relation to anything religious, as opposed to asking how institutional religions regulate and administer sex.  It is our hope that bringing religion and sexuality into fresh and productive juxtapositions will shift the terms and terrains on which the relationship between each is often debated, and illuminate aspects of each that are often obscured.


Taking our lead from both recent controversies and those that endure and remain volatile within traditions - periodically erupting into public consciousness and politics - the conference will be organized around the following themes.  We hope you are available to attend.


1)    Dangerous speech.  Papers presented under this rubric might attend to questions of blasphemous forms of speech and its relation to the sexualities of religious personages.

2)    Sacred bodies.  Here we will consider the meditations on the bodies of prophets and saints and the sexualities of gods.

3)    Pictorial representations.  In what ways do “pictures” of, and “picturing”, the religious lend themselves to blurring the distinction between consecration and desecration, iconography and pornography?


Internal Participants:


Veena Das

Bhrigupati Singh

Naveeda Khan


Invited Participants:


Francois Sebbah, (International College of Philosophy, Compiegne, France)

Deepak Mehta, (Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, India)

Eric Fassin (Sociology, Ecole Normal, Paris)

Sumathi Ramasamy (History, Duke University)

Ludger Viefhues (Religious Studies, Yale University)

Michael Moon (Institute of Liberal Arts, Emory University)




Veena Das: (JHU, Anthropology)


Paper Title: Religion, Sexuality and Sovereignty: The Case of Divine Marriage



In this paper, I want to compare two specific scenes of divine marriage – that of Shiva†and that of Rama.† For†both, marriage signifies incorporation†of the feminine
in its creative and destructive aspect as expressions of sovereignty and its limitations. The argument I am trying to develop takes on the mythic register as that in which philosophical arguments are made but also that which seeps into everyday life and gives meaning to concepts such as that of sovereignty in the making of the self.


Eric Fassin : (DÈpartement de sciences sociales, …cole normale supÈrieure (Paris)

Institut de recherches interdisciplinaires sur les enjeux sociaux (CNRS / EHESS).


Paper Title: Celibate Priests, Abstinent Homosexuals.  What the Exclusion of Gay (and Gay-Friendly) Men from Priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church Does to Chastity.



In 2005, for the first time in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, the Vatican explicitly excluded gay (and gay-friendly) men from priesthood.

Why now? This was not so much a reaction after the recent scandals concerning pedophilia condoned by the Church as the consequence of a fundamental evolution initiated by a new awareness of the denaturalization of the sexual order advocated jointly by feminists, under the banner of gender in the Beijing conference of 1995, and gays and lesbians, with the rise of same-sex civil unions and marriage as a political issue, also starting in the 1990s: the collaboration of man and woman in the Church means that they are made for one another.

The redefinition of natural law in biological terms, under the model of sexual difference, leads to a new celebration of heterosexuality. As a result, chastity is now conflated with abstinence, only temporary for heterosexuals (outside of marriage), but essential to priests and homosexuals alike. The devaluation of chastity, now reserved to some instead of applying to all, constitutes a major shift in the sexual ethics of the Catholic Church – the price to pay for the naturalization of natural law.



Naveeda Khan: (JHU, Anthropology)


Paper Title: Riotous Images and the Proliferation of Sin: Another Look at the Danish Cartoon Controversy



In 2005, twelve cartoon images of the Prophet Muhammad printed in a Danish newspaper caused Muslims around the world to protest vociferously.† Many explanations were forwarded for such global protests, ranging from the deep attachment of Muslims to the Prophet to the rise of Muslims as a worldwide political presence.† In this paper I propose an explanation on a minor note.† Given the further offensive, explicitly sexual images that were tacked on to the original twelve as the controversy grew, I propose that what was attempted to be stopped through the protests was the contagious unfolding of such images within and across minds, an unfolding arising from the riotous quality of images in a media-saturated world.† Excursions into dream theory in Islam, in which images in dreams partake of reality, and into jurisprudential literature treating involuntary bodily emissions, which are nonetheless seen to be the responsibility of the person in so far as sexual dreams constitute sinful action, allow me to speculate on the status of the mental image amongst Muslims.† These excursions suggest that what might have lead Muslims to impute great destructive powers to the Danish cartoons was their capacity to proliferate sin amongst Muslims.† Through a close reading of an Urdu book from Pakistan, one amongst many such books, on how to reflect upon and embody the physical aspects of the Prophet Muhammad, I claim that following the Sunnah (Prophetic Example), a pious duty, may also constitute a powerful technique for disciplining the mind’s eye in the contemporary moment.



Deepak Mehta (Dept. of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, New Delhi, India)


Paper Title:  Self-Dissolution, Politics and the Work of Affect: The Life and Death of Sufi Baba



This paper puts together an ethnography of the life, and latterly, death of a mystic, known as Sufi Baba, conducted first in 1985-86 and then in 2007 in the district of Barabanki in Uttar Pradesh, North India.  Sufi Baba was a member of the Ansari weaving community but did not belong to any of its known social divisions. The ethnography focuses on his embodied practices by situating them on two different but overlapping registers. The first register reads his practices in distinct arenas of social life – the everyday and the extraordinary and argues that self-dissolution was fundamental to the mystic’s understanding of worship. In these practices, Sufi Baba evoked the imagery of the virgin and prostitute and made a space available for a consideration of the feminine body – both sacred and sexual - in the public. This evocation was made possible through a range of affects, specifically those that emerged from pain and humiliation. The second register shows how this circulation of affect was made redundant by the destruction of the Babri mosque in December 1992.



Michael Moon (Institute of Liberal Arts, Emory University)


Paper Title: Sexual Sovereignty (What Can That Mean?):† Some

Autoethnographic and Alloethnographic Perspectives"



There is a highly formed debate in current political theory and political theology about competing models of political sovereignty, and there is a phrase circulating (considerably less widely, principally in feminist anthropology), "sexual sovereignty."† This paper explores the question, initially from an autoethnographic perspective and then from a somewhat broader one, of what kinds of connections there may or may not be between some current theories of sovereignty, political and sexual.† Key words:† dating Roman Catholic priests, contemporary Native American art and critical theory




Sumathi Ramaswamy: (History, Duke University)


Paper Title: Nursing the nation into being: The visual ambivalence of the maternal breast in bourgeois India



Using a controversial recent nude painting of Mother India by the modernist artist M. F. Husain as the anchor example, this paper considers the economy of ambivalence that accompanies the calculated display of the divine maternal breast in colonial and postcolonial Indian popular visual culture. Feminist scholarship has drawn our attention to the female nude as a signature figure of European as well as Indian art.  The female breast, Madelyn Gutwirth has noted, is anchored in our experience of intimacy—maternal and sexual. Yet visual portrayals of maternal intimacy and succor have not found easy passage into the representational regimes of bourgeois India, despite a widespread verbal discourse of milk kinship that surrounds the figure of Mother India.  Drawing on art theorist James Elkins’ distinction between the un-representable and the un-seeable, I examine the conditions under which the exposed breasts of Mother India become dangerous to the citizen’s eye, and ask why if nurture is critical to the containment of women as mothers in nationalist patriarchy, when does it become a problem to show them in the act?



Francois Sebbah (International College of Philosophy, University of Technology, Compiegne, France)


Paper Title: Levinas: God, the Father, and Sexual Difference



For Levinas, ambiguity was a productive force. And ambiguity is indeed apparent when one considers that Transcendence, which he shows to open the dimension of what he names ´†signification†ª, is also described as ´†domination.†ª Ambiguity is again present when the subject is described in certain texts as inhabited by the alterity of the feminine—in a sense always already feminized—while, at the same time, it is in this very gesture that a philosophy written by the “father” of a “son” presents itself.


Is Transcendence (which Levinas sometimes names “God”) “Opening of Sense”, or intimidating domination? Is the elaboration of the theme of the “feminine” one of the most radical attempts to give sexual difference  transcendental” significance, or is it the remainder of patriarchal, even chauvinist, positions?


While discussing several contemporary readings of Levinas, I propose not to settle these ambiguities, but, by working at their points of intersection, to try to grasp their significance and productivity.



Bhrigupati Singh (JHU, Anthropology, Weatherhead Center For International Affairs, Harvard)


Paper Title: Sensuality and Morality in Rural Central India



How might we conceive of the relationship between sensuality and religious morality in terms other than those of virtue, piety, sin, belief, and public/private distinctions? Drawing on extensive ethnographic fieldwork in rural central India I set out forms of ethics, expression and transcendence in relation to sensuality (also suggesting that this might be a distinct, broader concept than ‘sexuality’). In terms of ethics I chart techniques of everyday erotic interaction, and the variable norms around extra-marital affairs, popularly referred to as ‘settings’, seemingly as commonplace as marriage and other institutionalized forms of kinship. I further analyze how these relations, both furtive and open, attain outward expression, in both masculine and feminine terms, in particular through Hindu festive and musical genres. The concept of transcendence gestures towards the ways in which deified human and divine figures stylize and accentuate the vitality of these ethical and expressive relations.


Within this same weave of life I take up competing Puritan-ascetic tendencies within Hinduism, and try to understand the opposing stakes in mythology, morality and life. Rather than regulation or authoritative injunctions, my interest is in charting changes in sensibility that may arise within a culture or a life, for instance in lower and middle caste ‘respectability’ movements which often turn against certain forms of eroticism and expression. Elaborating the concept of transcendence, I consider how we might understand competing definitions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ morality and aesthetics. I place this investigation within my broader endeavor to redefine certain global concepts of ‘political theologies’.         


Ludger Viefhues-Bailey: (Religious Studies, Yale University)


Paper Title:  Holiness Sex: Conservative Christian Sex Practices as Acts of Sanctification



My point of departure for this paper is the assumption that discourses
of sexuality and religion are decidedly modern and intertwined
phenomena, arising in conjunction with the modern secular nation
state. Demonstrating this interrelationship between sexual, political,
and religious practices, I will analyze conservative Christian speech
about submission as both holiness and sex practice for both men and
women. Holiness, as I will argue based on materials on sex and
marriage practices mainly circulated by the Christian lobbying,
ministry, and advice organization “Focus on the Family,” requires the
shaping of a particular sexual subjectivity, one which balances
activity and passivity. Contrasting most recent contributions of
consumers and producers of Christian speech about the theologies and
practices of marital sex with those from the last decade I will show
how the Christian sexual body serves to be both a powerful symbol and
an intimate field in which theological and political tensions are
intertwined, experienced, and manipulated. Sex talk and sex practices
are thus the place in which Christians negotiate the ambiguities of
normative white American middle-class and of “counter-cultural”
religious identities.