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The politics of semen

By Sohini Saha

Conversations and discussions on body fluids often seek to focus on the female body, menstruation and fertility associated with it. The inability to control the “flowing body” is often seen as a “problem” which seeks to reduce both women and their bodies as potential sites of uncontrollability and pollution. Thus, body fluids become associated with notions of fear, inferiority, and shame. On the other hand, the male body fluid, semen, stands at an opposition to that of women’s body fluid, that situates itself in an idea of essence or truth (Alter, 1992), based not on “flowing” of semen but on its preservation. While both women’s and men’s body fluids are related with fertility, it is the power and potentiality of semen that is emphasized more while menstrual blood becomes a site of shame and fear. This piece will interrogate this politics of semen and its power and ask if the materiality of semen is in itself a site of power or it is in the act of its control (not flow) that semen achieves its power and potential unlike the flowing of menstrual blood in women. If semen’s power is dependent upon its preservation, can it be vulnerable to the process of preservation or control? This piece would seek to discuss body fluids as both sites of power and vulnerability in the context of male body fluid, semen. A move from female body fluids, I argue, is not to move away from women’s concern but instead to reveal the politics behind the discourse of body fluids and gender.

Semen as “essence”

Historically, semen, the male body fluid, has remained powerful not only in generating men’s strength and virility and defining their masculinity, but also an important component of health or healthy living among men. The relation between semen as “healthy” and as the “essence” of manliness has been equated together. Food, blood and semen are believed to be tied together in such a manner that it is through the transformation of food into blood and ultimately to semen, that makes semen an important component of health (Edwards, 1983). Masculinity is itself understood through the embodiment of semen and thus semen has often been equated with “essence” or “truth”. Excessive loss of semen was therefore perceived as emasculating men from the preserve of masculinity and further leading to diseases like weakness, fatigue, nerve disease and others (Clark, 2016). This bio-moral perspective on semen gained further salience during the colonial nationalist period in India that saw the preservation of semen as a means of cultivating both healthy and masculine bodies of native men. The colonizer’s relegation of Hindu men as weak and fragile rendered them effeminate in the eyes of the colonizers. A search for manliness made them emphasize on brahmacharya and thereby in the act of preserving semen. Pradip Bose’s (2005) work on health and medicine during nineteenth century Bengal showed how pamphlets on public health equated the practice of brahmacharya and control of semen as important to the reviving of the health of the nation. National health in this sense took over the masculine discourse of semen control and men’s bodies became the focus of nation building. According to Elizabeth Abbott, brahmacharya combined “traditional thought” and “medical writings” together to emphasize upon the creation of men whose bodies were both pure and healthy, cultivated through the strict control of carnal desires (Abbott, 2000: 220). However, historically, this increased significance of semen-control has also generated semen anxiety (Edwards, 1983) in men which remains an area that is less discussed.

The Vulnerability of Semen

Semen, although a site of power and ‘essence’ for men, also becomes a site of vulnerability. Semen anxiety is a common phrase that has come up to suggest the anxiety among men due to the loss of semen. This anxiety keeps men at edge in their daily lives and activities especially in the context of masturbation and nocturnal emissions. Both these acts have been considered historically to be prohibited, especially, in the context of ascetic practices and in the field of exercise regimes like bayam/vyayam (exercise), wrestling and bodybuilding. The man-making process during the colonial-nationalist period in India also focused on these acts and their prohibition, if the nation was to build its men. Both masturbation and nocturnal emissions were considered polluting and sinful that would lead to the loss of semen as well as loss of health and masculinity. Semen, masculinity and health were thus tied together, morally and medically, in a manner that any separation was an impossibility. While masturbation was a solitary yet voluntary act on part of the men who engaged in it, nocturnal emission was seen as involuntary as it happened in one’s sleep. Nocturnal emission’s involuntary nature made it even more concerning for men and is considered a constant source of their fear and anxiety. The inability to control one’s desires and thereby one’s ejaculation in one’s unconscious, i.e., in sleep, made men more vulnerable to the dictates of the body. While nocturnal emission is considered to be involuntary as it occurred during sleep, there are still those who suspected it to be occurring due to hidden sexual desires of men. Dream became the unconscious realm in which one’s hidden desires will come out and result in nocturnal emission. Thus, it was found to be as sinful and polluting as masturbation (Leyser, 1999). Semen, thus, was not only about power but also pollution, when it flowed from the bodies of men and became a sign of their succumbing to their desires. Nocturnal emissions were therefore also referred to as “nocturnal pollution’’ highlighting its pollution nature.

The loss of semen due to nocturnal emission was not the only concern for men. I argue it was also the loss of control of one’s body and desires that made nocturnal emissions both a site of anxiety and disappointment. Unlike masturbation, which was voluntary, nocturnal emission’s involuntariness made it a sign of failure, a form of failure that the men had no control upon. This fear of giving into one’s desires during one’s sleep was considered terrifying and concerning for men, even more than their desires of giving into masturbatory practices. The failure to control one’s desires and thereby giving into the dictates of the body reduced men to the body and materiality. Semen, thus, also became a site of vulnerability that could emasculate men.

The Politics of Control

Considered as a site of power for men, semen or rather its control, also becomes the ground for politics. During the nationalist period semen became “patriotic elixir” according to Abbott (Abbott, 2000: 227). Although masculinity has always been associated with transcendence and femininity with materiality and body, the male body and body fluid, semen, became a ground on which nationalist discourses and politics were grounded. The cultivation of the male body during the nationalist period led brahmacharya to take a political turn. According to Abbott, brahmacharya became political during the nationalist period as national identity for Indian (Hindu upper caste) men was foregrounded on the preservation and embodiment of semen. Although semen control became a political act of establishing national identity in the specific context of nationalism, I argue that we should see the hierarchization of male and female body fluids itself as a site of politics. I emphasize the need to recognize the entire discourse of semen control as always already political, grounded on the politics of gendered identity that equates truth or essence with semen thereby excluding women from its purview.

One of the spheres in which the act of controlling semen becomes significant is the realm of ascetic practices. If ascetic practices are foregrounded on preservation of semen, how do women ascetic place themselves in such a semen centric discourse of asceticism? My reading of Meena Khandelwal’s work on women ascetics interestingly made me see the control of sexual desires and the act of vairaga or detachment as essential to ascetic practice in context of women ascetics. Thus, it is not the materiality of semen but the act of its control that grounds ascetic practices in this case. In this dominating discourse of semen and its material relevance, the act of control equally plays a significant role. While semen as a substance remains significant both morally, religiously and medically, it is difficult to completely understand semen in itself as the site of power. Instead, I argue that semen’s relation to the practice of its preservation, the act of brahmacharya, constitutes the power of semen. A similar understanding of self-restraint is also evident in Gandhi’s conceptualization of brahmacharya which grounds brahmacharya not only in the control of semen but in control of all senses and desires.

Brahmacharya’s political turn during the nationalist period in India has been highlighted by several scholars. From nationalists Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay to Swami Vivekananda, each has laid down the significance of semen control and the medical-moral value of semen. The coming together of this moral and the medical or the socio-cultural and biological, enmeshed the politics of brahmacharya in the modern scientific discourse. However, although the political side to brahmacharya is emphasised by scholars, Mahatma Gandhi gave a distinct ethical understanding to this practice. For Gandhi, brahmacharya was not equal to celibacy but rather encompassed in itself the control of all senses (Abbott, 2000). His emphasis on self-restraint foregrounded his political and ethical practice of service towards the nation. Unlike placing the importance on semen, Gandhi focused on the overall control and self-restraint in acts of fasting, control of food, semen, thought and speech. It was through this personal act of self-control that he made an effort to control the violence happening in the nation. Gandhi’s practice of brahmacharya brought the political and the ethical together in equating the relatively personal everyday practice of brahmacharya into a public act of service towards the nation (Howard, 2013). 

This piece has tried to argue about the politics of the male body fluid, semen, which not only acts as a site of power but also as a site of vulnerability for men due to the anxieties surrounding semen loss. Masturbation and nocturnal emissions act as constant threat and disappointment for men not only due to the loss of semen but also due to the loss of control over one’s body and desires. I also argue how semen control became a political tool for the nationalist during the colonial period as a means of reclaiming masculine identity of so-called “effeminate” Hindu men. In a similar manner, it also became ethical and political practice for Gandhi as a means of serving the nation. For Gandhi, service was only possible through complete self-restraint and the power it generated. However, for Gandhi, it was not only the semen but more importantly the act of control that generated the power within. Thus, his idea of self-restraint combined both the political and ethical dimension. Apart from its political nature during the nationalist period, I argue that semen was always already political. By situating semen as an “essence” or “truth” in negation to female body fluid, the masculine discourse excludes women from their association with “essence” or “truth” and establishes the gendered hierarchy through the body fluid (Alter, 1992). It further turns women into a form of threat for men’s sense of masculinity and sexuality. Therefore, celibacy or ascetic practices demand men’s strict distance from women in order to bring in self-restraint. Thus, although it is men and their body fluid which is seen as powerful, women or the feminine makes this power vulnerable. I also argue that the power of semen is not in itself but is constituted through the act of its control. Yet the same power remains vulnerable as the masculine remains dependent on the feminine through its very negation or separation.

Sohini Saha
is a PhD Scholar at the Department of Sociology, Jadavpur University. She also teaches in the Department of Sociology, Jogesh Chandra Chaudhuri College and Jadavpur University.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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