ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

The Not So Noble “Savage”: Unpacking the Co-constitution of Sexual Deviance and Criminality in Colonial India


Bhattacharya Arnav - University of Pennsylvania, History and Sociology of Science, Philadelphia, United States


36 – Interrogating Deviance and ‘Crime’ in Colonial and Postcolonial South Asia


Sexology is usually associated with the construction of sexual “deviance” through the pathologization of non-heteronormative sexual practices. It is lesser known that criminology was foundational to the origin of sexology in the late 19th century. In recent times there has been a plethora of scholarship on the history of sexology in South Asia. However, there have been limited attempts to interrogate the coproduction of criminality and sexual deviance. In this paper, I will show how notions of sexual deviance were at the heart of the construction of “criminality” in colonial India. My aim in this paper is to demonstrate how colonial ethnography as well as sexology pathologized the sexual practices of indigenous communities in late 19th and early 20th century South Asia. Indigenous sexuality was rendered animalistic as ethnologists and sexologists focused on the alleged seasonal conjugal patterns, hypersexuality and nudity of these communities. I will reveal how the pathologization of indigenous sexuality was directly implicated in the process of their construction as criminal tribes. I will also show how the essentialization of sexual “deviance” led to the construction of indigenous communities as the sexual “primitive” or “savage” against whom was contrasted the figure of the normative white or upper-caste Hindu man. My paper will be based on a critical analysis of colonial ethnographic writings, Western and Indian sexological literature alongside archival material.