Malaysia has some terrible ideas about human sexuality: Tiara the Merch Girl explains why.
Living in Australia has truly made me realise just how asexual Malaysia and Malaysian culture really is.
Instead of selling sex, advertising sells purity and being wholesome. Some lad’s mag calls Siti Nurhaliza “sexy” and she has to deny the allegations, lest her popularity be ruined. Multiple efforts are made at a national sex education curriculum, but none have survived. And Malaysian porn and erotica? What’s that?
Well…let me rephrase that. It’s not that Malaysia is asexual per se, though it does seem like that from the outside. Being asexual would imply that it understands sexuality and accepts its existence but that’s not its thing, thank you. No – Malaysia has a truly fucked-up understanding of human sexuality.
The sweet and pure ladies selling you Fair and Lovely or slimming programs are selling sex; they’re just waiting for a Dato’ in Shining Armour to marry them and make a honest woman out of them (and therefore avoiding khalwat accusations). One version of the proposed national sex curriculum said, on one page, that youths questioning their sexual orientation can consult trusted adults for counsel – only to claim two pages later that homosexuality is abhorrent to all cultures and religions (not quite, actually). And if you want made-in-Malaysia porn, all you have to do is Google – except almost everything is voyeuristic and invasive, sneaking in hidden cameras and hiding around corners, slut-shaming anyone who dares even hold a hand in public while they themselves conceal erections aroused from being a moralising Peeping Tom.
Similar attitudes led me to asexuality growing up – I had some understanding of sex, gender, and sexual orientation (huzzah Internet and books) but everything seemed so messy and liable to unwanted pregnancies or STIs. Why bother? I honestly did feel that I would stay a virgin till marriage and didn’t mind doing so (and I wasn’t even particularly religious). I was vaguely curious and intrigued, but my growing crushes on guys and girls alike scared me in their intensity and I tried my hardest to cut off the ‘nympho’ part of me. Sex isn’t important! It’s decadent, messy, too much of a hassle! There are other things in life! Never mind your heart falling for your best friend, or your desire to know what a kiss feels like, or your interest in hearts not genitalia – if you ever get around to marriage you can work it out from there.
Then I came to Australia, and a month later landed my first ever kiss and consequently my first ever boyfriend. And discovered the joy that is making out. And wondered – What took me so long?!
It’s been over four and a half years since; that boyfriend and I are still together, and I’ve had so much more adventurous explorations with my body and sexuality that make Past!Me look absolutely prudish. The last couple of years have been especially pivotal in that regard – let’s just say that between my burlesque, queer activism, and random experiments, my memoirs will be called Don’t Tell My Mother and that I currently have enough material for volumes 14 to 20. (And if the Malaysian authorities had any idea what I got up to I’d likely be arrested over seditious indecency charges.)
Here are some things that I have learnt, or at least had reiterated, about human sexuality that Malaysia absolutely misunderstands:
Having casual sex, or non-casual sex, or being sexual in any way, does not reflect your character in any way other than the fact that you are sexual. It doesn’t prove that you are intelligent or a bimbo, trustworthy or untrustworthy, sinful or saintly. All sorts of people have all sorts of sex for all sorts of reasons, regardless of relationship status or upbringing or libido – just for fun, to get to know someone, as a sign of commitment, as stress relief, whatever. People’s characters and personalities can’t be easily summed up by their sex life.
It is possible to be sexual – even highly and openly so – and not be a vector for diseases. A few years ago I read a letter to the New Straits Times that absolutely infuriated me. It was by the President of a blood disease organisation, claiming that distributing condoms openly would lead to less blood donors. Her logic? Condoms lead to promiscuity, which leads to blood diseases, which leads to being ineligible for blood donations. FAIL – condoms help prevent diseases, and promiscuity isn’t a factor in whether you’re allowed to donate blood or not! (A bigger factor: being in England sometime in the 60s, apparently due to foot-in-mouth disease.) Indeed, many professional sex workers are often healthier than the general population simply because there’s more attention paid to safe sex and sexual health. There are many ways to play and not suffer – all you’re achieving with halting the free distribution of condoms is making it easier for people to have unsafe sex.
There’s more to sexual orientation than gay or straight. Some time ago a Malaysian lesbian group asked for submissions for a Black Book project. Being queer, I asked if I could participate. The response: “No, this is for lesbians only.” Talk about biphobia! Human sexuality is rarely that static: as studies like the Kinsey scale show, sexuality manifests across (and beyond) a range, and people are often more complicated than their label shows. I’m a Kinsey 4.5, greatly preferring women sexually, but in a loving long-term relationship with a man; I know people who are hardline heterosexual or homosexual, some who don’t mind the odd fling here or there, some who are asexual or aromantic or both, some who’d make out with anyone but have limitations beyond that…the list goes on. There’s even been some interesting research on “late-blooming lesbians” – women who identified as heterosexual early in their lives but turn to homosexuality in middle age. Whether it’s the release of internalised repression or a shift hormones, cases like those go to show just how complex and complicated human sexuality can be.
Sex, gender, and sexual orientation aren’t necessarily connected with each other. There’s your genitalia (which goes just beyond uterus/vagina/vulva and penis/testicles, as intersex people hold), your chromosomes (XX, XY, XXY, XYY, etc), your gendered social role, your personal gender identity, your degree of femininity or masculinity, your attraction to people, your willingness to have sexual intimacy with people. You could be a female-bodied butch queer woman who sleeps with both men and women; a trans man assigned female at birth who only dates men and is feminine in approach; a genderqueer person dating a pre-operational trans woman who identifies as lesbian while also seeing a man casually; and all sorts of variations. Just because someone looks like a “tomboy” doesn’t make them a lesbian, and just because someone’s a pondan or mak nyah doesn’t make them gay – indeed, there are gay men who actually do not desire to be women, but feel the need to so that they can maintain their relationships with their partner. No wonder homosexuality is illegal in Iran but not sex change surgery.
Pornography need not be degrading or even boring. The things that make the porn industry problematic, such as disrespect towards women or exploitation, are issues that plague every industry – but yet you don’t hear people rail against the hospitality industry just because a lot of wait staff are underpaid. There are many people who are working towards creating and promoting diverse, feminist, ethical pornography and erotica, reflecting people who are happy in their sexuality and in full control of their bodies and desires. Porn need not be just heavily-Photoshopped buxom blondes either – sites like NoFauxxx make the erotic really artsy and creatively inspiring. I suggest checking out the Crash Pad Series (disclaimer: affiliate link), which has people from various races, genders, and sexual orientations (including Jiz Lee, who is a legend within queer porn and is an absolute sweetheart), as well as the lists on the Good For Her awards and Jane’s Guide. Note: all links NSFW, if not already obvious.
Being openly sexual isn’t going to ruin your life. Well this depends on context – we all know the story of Sufiah Yousuf, who went into escorting as Shilpa Lee and then got “rescued” by some Islamic organisation (personally I’m worried she’s been brainwashed by them). In Malaysia I likely will get into a lot of trouble for doing the things I do. But it’s not really such a big deal elsewhere. In Australia, home of the Australian Sex Party (an actual political party with honestly better policies than many of the mainstream parties), sex work is mostly legal, and there are resources abound for people who express sexuality in all sorts of ways. Having porn, sex work, burlesque, or even multiple lovers in your history isn’t going to make you lose your job or your livelihood. Not everywhere is that accepting, of course, but honestly not everyone is quite as uptight as Malaysians can be – you can have a regular life no matter your sexual proclivities.
I could go on, quite honestly. But suffice to say there is a lot about human sexuality that Malaysia needs to brush up on, and it would do us all good to look beyond the stereotypes and preconceived notions, and allow people to explore their sexuality and gender safely, in their own time, however they wish – without slut-shaming, whorephobia, or moralising.
Ever since I started doing burlesque I’ve had a couple of Malaysian friends back home ask me about holding burlesque classes or performing. I did actually propose the idea to Seksualiti Merdeka but was told “We may not be ready for burlesque.” We may not be ready for burlesque. A honest expression of your own sexuality and body that can be as tame or as risque as you want. I wonder why that is – are the Powers That Be worried that if the rakyat actually took ownership of their own bodies, they’ll start taking ownership of their own lives, and demand more rights and less restrictions from the Government?
Rocky Horror Picture Show, burlesque revues, and comprehensive safe sex education as tools for political subversion. Hm, I think I like this idea.
Tiara the Merch Girl is a performance artist, creative producer, and Creatrix of Awesome who escaped the ghost town of Ulu Tiram for Brisbane, Australia. She spends her time getting up to creative sexytimes, rabble-rousing about politics and culture on her blog, and signing up for anything that looks interesting. Currently she is working on The San Fran Plan, spending a few months in San Francisco in mid-2011 to further her performance skills and explore gender, sexuality, and relationships from the perspective of a female queer migrant minority.