Issue in Focus: Space and Sexuality - Thinking Through Some Issues - Shilpa Phadke

Space might appear to be a sexually neutral category. But one has to only ask the question: what is sexy about space to know that that is not true.

Shilpa Phadke


Space is an important marker of segregation and reinforcement of social power structures. Spaces, both private and public are hierarchically ordered through various inclusions and exclusions along axes of gender, class, caste, ethnicity, sexuality and disability. Here the term, ‘space’ is used not as a given but as a something which is produced and constructed through the multi-layered contexts of perception, imagination, political economy, cultural norms, structures and institutional arrangements.

Space might appear to be a sexually neutral category. But one has to only ask the question: what is sexy about space to know that that is not true. The connection between space and sexuality is intimately linked to the categories – ‘public’ and ‘private’ – which are often used as opposing binaries. Though one is aware that public and private space often flow fluidly into each other, it is sometimes useful to separate them for analytical purposes especially since society often sees them as two very different things. 

The public-private spatial divide lies at the heart of many societal anxieties in regard to people’s expression of sexuality by way of clothing, speech or action. These anxieties are linked to the desire to ensure that, in all matters sexual, the public and the private are explicitly separated. In this short essay, I examine why any ambiguity in the sexual definition of space is sought to be erased. I often use illustrations from India to elucidate my case but their specific location is not meant to suggest that these issues are not valid for other countries and regions. 

Space, Sexual Safety and Respectability

The public-private dichotomy particularly influences women’s capacity to be out in public space. Since the rightful place of women is seen to be in the home, women need to legitimise their purpose in public space. Virginia Woolf in her Street Haunting: A London Adventure writes: “No one perhaps has ever felt passionately towards a lead pencil. But there are circumstances in which it can become supremely desirable to possess one: moments when we are set upon having an object, an excuse for walking half way across London between tea and dinner. …getting up we say: ‘Really I must buy a pencil,’ as of under cover of this excuse we could indulge safely in the greatest pleasure of town life in winter – rambling the streets of London”.

Public spaces are seen as spaces of potential sexual danger for women while the private spaces of the home are presented as havens of safety. This notion is disproved by police statistics which demonstrate unambiguously that the largest proportion of sexual assaults against women take place in their homes and are committed by persons known to them.  

In the context of city spaces, the presence of any woman is a marker of the greyness of that space – rendering the space ambiguous because within her body are invested ideas of a potentially disruptive sexuality, a sexuality which is to be guarded or to be deplored and violated.

‘Respectable’ women stand the ‘risk’ of potential defilement in public space while ‘non-respectable’ women are themselves a potential source of contamination to the purity of public spaces. Here it is important to note that for the so-called ‘respectable’ woman - this classification is always fraught with some amount of tension, for should she transgress the carefully policed ‘inside-outside’ boundaries permitted to her, she could so easily slip into becoming the ‘public’ woman - the threat to the sacrality of public space. This perception of potential contamination by the prostitute takes many forms: these include the threat of sexually transmitted diseases, the threat to public morality, the threat posed by the very presence of the sex-worker in public space.

These notions of ‘respectable’ and ‘unrespectable’ women and their capacity to influence or be influenced by public spaces are neither new nor unique to the Indian context. Judith Walkowitz (1992) in her brilliant historical analysis The City of Dreadful Delight demonstrates how narratives of sexual danger were constructed in late-Victorian London around events that were packaged by the media as sex-panics or moral-panics. She links these to the complex politics of visibility and articulation around the presence of women in public space.

Viewed in the context of the demarcated spaces of the private and the public, the image of the public woman becomes associated with that of the prostitute, the woman who is publicly available. Indian criminal law is also based on a similar understanding of the proper place for female bodies. Under the provisions of the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act, 1988, while sex work is not illegal the law prohibits sex-workers from soliciting in public places and restricts them to specified areas.

Underlying the anxiety in relation to the presence of ‘respectable’ women in public space is the fear that one will not be able to tell them apart from sex-workers thus disrupting the control over female sexuality that is exercised by restricting the access of respectable women and regulating the mobility of unrespectable women.

Elizabeth Wilson (1991) in her work The Sphinx in the City writes: “At the heart of the urban labyrinth lurked not the Minotaur, a bull like male monster, but the female Sphinx, the ‘strangling one’, who was so called because she strangled all those who could not answer her riddle: female sexuality, woman-hood out of control, lost nature, loss of identity.”

Sexual Space and Class

The idea of public and private attach not just to women but also to spaces. This is further layered by class connotations. In recent times this has been most apparent in the ban on dance performances in dance bars in Mumbai. These bars were colloquially known as ‘ladies-bars’ and usually referred to places where alcohol was served while women performed versions of Bollywood film songs on a stage. It is also interesting to note that such restrictions on performance apply only to these dance bars and not to five-star hotels and restaurants which may continue to have performances. One has only to look at two comparable spaces: the now illegal dance-bars and the up-market nightclubs and discotheque bars to understand how spaces are treated differently.

In both kinds of bars, in the layout of the interior space, the dance floor occupies a small almost insignificant space. In the dance bars, there is a clear definition of space between the area where the girls dance and the area where the customers sit. The bar dancers may transgress this space, to collect tips from their customers, but the customers may not do so. The space is demarcated by the notion of a public performance. The space of the dance floor then becomes the space of performance that the audience may not enter into bodily. The other logic to this separation is linked to the dance bar as a contaminated space and within the bar, the dance floor as the locus of transgression and therefore maximum pollution.

In the up-market discos the dance floor is not a sex-segregated space. It is in fact a space that is showcased as an arena where the sexes may freely intermingle – a celebration of heterosexuality and therefore of modernity.

These spaces do not if objectively viewed appear to be very different from each other. Both have alcohol, music, dance, women and men. How then is meaning differently attached to these two spaces and relationships that makes one respectable and the other suspect? Technically both spaces are equally public or private. Public to the extent that they are open to the ‘public’ and private to the extent that the entry may be regulated by the owner and that there are charges attached to entry either directly (cover charge) or indirectly (food) or both. However, the performative nature of the dance-bars renders any relationship between the customers and the dancers public. In contrast in the up-market bars both women and men are customers and their relationships are thereby cast in the realm of the private. In a context that grants legitimacy only to private erotic relationships, dance bars then become contaminated spaces of illicit interaction. 

Respectability, morality and location / position in a global urban context then determine not just who can inhabit what spaces but also which spaces are legitimate and which are not.

Space and Sexual Intimacy

Private romance is only acceptable so long as it takes place in private spaces. Even as I wrote this piece, in Meerut, a town in northern India, couples in a park were beaten up and humiliated by cops for simply being in a public space together.

In other cities in India as well, the right of lovers to be together in public spaces is under threat. Spaces accessible to couples are shrinking as parks, waterfronts and promenades are increasingly placed under surveillance. In April 2005, a young girl was raped in broad daylight in Mumbai inside a police chowki (station) on a large public promenade. She was sitting by the promenade with a young boy her age, when a police constable called them for questioning. The fact that a police constable could ask the young couple to the chowki and then demand the boy go away while he questioned the girl and actually have the young people comply is testimony to both the shrinking spaces offered to couples in the city and the lack of claim that they themselves feel. Even in everyday situations where assault does not take place, young couples are routinely harassed by constables and other kinds of security personnel. The sexuality of gay and lesbian couples is either ignored as not existing or met with hostility.

Space and Sexual Preference

In the same bars where heterosexual sex is celebrated, gay, lesbian, transgender sex is tolerated, just about, if it’s not too overt, if it’s not too loud, if you follow the US army rule not to ask or tell. Or if you don’t mind seeking refuge in the sanctioned homosociality of being just good friends. However, bars that welcome and acknowledge non-heterosexual preferences are few and often tend to be the seedier bars. Or some bars will have a token gay night – one usually dominated by gay men. Large cities also offer a certain kind of space that comes with anonymity but this may often come at the loss of mobilising on the basis of a political identity.

The public landscape in the shape of advertising is replete with images of happy heterosexual couples and their shopping pleasure sending out the clear message of a normative sexuality to be celebrated. Any sexuality that deviates from this is at best marginal and at worst pushed underground by repressive regulations.

In Lieu of a Conclusion

We already know that when it comes to sex, all people and all practices are not equal nor are all spaces equal. Ambiguity is threatening to those who would like to preserve a conservative hierarchical status quo because it challenges the neat binaries on which the status quo rests. Space and sexuality are particularly incendiary issues as they are linked to bodies: both the body of the city (to which entry is sought to be controlled) and the bodies of particularly women and those with transgressive sexuality (where access is sought to be regulated).

In a variety of national, cultural and temporal contexts and spaces, efforts have been made to regulate the sexuality of women by binarily categorising women, sexuality and spaces into ‘private’ and ‘public’, ‘respectable’ and ‘fallen’, ‘controlled’ and ‘uncontrolled’, ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’. However, the lines of division between these categories are neither as clear nor as well defined as the regulating authorities (whether state, community or family) might have preferred. In this murkiness one might seek the possibilities for creative engagements with urban public space to emerge.

At this point it is important to engage with the figure of the citizen, not a neutral citizen but an equal citizen as one important way to negotiate the hierarchies in access to space and the boundaries that determine who might interpret and inhabit that space. Such a vision of equal citizenship must then challenge the cultural notions of a perceived need to control the sexuality of women, a legal vision of all non-normative sexuality as a source of urban disorder, and an urban planning utopia of a sanitized, policed ‘safe’ public space in order that various marginalized groups might feel an uncontested and secure claim to public space.

Within such an understanding of citizenship and access to public space, women, gays, lesbians, transgender people, bar-dancers and sex workers will experience themselves as citizens with ‘citizenship rights’ of access rather than as disorderly bodies with a tenuous and threatened claim to public space.

Shilpa Phadke is a sociologist. She works on issues of gender, sexuality, public space, consumption and feminism. She lives in Mumbai, a city that is often present corporeally or as a shadow in her work.