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  • Don't Ask, Won't Tell?Sexual Science and the Case Biography of Sodomy in Colonial India
  • Rovel Sequeira (bio)

In 1902, Major William Sutherland, a Civil Surgeon of the Indian Medical Service, wrote an expert opinion for the Indian Medical Gazette on the ethnological and medico-legal aspects of Indian crime, a "subject to which he devoted the most virile years of his life."1 In this study, derived from his practice in a district town in central India, Sutherland presented numerous medical cases of rape, abortion, and underage sex that prosecutors could consider as instructive while conducting future criminal trials. He included one that challenged medical orthodoxy that the infallible bodily signs of "passive paederasty" or anal penetration were "sodomitic wound[s]" shaped like a triangle/funnel.2 For Sutherland, the absence of such signs could not guarantee the "innocence of the accused" ("Notes," 245). In one case, a "Brahmin, aged about 40, sought treatment for what he said was a boil" in front of his anus but was clearly a syphilitic lesion (245). Under suspicion, "the patient admitted that he might have contracted it from one of his friends [and] volunteered the statement that he had been [diseased] for at least twenty years" (245). Having won this admission, Sutherland examined his patient "for the classical signs of his aberration" but found "no deformation of the anal region" (245). Despite this unexpected outcome, Sutherland claimed that his diagnosis was successful because of the patient's uncoerced confession. And though void of all but the most barebones data about its subject/object's personal life—"a Brahmin, aged about 40"—and his potential "crime," Sutherland's case note furnished colonial manuals of medical jurisprudence with [End Page 145] the exemplary illustration of what they defined as "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" among Indians for the next fifty years.3

Read alongside Michel Foucault, this scene will strike a familiar note for historians of sexuality. As Foucault argued, in Europe the clinic replaced the Catholic confessional as the space for disclosing one's secret sexual life in confidence, though in a secular forum.4 Defining him- or herself in the clinician's terms and deferring to his authority and expertise to draw out truths about sexuality, the patient claimed diagnosis as self-understanding. Rather than sexological categories being imposed on patients from above, they themselves appropriated medical terms "from below" to imagine a limited emancipation in the same pathologizing vocabularies.5 But in the rare colonial case above, the seemingly willing confession of the patient sat uneasily with Sutherland's assertion that "the evidence of the medical expert in a criminal case is the only honest evidence," because the complainant/witness generally bolstered his story "with cunningly-devised testimony" while the accused often "tried to save himself by … alleging that [the complainant had] a spite against him, and [was] … guilty of various crimes" (Sutherland, "Notes," 244). The patient's truthful disclosure contradicted his bodily symptoms and confirmed Sutherland's expert diagnosis, but its evidentiary value was put in question by the habit of mendacity that the British said afflicted all Indian criminals.

Taking Sutherland's truncated study as a provocation, this article questions the epistemic currency of the auto/biographical case study as the preferred sexological method for producing "truths" about sexuality in colonial India.6 The case history as a modality of reasoning and research within imperial European sexology emerged at the turn of the twentieth century. Its use as literary-scientific evidence for sexual "identity" indexed sexology's reliance on an implicit normative theory of the mimetic relationship between auto/biographical genres and liberal autonomous personhood. By representing sexual desire, fantasy, and practice through the first-person confessional during what may be called the clinical-psychological interval in sexology, the auto/biographical case cleared the way for sexuality to be seen as interiorized individual identity. Nevertheless, to claim authority as the arbiter of sexuality in Europe, sexology staged both a partial disassociation from, and a compromise with, colonial medicine and anthropology's "exteriorizing" ethnographic methods.

In India, well into the late colonial period, the ethnological methods practiced in colonial medico-legal institutions relied on social markers...