Apparently there are 165 common euphemisms for the act of sexual intimacy in contemporary music and literature. Chief amongst these are ‘knocking boots’, popularised by both R&B group H-Town as well as country music star Shania Twain; ‘the horizontal tango’, as described by Usher; ‘making whoopee’, coined by jazz great Eddie Cantor and immortalised by Ella Fitzgerald; and lest we forget, ‘making the beast with two backs’, thanks to William Shakespeare, his own last name not exactly devoid of double entendre. While we’re on the subject of the sexualisation of one’s own name, recently, thanks to actors Jamie Fox and Channing Tatum, ‘Channing all over your Tatum’ has also grown in popular urban parlance for what we commonly call ‘making sweet, sweet love’.
But just as there have been innumerable attempts to euphemistically describe sex, intercourse has also been one of the most frequently recurring themes in fine art. A few years ago, the British Museum curated a seminal exhibition on Japanese shunga, loosely translated as ‘pillow pictures’, which was popularised between the 17th and 20th centuries. Shunga was intended to be both a form of sex education as well as an art form expressed through colourful paintings and woodprints, using lively pigments to show couples engaged in highly charged moments or connubial bliss. Images are forthright and almost comically graphic, embracing sex between different classes, ages and occupations, including images of princesses engaged in coitus with their warrior bodyguards or Buddhist priests with their new initiates.
The message seems to be clear: while society may be divided into socioeconomic strata, it is sex that transcends all boundaries; it is pervasive and takes place everywhere, behind every rice- paper screen and shuttered window. Couplings become the stuff of epically wild fantasies, including a particularly vivid image of a beautiful young woman and an octopus. Timothy Clark, Head of the Japanese Section of the British Museum, explains that while sexual acts in European art had to be expressed metaphorically through mythological painting and sculpture — hence Nicolas Poussin’s The Rape of the Sabine Women or Peter Paul Rubens’s Leda and the Swan (see inset) — in Japan, it is expressed with a robust deliciousness that is freed from typical Judeo-Christian hang-ups. He emphatically states, “Cosmic sex formed Japan.”
In the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh is a town called Khajuraho, famed for the staggeringly complex sculptural portrayal of sex that decorate the walls of medieval Jain and Hindu temples. These monuments, which depict sex elevated to the level of performance art in its richness and variety of contortions, has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and considered one of the ‘seven wonders of India’. Author James McConnachie, in his book on the history of the Kamasutra, describes these carvings as the “apogee of erotic art”. One school of thought is that these carvings, expressed through fleshy, concupiscent wide-hipped bodies engaged in a myriad of sex acts, refer to a form of spiritual awakening through intercourse as prescribed in Tantra, a style of meditation and ritual that arose during the fifth century AD, and continues to be championed today by 62-year-old musician Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler.