According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”: “ Sexuality is considered a natural part of life. In a survey of 101 Sri Lankan males and females, 93 percent thought that women have a stronger libido or sexual drive than do men (de Munck, n.d.). Women’s sexuality is considered dangerous and, for this reason, young women are not usually permitted to go out in public alone. They are typically accompanied by their mother or some elder, responsible female chaperone. Any occasion where a female is actually or suspected to be alone with a male is generally interpreted to be about sex. [Source: Robert T. Francoeur, Victor C. de Munck, Ph.D., Patricia Weerakoon, Ph.D., “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”, 2002]

“Sri Lankan sexual foreplay is not very elaborate and does not involve kissing, which is considered unhygienic and disgusting. The missionary position is the most common for sexual intercourse, though it is also common for males to mount the female from the rear. The female-superior position is unusual except in the most Westernized families. Similarly, anal and oral sex are atypical and practiced mostly by very Westernized Sri Lankans. During sexual intercourse, a woman is expected to be the passive recipient and the man active. The duration of sex is not usually prolonged. Sri Lankans in general have a very Victorian attitude toward sex. Husbands and wives are not expected to engage in sexual intercourse when they are past 40 or 50 years old.

“Virginity at the time of marriage is extremely important for a woman, but not for a man. Traditionally, the wedding sheet was displayed to the public the morning after, but this practice has been discontinued except in very traditional homes or rural areas. Nonetheless, the bride is expected to be a virgin and if it is known that she is not, it is next to impossible for her to marry into a family of the same status as her own.”

Birth Control and Contraception in Sri Lanka

Contraceptive prevalence rate: 61.7 percent (2016, CIA World Factbook, 2020). Contraceptive use (any method, women ages 15-49): 65 percent in 2016 (compared to 12 percent in Sudan and 84 percent in the United Kingdom) [Source: World Bank ]

Types of birth control used (2015); female sterilization: 17.3 percent; male sterilization: 0.7 percent; pill: 8.6 percent; injectible: 15.7 percent; Implant: 0.3 percent; IUD: 6.9 percent; male condom: 6.1 percent;early withdrawal: 5.7 percent; rhythm method: 10 percent; traditional: 0.2 percent; total: 71.6 percent [Source: Trends in Contraceptive Use Worldwide 2015 — the United Nations ]

Types of birth control used (1994): female sterilization: 24.2 percent; male sterilization: 3.8 percent; pill: 5.7 percent; injectible: 4.7 percent; implant: 0.1 percent IUD: 3.1 percent; male condom: 3.4 percent; early withdrawal: 5 percent; rhythm method: 15.3 percent; traditional: 2.2 percent total: 67.6 percent. [Source: Trends in Contraceptive Use Worldwide 2015 — the United Nations ]

Injection or injectible contraceptives such as Depo-Provera, Sayana Press or Noristerat release the hormone progestogen into the bloodstream to prevent pregnancy. Depo-Provera lasts for 13 weeks. [Source: Birth Control Around the World ]

According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”: “In a study of 500 Sinhalese Buddhist women in a southern town, Padma Karunaratne (1995) found that 17.4 percent of her sample used modern methods of contraception (i.e., the Pill, IUD, and condoms). Twelve-and-a-half percent of females opted for sterilization compared to only 0.8 percent of males; 21.8 percent used rhythm, 3.8 percent used withdrawal, and 2.6 percent used some other method of contraception. Thus, 58.8 percent of the adult female population used some form of contraception. However, the choice of when to use contraceptives differed substantially from that of Westerners. Women seldom chose to use any form of contraception prior to the birth of their first child. Only after the first child was born or the desired family size was reached did most women decide to adopt some form of birth control. [Source: Robert T. Francoeur, Victor C. de Munck, Ph.D., Patricia Weerakoon, Ph.D., “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”, 2002]

Ethnicity and Sexuality in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is an ethnically heterogeneous country. The dominant ethnic group is the Sinhalese, who comprise 74 percent of the population. The second largest ethnic group is the Tamils, who comprise 16 percent of the population. Muslims, many of the called Moors, make up about 9 percent of the population.

According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”: “ The principle of purdah is general to the South Asian subcontinent and was brought by Muslims from Central Asia who entered and eventually conquered most of the Indian subcontinent by the 17th century. Purdah is an Islamic custom that refers to the concealment of women and sexual segregation. All religious and ethnic communities in Sri Lanka practice it to varying degrees. Ethnic groups can be ranked in terms of the degree of adherence to the principle of purdah as follows, from strict to lenient: Muslims, Tamil (Hindus), Sinhalese (Buddhists), and Burghers (Christians). [Source: Robert T. Francoeur, Victor C. de Munck, Ph.D., Patricia Weerakoon, Ph.D., “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”, 2002]
Intercaste and interethnic marriages are legally sanctioned, but sociomorally sanctioned against. Intercaste or interethnic marriages are most likely to occur among the Westernized elite, where occupational status and Westernization have diminished the cultural force of ethnic and religious identities. Both intercaste and interethnic marriages are exceedingly rare and constitute less than 1 percent of all marriages. When they do occur, both sides of the family may ostracize the couple.

All ethnic groups in Sri Lanka are strongly against premarital and extramarital sex and view both acts as immoral. Not only the individual, but the entire family — and sometimes the community or ethnic group — is also held culpable for immoral sexual behavior. For this reason, pre- or extramarital sexual activity should always remain secret or private, for once it becomes public knowledge, foes can use this information to sully social as well as individual reputations.

Influence of Religion on Sri Lankan Sexuality

According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”: “ As a religiously pluralistic country, Sri Lankans do not have a single collective religious source or character. Buddhist and Hindu religious values center on the concepts of dhamma and karma. Dhamma refers to adhering to the teachings of the Buddha as they guide you to behave compassionately and properly in your everyday life; karma is a theory of causation that refers to how the transmigration of one’s soul through a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth affects one’s present-day situation. Life is thought to consist of suffering, which is based both on bad actions (pau) and false attachments (maya) to people, status, and the things that comprise this world. Through following the teachings of the Buddha, one can acquire good karma (punya karma) that not only minimizes suffering, but can even make life pleasurable. The following saying from the Dhammapada, the sayings and sermons of the Buddha, shows how good actions can lead to a good life: “If a man does what is good, let him do it again and again. Let him find pleasure therein. Blissful is the accumulation of good.” (Cited in Holt 1998, 190). [Source: Robert T. Francoeur, Victor C. de Munck, Ph.D., Patricia Weerakoon, Ph.D., “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”, 2002]

“Doing good” for Sri Lankan Buddhists is guided by five precepts: 1. abstaining from destroying life; 2. abstinence from taking what is not yours — which includes not neglecting one’s social responsibilities, as well as theft; 3. abstinence from fornication — which is taken to refer to any sexual misconduct; 4. abstinence from speaking falsely — which includes gossip and “ill-mannered utterances”; and 5. abstinence from intoxicating liquors, which are “the cause of sloth” (Obeyesekere 1968, 27).

Hindus and Buddhists share the same overall worldview. But there are some differences, particularly in the practice of their respective religious specialists. In Hinduism, celibacy for swamis or yogis is not absolute as it is for Buddhist bhikkus monks. In Hinduism, eroticism and sexual control are inextricably linked, so that control heightens eroticism, as is evident in the Kama Sutra and also in the images and stories of Krishna and Shiva. (O’Flaherty 1973). Buddhist mythology, on the other hand, is devoid of sexual imagery. The Buddhist monk, as his Catholic counterpart, is celibate and sexless. The symbolic neutering of the Buddhist monk is signified by having his hair shorn at the time of his initiation and keeping it shorn thereafter (Obeyesekere 1981).

The Muslim worldview is very different. The Koran offers a view of heaven as a sensual and hedonistic paradise. This is evident in the following passage taken from the Koran: “He will regard them with robes of silk and the delights of paradise. Reclining upon soft couches where trees will spread their share around them, and fruits will hang in clusters over them. They shall be served with silver dishes, and beakers as large as goblets. . . . They shall dwell with bashful virgins whom neither men nor jinn [genie] will have touched before . . . virgins as fair as coral and rubies” (Koran 1956, 18-20, Sura 37, 40-45).

Sri Lankan Muslims typically conceive of heaven as a libidinous world devoid of cultural controls: sex, food, drink, and comforts are there for the asking. The Koranic heaven is one created for men. It is unclear as to the position of women in heaven, as only Hourlis, the “bashful virgins,” are mentioned.

Chastity Belts in Medieval Sri Lanka

Animportant ornament worn by upper-class women was the mini-mevula, a gem-studded belt-like covering for the female genital organs, which was worn suspended from the waist. This ornament which figures prominently in classical Sinhala poetry appears to have been symbolic of chastity and its removal is said to have taken place only at the time of sexual congress. It is said to have not even been removed while bathing. [Source: Explore Sri Lanka, culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and history sources]

The Hansa Sandeshaya (15th century) alludes to a woman getting frightened as a fish got hold of the glittering gems in her mini-mevula. This ornament however cannot be compared to the medieval chastity belts forced on European women by their jealous husbands. Sinhalese women decked themselves with the mini-mevula solely at their will and pleasure as well as for adornment.

Martin Wickremasinghe believes that until about the 15th century it was the fashion for women to wear chains of pearls on their breasts. Such chains are said to have been connected to pearl necklaces and circled the breasts.

Early History of Toplessness in Sri Lanka

"Some Comments On Dress In Sri Lanka", an article in “The Thatched Patio,” published by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies by Dr. Mrs. Nira Wickremasinghe, a graduate of Sorbonne and Oxford, and history professor at the Colombo University and the University of Leiden, details the topless tradition of Sri Lankan women according to evidence presented by historical sources. [Source: Romesh Fernando, The Island, November 15, 1992]

Among the most famous works of art in Sri Lanka are the famous Maidens of Sigiriya, beautiful life-size frescoes of voluptuous thin-waisted, bare-breasted women scratched in a granite overhang underneath the fortress of Sigiriya in the A.D. 6th century about half way up a granite cliff. The breasts are large, firm and shapely. The Maidens of Sigiriya are among the few works of non-religious paintings found in Sri Lanka. The frescoes are among the earliest ever painted, predating Michelangelo by around 1,000 years. They resemble women painted at the caves in Ajanta, India.

On the Sigiriya frescos, Nira wrote: "The royal ladies in the frescoes wear pleated robes from the waist upwards, save for necklace, armlets, wristlets, ear and hair ornaments and displayed their breasts. The ladies in waiting wear waist clothes, few ornaments and a firm 'breast bandage' or thanapatiya. The Sigiriya style of clothing — Sigiriya frescoes depict women wearing the cloth gracefully draped like a dhoti tied in a knot at the front and pulled down to expose the navel — must have survived a few centuries in Ceylon".

"The Sigiriya frescoes illustrate the initial absence of social taboo relating to upper class women exhibiting their breasts. Mazuri has analyzed the theme of dress and nakedness in the history of thought. In Judeo-Christian cultures nudity is closely associated with sin. Nudity began to acquire all the connotations of bodily temptation with the coming of lust and the fall from innocence. The very concept of 'flesh' came to imply sensuousness."

"In a Hindu-Buddhist society it is difficult to assess with precision at what point semi-nudity became taboo. The Dhammapadatha Katha relates an incident which took place in the Tenth Century when a lay devotee, Rohini, wore a blouse before Anuruddha Thera only to cover marks left by a skin disease. This indicates that it was still unusual for women to cover their body. Women's dress was then a cloth round the hip leaving the body bare from waist upwards."

On his visit to Jaffna in the late 13th century, Marco Polo wrote: "It is governed by a King whose name is Sendeznax. The people worship idols, and are independent of every other state. Both men and women go nearly in a state of nudity (the writer has cause to envy this climatic adaptation) only wrapping a cloth round the middle part of their bodies."

Influence of Islam and the West on Sri Lanka Toplessness

Romesh Fernando wrote in The Island: “By the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries it was acceptable to remain uncovered at home but when going out to wear an upper garment. At this stage the cloth was worn with a separate garment covering the breasts thrown over the shoulders, which evolved into the shawl and breastband.A. L. Bhasham, in his monumental work The Wonder That Was India, notes that for many centuries Indian women did not wear upper garments except during winter in certain parts of northern India. He quotes the example of the Nayar tribal women of south India, who until the mid-20th Century went about topless. Bhasham implies that the Muslim invasions were what altered the dress codes of Indian women. In Sri Lanka one may note that there was a great deal of Muslim influence in the Kurunegala kingdom in the first half of the 14th Century, with even a Muslim monarch ascending the throne as Prince Vaththimi in about 1320 A.D. and ruling for nine years, according to the Kumnegala Vistharaya. [Source: Romesh Fernando, The Island, November 15, 1992]

Nira writes of the impact of Western influences from the 16th Century onwards which had the effect of making Sri Lankan women more conservative in their attire. "The costume of the Sinhalese women before the arrival of the Portuguese was abandoned in the Low Country as a result of the widespread adoption of Christianity and the free social intercourse which existed between the Portuguese and Sinhalese of the upper classes. The great majority of women in the coastal belt took to the Portuguese long-sleeved jacket rounded at the back and in front with V neckline".

Other witnesses seem to imply, however, that the common folk did not so readily adapt the Portuguese style of dress. One of them is Dr. Fernando De Queyroz who wrote "The Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Ceylon" in the 17th Century. Queyroz writes: "Such is the dress of the Lord and Nobles, for the soldiers, farmers and other common folk, have no other clothing save a cloth which they wrap on their head and a small bit of cord round the loins from which hangs a piece of cloth, one palm broad and a cubit in length, the end of which is tied to the same cord covering their natural nakedness".

"Those who are able, wear a sheet wrapped around that waist which at night serves them for a coverlet... The dress of the women is not dissimilar... Unless they are Widows, they wear what jewels they can on their breasts... The girls, more even than the boys, wear the garb of innocence up to the ninth or tenth year. Thenceforth the common women folk wear a piece of cloth white, red or striped, twelve cubits of the hand in length and two in breath, half of which they gird round the waist and the other half above the shoulders when they go to work".

While in the Maritime Provinces or Low Country the men and women became more conservative, this did not necessarily follow in the Kandyan Kingdom or Up Country. Until the late 19th Century many women of the so-called low castes did not cover their breasts, whether at home or when going outside. Nira quotes the 1841 lithograph by Prince Alexei D. Soltykoff: "Offering of a Kandyan chief in a temple of the Buddha near the environs of Kandy", which shows women wearing their saree in the Kandyan fashion and in the foreground two women of a lower caste who are unclothed above the waist. Numerous paintings by British artists of the 19th Century in Ceylon, some of which illustrate this article, are evidence of this reality. By the late 19th Century and the early 20th Century came the so-called Hindu and Buddhist reformers, Arumuga Navalar among the Tamils and Anagarika Dharmapala among the Sinhalese, who imposed the puritanical Victorian morality of 19th Century Britain on Sri Lankan society.

Sexual Activity of Children and Adolescents in Sri Lanka

According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”: “ In rural areas, parents are usually not overly concerned about the safety of their preadolescent children. Urban areas are, of course, much different. Homes in middle- to upper-class neighborhoods are usually protected by a fence or wall, and children are usually watched by parents or servants. [Source: Robert T. Francoeur, Victor C. de Munck, Ph.D., Patricia Weerakoon, Ph.D., “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”, 2002]

“Rural children and adolescents have plenty of opportunities to meet and play away from the watchful, prying eyes of parents or other adults. Because most villages, except for those created through development projects, are comprised of dense and overlapping networks of kin, children tend to have great license to roam, and they are monitored very casually by the community as a whole. In the rural context, it is much easier for children and adolescents to experiment with sex. The frequency of sexual play by preadolescent children is hard to directly verify. Adults acknowledge that their adolescent children are “naturally” interested in sex and therefore they must be guarded, but there are no such concerns for preadolescent children.

“Adolescent children are watched over by parents or guardians, but they are frequently given work, such as taking the goats or cattle to grazing lands, guarding the chena and paddy fields from birds and other predators, or fetching water or goods from a store. It is acknowledged by adults that when adolescents are engaged in such chores, they will flirt, display their genitals, and engage in sex play.

Masturbation, Cubbing and Petting in Sri Lanka

According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”: “Masturbation is considered unacceptable for girls, but is an acceptable practice for males. Most males learn about masturbation in their early teens, and it is not uncommon for boys to engage in male mutual masturbation, oral, and anal sex. [Source: Robert T. Francoeur, Victor C. de Munck, Ph.D., Patricia Weerakoon, Ph.D., “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”, 2002]

“It is also not considered abnormal for teenage males to practice interfemoral sex (one boy inserts his penis between the thighs of another boy), popularly called “cubbing.” Among themselves, teenage boys will remark teasingly on the thighs of another boy, suggesting that these boys are potential partners for cubbing. While mutual masturbation and interfemoral sex are condoned as a “hidden transcript” of teenage male sexual life, such practices are expected to stop at the time of marriage. If they continue after marriage, peers will express strong disapproval, and may conjecture, pejoratively, that he is a homosexual.

“In urban areas, love affairs are not uncommon in high school. These are usually intensely romantic relationships and involve passing notes to one another, clandestine meetings often arranged with the help of friends, and handholding or kissing. They seldom lead to receptive-penetrative sex and seldom endure. Such romances are accepted and encouraged, and are even sources of prestige among high school or college peers, but they remain unacceptable to the parents of the lovers. The couple and their friends generally think of such romances as “young love” and do not expect them to lead to sexual intercourse. For urban females from Westernized families, kissing and handholding are daring but acceptable forms of premarital sex, but any form of receptive-penetrative sex, heavy petting, or oral sex is considered morally and socially wrong. However, the intensity of an idealized “young love” relationship can lead to tragedy if the relationship does not eventuate in marriage. The breakup of such adolescent love relationships has long been a leading cause of suicide in Sri Lanka.

Flirting and Restricting the Sexual Activity of Girls in Sri Lanka

According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”: “ After menarche, parents severely limit the movement of their daughters and begin to consider prospective bridegrooms. A girl should be chaperoned by an adult if she is to go out in public, and she is to avoid all interactions with boys. The one exception to this rule is that girls are permitted to talk, and even flirt, with their male cross-cousins. For example, most rural Sri Lankans bathe at public wells or locations along a river or stream bank. [Source: Robert T. Francoeur, Victor C. de Munck, Ph.D., Patricia Weerakoon, Ph.D., “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”, 2002]

Boys and girls will seek out public spots to bathe where a cross-cousin of the opposite sex is bathing, provided that there are other people present. The strictures of purdah are relaxed for adolescent cross-cousin interactions because of the preference for such marriages and the hope that one’s child will not only agree to an arranged marriage with a cross-cousin, but will eagerly consent to the marriage. Social structure, cultural norms, and individual affections are intended to dovetail by relaxing the rules of purdah for cross-cousin interactions.

In urban areas, middle- and upper-class girls are expected to continue with their education. For such families, the goal of marrying their daughter to a cross-cousin has been replaced with the goal of marrying her to a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. Girls from middle- to upper-class families are encouraged to become proficient at English and English literature. The dowry transactions of the urban professional and elite differ substantially from that of the poor and rural peasants. In the former, the prospective groom is expected to bring socioeconomic prestige to the marriage, while the prospective bride brings nurturance, propriety, and high culture to the marriage. Of course, money, housing, and land are important components of the dowry transaction, but it is the prestige brought to the marriage by the prospective groom or bride that must first be settled and accepted by both families before the dowry negotiations over valued resources begins.

Adult Sexual Activity in Sri Lanka

According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”: “ For a woman, all receptive-penetrative forms of sex should occur within the realm of marriage. While monogamy is both the law and the norm in Sri Lanka, Muslims are permitted to marry up to four wives, though they rarely do. Yalman (1967, 108-114) noted that polyandry and polygyny, though rare, were historically practiced among the Sinhalese, and he reported four cases of polyandry and two of polygyny at one of his fieldwork sites in 1956. At my rural fieldwork site, there was one polyandrous household. In both Yalman’s and my own fieldwork case, the polyandrous marriages were not registered and were among poor rural farmers. Modern-day polygamy in Sri Lanka is a result of dire economic circumstances rather than a product of social norms. [Source: Robert T. Francoeur, Victor C. de Munck, Ph.D., Patricia Weerakoon, Ph.D., “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”, 2002]

“Extramarital sex is extremely rare for wives in intact marriages, yet, it is not uncommon for husbands to visit brothels or seek out impoverished widowed or divorced women (usually those with children to support). In the area where I worked, such women were called “keeps” (using the English term) rather than “prostitutes” (“ganika” or “vesi”). In addition to money, a man would bring clothes, cooking utensils, and other gifts to his “keep” in return for sexual favors.

“Rural women often come to the Colombo area in search of work at one of the many factories in Sri Lanka’s Free Trade Zones. After they are hired, they live in nearby dormitories for a couple of years and then return home. The dormitories are popularly thought to be dens of lesbianism, prostitution, and casual sex, and on their return home, the women are often stigmatized and unable to marry, despite having saved money expressly for this purpose.”

Polyandry (Multiple Husbands) in Sri Lanka

Polyandry (a woman with multiple husbands) was legal in the Kingdom of Kandy, which existed from the 15th to 19th century. It was euphemistically called “eka-ge-kema” (“eating in one house”).Asiff Hussein wrote: Says Knox, "In this country, even the greatest hath but one wife, but a woman often has two husbands." The polyandry practiced in Kandyan times was usually of the fraternal type and was known by the euphemism eka-ge-kama (lit. eating in one house). [Source: Taken from Sinhalese, Kandyan and early British era literary sources by Asiff Hussein, Virtual Library Sri Lanka ]

Joao Riberio (1685) says of the Sinhalese during the time of Portuguese rule (17th century): "A girl makes a contract to marry a man of her own caste (for she cannot marry outside it), and if the relatives are agreeable they give a banquet and unite the betrothed couple. The next day a brother of the husband takes his place, and if there are seven brothers she is the wife of all of them, distributing the nights by turns, without the husband having a greater right than any of his brothers. If during the day, any of them finds the chamber unoccupied, he can retire with the woman if he thinks fit... she can refuse herself to none of them; whichever brother it may be that contracts the marriage, the woman is the wife of all." He adds: "the woman who is married to a husband with a large number of brothers is considered very fortunate, for all toil and cultivate for her and bring whatever they earn to the house, and she lives much honoured and well supported and for this reason the children call all the brothers their fathers."

Phillip Baldaeus, a Dutch cleric notes in his book "Ceylon" (1672) that in his time the Kandyans recommended, "the conjugal duty to be performed by their own brothers" — and cites the instance of a woman resident of Galle who "had confidence enough to complain of the want of duty in her husband"s brother on that account." There also existed group marriages, where the brothers of one family jointly entered into matrimony with the sisters of another. Polygyny and polyandry however did not find favour with the British who saw to its abolition by means of the Kandyan marriage ordinance of 1859.

“The earliest record we have of polyandry among the Sinhalese is perhaps the Magul Mahavihara inscription of Vihara-maha-devi belonging to about the 14th century where we find the queen calling herself the chief consort of the two brother kings named Perakumba (Perakumba de-be-raja-daruvan de-denata aga mehesun vu vihara-maha-devi). The brother kings referred to in the epigraph are evidently two petty kings who wielded independent authority in the Ruhuna country at the time. [Source: Asiff Hussein, Sunday Observer]

The practice did not escape the notice of the European writers of the colonial period who have left us vivid descriptions of the custom as it existed then. The Portuguese historian Joao Ribeiro says in his Fatalidado Historica da Ilha de Ceilao (1685) that once the marriage ceremony is concluded, the first night of consummation is allotted to the husband, the second to his brother, the third to the next brother, and so on as far as the seventh night, when if there be more brothers, the remainder are not entitled to the privilege of the eldest six. "These first days being past, the husband has no greater claim on his wife than his brothers have; if he finds her alone, he takes her to himself, but if one of his brothers be with her, he cannot disturb them. Thus one wife is sufficient for a whole family and all their property is in common among them. They bring their earnings into one common stock, and the children call all the brothers indifferently their fathers".

“The Dutch missionary Philip Baldaeus in his Description of Ceylon (1672) says that the Sinhalese recommend that the conjugal duty be performed by their own brothers and cites the case of a woman resident of Galle who "had confidence enough to complain of the want of duty in her husband's brother on that account". The English writer Robert Knox says in his Historical Relation of Ceylon (1681): "In this country each man, even the greatest, hath but one wife; but a woman often has two husbands. For it is lawful and common with them for two brothers to keep house together with one wife, and the children do acknowledge and call both fathers".

“The last substantial account of the practice is perhaps that of Sir James Emerson Tennent in his monumental work Ceylon (1859) where he says that polyandry prevails throughout the interior of Ceylon, chiefly amongst the wealthier classes; of whom, one woman has frequently three or four husbands, and sometimes as many as seven. He notes that as a general rule, the husbands are members of the same family, and most frequently brothers. The custom was however not to remain legal for long for the British outlawed it the same year, though it is known to have survived for a considerable period thereafter.

“Ponnambalam Arunachalam observed in Twentieth Century Impressions of Ceylon (1907) that "Polyandry, though illegal, continues to exist among the Kandyan peasantry, especially in the case of brothers. The law against polyandry is evaded by not registering the union at all or by registering it as with one brother only".”

Sex Education in Sri Lanka

According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”: “ There is no systematic sex education in Sri Lanka although efforts have been made to develop sex education classes since the late 1980s. Advanced biology or general science courses in high school do provide information on how sexual intercourse is performed, but any additional information is at the discretion of the teacher. Most Sri Lankans acquire their knowledge about sex from their peers and, occasionally, through movies and magazines. Parents are embarrassed to broach the topic of sex with their children, and children typically respond with a shudder of disgust when asked to consider their parent’s sexuality. It is for these reasons that the government has been considering implementing sex education courses in public schools in recent years. [Source: Robert T. Francoeur, Victor C. de Munck, Ph.D., Patricia Weerakoon, Ph.D., “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”, 2002]

“The primary informal sources of sexual knowledge are gossip, jokes, and stories told by peers. Most sexual knowledge is obtained through what James Scott (1991) referred to as “hidden transcripts,” that is, stories or information disseminated in secret between friends. Because of the cramped sleeping quarters among the poor and in most rural homes, children have occasion to observe married adults in flagrante delicto. In this way, children obtain first- and second-hand information on sexual dimorphism and gendered sexual practices. [Source: Robert T. Francoeur, Victor C. de Munck, Ph.D., Patricia Weerakoon, Ph.D., “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”, 2002]

Syphilis, gonorrhea, and nongonococcal infections are the most common sexually transmitted infections. Studies indicate that 88 percent to 97 percent of Sri Lankan adolescents (depending on whether it is an urban or rural sample) are aware that infections could be sexually transmitted, but only between 47 percent and 52 percent knew that condom use could prevent the transmission of HIV (UNAIDS 2002).

“Husband and wife are typically too “lajay” (“shy”) to discuss birth control methods. Aside from the Victorian cultural norms that inhibit couples from discussing contraception with each other, the three factors that most impede the use of birth control methods among married couples are neither men nor women are instructed in the way modern contraceptives work, so that they then use them improperly; rumors about the harmful effects of a particular contraceptive may spread without impediment, as no one will know enough to refute them; and most doctors at family planning clinics are males, and women are often too embarrassed to ask them about contraceptive options. Better education about contraceptive use, and directing male or female patients to doctors of their own sex to discuss sensitive matters, would help increase the use of contraceptives.”

LGBT Activity in Sri Lanka

According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”: “Heterosexual sex is the only socially acceptable form of sex when someone is married. Homosexual sex is considered dirty and sinful; however, it is a common practice for unmarried males to engage in homoerotic and homosexual behaviors. These are not considered by the participants as homosexual acts, but as natural sexual outlets. Homosexual acts occurring between monks was documented in early Buddhist chronicles, where it was referred to as pansalkeliya (“temple game”). However, homosexuality is explicitly forbidden for monks. [Source: Robert T. Francoeur, Victor C. de Munck, Ph.D., Patricia Weerakoon, Ph.D., “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”, 2002]

“In modern Sri Lanka, homosexual acts between men are illegal and are punishable by 12 years in jail, according to the 1883 penal code, sections 365 and 365a, which is still in effect. Lesbian sex is not acknowledged in the law. Until recently, the above discriminatory law had not been enforced, but the rise in “sex tourism,” particularly of European homosexuals and pedophiliacs, has led the criminal system to apply this penal code more frequently, and consequently, there has been a dramatic rise in convictions (Fernando 2002).

“Sherman de Rose, a gay activist in Sri Lanka, founded the first gay rights group called Companions on a Journey. With support from the Dutch government, the group bought a house in a wealthy section of Colombo and opened a meeting center for Sri Lankan gays, called the Drop-in Center. The two primary missions of the center are to decriminalize homosexual acts and to increase AIDS awareness. In 2001, a second gay rights group was formed, primarily of young adults, and there has been an annual gay rights convention in Sri Lanka since 1998 as a result of growing gay rights activism. In a 1999 interview, de Rose noted that the law against homosexuality was being used to justify beatings and extortion of gays and lesbians by the police. He also noted that there is substantial evidence that men have been thrown out of their houses and fired from their jobs solely as a consequence of their sexual orientation.

“Until recently, there has been no acknowledgement of lesbianism or gender-conflicted females in Sri Lanka. This is gradually changing and there are now two “lesbian awareness” groups in the Colombo area. The first Sri Lankan national lesbian convention was held in January 2000 with an estimated attendance of 150 people. According to one of the organizers, lesbians “are generally accepted if they are financially independent and come from upper-middle-class backgrounds.” However, lesbianism is not accepted for women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Ponnaya is derogatory slang for transvestites and very effeminate males. In male-to-male penetrative-receptive sex, such as interfemoral sex, ponnayas tend to take the passive role. There are an estimated 300 transvestite sex workers in Sri Lanka (Ratnapala 1999, 14). Transvestites are also said to find work as “makeup experts” or to work in bridal or fashion stores. Sri Lankan society does not condone public displays of gender switching or cross-dressing unless it is part of a village or religious ritual. Westernized mothers will frequently dress their young preschool-age boys in dresses, but this practice is discontinued when the boy enters school. In rural areas, boys and girls under the age of 5 or 6 usually just wear a t-shirt and no clothes from the waist down, except for a string that is intended to ward off the “evil eye” (as wah).

Prostitution and Sex Workers in Sri Lanka

According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”: “There is a long history of prostitution in Sri Lanka. A number of Buddhist Jataka tales, whose oral sources go back to 500 B.C., concern sex workers. A 13th-century text on social conditions speaks of “vesya” (prostitutes). Extraordinarily beautiful women could become socialized as courtesans (ganika) to serve the king. They would be trained in the “sixty-four womanly arts” and socialized to be cultured and provide sexual satisfaction to men of high rank. [Source: Robert T. Francoeur, Victor C. de Munck, Ph.D., Patricia Weerakoon, Ph.D., “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”, 2002]

“Sri Lanka had a population of approximately 15,000 adult male and female sex workers (Ratnapala 1999, 71); the vast majority are in the Colombo area. Most of their clients are Sri Lankans, but tourists are the target clienteles that have spurred the rapid and extraordinary growth of the sex industry. For example, during my first visit to Sri Lanka in 1979, I saw no sex workers in Colombo. By 1982, they were not only present, but I was frequently hailed by pimps and male and female sex workers alike when walking along main streets in downtown Colombo.

“There are an estimated 1,050 rural adult sex workers (Ratnapala 1999, 15). These sex workers mostly live in rural market towns, either in a hotel or rented house where they receive their clients. The clients are generally other villagers, town merchants, traders who are coming for the weekly market, and soldiers.

“Ratnapala (1999, 84) estimated that the average sex worker has six clients per day, but barely makes sufficient money to meet their subsistence costs. Sex workers typically hail from very poor families. Only about 15 percent are educated up to the fifth year and mostly are married women, women who have a child out of wedlock, or who have been deserted by their husbands and are “single” but not able to marry. In a random sample of 100 female sex workers living at brothels, Ratnapala (1999, 10) found that 46 were married, 16 were deserted by their husbands, and the remainder (38) were single. Twenty-eight were between 18 and 25 years of age, 42 were between 26 and 30 years of age, and 30 were between 30 and 35 years of age. The majority of these sex workers did not voluntarily choose their profession, but were forced into it by dismal economic circumstances or were coerced into it, sometimes by their husbands.

“Young girls are also lured into prostitution. Abeyesekera (1991) offers a case study of a 15-year-old girl who had become separated from her family in Kandy and was abducted by a man who brought her to Colombo. There, she became a prostitute, and as her appearance declined, so did the conditions under which she worked. She was sold repeatedly, moving from one brothel or pimp to another until she was 60. Blind from a venereal disease, her left leg amputated, and part of a stable of beggars, she had, in effect, been a slave from childhood through the rest of her life.”

Children and Sex Tourism in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has a history of sex tourism and pedofiles. Child prostitution has been a problem in Sri Lanka. At one time it was estimated that two thirds of the prostitutes in Sri Lanka were young boys who worked the beach resorts. In 2003, a British television presenter Matthew Kelly was charged with of sexually molesting underage boys. Police raided his holiday home and confiscated video tapes there. In the 1992, the age of sexual consent was raised from 12 to 16. The punishment for having sex with underage children is up to 20 years in prison. A law was also passed that outlawed the trafficking and exploitation of underage children.

According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”: “ Sexual exploitation in Sri Lanka has been closely linked with the sex-tourist industry. In 2001, an organization called Protecting Environment and Children Everywhere (PEACE) was established with the goal of protecting Sri Lankan children from sexual exploitation. PEACE is affiliated with the End Child Prostitution in Asian Tourism campaign and supported through the United Nations. In 1980, it was estimated that there were 2,000 boys between the ages of 6 and 14 involved in prostitution (Seneviratne 1995, 10). Some of the boys are self-employed, but most are either sold into prostitution by their parents or lured by older boys, taxi drivers, hoteliers, or employees of hotels and guesthouses. Current estimates of the number of child sex workers are inconsistent, ranging from an estimated (and likely false) high of 30,000 to a low of 1,500 (Ratnapala 1999, 15). The latter figure seems to be the most accurate, as it is a result of extensive and careful study. [Source: Robert T. Francoeur, Victor C. de Munck, Ph.D., Patricia Weerakoon, Ph.D., “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”, 2002]

“Apart from the familial abuse common in every society, Sri Lanka appears to be particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Sri Lanka is well known for its boy child pedophile activity, especially of 10- to 15-year-olds (Seneviratne 1996). One hundred fifty thousand mothers work in the Middle East as housemaids, leaving children more vulnerable to abuse from relatives and neighbors (Weeramunda 1996). One hundred thousand child domestics are at high risk of physical/sexual abuse from their employers, though further research is needed to confirm this. Boys at boarding school and other children in residential care, especially children with disabilities, are more likely to be vulnerable to sexual abuse from house parents (Weeramunda 1996). Street children needing food and shelter are probably at greater risk, though further research is needed to confirm this.

“Seneviratne (1996), in her book, An Evil Under the Sun, emphasized that, historically, children in Sri Lankan society have been much loved. She says that although prostitution has been in existence for hundreds of years, the sexual use of young children has only developed recently. “Boy prostitution has been available in cities by organized groups for locals, but organized prostitution of boys for foreign clients is a recent phenomena.”

“Weeramunda (1996) conducted a survey with schoolchildren in three schools in Kalutara District situated near tourist hotels. Of those interviewed, 87 of the children (3 percent) said they had had sexual relationships with tourists. Nearly two thirds of children being sexually exploited were male, 12 percent had their first sexual encounter at 10 years, and the majority were between 12 and 14 years old. None of the children saw the sexual encounters as a “rakkshawa” or job, and surprising to Weermunda, 80 percent attended school regularly and did not “play truant” or drop out of school.

“Miles (2000) assessed attitudes using a self-administered questionnaire with schoolchildren aged 13 to 17 years in four schools in a high-risk beach area of Sri Lanka (Moratuwa). He reports that 10 percent of children said they had done sexual things, 8 percent with other children their age, 5 percent with adults, and 6 percent with adults for money. He further reported that most children felt it was not acceptable for children to do sexual things with adults and appeared to be strongly against the damage they felt it could do to children and their communities. (End of comment by P. Weerakoon)]

Sexual Dysfunctions and Ayurvedic Sex Therapies in Sri Lanka

According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”: “Reliable figures for the incidence and prevalence of sexual dysfunctions are not available for Sri Lanka. Sex therapy is usually offered by psychiatrists and psychologists attached to psychiatric units in larger hospitals. De Silva and Rodrigo (1995), working in a sexual dysfunction clinic run as a part of the psychiatric clinic in Kandy (hill country Sri Lanka), reported that the clients were almost exclusively male, largely complaining of erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation. In their clinic, female problems were rare and usually referred by gynecologists. These were few and related to unconsummated marriages and dyspareunia. Other professionals working in the area, however, report a high proportion of couples presenting with unconsummated marriages (Weerakoon 1987), many of these being because of vaginismus. All of these women were virgins and most believed that first sexual intercourse was a very traumatic experience, always accompanied by bleeding, and often associated with significant genital trauma. This myth is common among young people in Sri Lanka. [Source: Robert T. Francoeur, Victor C. de Munck, Ph.D., Patricia Weerakoon, Ph.D., “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”, 2002]

“It is common in Sri Lanka for practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine and folk remedies to advertise their services and products (De Silva and Dissanayake 1989), with prominent advertisements in national language papers (Sinhalese and Tamil newspapers). These advertisements advertise treatment as well as imply causation for the conditions. Some of the lead lines in these advertisements translate as: “Do you suffer from Impotence? Try our remedy today. Do you suffer from nocturnal emission? Are you losing precious semen with your urine? Instant (premature) ejaculation? Do not suffer any more. Sexual debility — there is a cure.

“The Ayurvedic remedies offered in this way are usually herbal preparations, both for oral ingestion and external application. The folk practitioners offer various “mystical” remedies. Many of the practitioners emphasize the supposed role of semen loss in the genesis of sexual “debility” and dysfunction, both in their advertisements and in their consultation.

Loss of Semen Syndrome in Sri Lanka

Dhat is a mental disorder found in Sri Lanka and India characterized by severe anxiety and hypochondria associated with the discharge of semen and a feelings of exhaustion. According to the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality”: In Sri Lanka, the condition has been called the “Loss of Semen Syndrome.” De Silva and Dissanayake (1989) assessed 28 consecutive males attending a sexual dysfunction clinic in Sri Lanka with such fears and symptoms. They reported that the four main groups of symptoms were:

“Physical symptoms, such as aches and pains, and/or mental symptoms, such as poor memory and concentration. Specific sexual dysfunctions: Anxiety about present or future sexual functioning (often associated with impending marriage and first sexual intercourse), and Direct complaints about the excessive loss of semen.

“The “excessive” loss of semen, through masturbation, wet dreams (nocturnal emissions), spermatorrhoea (interpreted as cloudiness of the urine), and frequent coitus in youth and early adult life are claimed to cause many diseases and disabilities. These would include, in addition to erectile dysfunction and premature ejaculation, a whole range of other physical and mental symptoms. These beliefs, which are widespread, derive from the Ayurvedic theories of the composition and value of semen. The result is that many men present with serious concerns, often tinged with guilt about their sexual desire and behavior. This syndrome has been reported in several Asian countries, e.g., the Dhat syndrome in India (Bhatia and Malik 1991).

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (, Government of Sri Lanka (, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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