If you’ve heard of the Kama Sutra, the name alone probably paints a picture in your head. You can almost smell the sandalwood incense and hear the sound of gentle chimes as the fantasy takes hold. Your lover’s hands slide on your skin to the rhythm of a meditative chant as you move from one yoga-like sex position to another until you spiritually bond through an hours-long orgasm.
The myths that surround the Kama Sutra are powerful. But this ancient tome is not a checklist of 64 positions that will spice up your sex life or lead you to a spiritual awakening. It’s a window into how people two thousand years ago in India thought about both sex and how to live a great life. And it’s often shocking just how modern their way of thinking seems. It’s so modern that, 150 years ago, translators felt the need to hide the true meaning of many passages. Many sections would still be controversial today.
Even if you’ve read through the entire Kama Sutra, new research has uncovered even more surprises about the book. Ready to have your mind blown?
1. It’s Not Just a Sex Manual.
The Kama Sutra isn’t just about sex. It’s an Indian gentleman’s guide to how to live a good life, circa 300 AD, with quotes from even older texts. The book describes how a man should groom himself, how he should behave in upper-class society, and how he can influence people in order to get them to do what he wants. (“What he wants” is generally sex, and “people” could be anyone from a married woman to one of the guys he prowls around town with.)
2. It’s Also Not a Guide to Achieving Spiritual Breakthroughs via Sex.
2000 years ago spirituality was a part of everyday life, so there is an element of spirituality in the book. But it was never meant to be a guide to how to achieve nirvana through sex. Working through all 64 sexual positions is not a prescription to unlock enlightenment. (If you’re looking to explore the spiritual side of sex, read our article on Solo Spiritual Sex.)
3. The Author was Celibate.
That’s right. Vatsyayna never actually field-tested the instructions in the book, which may explain why you just broke your ankle while trying to do “The Balancing Act” with your partner.
4. The First English Translation, Which is Probably the One You Read, is Terrible.
Sir Richard Burton and his team didn’t fully understand Sanskrit when they translated the Kama Sutra. If they couldn’t figure out what the text was saying (for example, the section on the G-Spot), Burton would just make up a “translation.”
He also fudged the translation to fit Victorian ideas of gender and gender roles. In Burton’s version, the act of a man cheating on a woman was called “misconduct” (the original text is a lot harsher), a lesbian was called “corrupt woman” (the original text doesn’t judge), and a dildo was called “medicine.” And that’s just for starters.
Which is why you may not have realized…
5. The Kama Sutra is Not Just About Straight, Monogamous Sex.
When it comes to sex, the Kama Sutra recommends “tasting both flavors.” If you’re confused about what that metaphor might mean, just flip to the instructions for how a woman can seduce her serving girl or a man can talk his (male) masseur into giving him a blowjob and it’ll clear everything up.
6. The Writer (or Someone from His “Research”) Sure Seemed to Like Getting Blowjobs.
The author Vatsyayana says that oral sex is an unclean act. However, he describes receiving a blow job in exquisite, extensive detail, more so than any other act in the book. In his opinion, men are better at giving head than women.
7. There’s Transgender Representation in the Kama Sutra.
Burton’s version of the Kama Sutra mentions “eunuchs,” but there aren’t eunuchs in the original book. Academic Wendy Doniger says a more accurate translation is “third gender.”
In some cases, a “person of the third nature” dressed and behaved as a gender other than the one they were assigned at birth. This fits the modern definition of transgender. And yes, the book also includes detail on how you can seduce this “third nature” person and what you can do with them in bed (against the wall, on the massage table…)
8. Women are More Passionate Than Men, and Should Come Early and Often.
Vatsyayana says a woman’s desire is “eight times that of a man.” Therefore, the man has to make sure the woman comes first and often. Because once he has his orgasm, he will be unable to give her even the smallest satisfaction. At this point, according to Burton, the woman should “lay him down upon his back, and give him assistance by acting his part.”
To clarify what “acting his part” really meant…
9. Gender- and Power-Swapping is a Key Part of the Kama Sutra.
When a woman “acts a man’s part” in the Kama Sutra, “she mounts him and sodomizes him.” The manual instructs her to take a dominant role in all other aspects of the erotic encounter.
10. Vatsyayna Destroys the Idea that Sex is Only for Procreation.
Vatsyayna points out that, while animals only have sex when the female is fertile, humans will have sex at any time. If sex were meant strictly to produce children, Vatsyayna argues, why would we have the urge to get it on all the time?
11. Even Vatsyayna Thinks that You Shouldn’t Do Everything in the Kama Sutra.
“The statement that ‘There is a text for this’ does not justify a practice,” Vatsyayana wrote. Whether it’s the extremely acrobatic sex positions or the instructions on how to make yourself invisible (place magic potion into vagina, set it on fire), just because the Kama Sutra tells you how to do something doesn’t mean you should do it.