Across cultures and continents, the Kama Sutra has a long-held reputation as one of the earliest texts on the art of sex. It’s spawned an industry of merchandise since its popularization, from illustrated books to films, branded condoms, and magazine columns. But there’s a problem: The book isn’t that sexy.
Published in the West in the late 1800s by British explorer and “orientalist” Richard Francis Burton, the Kama Sutra brought exotic notions of Indian sex to a restrained Victorian society. While people tended to focus on the chapters involving sex positions, the bit that deals with physical acts of intimacy is just one section of this seven-part treatise. When looked at in its entirety, the 2,000-year-old book tells a different story.
Originally compiled by philosopher Vatsyayana, the Kama Sutra was written as an intricate guide to setting up a life of luxury and leisure in ancient India. And when you read it, you’ll find advice on how a man can successfully commit adultery, how he should set up a bachelor pad, how women sex workers can make money, how to keep a woman faithful by using milkweed thorns, what types of women are “not to be enjoyed” — and verses describing when forcible marriage is appropriate.
In reality, it’s less of a sex manual and more of a deep look at ancient Indian power structures, gender roles, and the etiquette of pleasure. To learn more about what the Kama Sutra really says, watch the video above. And for more videos, subscribe to Vox’s YouTube channel.