In English, the word ‘sex’ can refer to biology – the kinds of reproductive organs a living organism has. It can also refer to a particular human act or family of acts that can be reproductive or recreational or both. What counts as a sex act can be contested, however, as in the infamous defence by former US President Bill Clinton against allegations of sexual misconduct with Monica Lewinsky: ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman.’ To the rest of the world, it seemed like an outrageous lie. Clearly, some sort of sexual activity did take place.

Not all languages use the same word to refer to anatomical sex and sexual acts. In Malay, for example, the translation for ‘sex’ in reference to anatomy is ‘jantina’, which is a portmanteau word from the component words ‘jantan’ (male) and ‘betina’ (female). To determine the jantina of humans, animals and plants, we need to ascertain the nature of their alat kelamin (sexual/reproductive organs). Sexual intercourse is therefore more accurately translated as ‘hubungan kelamin’, not ‘hubungan jantina’.

This kind of pedantry is pointless at most times but becomes significant when we need to make sense of sexual acts and identities that are controversial or stigmatised in different societies – not just on a Clintonesque level. Take the term liwat, which was developed by pre-modern Islamic jurists. The word does not exist in the Qur’an, but was coined to refer to what jurists understood as the sin of the people of the Prophet Lut. Many interpreted this as penetrative anal sex between males. Jurists from different schools or madhahib would disagree on what exactly constituted liwat and would often try to narrow its scope. If an adult male fell madly in love with a handsome adolescent, did that constitute liwat? If they kissed passionately, would that constitute liwat? Was non-penetrative, non-anal erotic activity between two men equivalent to liwat? According to the historian Khaled El-Rouayheb, these minutiae were discussed in great detail in the Ottoman Era. By the way, the answer to all three questions was no.

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