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Still from a Hindi film 'Lipstick under my Burkha'. The character of Ratna Pathak Shah is waving so as to get someone's attention. She is wearing a rose in her hair, a pink saree with golden border, black blouse, and has her hair tied in a plait that has been pulled to the front. She is wearing coloured bangles, and earrings.
Accessibility and SexualityCategoriesVoices

Accessing Safer Sex – what does it mean to have access to exploring and enjoying your sexuality safely?

The discourse on safer sex is usually couched in medical language– protection from STIs and unwanted pregnancies are what supposedly make sex safer. But are these the only risks we face while seeking sexual pleasure? The problem with a clinical approach to safer sex is that it ignores other risks that are as real to many of us as the risk of pregnancy or STIs. In this article I want to focus on the emotional, social, and cultural risks associated with sex, looking closely into the risk of shame. In a more practical sense, safer sex can be understood as that which doesn’t have any adverse consequences – be it unintended pregnancy, diseases or social ostracizing and shaming.

One of the movies that I recently watched might be useful for this discussion. It’s that movie that everybody and their cat had an opinion about! Yes! I am talking about ‘Lipstick under my Burkha’! While this article won’t get into the debate of whether the movie is feminist enough, it is in a way inspired by such debates. There aren’t too many Bollywood movies that address how women negotiate the tricky terrain of sexuality – the mundane lived realities of contraception or the not so infrequent incidents of shaming women for any expression of their sexuality overtly or covertly. Safer sex is a responsibility expected to be borne by all sexually active women. In the context of heterosexual relationships or marriages, it is not often shared by the man. Does the State or the society place the responsibility of safer sex on men too? The answer is unfortunately an emphatic no!

So back to the movie! It narrates the experiences of a bunch of women negotiating the social demands placed on them especially with regard to their sexual lives and expression of their sexuality. While Shireen tries to deal with non-consensual sex within her marriage, Leela, and Buaji are slut-shamed for having and expressing their sexual desires. What does safer sex mean for these women? Konkona’s character Shireen struggles with negotiating unwanted and unsafe sex. She cannot get her husband to wear a condom. For her, not getting pregnant is the priority. The I-Pill (an emergency contraceptive) then becomes her source of protection against pregnancy. Her sexual life doesn’t seem to offer any possibilities for pleasure. Her husband has never touched her “down there” (as is said in the film) with love. But it looks like Shireen cannot afford to think about notions of pleasure, consent or even marital rape. Is it not we – the elite liberal feminists – who recognize the sex scene as marital rape? I wonder how the many Shireens in our society would view that experience. This is not to justify or discount marital rape, but to try to make visible the other risks or abuses that many women may have to go through if they were to raise their voice against marital rape. Could she be worried that her husband may leave her if she refuses sex? Is she scared of the stigma associated with being a divorced woman with three kids in a small town? How would the world treat her if she were to speak out?

Shireen’s character reminded me of Raji*. Maybe it was the I-Pill. I met Raji while I was doing my fieldwork in a remote village situated along the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. She was a 24-year-old woman who had given birth a few months ago. Amongst other things, I had asked Raji about contraception. Did she and her husband use condoms? Did she have a Copper-T (an intrauterine device used to prevent pregnancy) inserted? Or was she taking pills? She answered in the affirmative to the last question. From her narrative, I came to know that she was regularly using the I-Pill. “It is easy”, she said, “I just have to take it within 72 hours of having had sex.” She explained that it was the best option available. She couldn’t get her husband to wear a condom. He and his friends thought that it makes men weaker. “Copper-T is not safe,” she said. Her neighbor had developed an infection after Copper-T insertion and had to go to the hospital again to have it removed. I asked her, “Doesn’t the I-pill have any side effects? Are you really okay with it?” She said, “Yes, I have nothing to worry about. It’s easy. Besides, it was the nurse at the local state-run clinic who introduced it. How can it be unsafe? I only have to make sure that there is a pill available when my husband visits,” she said with relief. But I was getting a little uncomfortable. I asked if the nurse had warned her against any problems that might arise from regular usage. She said no. I wondered what nurse would really prescribe an emergency contraceptive pill to be used as a regular contraceptive. What could her reasons really be? Is the I-Pill really safe enough to be used a few times a month for long periods?

Then I met the nurse in question who told me that she had given Raji the I-Pill because it is the least dangerous option for her. “She cannot remember to take the Mala-D pills regularly. Condoms and Copper-T are not a possible option at all. Don’t you see that it is too early for her to get pregnant again? Her child is barely 6 months old and he is sick all the time. So she doesn’t want to get pregnant. Besides, he (her husband) might leave her (like he left his first wife) if she keeps having too many kids, too soon. So what (else) can she do? She can’t really say no, can she? What if he leaves her?” asked the nurse.

For me, it was a reminder that we live in different realities of safety and risk. Staying single or being a divorcee is still not a viable option for many women in India. The risks are too high. Even for acknowledging marital rape as such. Very often our bodies become a site where the mediation between different risks takes place. Very often language doesn’t become privy to such mediations. Being an unmarried woman, I can’t lay claim to embodied experiences peculiar to a marital relationship. Of course consent is difficult to negotiate even in a non-legal non-normative relationship, although it can potentially be more loving than a conservative arrangement such as an arranged marriage. But it is easier to evade social pressure and stigma associated with ending a relationship if your relationship is largely invisible.

In comparison to Shireen’s experience, the slut-shaming that Leela had to experience seemed a little more relatable. So did the ostracizing of Buaji for reading porn and engaging in phone sex at her age. Irrespective of age, such actions are not perceived as acceptable behavior for the “fairer sex”. Sexual desire, especially for women is socially accepted only within the confines of a hetero-normative relationship, usually a marriage.

Our society seems to consider that any sexual exploration within a same-sex relationship or even by oneself is not only unacceptable but a sin grave enough to rip you of any sense of respect. Women have it a little harder since they are typically considered mere sexual objects with no agency to express her sexuality. Anybody who doesn’t fit into the norm then is shamed into conformity by the forces that be. How do we safely engage in sexual practices deemed unacceptable within the context of cultural ethos and therefore considered unsafe? Can we really have safer sex as long as the responsibility for it falls on only one gender? Let me conclude by re-iterating that we need to push this conversation beyond I-Pills and condoms. The language of safer sex needs to include consent, respect, and shared responsibility along with, of course, our desires and pleasures, our shame and guilt.

 

* Name has been changed to protect the person’s identity

Cover Image: A still from the film – Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017)

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Article written by:

Unnimaya is a Phd Candidate in sociology at IIT Madras. She will be at the University of Texas, Austin for the year 2017-18 as a Fulbright Nehru Doctoral Scholar. Her areas of research interest include sociology/anthropology of medicine, health and gender and sexuality. Amongst other things she enjoys wandering around on her own, getting lost and sharing long meaningful conversations with friends and strangers.

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