A digital magazine on sexuality in the Global South
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CategoriesMental Health and SexualityVoices

Equality of Sex In a Relationship

“At the same time, eroticism in the home requires active engagement and willful intent. It is an ongoing resistance to the message that marriage is serious, more work than play; and that passion is for teenagers and the immature. We must unpack our ambivalence about pleasure, and challenge our pervasive discomfort with sexuality, particularly in the context of family. Complaining of sexual boredom is easy and conventional. Nurturing eroticism in the home is an act of open defiance.”
― Esther PerelMating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic + the Domestic

Sexuality is about how people experience themselves as sexual beings in thoughts, feelings and behaviour. There are many factors that impact our sexuality – biology, relationships, sexual experiences, sexual orientation, gender identity, social norms, attitudes and communication. The thoughts and feelings we have about all these aspects of sexuality can be affected by the family and culture in which we grew up as well as our own personal world-view.

Culturally in India we still struggle to talk about sexual desires and needs in men and women, even of those who are married. The need to communicate is important in all types of relationships and whether we are in marriages, non-marital orsame-sex relationships, our ability to communicate our needs is often an indicator of the success of the relationship. Many people in relationships however struggle to communicate their sexual needs. We in the North (India) are a more patriarchal society and hence we prioritise hetronormative relationships and carry on with ideas like women need to procreate or that men have a sexual appetite that needs to be satisfied. We still refer to men as the heads of the family and often question a woman who chooses to stay single or to delay having children. Yes this is a generalisation, but it’s the predominant theme that I see so often in the work I do. I do not mean to imply that individuals don’t take on different roles in the relationship and family, but in fact emphasise that equality is key in a relationship. Not equality in terms of the division of labour and responsibilities but equality in terms of choices of how we want those roles and responsibilities played out. Even if this model has worked for so many years, it is problematic because if we continue to think that women have fewer choices than men, we will continue to perpetuate male dominance and inequality between the sexes.

In a healthy equal relationship, both partners are able to express their feelings and respect each other’s boundaries about sex. When I say boundaries I am not just referring to a situation where one partner might not want to have sex but also to situations where it becomes important to understand what works sexually for one’s partner. Deciding whether one wants to have sex or when one should is a decision one should make when it feels right for both partners. As much as we look at empowering women economically and socially it is incomplete if we don’t look at how to help empower women and sensitise men to each other’s emotional and sexual needs.

For an equal sexual relationship in any relationship, the following could help:

  • Feel comfortable with your decision. Arranged marriages are still the dominant form of marriage in India and for a lot of people it’s their first sexual experience. Being comfortable with each other to decide when to have sex is crucial at this stage. This applies for those not married as well; one should be able to choose when they’re ready to enter a sexual relationship with their partner.
  • Often protection in a sexual relationship is considered the woman’s responsibility. But I think it’s important to think about what that implies. Yes, we should be responsible for our own bodies, but in a relationship this could imply that men have sex for pleasure while women need it only to procreate.
  • Be honest with yourself and your partner. If one is not ready, that’s okay and one’s partner should respect it. How we communicate our needs becomes important. Partners can feel rejected by a refusal for sexual intercourse so it’s important to be sensitive when doing so.
  • If something scares you or makes you feel uncomfortable, there should be a safe environment to discuss that in a relationship.
  • You have the right to talk openly and honestly about your fears, worries and feelings.
  • A person can put pressure on their partner to have sex ―there is a fine line between expressing one’s needs and demanding that the needs be met. Remember, if you’re willing to meet your partner’s needs its unlikely that expressing your need will feel like a demand.
  • In a heterosexual context, men and women both must remember they have control over their body, and no one else has the right to tell them what to do with it. As important as it is for men to pay attention to women’s needs, a woman also needs to be sensitive to a man’s needs. If as women we assume that men will always be willing and able to engage in intercourse we may not be as helpful and supportive when men experience erectile difficulties, which is much more of a common problem than we realise.

When we choose to partner with another individual our hope is that they will understand us and take care of our emotional and intimate needs. Some of these needs could be the need to feel loved, valued, desired, and the need to know we are making our partner happy. When these needs are not understood or met, one of the partners can start to experience quite a bit of isolation. This can lead that partner to withdraw, which in turn can feel like rejection. Depression in couples is not uncommon. Usually an inattentive partner doesn’t cause depression, but the unmet and unstated expectations we have of each other can lead to one of the partners being depressed. Depression can often become a third person in a relationship and create quite a bit of havoc if dismissed. A person with depression can seem perfectly functional and coping. A partner with depression can be described as nagging, insecure, needy, complaining, irritable, unexcited. It’s easier to slot our partner into a stereotypical gendered behaviour like “My wife says she doesn’t like me to go out and have a good time” or “My husband expects me to be home when he comes home in the evening”. These sound so common that can they can be easily missed as unstated desires to have more time and intimacy with one’s partner.

Partners can have different ideas about when or what type of sexual activity is alright and what is not. The idea of expectations in a relationship often becomes a central theme; expectations of what we want from our partner in terms of love, how we want to be treated, what we expect our partner to do for members of our family, for us and definitely during sex. Intimacy isn’t just a pleasurable sexual activity but the ability to engage with our partner in a unique manner such that they begin to understand our beliefs, our wants and our vulnerabilities. Many men and women struggle with wondering if they are satisfying their partners intimately. We often assume that we will know how this is done; the reality of it is that we are two different individuals and being able to understand what we want and communicate it is crucial to the success and equality of any relationship.

Our sexuality is an ever-changing phenomenon in our lives – from birth to death. Cultural, religious, social expectations and laws affect what we learn and think. Learning to listen is equally, and possibly even more, essential for good communication. When we show the other person that what they say matters to us, they will be more likely to trust us and listen to us in return. Sex and intimacy are strongly affected by how both people feel, so it really pays to create a safe relationship where sexual and emotional equality is given importance.

Only we know what’s on our mind, so unless we express ourselves the other person is left guessing. Communication is always key to a healthy relationship, and the physical part of it is no different. Being completely open about sex can be uncomfortable even with an intimate partner. Still, it is important to push past that and let them know what we like, what we don’t like, or if we don’t want to go any further. Encourage your partner to be open as well because it takes practice and patience.

Pic Source: Creative Counseling Connections

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Article written by:

Sonal Sood is a couples and family therapist trained from King’s College London. She has been associated with the mental health field for the past 17 years and moved into private practice 3 years ago. Sonal feels she has a real curiosity about how people think and how they relate to one another.

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