“Nidhi Goyal only knows how to talk about sex” was the rumour that reached me when I first started working on sexuality and sexual rights eight years ago. I went from being offended to being entertained in a matter of minutes on hearing this. What I started observing from that day onwards is how much the understanding of sexuality is reduced to sex, but then again, sex can help to assert, express and claim one’s own sexuality and orientation, of course it can.
For some, sex is a discovery of their fantasies and their bodies, for some it is pleasurable, for some it is linked to romance, for some it is an obligation within a relationship, for some it is a negotiation tool, for some it is a site of trauma, and for some it may be all of this. But what is still hidden for many is the multitudes of ways sex can be experienced. A quick street-survey even in urban India will tell you that sex for most is still a peno-vaginal act. And therefore, “If they are a lesbian couple how will they have real sex?”, “His lower body is paralysed how will he have an erection or put it in?”These questions really arise from the Kama Sutra subscribers of sex. Leaf through the pages and glance through the sex positions and you will know that if you want sex you better be as flexible as a malkham performer, as light as a ballet dancer and as fit as a yoga guru. It is worse than the slim models with perky breasts selling lingerie and making you feel that if you are not an exact 36 D, you are unsexy or in the case of the Kamasutra un-sex worthy.
Oh, come on! Haven’t theories and papers and our own experiences told us that sex happens in the mind? We all know that media and advertising are selling sex in the minds of people. The undertones in ads for all sorts of things ranging from perfumes to lipsticks and shampoo to soup are all about getting laid. But again, the message shouting at us from them is problematic because it says only bodies of a certain kind, voices of a certain texture, smiles of a certain calibre deserve their sexuality and deserve sex. We need to turn around and say – poo to you!
It is funny, if sex were a person, how discriminated against it would feel. Like in advertising, so in real life, sex is forced to speak in undertones, remain in the subtext, be invisible, or pretend that it does not exist. As a comedian I get a brief from corporates, “Please crack jokes around romance, dating, being a single woman, but but but…. no jokes about sex, please”. And the world, as they say, loves its taboos. As writer and film-maker, Paromita Vohra said in an article “One way sexual life becomes tabooed is when we don’t discuss sex as sex, but hide behind abstract terms like sexuality or the double entendre of analogies.”
But who is allowed to call sex sex? Who is accepted if they express their desire for sex without being given labels of ‘desperate’, or ‘fallen’, or ‘unnatural’? Not many at the bottom of the social normative ladder; and the largest group would be women. Bollywood sometimes perpetuates stereotypes, but really, it reflects hegemonic mind-sets. The hero who has multiple sexual partners, has an active sex life, watches porn, is cool and a stud and a bad boy in an“ahh”so desirable and “aww” so adorable way. Whereas when a Sarita Silk expresses her lust and desire for sex in a film that is supposedly‘liberated’ yet named The Dirty Picture, a significant part of the acclaim it received was that the actress was very ‘bold’ to take on this role.Entertaining, how ‘bold’ is used as much for othering or calling female sexuality ‘abnormal’ as ‘god-like’ is used for persons with disabilities. But as Vidya Balan, the protagonist in The Dirty Picture rightly says, “Women want it, need it and like it as much as men do.”
While what Balan says is true, many women from marginalised communities have a deeper issue to consider before talking about sex. It is about their sexual self. Media, public discourse and popular cultural lenses make many believe that they don’t deserve to have a sexuality, let alone express desire, or feel sexy, or have sex. For example, it is common for labels like asexual and non-desirable to be associated with women with disabilities. When the language of norms saturates social media and public conversations and messaging,women who ‘deviate from gender expectations’ – dark women, short women, fat women, disabled women and so on–are forced to internalise the chatter, in many cases creating decreased self-worth, suppression of desire, and negatively impacted choices. In the light of the resonating phrase “beggars are not choosers”, they are forced to create a hierarchy of facets of sexuality and constantly negotiate the lowest common denominators for themselves.
Those who don’t internalise the suppression of their sexuality and sexual behaviours, struggle between the personal realisation and the public calibration of their desire, often leading a life of pretence and silence. The silence around sexual behaviour, whether or not women are having sex, whether or not they think it is okay, or ways to deal with emotions, desires, or any baggage that comes with it, leaves them in a vulnerable position. The vulnerability comes from isolation: always puzzling about whether others have done it; reduced agency: when they cannot claim the act they have consented to; and, self-doubt: whether it was correct, what it would mean socially, whether they would be judged. This isolation and vulnerability particularly impacts those women who already feel like they do not deserve sex and have no access to information or peer circles so easily. Many women from closed communities of disabled persons, of lesbians, or from conservative cultural communities live in the fear of being outed about their sexual engagements as a part of violating their trust or as a form of revenge. Thus making them fear naming and shaming and further harm.
There are persons (particularly young adults) living with their families or in strict housing, rental and other arrangements, who don’t find safe and private spaces to have sex– because with police barge-ins on consenting adults, we know hotels and motels are not safe anymore. There are adults who have a strong desire to have sexual engagements with another,but have restricted access to larger society (as with people with disabilities) because of social exclusions and prejudices. We know that for many women, expressing their lust is unacceptable. With this lack of possibilities and growing unfulfilled lust, many persons (especially women and youngsters) start expressing the need for a socially accepted space for sex or give in to the pressure of marriage. Somehow, marriage then becomes the only validation, a way to claim their sexuality, to feel sexy again, the liberating space where they feel they could express their desires.
But the confusion – while sex sometimes can be fun, and at other times complicated and frustrating –is always love, lust or desire: which one you are signing up for and which one did you want to actually explore? This is just another of the myriad ways of exploring sex and sexuality – experiencing the drive and complication of desire while navigating the social, cultural and personal barriers of expressing desire – and fusing sex back with sexuality.
Cover Photo: Alia Sinha (minor_grace– Instagram Handle)