I have been out of school for close to five years. I recently met up with a friend from school after a very long time, and we got down to talking about how our peers and we have changed drastically compared to who we were back in school, and who we were expected to become now. On my way back home, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I have changed compared to my sixteen-year-old self, particularly with regard to my views on sexuality.
I grew up, like most of my friends, in a fairly liberal household. We all attended a liberal school that encouraged critical and open thinking, and were constantly surrounded by strong female role models. I suppose I had to deal with fewer restrictions compared to many other teenagers. I was never restricted from being friends with boys, having them over, or speaking to them on the phone. I aggressively consumed Western media, which is a confusing mix of hypersexualisation of women and the promotion of conservative views on sexuality. Despite all of this, growing up, the ideas about sexuality that I subscribed to feel like the opposite of liberal. Confronting these ideas that I held in the past have made me realise how easily morality interweaves sexuality with love, as if it is impossible for the one to exist without the other.
I am able to understand the role of morality in sexuality and love only in retrospect. The thing that really skewed my understanding of sexuality back then didn’t come in the form of morality for me, but in the form of love. As an awkward teen, I waited for love to come and find me. Love: it was that once-in-a-lifetime, never-ending, heteronormative emotion, a promise of everlasting butterflies in one’s stomach. I had watched it on TV, in films, and read about it in books. I had read and watched it fail in real life and in fiction, but I kept wanting it because it had to work out for me. It was a special feeling that was to be true-er and real-er than anything else. And if it really were true and real, then it would undoubtedly end in marriage, with the wedding day being the most special day in any girl’s life. After all, why wouldn’t everyone want to spend their entire life with just one person? Following the most special day ever, you could expect sharing every single moment with this man you loved, happily ever after. But to have this fantasy isn’t that odd – we are told to believe in a very specific version of love that begins with fairytales at a very young age. What bothers me is how this type of love affected how I dealt with my sexuality.
Implicit to the idea of the true, real love, is also the aspect of morality. It injects the notion of ‘purity’ by saying there is only one person that you can love. It divides sexual encounters into two: those which ‘mean’ something, and those that are frivolous. Sure, everyone wants their first kiss, etc. to be special. But can sexual encounters not be special and meaningful if they occur outside of this idea of love? How does one then explore one’s sexuality? Find out what one likes and doesn’t like? Any kind of relationship that doesn’t end up in a wedding, the legal validation of the forever, is deemed to be frivolous. It acts as a tool to instil heteronormativity and the stereotype of the masculine, macho man and the feminine, docile woman – someone who needs to be taken care of. Any sexual encounter, feelings or desires that are not directed towards the other sex are judged to be frivolous, if not abnormal. This automatically takes away any agency that one may have over one’s own sexuality and self. Your sexuality is no longer your own, it serves not you, but someone else.
And so came the agony of having to deal with real life. My inability to understand sexuality outside of love led to the development of a host of mixed up feelings. I told myself my feelings towards someone I liked were real only if I felt a fierce love matching the imagined intensity of this version of love. Love is a two way street, so logic demanded for this same love to be reciprocated. I waited to be swept off my feet, but that didn’t really happen. I didn’t feel so strongly about anyone I met, and the idea of being so strongly felt for freaked me out. I would tell myself that I wasn’t attracted enough to anyone, never giving myself the chance to discover the potential that may have existed in a relationship. I always had my guard up, while several of my friends, without being madly in love, were in relationships that made them happy.
It took a couple of years for me to let go of the idea of the one, true love. I developed a crush on a boy I met while volunteering in an organisation in the foothills of the Himalayas. He was a student, visiting for the summer from America. We were never in a relationship, but we trusted and respected each other. He was my first kiss, among other firsts, including being able to feel pleasure, expressing my sexual desires and having them fulfilled. Without the promise of staying together once we went our separate ways, I was left alone to battle my guilt. Unable to realise that I had the right to explore my sexuality for my own sake, I felt guilty for being ‘frivolous’. But the degree to which I felt happy eventually helped me put the guilt aside. I realised that I had agency over my own feelings, body and sexuality: it was mine, and nobody else’s, I had the right to discover it, to experiment with it, to experience pleasure just for the sake of it if that’s what I liked, because it made me feel good.
What is love anyway? I will not say I have this figured out, but at this point in time, I am convinced that there is no one kind of love within which we can explore and learn about sexuality. I say I love people when I care about them, trust and respect them. There are no rules for love or sexuality, it is an immensely personal experience with no objective right and wrong. As long as the terms of any interaction or relationship are acceptable for the parties involved, as long as we have the agency to negotiate and discuss these terms and conditions for our own satisfaction and benefit, any arrangement works. We should be allowed to set our own expectations and rules, and modify them as we evolve as individuals, with or without someone else. Love and sexuality are important not only for pleasure but are also integral to our personal development. My exploration of love and sexuality has also been an exploration of the self. In this sense, all sexual encounters and feelings are meaningful.
Recently, I learned that I am often attracted to people on a purely sexual level, that I am comfortable with the idea of having a relationship that demands nothing more of another person but sex. I like being able to connect with people on a level that is not platonic, but doesn’t come with commitment or romance. I have been fortunate to have met people, men and women, friends and strangers, who have been extremely respectful and kind in allowing me to discover and experiment with my sexuality without judgement. Initially I experienced shame for not only enjoying sex, but also when I fantasised about a sexual encounter. However, as the guilt and shame wore off, I began experiencing shame for feeling less and less shame as time went by, something that I sometimes still struggle with. My introduction to the sex-positive movement by my friends and several resources on the Internet (like TARSHI itself) have helped me immensely in overcoming these feelings, and helping me develop a deeper understanding of what constitutes safe sex and consent. So far, all of it has been nothing short of a major revelation: I have the right to be fulfilled and satisfied sexually, and the power to control and negotiate the terms on which it occurs. The freedom that I feel after having been able to get rid of the ‘true love’ norm has not only made me feel empowered and confident, but has also helped me become sensitive and accepting towards others’ feelings, desires and needs. I am still figuring out what works for me and what doesn’t; it hasn’t been easy, but I am glad to be able to trust myself and be my own friend during this process.
Image: sherifx (CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)