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Interview: Radhika Chandiramani on What Self-Care and Sexuality Have to Do With Each Other

A photograph of Radhika Chandiramani, a clinical psychologist, writer and editor, and founder of TARSHI.

Radhika Chandiramani is a clinical psychologist, writer and editor. She founded TARSHI (Talking about Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues) in 1996 in New Delhi. Her published works on sexuality and human rights have been covered in media and scholarly reviews. Chandiramani received the MacArthur Fellowship for Leadership Development in 1995. She is also a recipient of the 2003 Soros Reproductive Health and Rights Fellowship. She trained in clinical psychology at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS).

Anjora Sarangi: Can you please help us differentiate between ‘sexual self-care’ and ‘sexuality and self-care’?

Radhika Chandiramani: Sexuality and self-care are two broad concepts in themselves. Sexuality, as we know, goes beyond sexual acts and refers to many aspects including body-image, self-image, feelings, sexual orientation, and so on. Self-care, too, is a broad term, but simply put, it refers to what one does to take care of one’s self and nurture wellbeing.

Sometimes people mistake it to mean ‘being selfish’, or inconsiderate of others, but it is not that at all. I learned this early in life through my mum. You see, my dad used to return from office for lunch sometime after 2 pm and my mum would eat hers at around 1. Seeing how the mothers of my friends would patiently wait for their husbands to get home before they ate, I asked my mum why she (and my brothers and I on school holidays) ate before him. She replied, “After working the whole morning, I get hungry. If I wait till he comes home I get hungrier and irritable, and if he is late, I get grumpy, whereas, if I eat at one, then I can be good and relaxed company for him when he gets home. Then both of us are happy.” That made a lot of sense to me then, and it still does. People who take care of themselves can take better care of others, if they want to, without feeling over-burdened or resentful. ‘If they want to’ is very important here, because self-care also implies being able to say ‘no’, just as in sex. It’s like the concept of consent we use for sex.

Self-care is what one intentionally does to increase one’s sense of autonomy, fulfillment, set boundaries, and nurture one’s self. Put negatively, you could say it is what one does to decrease stress, reduce burnout, manage time better and feel less like just another cog in the wheel, but it is more than just this.

Sexuality and self-care are related at many levels, right from the level of knowing what you want and what you don’t, how you feel about yourself, how you are able to communicate your desires and how you are able to enjoy your experiences. As we know, stress does not make for a happy sexuality or for stronger connections between people.

Sexual self-care is not a much-used term and it sounds narrow and body-oriented, as if referring only to masturbatory practices or pelvic floor exercises, whereas, to me, the concept of sexuality and self-care is more wholistic.

AS: What do you think is the level of awareness of sexuality and self-care in India?

RC: Very low for each of them and even lower when the two are put together! In India, we have a very high level of vigilance around sexuality because it is treated as a taboo topic and from a young age we become skilled at skirting around it, quite like the unacknowledged elephant in the room. And, as a society that is more geared to the collective good, self-care is not valued.

AS: Should it be part of sexuality education? If so, why?

RC: Self-care is a skill and it must be a part of all education, not just of sexuality education. The skill of self-care may be developed by encouraging young people to have a sense of self, to value each person’s uniqueness including their own. Our education system does not do a very good job of this. Neither does it do a good job of sexuality education.

Why must self-care be a part of sexuality education and general education? Because, if we do not value and take care of ourselves, what is the point of living? For me, the purpose of life is joy. Self-care is about feeling that joy and allowing it to expand to the people around us, to animals, to taking care of Nature and this planet that we are so fortunate to inhabit. That is why I believe that we need to learn it young and continue honing this skill as we get older, busier and more harried!

AS: Is there a relation between sexual liberation and emphasis on self-care? And how important is it?

RC: The so-called sexual liberation movement or sexual revolution of the 1960s had in large part to do with the contraceptive pill. But it also had to do with changing gender roles and a growing awareness that sexuality is political, a realm where power operates. If we see self-care as including nurturing our sexual selves, then maybe we can find a connection with sexual liberation. But what do we really mean by sexual liberation in today’s context? Is it the freedom to be who you are or is it measured by the number of sexual encounters you have? If it’s the latter, it seems more like pressure than pleasure.

To be able to truly enjoy our sexuality we need to be able to have guilt-free solo or partnered sex when we want to, or feel no pressure to have sex at all if we do not want it; the freedom to choose partners of any gender, caste or class; access to contraception, abortion, sexual health services, post-natal care; and, freedom from infection and abuse, among other things. This means that there is a complex interplay of personal, social and structural factors that go into bringing self-care into the realm of the sexual. Most people understand the personal and social factors, so I will not go into those. By structural factors I mean larger systems like the health, education, economic, and legal systems, to name a few.

For instance, what are we talking about when marital rape is not recognised in our country? Who does a married woman whose husband rapes her look to for justice? She may practise all sorts of self-care but she is still being abused by her husband and the legal system.

AS: Is the responsibility of self-care different for people of different genders?

RC: To say that self-care is a responsibility makes it sound like a burden, another addition to an already long to-do list. I see self-care as a skill that all of us can get better at. In a society that places so much importance on gender, gender plays out differently depending on which category a person is assigned to.

Women are seen as the primary care-givers, and ironically, rather than taking care of ourselves, we are supposed to bleed ourselves dry taking care of other people, be it as lovers, wives, mothers, daughters, daughters-in-law, professional career women, activists, and so on. For instance, the conversion from woman-in-love to daughter-in-law happens very fast, with all the concomitant responsibilities falling on the young woman’s shoulders and the glow of love quickly turning into the sheen of sweat from having to dutifully make the rotis.

And it is not only women, gender role expectations are imposed on people of all genders. Think of the expectations from gender-conforming men – they have to perform the role of ‘man’ and not whimper about it. And think of people who don’t fit the gender assigned to them or do not want to play by the rules of the gender game; waking up to each day is like entering a battle zone. When physical and psychological survival is at stake, self-care is not a luxury but a necessity.

AS: Is bodily self-care being commercialised with products like intimate washes and whitening creams and the sexualisation of women’s bodies? What impact is this commercialisation having on sexual self-care and women’s sexuality?

RC: Yes, it is, but commercialisation is not automatically a bad thing. There is a difference between voluntarily pampering one’s body with a bath oil or a massage that may also be commercialised and being made to feel that one is dirty or smelly if one does not use an intimate wash or a genital fairness cream. The latter is not self-care. These kinds of products make people feel diminished. The messaging we get from most media about body appearance also makes many people feel that they do not fit the ideals of beauty and so they are not ‘good enough’.

On the other hand, products like sex toys, dildos, and vibrators can be a self-care and sexuality tool. These are also commercialised and that’s fine because at least now people can buy them in India!

AS: How important is it to focus on one’s mental health as activists? And how can activists make self-care a part of their cause?

RC: As activists, we usually take very little time for ourselves, and when we do, we feel guilty. We focus on all the bad things that are happening and try to make them better. It is precisely because of this that we need to take better care of ourselves.

Seeing all the suffering on this planet, be it climate change or poverty or abuse, and working towards alleviating it, we also need to focus on joy and lightness to stay balanced and to be able to continue with our important work. I am not going to list all the terrible consequences of stress and push everyone’s blood pressure even higher because all of us know what can happen if we do not ease up and make ‘me time’.

Let’s focus instead on what we can do. Activists can learn about burnout prevention and make it a part of their regular activities and learn techniques to de-stress. TARSHI offers training programmes on these skills.

NGO heads can set the example by doing simple but effective things like encouraging staff to have a relaxed lunch and not mindlessly gobble up their food while staring at the computer screen, or by having a ‘quiet space’ – this could be a sofa, a chair, a chatai (mat), or a floor cushion – where they can go to centre themselves or have a rest during their workday, or by being able to take a twenty-minute break to go for a post-lunch walk, especially now when we spend so much time online. These are small and very doable actions, and they provide scope not only for activists to practise self-care but also for the organisation to show that it values its employees and takes their self-care seriously.

Apart from practising self-care at work, we need to also practise it with our families and friends by being able to spend meaningful time with them on the phone or online if we cannot meet in person, saying ‘no’ to their requests if we feel we cannot comply, finding some moments to be alone and be quiet, getting regular rest, and so on. It is amazing how sometimes we are unable to do even these little things because either we are ‘too tired’ or ‘don’t have time’. We deserve to ‘make time’ for ourselves.

AS: What self-care techniques do you use yourself?

RC: One of the most important things that I have learned is to mind my own business. By this I mean that I realised that my job is not to fix everything that I think is wrong, but is only to focus on what I have to do, do it as well as I can (knowing that it will not be perfect), be kind to myself and other people, and smile when I feel like it! I can only give what I have – and sometimes a smile helps grow a little love. So, I just mind my own business in the sense of I tend my garden the best I can, and smile at unsuspecting strangers!

This article has been updated to stay relevant in a Covid world.

Cover image courtesy of Radhika Chandiramani

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