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Interview – This is what you bring to the table!

A photograph of a number of multicoloured rainbows against the background of a blue sky.

For this interview section of the 100th issue of In Plainspeak, 35 people showed up for a potluck gathering in our survey room. They brought with them, their selves, identities, beliefs, desires and the gift of sharing. We are excited by the hope that what we are able to present of them here, will interest, and inspire you, and also do some justice to the time and energy respondents put into answering these questions. So here goes!

We asked respondents two big questions:

How do you (want to) celebrate sexuality?

Is there anything else you would like to share with us regarding sexuality, sexual and reproductive rights, health and wellbeing?

While all 35 responded to the first question, 13 responded to the second question as well.

Some of you who choose to peep in here will want to know, who is in here, before you get to what they’re saying. So here’s a quick look:

  • Most respondents are from India, between the age of 25 and 50; 14 are in the age group of 25-30 years, 8 people are between 31 to 40 years, and 6 are between 41 to 50 years. 5 respondents are below the age of 24 and 2 are between 50 and 60 years of age.
  • 28 individuals identify as cisgender female, 3 as cisgender male, and 3 as non-binary / non-conforming. One person opted for ‘Questioning’ as their choice to describe identity.
  • Describing sexual orientation, 23 of the 31 individuals who identified as cisgender, also identified as heterosexual / straight, while 8 identified variously as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Asexual, Questioning and one preferred not to respond.
  • Most respondents, 15 of them, said they were single, 10 said they were married, while 6 people said they were in a relationship and 2 people said they were divorced. While the options given to choose from in the survey for relationship status may appear to be extensive – single, in a relationship, engaged, married, divorced, separated, widowed, in an open relationship, in multiple relationships, prefer not to respond and other – 3 respondents chose the option of ‘other’. Their descriptions were: (1) casual (2) NA and (3) confidential.
  • 17 respondents, (almost 50%), said they belonged to metropolitan regions, 9 respondents said they came from urban and 6 from semi-urban regions. 2 respondents said they were from rural regions and 1 respondent mentioned ‘other’.

To a question about disability status, out of the 35 respondents, 28 people identified as non-disabled, and 3 people said they had mental health conditions. One of these three respondents spoke of celebrating sexuality, “By constantly learning about and respecting its diversity, exploring its histories and seeking stories. Of pain, struggle, fun, pleasure and dancing”. One respondent said they had locomotor disability, and described both their gender and their sexual identity as ‘Questioning or unsure’. Two people said they prefer not to respond to the question and one person responded with ‘other’, sharing that they have fibromyalgia and describing this as an invisible disability. None of these seven people are married / currently married. Their description of gender identity is a mix of questioning, non-binary and cisgender, and of sexual identity as fluid, questioning, heterosexual, bisexual and ‘prefer not to respond’. We also found that all those either married or in a relationship also described their disability status as non-disabled. Looking at all of this, it is striking that even in this small group of respondents there are big things to discuss about disability, sexuality and relationship status and that any approach that jumps to make assumptions about another person would be unfair.

In this write up, we’d like to share a sense of what emerges from a compilation of these responses. This is based on the thoughts and feelings that come through for those of us here at In Plainspeak who have had the joy of reading the original responses as they came in to us. (Some of the quotations that follow have been slightly edited for flow and to help connect themes.) We know that most things in the realm of art, information and ideas lend themselves to a wide range of inferences and insights depending on the individuals making the inferences. So this time, we had Anshuman Yadav and Chitrangi Kakoti from the In Plainspeak team picking up on the conversations and identifying what stands out for them as well.

We begin with a seemingly small but interesting juxtaposition of responses about celebrating sexuality.
While one respondent said that they “Don’t know” how they want to celebrate their sexuality, another says “By making others around me comfortable in talking about sexuality”. The first individual is in the age group of 31 to 40 years, is married, and identifies as cisgender female, heterosexual. The second one is in the age group of 41 to 50 years, is married, and identifies as cisgender female, asexual. Another person did not respond to the question with words, but just a dash. This person in the age group of 25 to 30 years, is single, and identifies as cisgender female, heterosexual. With just these three responses from respondents who appear to have elements in common, as much as aspects that are widely different, one may fantasise about the beauty of acceptance in a world with such diversity. This is a world where people could come together and find room for each other, and themselves, to be authentic, and relate to each other, or, just relate to themselves.

Freedom is a big theme!
“For me celebrating sexuality means celebrating my freedom to the best of my ability! I want to feel more free because that is more important than being in a relationship. I have chosen to be single rather than compromise my freedom in any way,” says a respondent. Another person says, “How marvellous would it be to be a part of an all-fat-women music video or modelling campaign! Sexuality, for me, can never be too far removed from my body – my experience of it, my feelings towards it. As a fat woman, the fact of my body not being seen as conventionally desirable has always affected the pleasure and happiness I experience – not just in the sexual way, but also in the mere fact of being present in public spaces”, and… “For me, the best way to celebrate (my) sexuality is a simple one – to be around other fat women, dressing up with them, going out with them. I imagine I will feel free, joyful, and sexy in a way I have never before.” Our ways of being are unique to ourselves. On the same theme, another respondent takes a different approach: “I am a fat woman who was always told no one would ever be interested in ‘fucking’ me. And I believed that for the longest time. I was grateful for anyone who wanted to, ‘understood’ men who didn’t want to and accepted the death of my sex life for 11 years. Nor recognising the fact that I was actually just avoiding the experience to spare myself rejection. I am still messed up, but I’m working on it. And I have discovered a whole new world where I am comfortable and happy with my body. I see how the more I am comfortable the more I enjoy sex and the more the men I’m with enjoy it as well.”

As Anshuman notes, many respondents speak of the body, with issues ranging from bodily autonomy, acceptance, and appreciation of the body. The exploration and celebration of the self through art and communication were also some of the recurring themes. Also, while some people liked to have someone to celebrate their sexuality with, others preferred to do so by themselves.

Our physical bodies, body type, body image and notions of what is desirable, play a big part in the celebration of sexuality.
A respondent speaks of “accepting my body and shame that has accumulated”, while another talks of body hair and says, “It has taken [a] lot of years of unlearning to be able to get intimate”. This respondent states, “I am on my way to let go of the shame which comes with Hirsutism”. Individuals are at different places in the matter of this relationship with the body. A respondent shares, “Currently, I am learning to love my own body – I’ve been taking photographs of myself, and while I have kept most of them to myself, it feels wonderful to discover such joy and pleasure in photographing my own body, and to love my body and myself.” This individual who identifies as cisgender female, bisexual, and self-identifies as living with a mental health condition also says, “Another way has been by creating safe spaces for my friends to talk to me about their own negotiations with and explorations of sexuality. There is joy in being able to share such intimacies.”

Creativity, writing and art are themes that appear frequently in the responses we’ve received.
“My area of artistic enquiry involves rituals practiced in rural farming in Bengal. … Women play an important role in these rituals”, shares a respondent who connects creative interest and art to celebrating sexuality, as does another who says, “Through my work, I explore women’s self-expression and the beauty of sensuality in everyday life. My creations are personal expressions of my femininity, identity, personality, and originality. My artworks frequently explore aspects of women’s subconscious imaginations and wants that have been socially conditioned to be suppressed.” Art and the imagination are strong forces, as simply described by this respondent, “Liberation of any form/kind potentially comes from imagination. We need to imagine desired possibilities and practice them.”

Another respondent also emphasises engagement on the subject by “talking about it and exploring it’s meaning without worrying about awkward silences in shared spaces (particularly those occupied by people from other genders and older people, such as parents).”

Chitrangi picks up on this, and on responses that mention being able to talk to someone about sexuality, desires and fantasies. There is a felt need for a shared space, for communities, (which may be changing, fluid and dynamic too), where one can comfortably, safely and intimately explore and understand sexuality without feeling restricted or limited by social norms.

Sexuality is seen in the context of society and society is seen as judging individuals and relationships.
Of norms, a respondent writes that celebrating sexuality is not “norm based but Nature based.” Thinking further, this respondent explains what being ‘nature based’ means to them: “Nature is my inside, telling me what I am and what I want”. This is perhaps not simple, as another person writes about “constantly unlearning all the conditioned shame and guilt”. “To live fully and freely is a celebration of one’s sexuality”, “Openly, Freely, and with Pride”, “By being myself and a feminist” are some of the other responses that have come in to the ‘how’ of celebrating sexuality. This as many of us know, is also not simple. A respondent speaks of experiencing the contrast of life identifying as a heterosexual person, and then the criticism faced for a changing, fluid, non-heteronormative way of being. This connects to other responses mentioning societal taboo and the need for cultural shifts around sexuality: “We need to talk about it more, through art and remind people how liberating our ancestors found it. We need to educate them through our culture, history and interesting literature and make them realise how it’s not ethically wrong to think about it.”

Engagement with society on sexuality finds its way into responses presenting more large-scale options, specifically LGBTQ parades and rallies, which however have suffered the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. “In rallies there is no social distancing” says a respondent explaining their hesitation to be a part of a crowded event where people may not take precautions against the virus.

Shame is a theme, thought and feeling deeply ingrained and this may or may not be visible in articulations that approach sexuality.
To be able to write, ‘I’d love to celebrate my sexuality shamelessly’, must come from a space of thought and having engaged with the subject, by oneself or with others. While on the subject, not quite on a tangent, we counted the number of responses that used the word ‘sexuality’ and found that 19 out of 35 did so. How we speak of sexuality and related themes, the words used, are related to concepts of shame, guilt, and social taboo. Very few respondents used words such as sex, erotica and desire, but the concept of pleasure (and use of the word) was a little more wide-spread.

That sexuality is not just about intercourse with another, but about the self and that there are many ways to sexual pleasure.
A respondent self-identifying as a person with locomotor disability clearly and simply articulates this, “I want to celebrate my sexuality with my own self. I need my partner to understand that intercourse is not the only thing towards sexual pleasure but other ways too”. Other respondents mention reading erotica, writing about sexuality, or watching feminist porn. Self-pleasure, exploring toys, dirty talk, sexting and erotic comics are all variously mentioned in responses about celebrating sexuality. A self-described ‘night owl’ says, “I usually celebrate my sexuality at midnight by drinking my coffee with [a] few snacks, chocolates and Maggie”, adding, “I can cry at night, I can laugh from the bottom of my heart, I can do whatever I want because the night is mine.” The self celebrates sexuality in so many different ways, across time and relationships, “recalibrating intimacies outside of ‘big’ and ‘small’ and ‘platonic’ and ‘romantic’ by way of dissolving boundaries to forge more fulfilling romantic friendships and many small and ‘equal’ (attempted!) intimacies”. There is also, “investing time in self-care and understanding my physical and emotional needs and making sure I communicate that to my partner”.

To the second question, regarding sexuality, sexual and reproductive rights, health and well-being, we received a range of some critical, insightful, and some utterly delightful answers.

One person wrote, “Doctors need to talk about it; they make it too mechanical as if talking in [a] general way is creepy. Respond[ing] to queries so quick[ly], as if to get rid of [the] question. What is wrong with our gynaecologist[s]?” Another challenged a stereotype with simple but great daring, with this, “I wish people understood being a mother is not enough, mothers have sexual needs.” This respondent self-identified as having an invisible disability and in the question about celebrating sexuality said, “I wish to be more expressive regarding my sexuality to my partners and in general.”

Young people are also in the mix, and as one respondent, in the age group of 41 to 50 years, writes, “It would be good if more young people (for example in universities) can initiate and lead conversations on sexualities (for example through newsletters).”

Intersections become visible, when thinking of a collection of responses that raise issues of class, gender, access and opportunity.
For example: “In Indian society, class based access to freedom and education prevents healthy conversations around sex and sexuality at a universal level”. This respondent also self-identifies as living with a mental health condition, with gender identity being Non-binary/Non-conforming, and sexual identity being fluid. Of celebrating sexuality, this person wrote, “I want to celebrate sexuality by engaging in healthy sexual and affectionate relations with whomever I am attracted to without society judging me for it and without any strings attached with regard to expectations.”

Other respondents highlight how “shame and sexuality go hand in hand especially for women and marginalised gender identities”, and also “Imprinted practices of Brahmanical Patriarchy are one of the main reasons behind a lack of awareness since a system like this thrives on a lack of awareness”.

How does one approach the many different versions of the sexuality theme? Perhaps this response is a good starting point for anyone, anywhere: “Please spread the message that people should live and let live. My body, my mind, my choices.”

Finally, on all people celebrating sexuality in their own ways!
A respondent who self-identifies as a person with a disability, says, “I wish to write more and more about my sexual experiences both good and bad so that more space is created online for other women in similar situation as me to express their respective sexuality and sexual experiences and observations.” Further, in the words of this respondent, “being accepting of everyone as a human being”, is a good direction for celebrating sexuality.

The last word goes to another respondent, who says, “I think the best celebration is when all people feel safe and comfortable to talk about intimacy, pleasure, and challenges, with friends and families.”

Cover Image: Photo by Ricardo Resende on Unsplash