Sarah Barmak, a Toronto-based journalist and author, highlights the medically incorrect picture of female sexuality dating back centuries in her TED talk The uncomplicated truth about women’s sexuality. She reveals that it took science till 2009 to carry out 3D mapping of the entire structure of the clitoris, that was long after the 3D mapping of the entire human genome had been completed. The existence of the clitoris was known for hundreds of years before its importance was fully acknowledged and its anatomy fully understood. In her words, “This ignorance has real-life consequences. In a medical journal in 2005, Dr. Helen O’Connell, a urologist, warned her colleagues that this structure was still nowhere to be found in basic medical journals, textbooks like Gray’s Anatomy. This could have serious consequences for surgery… Take this in. Gentlemen, imagine if you were at risk of losing your penis because doctors weren’t totally sure where it was or what it looked like.”
Now, we know that the clitoris is the most erogenous zone in the human body with around 8,000 nerve endings. If you’re wondering why it took science so long to map its full structure, there are about a hundred jarring reasons. Like most other spaces in society, science too, has been dominated by men for centuries. For a long time, female bodies were considered similar to male bodies, just shorter, and most research and medical trials focused primarily on the male body with the assumption that the same would work on the female body. It is not too hard to imagine the impact this approach has had on women including the complete lack of acknowledging us as sexual beings and not just potential mothers. In her book Inferior, Angela Saini brings to light studies, research and experiments from the field of science to challenge the sexism in popular scientific work which depicts women as inherently inferior creatures such as Charles Darwin’s work on ‘difference in the mental powers of the two sexes’.
The progress made in science and technology, and innovations in digital media have enabled women and people with diverse gender and sexual identities to explore and access information, products, and services around their sexuality, reproductive and sexual health and wellbeing. Contraceptives have enabled women to separate reproduction from sex. Whether it’s an IUD, a shot, an implant, or a daily pill, birth control is a part of many adult women’s daily life. While this is evidently ‘progress’, it is accessible to people differently based on their socio-economic and geographical context. Technology, like the Internet, has made relevant information accessible in a private setting where people can explore their curiosities, address their concerns as well as engage with sex and sexual content in virtual spaces. However, virtual spaces have their own set of complex challenges around privacy, safety and consent. In addition, content available online is not immune to social realities and more often than not, ends up reinforcing the deep-rooted sexism in virtual spaces. Take the porn industry as an example that is replete with problematic content. In the context of sexuality, the representation of female bodies and their participation in sexual activities, as depicted by the majority in this industry, is very narrow and does not capture the diversity of women’s bodies and their desires. It still largely caters to the male gaze and to male pleasure. In terms of social realities, we are still far from accepting women as sexual beings, depicting them as equal participants in sexual activities and focussing on their pleasure. However, in India through E-commerce platforms, and using strategies like subtle names (massagers instead of vibrators), designs (banana-shaped dildo instead of penis-shaped dildo), discreet packaging and avoiding explicit advertisements for the products, both sellers and buyers have been able to navigate the social stigma and possible legal issues, while catering to the needs of customers.
On a deeper level, the lack of comprehensive sexuality education in schools and anatomy being taught without affirming its connection with sexuality or pleasure, has resulted in women growing up with a lack of awareness about their own genital anatomy. In addition to this, when parents, teachers and other elders in the family tell young girls to sit properly, wear a dupatta (scarf) in a way that covers their breasts, wear long skirts to cover their knees or instead wear a salwar, not be out late, not talk to or hang out with boys, whisper about their menstrual cycles only to their mothers, not enter the kitchen and temple while menstruating, change the TV channel if there is an intimate scene playing, among other things, while constantly connecting many things with their family honour and respect, it makes them view their bodies as something to be carefully hidden and protected. Many of these messages make them think of sex as immoral, dirty, unspeakable and instil stigma and shame around their bodies, especially their sexual and reproductive parts. This shame is converted into guilt if they are sexually harassed or assaulted because they believe they are to be blamed. We live in a society where women are still judged for purchasing condoms, the emergency pill and pregnancy-testing kits, gynaecologists still question them about their marital status during a medical consultation, pop culture continues to pander to the male gaze, their virginity is still questioned and held in such high regard that they may be brutally punished or even killed for sexual ‘transgression’, and women’s struggles to fully own their bodies and explore their sexuality continue to remain a challenge. Such challenges come with additional layers for other people who do not identify as cisgender and heterosexual males, the primary ones being around socio-cultural and economic inclusion at large. Trivialising, confusing and inaccurate representation in digital mediums adds to this. Heteropatriarchy will continue to dominate narratives around diverse bodies and sexualities unless these narratives are consistently challenged and re-scripted in all mainstream spaces.
While systemic change is critical, we can still influence the process of positive change and challenge the dominant narrative of sexuality and pleasure centred around the cis-hetero male identity on multiple levels. Many projects like The Pleasure Project and Cliteracy and organisations like Agents of ISHQ, Hidden Pockets, Love Matters, Nirantar, and TARSHI are using scientific studies, research and gender-aware approaches to debunk myths around sexual and gender identities, sexualities, and pleasure. The media is trying to be more inclusive and representative when it comes to portraying the importance and diversity of sexuality beyond cis-hetero male identity. Many therapists and counsellors are adopting queer-affirmative practices and are more openly encouraging people to explore their bodies so as to understand what works for them and focus on having pleasure-positive experiences. But there is still a long way to go for society to be more accepting of sexual and gender diversity. A lot of work needs to be done on multiple levels to ensure access to accurate information, services, and facilities for all. We can utilise our access to resources (wherever possible) to unlearn what we have been culturally taught about our bodies and sexualities. As we become more open, aware and confident about our sexual and reproductive anatomy and sexual needs and experiences, we can support others in doing the same. In our experience, we have felt that people around us feel confident and comfortable talking about sexuality in socio-political and generic terms, but when it comes to their own experiences many female friends and colleagues speak only with a trusted friend, one to one. This probably takes care of the immediate issue of concern to them, but it remains a discreet conversation that doesn’t allow us to break out of the boundaries of our own perceived notions of keeping such conversations private and hidden.
We imagine that small peer support groups that are safe and trusted, and that open up conversations about sexuality and sexual experiences can be empowering. This space can allow the sharing of lived experiences of sexuality – our challenges and successes; unlearning the negative messages around sex, sexuality and bodies; creating positive language and messages around sexuality and pleasure; and in the process, normalise shared experiences while inspiring us to explore sexualities and create pleasure-positive experiences that will break the cycle of stigma around sex and pleasure that has been passed down to us through many generations.
Cover Image: Unsplash