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Labour of Love


We had been flirting before we knew it. He was smart. Charming, really. He has a way with words. Even today, a text from him is enough to make me smile. We met for coffee, often. He always had stories, I was always keen to listen. His hair, more salt than pepper, and his shoulders, like that of a mountain. I felt safe around him, almost guarded. When we were walking the streets of Delhi late at night, the absence of streetlights made me hold his hand tighter than I would’ve, otherwise. Smilingly, he said, “I will take care of you, don’t worry,” and I stopped worrying. The banter was highly sexual, although he maintained nothing would ever happen between us. He said he was much older, and that he liked me, was attracted to me – that any man would be lucky to have me. Just not him. I was upset, blaming life for always finding a way to keep me away from what I wanted, who I wanted. Knowing nothing could ever happen gave him an aura of the forbidden fruit. I wanted him. Needed him.

The flirting escalated, until one day he seemed keen to forget what he had said earlier. We were now exchanging pictures and raunchy texts. I felt so sexy. So powerful. ‘I get whom I want’ is a very powerful sentiment. We met again. This time, we walked back to his house. Before I knew it, we decorated his floor with our clothes.. Urgency is a primal urge. It is enchanting, consuming, even. He knew what he was doing.

He knew what he was doing because he was mindful of his needs, and only his. He knew what he wanted; he got what he wanted. I left his house smelling of regret and unfulfillment. How could he be so selfish, Ria? I was so stupid to put him on a pedestal. We think older men would be more mindful, but we forget they’re still men. I am tired, honestly.

During one of our weekly sessions, my client, let’s call her Aarzu, revealed to me her latest sexual encounter. We had been talking about Mountain-man for weeks. He dominated Aarzu’s thoughts and fantasies – she hoped he would dominate her next. Aarzu’s complaints were genuine, and yet I couldn’t say it was the first time I had been hearing them. As a woman and sex therapist, it was one of the most frequently brought-up topics of discussion in my chambers. The women were angry, disappointed, and highly upset. Heterosexual women, mostly, complained that their partners, casual or committed, were concerned more about their own pleasure than of their counterparts. “He nuts and bolts”, says Z, a 21-year-old woman, when talking of her friend-with-benefits. I have often asked her what ‘benefit’ she receives from him because she has been dissatisfied with their interactions since the inception of their sexual salsa. “I like talking to him. He makes me feel understood until it is time to understand how my body operates.” Being understood is rare, which is why we leave it at that. ‘At least you’re getting something’ is a thought that occurs for a tiny second, and it is at this very moment that it is time to dissect this thought – its origins, normalisation, and implications.

Pleasure, in the world, is not equally distributed. Current literature on the matter indicates that over time this inequality of pleasure – even difficulty, pain, and anxiety – affects women more than it does men. And this is when socialisation and gender norms have ensured that the expectations are already upsettingly low! Most men I meet, when asked what ‘good sex’ means to them, say something along the lines of ‘sex where I orgasm’, while women have said, more times than I could count, that ‘good sex is the kind without pain’. Pain (emotional and physical) is deeply intertwined with sexual experience if the lens of experience is female. From being sexualised at prepubescent ages to hearing “It’ll hurt at first, and then it’ll feel good”, we have all grown up. So, what do we need? We need a sexual revolution.

The learnings we obtain from ‘bad sex’ are different based on gender too. Men learn they will get away without caring about a woman’s pleasure, while women learn their pleasure is secondary. If women begin to think of their own pleasure as secondary, what difference does it make whether they’re active parts of the sexual encounter or are reduced by their partner to tools of masturbation?

Doesn’t all sex, then, become performative? Does bad sex have to be assault, for it to be upsetting and shame-inducing? No. Bad sex can be selfish sex, absent-of-affection sex, and absent-of-tenderness sex. Bad sex is a political issue, even if it is due to the lack of information.

Amartya Sen spoke about how women become ‘habituated to inequality’; this habituation pervades our sex lives as well. The nature of the inequality differs between young women today and their mothers and grandmothers. Where older clients talk about how they didn’t know they had a right to seek pleasure, younger ones don’t know how to voice their desire without being called too hungry, too needy, or too much.

Women, historically, have been deemed gatekeepers of sex. A ‘good and decent’ woman does not yield easily. She makes you chase her: ‘papad belne padte hain, tab jaake haseena maan jaati hai’ (if you want the pretty girl, you must struggle and strive to convince her). If you don’t work for her, you won’t have her. If women are to be chased, men are to become chasers. They must ‘obtain’ sex, they must wear her down, and if necessary, tear her down. Not only does this restrict women from being equal agents in the pursuit of desire and sexual fulfilment, but it also puts the onus of taking responsibility for violence on them. There is no winning.

Working with women over the years has only made me realize that choosing to have good, nurturing sex is a deeply private rebellion. The nature of these rebellions differs. For M, living in one of Delhi’s poverty-stricken neighbourhoods, it is negotiating with her husband to use protection. H in south Bombay is trying to assert their need to have an equally enjoyable time. J in California is trying to find someone who treats her as a woman, not an ‘ethnic conquest’, or a ‘Nutella-skinned goddess’. S, just outside of Sikkim, is conversing with her dating app matches to ensure they’re not in it just to hook up.

People often forget that casual sex is inherently devoid of commitment, yes, but only commitment, not warmth, or consideration. Aarzu had casual sex with Mountain-man, but she didn’t abandon her pleasure. She wouldn’t be upset if he didn’t know what to do, if he ‘treated my clit like a DJ booth’ or ‘didn’t know how to use his hands’; she was upset because he didn’t even try. She was upset because he knew that he would get away with it. She was upset because she let him get away with it. Undoing years of conditioning is a herculean task, and I applaud everybody who undertakes it. If good sex does exist, where is it hiding? Why do our systems and institutions keep us starved of necessary sexuality education? Why are our intimate relations where our autonomy is most heavily policed and stomped on? Why are we a population of hungry, unfulfilled, angry women? Why does wanting pleasure invite puritanism? Subconscious barriers, reinforced by socially-fulfilling cycles, will be the end of us.

We are only as needy as our unmet needs.

What we need is an indulgently deliberate interaction. One where pleasure fuels pleasure. We need narratives of respect, agency, and Eros. What we need is a revolution that allows us to engage in acts that please us. We need rest, consideration, kindness, compassion, and care. We need to be held, to hold. To touch, as to be touched. To see, and to be seen. We need all of us, no one left behind. More than discourse, we need action. Education fuels action. Information accelerates action. We need to empower ourselves to own our pleasure. It must be all of us, it has to be all of us. spaces where conversations about pleasure and self-affirming sexuality occur exist. If we work on building and expanding them together, perhaps there is still hope.

Aarzu has decided to tell Mountain-man about her feelings. She informs him, and he is not offended. To our surprise, he says he is sorry. That he wants to make up for it. That if she would let him, he would want to walk with her again and hold her hand in the dim-lit Deer Park of Hauz Khas. He says he wants anyone who kisses her to taste his name on her lips. He promises he will spend hours getting to know her body before he reintroduces his. She looks at me and says she is tempted to believe him. I nod. She smiles, and the banter resumes. He did always have a way with words.

She leaves my chambers for coffee with Mountain-man, and I begin preparing for my next client. One by one, I whisper to myself. One by one.

Cover Image: Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash