My foray of offering support in both the fields of sexual wellness and mental health was unplanned to say the least. About two decades ago in India, when I was going through issues with my mental health and sexual wellness, there were hardly any reliable and/or affordable resources. The well-known psychiatrists had no appointments readily available and those who did were so expensive that a common person like me could either pay my other bills or afford their sessions.
The case in Sexual Wellness counselling was even worse than that of mental health counselling. There were no dedicated professionals here other than the quacks whose sleazy advertisements were found on all public walls or the gynaecologists who would not even say the words “sex” or “intercourse” out loud. Trust me, even women doctors used euphemisms like “had contact with husband”, “last spoke with husband.”
Someone like me, who was always vocal about sexuality, would feel invalidated speaking frankly about sex. Most doctors themselves weren’t comfortable discussing anything remotely pertaining to be a challenge in the sexual wellness area. I had no choice but to educate myself, seek help from friends outside India who had access to services there, and somehow manage my own crisis. This also led me to be determined to study more, get trained and start offering some mental health and SRHR support to other people around me who were as clueless as I was to begin with.
Before social media, this was largely personal, but when I started writing and appearing on platforms talking about my sexual wellness work, I became a ‘public figure’, a woman ‘publicly talking about the F* word’. I suddenly started getting more friend requests to connect on social media. My life has never been the same.
Now the thing about sexual wellness counselling is that unlike any other kind of support, this is deeply intimate, personal and private, and hence the pitfall is that people may fail to draw boundaries and to comprehend that suggestions given are only professional advice and nothing else. There is no promise of any intimacy and this is not a service where people are talking about sexuality just for fun.
Another major issue is that most of the people seeking sexual wellness counselling in India are men who think that any mention of the word ‘sex’ by a woman indicates her availability to them.
Generally, most of the people reaching out for sexuality counselling are men. However, these same men might behave differently when they go to any other kind of counsellor; their approach to sex and sexuality drives their behaviour towards a sex counsellor, especially if she is a woman like me. Most men start asking awkward questions about my sex life, some try to stalk me on social media; others assume that if I am advising them about sexual activities, I must also be ready to have sex with them! This pattern keeps repeating itself in some form or the other.
Along with a fellow counsellor − let’s call her A − we opened an anonymous Google form through which people could put up their sexual health related queries that would be answered by us weekly or fortnightly in Facebook LIVE videos. There was a deluge of queries; more than what we were prepared for, and more than the quantity it was the nature of the queries that was unnerving – most men just wanted a Whatsapp number and wanted to do a video call which led to an immediate sense of overwhelm. Many clearly needed clinical assistance but either didn’t have access to that kind of sexual healthcare or couldn’t afford it. For others, it was sheer curiosity to ask two women “sexual questions.” Many of these queries even though coming from recognisable mail IDs and people connected with us on social media were offensive, to say the least. It felt as if I had painted a target on my back. My co-counsellor felt the same.
On the one hand was our urge and commitment to offer space to people to express whatever sexuality related queries and concerns they had and provide them with accurate information, and on the other was my fear and frustration too, because so many of them were using this space to get cheap thrills.
In India, being a single woman talking frankly about sex publicly somehow feeds the assumption that you are “available” and “desperate.” There have been continuous efforts to pin those labels onto me and I have resisted, but over a period of time I realized it has made me hyper-vigilant about anyone trying to make contact on social media, and otherwise too. Every potential query also seems like a possibility of abusive messages, unsolicited obscene pictures in several inboxes, and numerous attempts at video calls at odd hours. There was constant social media stalking in some form or the other that remains a constant even now
I realised my anxiety around counselling enquiries was also growing due to being a single parent. My fear was: what if these creeps start stalking my child too? I had to stop using some of the anonymous apps that I had opened for queries because the abuse there was ranging from body-shaming and slut-shaming to vile, hateful messages.
On most days, one just brushes away these comments as random trolling, but there is constant objectification and vilification just because you choose to speak about something others do not want to even mention. Reading such nasty things being directed towards one everyday definitely takes a toll on one’s mental health. There is a lot of shame especially for women who initiate even a conversation about sex because here ‘character’ means being ‘non-sexual’. Women often fear being defined by any label other than in terms of their connection with men – mother, sister, wife etc. In my case, it did affect my mental health to a large extent till I learnt to redraw some hard communication boundaries.
Sometimes I wonder, what are the reactions that male counsellors get? They aren’t trolled for sure; they are not harassed as if they are doing something “degenerate.” Why me? Is it just because I am a woman, or because I am speaking about sex, or both? I battled with these questions several times and found no conclusive answers. Even working in the field of sexuality, being a woman meant it had direct implications for how I was perceived sexually. The gender and sexuality conundrum is far more complex for women. A cult guru like Osho is hailed by this very culture which will not have a women or queer public figure speak in the same way about sex.
Occasionally I get nightmares of being chased by an angry mob over something as trivial as a dildo or condom that I mentioned in one of my posts or videos. Why then should the fear sometimes not be debilitating?
Over the last couple of years, the social environment around me has become more rigid and more conventional, limiting the space to speak about sexuality further. What are my options to buy a night of peaceful sleep? A lack of comprehensive sexuality education makes it so difficult for sex educators to function here in a healthy way. Their entire life is held ransom to the fact that their area of work is somehow related to sex
I continue my work while balancing it with my concern for my own mental health and safety. Often someone has to pay a price for change, this time maybe it is my turn to pay the price. I continue my work on sexual wellness and education, now in multiple languages. The challenges of making vernacular slang words ‘normal’, to make people understand the nuances and intersections of gender, language, and socio-psychological realities remain my mission for life.