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Body and SexualityCategoriesIssue In Focus

Pleasure and Sex: Non-Committed Sexual Relationships in Urban India

Academic scholarship, popular culture and media-generated sex surveys are only beginning to understand ‘pre-marital’ sex among young people in India. But this understanding too is limited, since it presents ‘pre-marital’ sex as a monolith that generally stands in for committed romantic monogamous relationships, without explaining that ‘pre-marital’ sex constitutes many more kinds of sexual activity. I would like to unpack ‘pre-marital’ sex to look at the different kinds of non-committed sexual relationships [1] that form part of it.

While definitions are always subjective and consensus around terminology rare, some of the terms commonly used for non-committed sexual relationships are: casual sex, friends with benefits, open relationships, flings, hooking up, fooling around, one night stands and so on. Wentland and Reissing (2011) have painstakingly defined and elaborated on the differences between one night stands, fuck buddies, booty calls, and friends with benefits. Extensive research on sex on college campuses in the US have also examined hook up culture among students and young people in the 21st century, characterising it as specific to college/campus life (Bogle 2008). In this piece I do not wish to explain the different categories in the Indian context. Rather, keeping pleasure and the body at the centre, I will try to raise some concerns and questions we might have around these kinds of non-committed sexual relationships in an urban, middle-class, post-feminist context.

Care of the self, pleasure and the modern sexual subject

What constitutes pleasure in non-committed sex? Conversations with young people in urban spaces in India indicate that the pleasure of casual sex lies often in the imagination and sexual fantasies that one has about certain people and acts rather than the ‘physical materiality’ of the act. Pleasure lies in the thrill, excitement, illicitness, newness and curiosity of sex within the non-committed relationship. But pleasure is not always de-contextualised. Beres and Farvid (2010) discuss the care of the self [2] within women’s accounts of heterosexual casual sex and look at the ways in which women protect their emotional as well as health needs. How does one have pleasure within non-committed sexual acts along with protecting one’s emotional and health needs? Is the care of the self (used in the Foucauldian sense) – which includes safe sex, consent, self-reflection and care of the other – pleasurable? What are the pleasures of risky sex and non-care of the self? Pleasure is a contested and postmodern site and it makes for no easy or readymade answers.

The other set of questions that this raises is: is there a pleasure in the ways in which non-committed sex makes us a ‘liberated modern’ subject? In Beres and Farvid’s (2010) study women ask whether they are ‘really’ engaging in casual sex for themselves or because “‘sexually liberated’ young women should now be engaging in (casual) sex” (Beres and Farvid, 2010: 386). That leads us to ask how the ‘liberated’, post-feminist, ‘progressive’ sexual subject is formed and what role non-committed sexual relationships play there. How does one remain a ‘progressive’ sexual subject without having non-committed sexual relationships?

While it is of utmost importance to talk of pleasure, it would be unproductive to not consider the ways in which pleasure has to negotiate with negative emotions. Wentland and Reissing mention how studies on casual sexual relationships note the “differences in attachment styles (Gentzler & Kerns, 2004), feelings of regret (Eshbaugh & Gute, 2008), emotional distress (Fielder & Carey, 2010), or depression and/or loneliness (Owen & Fincham, 2011b) after sexual activity” (Wentland and Reissing, 2011:76). What are the ways that the pleasures of sex can negotiate with and negate these negative emotions?

What are the ways in which communication between partners, of what is pleasurable in sex, plays a role in casual sexual relationships? Does casual sex allow for greater possibilities of communicating one’s sexual preferences, desires, and fantasies?

Healthcare

Along with dealing with emotional risks and needs, care of the self also includes dealing with the more ‘material’ health concerns and risks of non-committed sexual relationships. In thinking about healthcare and casual sex one needs to ask: what is the access to healthcare that is available to those within non-committed sexual relationships? Are healthcare professionals equipped to deal with the sexual health of those in non-committed sexual relationships? Shilpa Phadke (2013) discusses the difficulties young women, within romantic ‘pre-marital’ relationships, have to get a gynaecologist’s prescription for oral contraceptive pills since “gynaecologists [are] moralistic and disapproving” and that women might also not want to risk “being seen by relatives or neighbours visiting a gynaecologist for a prescription” (Phadke, 2013: 295-296). If women who are in ‘committed romantic relationships’ with their boyfriends find it difficult to access healthcare, what happens to those whose non-committed sexual relationships fall outside the radar of any form of acceptable sex? If the married person and the person in a committed heterosexual relationship is the subject of sexual and reproductive health in India, what are the ways in which the subjectivity of the person having casual sex is denied?

Gender Relations

With the casual sex/dating/hook-up mobile app Tinder being used by a number of people, casual sex might not be too hard to get in metro cities and smaller towns. It provides the possibility of casual sex long after one has left college and well beyond one’s twenties. In spaces like elite universities, institutes, corporate houses and in virtual spaces like Facebook and Tinder (to only name a few), there is an assumption that casual sex is ‘readily available’. One needs to think through this assumption to ask: what happens to the desire to have frequent casual sex when it is not accessible for everyone? Are ‘traditional’ relationships then becoming the only sites to have regular sex? How does this complicate our understandings of sex, romance, desires and gender relations?

While feminist scholarship has deconstructed gender relationships within ‘traditional’ romantic relationships, what are the ways in which non-committed sexual relationships structure gender relations? One needs to ask: who initiates the sexual relationship? How much agency do women have in the process? Is consent practiced and implied in most cases? How do women negotiate with notions of ‘reputation’, ‘arranged marriages’, romantic love and ‘virginity’ within non-committed sexual relationships? Do these relationships reproduce dominant heteronormative discourses or do they subvert them? While there is immense sexual pleasure and thrill in these kinds of relationships, what do they do to men’s and women’s sense of self and ideas of stability and security? What is the role that personal sexual histories play in shaping understandings of casual sexual relationships? What does this ‘new’ form of sexuality do to our understandings and experiences of intimacies? How do intimacies change with sex moving in to non-committed relationships?

Non-committed sexual relationships are produced within socio-cultural contexts. It might be important to examine how class, caste, community and personal histories intersect to affect these kinds of sexual relationships and explore who has the cultural capital, knowledge and space to engage in such sexual relationships. Hamilton and Armstrong (2009) examine how women of more privileged classes in the US engage in hook ups in college because they view traditional long term relationships as time-sapping. This allows them to invest in education, build a career and delay marriage but also is contrary to the dominant social understandings that women must not engage in casual sex, since this posits them as “irresponsible and reckless” and as “promiscuous and/or blamed for any associated negative consequences” (Beres and Farvid, 2010: 379). Hamilton and Armstrong (2009) also mention how less privileged women find the culture of non-committed sexual relations foreign to them. Shilpa Phadke (2013) similarly refers to the contradictions with which middle class young women live: “the simultaneous imperative to be sexually desirable and sexually virtuous at the same time even as they attempt to seek sexual pleasure for themselves” (Phadke, 2009: 289).

If we are to truly understand non-committed sexual relationships today, it might be worth investigating the questions raised here. This will help us answer the larger question of how different forms of sexual relationships are changing and shaping the ways we perceive our sexualities and selves.

This article has benefitted immensely from discussions and comments from Anjor Bhaskar.

[1] In this article I will only look at heterosexual pre-marital sexual activity, acknowledging the fact that non-heterosexual casual sex raises very different concerns.

[2] “When explaining the practice of ethics Foucault uses the notion of rapport à soi, or the care of the self. He defines rapport à soi as being the kind of relationship one ought to have with oneself – that is how individuals are ‘supposed’ to constitute themselves as moral subjects of their own actions within any given society (Rabinow, 1997). The relationship that a person has with him or herself requires not only knowledge of the self but ‘self-reflection’. This reflection requires that individuals reflect not only on how they feel about a particular act, their desires and pleasures, but also reflect on how dominant cultural representations (or discourses) of sexuality have an impact on their own understanding of sexuality” (Beres Farvid, 2010: 378).

References

Beres, Melanie and Panteá Farvid. 2010. Sexual Ethics and Young Women’s Accounts of Heterosexual Casual Sex.. Sexualities. 13: 377.

Bogle, Kathleen. 2008. Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus. New York: New York University Press.

Farvid, Pantea. 2010. The Benefits of Ambiguity: Methodological Insights from Researching ‘Heterosexual Casual Sex. Feminism and Psychology. 20(2): 232–237.

Hamilton, Laura and Elizabeth Armstrong. 2009. Gendered Sexuality in Young Adutlhood: Double Binds and Flawed Options. Gender and Society. 23.5: 589-616.

Phadke, Shilpa. 2013. But I Can’t Carry a Condom! Young Women, Risk and Sexuality in the Time of Globalisation. In Sexuality Studies. Ed. Sanjay Srivastava. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Wentland, Jocelyn J. and Elke D. Reissing. 2011. Taking casual sex not too casually: Exploring definitions of casual sexual relationships. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality. 20(3).

Pic Source: Sourcewire.com / Spirited Bodies

Article written by:

Ketaki is a PhD student in Women's Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Her doctoral research is on Adolescent Sexuality and Sexuality Education in contemporary urban India.

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