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Refusing the weight in waiting

I was 21 years old when I first read Emily Martin’s article titled The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles. In the essay, Martin explains how gendered the language of science has been, even while claiming to be the epitome of neutrality and objectivity. She brings to light the ways in which stereotypes attached to women and men have been used to describe the biological function, features, and characteristics of the egg and the sperm. For instance, the egg has been defined as if in a state of perpetual waiting to be “rescued” by the sperm from being washed away (menstruation). The wording stresses the fragility and the dependency of the eggs, as if they were “damsels in distress”, waiting to fulfill their dream and purpose of reproduction. Waiting, as an act, also has to do with emotions that it encompasses – of vulnerability, of having absolutely no control over the course of things, of submitting oneself to the uncertainty and the whims of the “other” (who is supposed to be a heterosexual man) – all of which are believed to be antithetical to the traits attached with dominant masculinity. As a 24-year-old attempting to trace the journey of exploring and celebrating one’s own sexuality, I realised that what stood in the way of it was also the perpetual act of waiting – to be explored by a certain ‘other/ heterosexual half’, which was morally and culturally constructed as the correct way of realising one’s sexuality.

As a girl, I was made to believe that pleasure was something that existed outside my body, something that I had to seek out, something that was necessarily a product of a partnered experience. I don’t think I was even allowed to want pleasure, especially in its sexual forms. Naturally, it wasn’t something that I was encouraged to explore on my own, let alone in my own ways. With the kind of censorship that happens around women’s bodies, self-monitoring into ‘waiting to be explored’ came organically to me. However, this oblivion to one’s desire and body is only a product of an entire process of cultural shaming. The first time girls are made to realise their sexual selves is when their period first arrives (menarche), and this realisation might still not extend to the naming of their genitals. The taboo around female sexuality makes it all the more believable that female sexuality is only to be realised and legitimised through reproduction. What follows after menarche is a sense of shame around the genitals, which also turns into disassociation, depending on one’s access to menstrual hygiene products. This process of “psychological clitoridectomy”[1] which keeps us from exploring our own body, as I learned in my twenties, also holds us back from accessing menstrual hygiene products that promise better comfort, like menstrual cups. One would think that concepts of pleasure and menstrual hygiene have no relation to one another, but that is not true. Both exist in the mystery land that is created by the lack of knowledge about one’s own body. Which is to say that knowing about one’s own body, having an understanding of what desire and pleasure look and feel like, and exploring that by oneself exist on the other side of the shame and stigma built around female sexuality. This is in line with the realities of living in a highly sexualised society, which rarely sells a product without injecting sexual innuendoes or sexual display. So while we are actively denied and discouraged any sense of subjecthood in the sexualisation of our bodies, female bodies are constantly being displayed and objectified to cater to the male gaze and male fantasies. Add this (the absence of knowledge and subjecthood) to the kind of ideas that men gain through pornographic content about female bodies. What it really does is turn female bodies into a mystical maze of hidden buttons of pleasure points, which, if pushed passionately (read: aggressively) should result in pleasure. The result for men is entitled behaviour, while for women it is experiences of violations and unimaginably traumatic partnered experiences.

Another addition to why most people with vulvas and vaginas end up experiencing reduced amounts of pleasure and increased amounts of risk of violation even after entering culturally sanctioned sexual relations (marriage) is because of the pop culture-produced norm of ‘going with the flow’. This norm is built on two assumptions, one, that with all the shame, taboo, and punishment involved in taking control of female sexuality, the woman must be inexperienced, and hence ‘pure’, and two, that the man must have had prior sexual experience because of its association with the dominant ideas about being a ‘real man’. While ‘going with the flow’ might seem harmless, in a society where people with vulvas and vaginas are culturally and structurally denied any sense or understanding of bodily autonomy and self-exploration, ‘the flow’ then represents a sexual script that prioritises hetero-patriarchal, male definitions of pleasure and desire. A beautiful portrayal of ‘the flow’ and the consequences of breaking it is shown in the movie The Great Indian Kitchen by Jeo Baby, where the female protagonist, after a series of distasteful sexual experiences with her husband since the day of their wedding, asks for a little bit of foreplay. Through her interruption, she voices her refusal to be a passive participant in her own sexual experience, which stands in contradiction to ‘the flow’ that only centres male pleasure. Not only is her request met by a sense of affront from her husband’s fractured male ego, but she is also shamed and insulted for having the vocabulary that informs female pleasure.

Pop culture cements this notion of prioritising ‘the flow’ over mutually consensual explorations by either locating consent in a conversation that leads to violation and violence (Lipstick Under My Burkha, Pink) or by portraying ‘ideal’ and seemingly affirming romantic and sexual experiences as having the capacity to exist without any conversation about consent. What is missing from the representations of romantic/sexual relationships in pop culture is that such relationships are more often than not layered with consent, interruptions that take into account the comfort of those involved, and a space safe enough for expressing vulnerabilities, all of it without threatening ‘the flow’ because it is being co-authored and re-written to suit the desires of the people involved.

A major breakthrough for me, from this internalised conditioning, occurred when I was introduced to the concept of ‘Intimate Justice’ in a Ted Talk by Peggy Orenstein, titled What young women believe about their own sexual pleasure. This was also during a time when I was just beginning to understand how the personal is deeply political, but even the term – intimate justice – was a fascinating mix of the private and the political. It took a word, as personal in its essence like ‘intimate’ and paired it with ‘justice’, something that is attached to the public realm, something that acknowledges injustice, discrimination, and something that is, in most cases, inaccessible. Intimate justice, as expected of it, joined the dots between seemingly private issues such as body shaming, presence or absence of casteism, sexism, gendered societal messages, and stigma (to name a few) with how one feels about what they deserve in their intimate lives, as a result shaping and giving meaning to our sexual lives. For the first time, the gaze was transformed; the answers that were already given to us, imposed through these structures, fell apart and made way for a question that finally asked me what pleasure or even intimacy looked like to me, why I haven’t ever been the primary beneficiary of a partnered experience, or why I could never feel entitled to enjoy any kind of sexual experience. Until then, a partnered experience was synonymous with being a good host, making someone else feel comfortable, and holding the responsibility of ensuring that they have a good time. All of it reflects the ways I had been gendered (conditioned) into defining any kind of satisfaction in relation to how satisfying the experience was for the other, gradually losing the ability to express my own desires, especially in relation to my body and sexuality. It was liberating to even think about not having to burden myself with the responsibility of being the best host. What followed, over a course of two years, with the collective effort of female friendships, was a gradual shift to a guilt-free exploration of the self, the body, and the numerous ways in which desire, pleasure, and intimacy could be explored.

Acknowledging my queerness, in terms of sexual orientation and (a)sexuality, came as a part and parcel of this journey which was embraced with love and acceptance in spaces defined by female solidarity. As a demisexual person, centring connections or emotional bonds in my imaginations could be compared to centring foreplay in the hetero-patriarchal vocabulary of sexual intercourse, which is revolutionary in its very idea. That, which is perceived as having the ability to only ‘spark’ a sexual experience, or act as ‘skippable’ parts of partnered sexual experience, got its well-deserved unapologetic place and importance. Demisexuality not only allowed me to centre emotional connection and to build rich romantic and sexual relationships, but it also made me appreciate and embrace non-sexual forms of intimacy or superior forms of romance in my friendships. While romance in its normative understandings becomes a site for developing and perfecting femininity to serve the cultural expectations of being a ‘good woman’, the romance of friendships, on the contrary, offers a space of reprieve from conventions of relentless self-regulation, self-improvement, self-surveillance, and performance of ‘niceness’. It enables the plurality of desirabilities – allowing us to feel desired, respected, loved, and cared for, in more than one way, and frame our desires in fractions that make a whole – as opposed to the ‘ideal’ desirability that we are expected to embody within the normative framework. The superiority of such a romance, for me, is located in its transformative potential to deconstruct and redefine romance itself – an ethics of care that is shouldered by reciprocity and respect, making space for a deeper sense of acknowledgment for one’s labour – and resist normative impositions of what romance should look like.[2]

While the heteropatriarchal order offers dignity, desirability, and legitimacy only to heterosexual reproducing bodies, I found the space and courage to re-imagine ideas of home, belonging, desire, and the innumerable ways in which I could be desirable, in my friendships. As friendships and queerness share the similar pain of being invisibilised because of their capacities to challenge and dismantle the violent institutions of the endogamous, heterosexual order, embracing the twins – friendships and queerness – as central aspects of my life is how I would like to celebrate and re-define my sexuality through the politics of pleasure and desire. Although falling out of institutions of family and marriage invokes its own set of anxieties because of their symbolic synonymy with stability, futurity, and longevity, the absence of contracts sanctioned by the state makes for more space for relationships to be solely based on one’s own will, consistent efforts, and the capacity to communicate similar desires. Celebrating my sexuality finally meant breaking out of the perpetual act of waiting, taking control through mutually sanctioned consent, and co-authoring a vision of companionship through the lens of desire.

References:

Martin, E. (1991). The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 16(3), 485–501. doi:10.1086/494680 or https://web.stanford.edu/~eckert/PDF/Martin1991.pdf

Orenstein, Peggy (2016) Girls, and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape Oneworld Publications. London, England. 2016

Also read:

McClelland, Sara. Intimate Justice: A Critical Analysis of Sexual Satisfaction. Social and Personality Psychology Compass. The University of Michigan. September 2010

Fine, Michelle; McClelland, Sara. Sexuality Education and Desire: Still Missing after all these years. Harvard Educational Review. September 2006

 

[1] In a country like ours, where even a conversation about sex is no less than a moral crisis, it’s not only difficult but also really far-fetched for girls and women from diverse social and economic locations to realise their sexual rights. Peggy Orenstein, in her books titled Girls & Sex notes that even when women may display self-confidence in public their knowledge of their own sexuality has plummeted, resulting in a “psychological clitoridectomy” which encapsulates this silence and the inherent violence in it.

[2] Some of these ideas borrow from the paper my friend, Aswathy Nair, and I wrote and presented at Queer Assemblages, 2022, hosted by Jadavpur University. It is titled ‘Homies’ and Hominess: Friendships and their Radical Possibilities of Belonging. (Unpublished).

Cover Image: Photo by David Clode on Unsplash  

Article written by:

Aathira Gopi is a postgraduate in Women's Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She is currently working as a Gender and sexuality educator and consultant. Her research interests include masculinities, marriage and family, female friendships, and singlehood studies.

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