I am 44, never married, and have never been in a committed long-term relationship. Like many of us, I grew up in a society where sex without the intention of marriage was frowned upon. If you were a ‘progressive’ woman, you could perhaps live with the idea of ‘satisfying’ your fiancée after your engagement ceremony was over, but casual sex, i.e., sex ‘just for the fun of it’, was never acceptable.
I went to an all-girls school so there was not much access to boys, but most of us had a crush on one or the other senior girl. We called it “being a fan” and thinking about the xyz didi (older girl) all day, and trying to catch a glimpse of her were some of the most common activities at school. I remember one time when my crush hurried past me, brushing her shoulders against mine, I felt butterflies in my stomach and went weak in the knees. At the same time, I also had crushes on boys I met in the neighbourhood or at tuition classes etc. It never seemed odd to me that I had crushes on both boys and girls. I grew up to identify as a heterosexual person, but was there another possibility? What was the girl crush all about? I never gave it much thought; that my sexuality could be explored beyond the obvious never even occurred to me because of the omnipresent heteronormative culture in which being interested in a member of another gender was a given, and there was no scope of being curious about one’s own sexuality.
At my type-shorthand classes there were a few men who made a pass or two at me. One of them even said he liked me, and though I never felt attracted to him I wanted to have a ‘boyfriend’, and so we dated for a bit. We kissed and fondled once at his place, but it made me feel guilty and when it came to ‘going all the way’, I became ‘prudish’. “Not before marriage,” I told him.
Cut to the last year of my 20s, I was still single with no interest in marriage at all, and therefore, still a virgin because somehow, ‘casual sex’ did not interest me. My challenge was: How to go about experiencing love, sex, desire, and meaningful intimacy without marriage? By my mid-20s, I had begun identifying myself as a feminist and, having worked at a women’s rights organisation and learning about the ‘sex and gender’ dichotomy, I understood the need for women’s ‘sexual empowerment’. As I turned 30, it started bothering me that I was a virgin. “What kind of a fake feminist turns 30 as a virgin?” I asked myself.
Another part of me wondered, “So what if I am a virgin? Is it such a bad thing if I want to wait for the right man and the right romantic moment? Must I, as a feminist, abandon the childhood ideas of a white horse and a charming man who would first kiss me softly, then embrace me slowly, looking deep into my eyes? Must I sneak into cheap hotels (because finding a place is so hard) and have a meaningless quickie or a ‘wham bam thank you ma’am’, or have to find a ‘fuck buddy’ or a ‘friend with benefits (FWB)’ or some such other pursuits that people around me seemed to be doing in their quest for sex?” These pursuits seemed frivolous to me and made me uncomfortable even though I desired intimacy because we live in a society that makes the very idea of sexual desires outside the purview of committed relationships or marriage into a ‘bad’ thing. The use of labels like ‘fuck boi’, ‘FWB’ made me uncomfortable and I always wondered why every partner cannot be called ‘romantic partner’ irrespective of a long-term commitment goal. Why is it always so hard to find a place for intimacy and why do we have to lie and cheat our way into getting it? Everything related to non-committal sex was always so taboo, shrouded in secrecy, and eliciting raised eyebrows, that it turned me off. I wanted to have intimacy, but I did not like the fact that it was something supposed to be hidden. I also wondered: Does intimacy necessarily involve penetrative sex? Because that part of sex did not interest me.
Turned out, a married man in my friend circle found out about these confused thoughts in my head, took ‘pity’ and made a sexual move on me when we were drunk and home alone. We had sex, and I was not a virgin anymore, thanks to a man who apparently wanted to help me lose my virginity out of kindness. I know this because he actually shamelessly boasted about his “noble” deed to the women in my circle of friends.
So, I was not a virgin anymore, and it should have made me happy, but it did not. I felt no joy or pleasure in the act because I didn’t find him attractive and had no interest in him. I also didn’t want to have anything more to do with him. I would not say that I was upset but I was not happy either. I was however upset with my female friends who had all done night outs with him and had stayed over at his place and never told me that he had slept with them too. If I had known, I would have not stayed over.
I never understood sex. But I grew up. Part of that growing up meant more men in my life, more dates, more one-night stands, random strangers on the dance floor, friends with benefits, fuck buddies through my 30s to 40s and yet, I never really understood sex. I always hoped that it would be special, beautiful, and romantic just like in the movies, but it never was.
Today, I am sort of a social media celebrity with around 38.5k followers of my verified Twitter profile. I have been writing a feminist blog for over 15 years where I openly talk about sex and desire, I also write about national politics and get trolled by right wing accounts on Twitter. They see me as an ‘asanskari’ (untraditional) woman who drinks, smokes and has sex and therefore unworthy of respect and with no right to speak about the nation’s politics. I am repeatedly trolled because of my singlehood, my lack of beauty, my body image, the shape of my teeth, my birthmark. I receive at least 250-300 tweets per day on an average calling me ugly, Surpanakha, Rakshasi, Tadaka, Hidimba, Pig Face, and so on. The more they abuse me the harder I hit back. I have no fear that they will come after my family or children. I also do not feel any shame or embarrassment even when they morph my face on pornographic clips or make various memes. Being single gives me the courage and freedom to pursue my activism both online and offline without feeling the pressure that there are people dependent on me whom I cannot endanger.
There are good people on Twitter too, who love me and call me a ‘troll-basher’. My image in the digital public sphere is that of a ‘badass single woman’ with a foul mouth and a fierce attitude. I am identified as an advocate for women’s sexual liberation, a straight ally of the queer rights movement, and an alumnus of The Sexuality and Rights Institute. These are part of my public image which form the basis of how men who meet me online and have crushes on me perceive me before they meet me face to face. They automatically assume that I would be something like an Aphrodite in bed. They come looking for an adventure. But I am a shy, slow, soft and tender woman in bed and that disappoints them. A while back, a man I cared for said in the middle of making out, “What kind of feminist are you? You don’t even do anything.” It was bad enough that I did not understand sex ‘despite’ being a feminist, now it turns out, I do not even know what ‘feminist sex’ is about. This is bad, I thought.
I had heard that before, “Do something.”
“Do what?” I would ask.
“I don’t know, turn me on or something,” they’d say.
“But why would I do that, isn’t it supposed to happen naturally? Moreover, you are no Greek God, I am not even attracted to your body,” I would wonder.
It seemed confusing that I was interested in the man, but not in his body. However, to be precise, I am not confused but the men are. I fully understand what my interests in men were and are. People are like stories to me. When I come across an interesting man, it is like picking up a book at the library that I want to keep reading. I want to stay in touch with him to know what happens next in his story, I want to read him more to understand his layers, his pain, joy, struggles, and witness his story unfold. None of this necessarily means I want to have sex with him. This is confusing to men because they assume that any interest from a woman must be a sexual interest.
I guess the men I’ve met have been lazy, uncreative, and boring. It is, after all, a transactional world where these men do not want to waste time in doing something ‘special’, like have interesting conversations or going out somewhere for a romantic evening or engage in foreplay, if all they are looking for is sex. Men who are in love with a pretty, ‘docile’ woman more suitable to be taken to the parents for the purpose of marriage would perhaps work harder. But Indian men who are only looking for sexual adventure before they marry a ‘sanskari’ (traditional) woman do not get the concept of romantic intimacy without commitment. For them, it is a transaction. Being a rational person myself, I did not feel like ‘doing’ anything to or for such men either. As a single woman who never felt ‘in love’, and never sought marriage, sex always seemed like a transaction where both partners were trying to bargain, cut costs, and play ego games.
Two people in a relationship can probably deal with these issues better, and talk about their sexual compatibility, preferences, roadblocks, and so on. But being single, I never had the comfort of sharing my thoughts with the man in my bed. As a society also, we do not talk enough about the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of sex. Why am I attracted to a man but not to the idea of sex? Perhaps, I am asexual, but even in the spectrum of fluid non-binary sexualities, ‘asexuality’ is still being explored and we do not know the full range of it yet.
A middle-aged strong and independent woman who seemingly spends her life deliberating upon sex, gender, sexualities, and feminisms is still confused about her own self. Imagine how much work we still have to do. We need to assure young girls that sexual liberation is as much about having the freedom of choice as to who, where and whom to have sex with, as much as it is about not having any sexual interest at all. We need to build a society where sexual intimacy is viewed as one of many life pursuits without conflating it with relationships or marriage and without prioritising it over other goals. Lastly, I feel that while we often talk about sexuality as a struggle, we do not have enough conversations on the search for ‘love’ or ‘romance’ which can be an equally great struggle and we need to support each other in that.
Cover Image: Unsplash