When it comes to sexual agency, patriarchal society gives men the space to define themselves as sexual beings, as long as they stay within the norms of masculinity and heterosexuality. Most men are conditioned to believe that they are granted sexual entitlement along with the genitals they are born with. So exhibiting and expressing sexual agency seems like their birthright. This is not to say that women do not have sexual agency, but it is definitely far less.
Imagine a 20-year-old woman walking into a pharmacy to ask for a condom and a 30-year-old woman doing the same. Both the women will be negatively judged, but there is a possibility that the older woman might be judged less. And if she looks like she is married, it will be even less.We have heard of cases of young unmarried women in relationships having to fake signs of marriage like using sindoor and wearing a mangalsutra in order to escape the glares of society. Young couples find it difficult to find a safe place for private moments of sexual intimacy. Moral gatekeepers dutifully make sure that even consenting couples land behind bars for expressing their love and desire. So in a country like India and many others, there are no safe avenues for young sexually active people to express their sexuality.
But these dynamics change with age. As we grow older, we are entrusted to make our own decisions. Along with the age factor, a more acceptable license for sexual agency comes with heterosexual marriage. Married women’s desire for sex is seen as unobjectionable, as it pleasures their husbands and also leads to reproduction. On the other hand, single women are not free to live by their choices and are constantly hyper- or desexualized for transgressing the social norms of womanhood. While various social contexts can affect how much sexual agency may be exercised, the realm of marriage appears significant for women.
In my personal experience I have seen that with age I have been able to be more assertive about exercising certain sexual liberties that previously would have given me pause. As a young woman, I did not have accurate information about sexuality for me to feel equipped and confident, and I was not seen as a person capable of taking responsibility for my decisions. With the advantage of being married, my agency to enjoy sexual pleasures has increased. Yet if it comes to reporting marital rape, I will still be denied this right by the courts, for I am not to forget my sanskari duty to fulfill the sexual needs of ‘my man’.
Nevertheless for a middle-aged heterosexual married woman, society is kind and legitimizes her existence as a sexual being. While I feel that my age and marital status have contributed to my sexual agency to a large extent, I am also aware that right now am on the uptrend of the bell curve. As I age, I am likely to head downhill. Post-menopause, my body will be perceived as non-sexual,and I am supposed to lose interest and let go of my sexual prowess. But damn, life is all about living in the present moment! So let me enjoy this well-earned period (pun intended).
Sharing a ‘dirty’ joke in a mixed group invites fewer frowns.While it might seem risqué, the use of sexual overtones is overlooked. Giving a compliment, even to a man, might be accepted respectfully. In some cases, after a few drinks, a little flirting becomes permissible as it is seen as ‘harmless’. Expressing one’s sexual fantasies openly, atleast amongst women friends, gets only a few eyes rolling. There is also a fair chance that acting upon one’s kinky ideas might become possible. There is a certain freedom and confidence to experiment and explore, and shed some inhibitions in one’s bedroom.
With the passage of time, one becomes less self-conscious about and seems to gain more autonomy overone’s body. There is also a lesser need to fit the body type of the perfect shape with the right skin tone and hair texture demanded by capitalist notions of beauty. In many ways one might have come to peace with some of the scars and flab as well.
Ironically, there is no pressure for a middle-aged married woman to look attractive to other men for partnerships and copulation, as she has already been ‘taken’. In this monogamous setup there is no need for a woman to draw any kind of attention from other men and therefore she is not burdened to groom herself to appear good for them. Also, she is nearing her expiry date of the ‘sexiness quotient’. She can look like a sack, who cares!
However skewed it might be, there seems to be some sexual agency with the passage of time as a woman and inspite of being a woman. I remember when I was a young girl in my 20s, I had overlooked so much groping and brushing out of fear and shame, which I would not do now.We have also known of young women not reporting cases of sexual abuse and harassment for the same reason – the fear of being shamed and blamed. Even negotiations related to the use of contraception or types of sexual acts in consensual relationships become difficult for a young girl because of her fear of displeasing her partner. But if one is fortunate, time helps us acquire some sets of skills and the language to speak up against violence and enforce decisions surrounding one’s sexual and social life.
Personally for me, the transition from a young unmarried girl to an older married woman with progressive positive influences and fulfilling relationships has helped me prioritise my own personal space. I have learned to set aside some of the cultural stereotypes that block personal choices related to my body and pleasure. Whether it is to do with decisions related to sexual and social relationships, type of sexual activity, choice of contraception, freedom to give or not give consent, report sexual harassment or express my opinions in matters related to sexuality, my age to a great extent and marital status to some extent have given me that agency to act upon my desires. Not that I am not judged for my choices as a woman, but it is limited. Also, with age, one learns to not get bothered by other’s opinions. There is a sense of freedom to define and express oneself sexually, which is difficult in one’s younger years. As my sexual existence still falls within the larger gamut of the defined social norm of being a cisgender, heterosexual, married aka monogamous woman, I do not face challenges until I openly defy any of the expected norms. And so I use my current privilege to my advantage for the sexual rights that I am entitled to.