When I started my career as a social worker in a feminist domestic violence organization, I used to meet about 10-15 women every day who were experiencing different levels of abuse and violence, mostly from their spouses, partners and in-laws. Glad though I was with the knowledge that I was of some help in their journeys away from this violence and abuse, I had seen too many women battered and struggling. Traversing the rigmarole of going to the police, health systems and NGOs was a complex and often dissatisfying process for most of these women. So busy were my colleagues and I in our roles as social workers, overwhelmed with all this knowledge and breaking through multiple barriers of working with the criminal justice system, trying to change attitudes in society regarding gender inequality and tolerance for violence, that we hardly noticed that we were traumatised as well, with pressures of the work, the harshness of women’s experiences, not having enough time or space to process many of these experiences, and sometimes feeling hopeless about the women’s situation. It almost felt inappropriate to think about myself and self-care.
I then moved on to a different organisation to work on sexuality rights. Although I had worked on sexual and reproductive health before, my approach had been mostly about preventing violence and everything else was relegated to the periphery. Through my work on sexual rights, I learnt about sexuality not only as distinct from sexual abuse and violence (which was a significant narrative in the life experiences of most of the women domestic violence survivors I had met through my previous work experience) but also about the affirming nature of sexuality in people’s lives and experiences, of desire, of intimacy, and of expression. I also understood wellbeing as a comprehensive concept looking at not just one’s physical but also mental wellness. This is distinct from the absence of any physical or mental illness. It is not just about health, safety and welfare (which sounds charity-driven) but encompasses so much more. Working on sexuality in an affirmative way meant being able to make sense of the violence in intimate relationships that I had witnessed earlier. Wellbeing and sexuality for me therefore entailed thinking through and dealing with violence, understanding and acknowledging it as not the entirety of one’s experience, and going through a process of healing. What really helped was the time and space I was given to incubate and learn, to be okay with being my introvert self, while also being a strong supporter of sexuality rights.
Sexual rights is a complex issue to address as a social worker or activist. It was not (at least in the early 2000s) a significant part of the social work curriculum and any connections to one’s sexuality and sexual and reproductive health were dealt with most perfunctorily. It wasn’t considered urgent, except, that it was and is – an intrinsic part of people’s lives and their most intimate experiences. Choosing to work on sexuality and sexual health in a complicated socio-cultural and political context such as India was therefore not easy, and talking about it to friends and families also came saddled with its own complexities—of getting past the shame and awkwardness around matters of sex and sexuality, and of having frank conversations that were not done either in jest, fear or shame.
Working as a sexuality rights activist in a repressive environment can take a huge toll on people’s wellbeing. It is therefore important that we as social workers, activists, advocates and everyone else involved in this work take care, take care of ourselves and each other, be supportive, give that extra push to someone who needs it, and allow ourselves to make mistakes. Taking care extends to sharing meals and having drinks together, and finding that safe and non-judgemental nest that many of us miss elsewhere in our lives as activists. The importance of sharing food and drinks, getting together, and having fun is grossly underestimated. Meaghan Morris emphasises the “profound importance in practice” of the “pragmatic, survival-oriented, and world-changing energy of being ‘festive’, or, as Australians put it, of ‘having a good time’”. I think I have learnt more about people and working on sexuality and rights in informal spaces—during lunchtime conversations, watching films together with colleagues who were friends—when the formality of institutions and professionalism comes down, just a bit, to allow for mutual sharing and caring. Meaghan Morris adds the importance of making “‘enabling traditions’ for our institutional as well as for artistic and critical work”, and this can very well apply to our locations as activists trying to uphold the rights banner of ‘sexuality for all’ and the wear and tear that can and does happen to all of us at different points of time.
I have learnt to lean on and trust friendships in this way of life, as a form of sustenance. Foucault’s ideas on friendship as a way of life in queer relationships are of relevance here, not only in sharing ideas around queerness but also supporting each other. He mentions how it has been necessary for him to have relations with other men, “not necessarily in the form of a couple but as a matter of existence”. He further says:
[H]ow is it possible for men to be together? To live together, to share their time, their meals, their room, their leisure, their grief, their knowledge, their confidences? What is it to be “naked” among men, outside of institutional relations, family, profession, and obligatory camaraderie? It’s a desire, an uneasiness, a desire-in-uneasiness that exists among a lot of people.
Perhaps, it is in Foucault’s idea of queer relationships, which are not bound by traditional boundaries and conventionalities, that we can find our ways of sustenance as well. It is in being able to spend time together outside of the conventionalities of work and profession, of really trying to be there for one another, being of support, and sharing our joys and grief and meals and partying together that we can find a sense of equilibrium, of letting go, and of wellbeing.
 Michel Foucault, “Friendship as a Way of Life,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, Vol. 1, ed. Paul Rabinow (NY: The New Press, 1994).
Cover Image: MaxPixel