Let's talk sex: Peeking into the secret life of Indian women
On International Women's Day, instead of outraging at the Indian woman's lot, we shine a light on her sexual life that is at the core of her personal struggle.Updated: Mar 09, 2015, 08:50 IST
They don't have to use their, ugh, horrible phrase, 'feminine wiles' or pretend to be one of the guys to get ahead, and the likes of AP Singh, defence lawyer of one of the December 16 gang rape accused, who blithely proclaims in Leslee Udwin's India's Daughter that he'd burn his daughter to death if she "engaged in premarital activities", would be such a rarity, he'd be the only specimen in a zoo for fantastic beasts.
In Utopia, there are no boys clubs, feminism is redundant because there are no rights left unwon, and women are free to pursue professional, personal and sexual happiness. The sun shines in a mellow way, the flowers are in perennial bloom, every smile reveals perfect teeth, and life is beautiful. Alas, Utopia doesn't exist.
In our imperfect world, today, March 8, International Women's Day, is a great marketing opportunity, an occassion for the fool and her money to be parted at the celebratory sales, a day to trick us into thinking we've made great strides when we're still hunting for the invisible ladder to success.
DH Lawrence suggested that the longest ever war is the ongoing one between men and women. It's a particularly enervating one for the heterosexual woman because of the conflicting emotions involved: you want to love but you also want to lash out; you want to be cocooned but you also want to be free; you want to be the perfect daughter, sibling, partner, mother but you don't want to be defined solely by those labels.
You want the men in your life to let you breathe but they, poor sods, are still functioning according to an atavistic code where, let's face it, women are individuals only in relation to the men who 'own' them. This is a cliche but one that bears repetition lest it's forgotten in the excitement over Women's Day Sales and special offers at the mall.
Things are changing. At least they are for a miniscule set of educated urban Indian women determined to lead lives vastly different from those of their mothers and grandmothers sequestered in domesticity, unable or unwilling to exercise choice and always, always afraid of the social backlash, of the 'what will people say?' phenomenon.
The fear of being cast out from 'respectable' society continues to haunt us. It keeps us from being too radical, from going after what we want. "Will I be a bitch, a fallen woman, too sexual, too ambitious, too unfeminine… and what is femininity anyway? And if it's a crime to be any of those things, why do I feel happier when I am all of those?" say the voices in our heads.
Sex - the difference between man and woman and the resultant strictures on life choices for those who do not want to conform, to be 'good' women - lies at the messy core of the Indian woman's personal struggle. A few more are now willing to defy the rules laid down in early childhood; rules so powerful we have internalised them.
A few more are willing to seek fulfillment in the area that the Indian woman has been taught to deny everywhere but within the socially-sanctioned sphere of an 'appropriate' marriage, the area of sexual choice.
The accompanying stories deal with real Indian women: lesbians, bisexuals, straight women, married women, unmarried women, women who buy sex and those who seek out love and sex online.
International porn star Sunny Leone now an unlikely Bollywood heroine - her exotic part-Indian status has perhaps helped her cross a bridge that wouldn't exist at all for a desi porn star - talks about the many possibilities of sexual being, while activist Kavita Krishnan contemplates the ways in which media compells women to conform and to deny the existence of pleasure.
This then is an issue on transgression, on Indian women who seek sexual fulfilment in a society that largely denies them that possibility, one that denies choice to women, and by extension, to men too.
Perhaps the problem can be traced to the pervasive belief that our culture is a superior one where the present is a fall from a Vedic Utopia. Perhaps we need to accept that things were always rotten in Bharat Varsha when it came to the rights of women and that later incursions and colonialism perpetuated and solidified those attitudes.
Perhaps we now need to accept that we aren't people with a golden past but ones who need to seek a progressive future if not just feminism and women's rights are to be achieved, but if humanism - that most difficult of isms - is to flourish in India. Some of these stories - especially the one from the gigolo who provides comfort to lonely women - are full of pathos.
Others highlight the lesbian struggle and the attempt to find sexual happiness within and outside marriage. Still others talk about BDSM, a zone of multiple shades of grey. All these stories, though, are about real Indian women, who are part of a larger culture that denies the existence of their desires.
Today, on Women's Day, instead of outraging at the Indian woman's lot, we choose to shine a light on her secret life. Perhaps Utopia will become reality when fewer women need to have secret lives.
'Often I have to suppress my needs'
Nikita, 28, works at an advertising agency. Three years ago, she had her first sexual encounter with a woman. She had slept with men before but had always felt as though "something wasn't right."
She adds, "It took me a while to realise what it was that I wanted and it has been a tough journey," she says adding that a woman with an 'abnormal' sexual desire is seen as a deviant. "I have not told my parents as I know they will be devastated. My elder sister is aware of my sexual preference but well, she too, is reluctant to accept it wholeheartedly," Nikita says.
A gigolo speaks up: 'Women want more than fun'
Around five years ago, when I became a gigolo, I was least bothered about things such as why women, particularly married ones, would pay for sex and about whether it makes them feel guilty. All I wanted was easy money to supplement my income as a content writer with an advertising company in Delhi. As a sex worker, I make Rs 5,000 to Rs 15,000 depending on who I am catering to and how much time I give. Everyone likes easy money, especially when it comes with sex, something which all of us enjoy.
Having met so many, I think I now know a bit about these women. I have an idea, at least. All of them have different reasons for reaching out to men like me. I do not think a woman plans on sleeping with a gigolo.
Our right to pleasure is always ignored: Kavita Krishnan
I wouldn't differentiate between sexual and social freedom for women. Because sexual freedom is also about choosing your partner. It is one of the most basic freedoms, but the Indian government, by hanging on to Section 377 of the India Penal Code, denies that freedom to everyone. And why just sex? Women's right to seek pleasure, whether in public or private, has always been ignored.
Everyone has baggage: Sunny Leone
When I participated in Bigg Boss, people assumed that I would be jumping on the couch and taking my clothes off," says Sunny Leone, laughing. The 33-year-old former adult entertainer adds, "But that's not who I am in real life," she says. "The audience saw that I am a regular girl who was learning to cook and talk in Hindi. If it was any other way, I wouldn't be here doing Bollywood movies today, would I?"
Finding sex online: 'I have only met one guy twice'
When PiyaliSahay (name changed) decided to join Tinder it was a spur-of-the-moment decision that made her do so. "Like most not well thought out decisions my joining Tinder was the product of boredom, curiosity and my having seen my ex's honeymoon pictures on Facebook that very day," she says, adding, "For me, Tinder is about meeting new people and the whole excitement of going on a blind date. It's a game of chance and that is what is so thrilling. If you choose to hook up with a person and it works out, that's a bonus. If it doesn't work out, you can walk away from it all."
Sex and taboos: 'You are a bad girl if you talk about sex'
Every Shivratri, women worship the Shiv ling and pray for a husband like Shiva. They worship a phallic symbol but they can't talk about sex," says 40-year-old Kolkata-based public relations profession Somini Sen Dua, talking of the taboos surrounding sex. Sen Dua remembers an incident that happened during her post graduation. "I was in a brand building class. We were shown some taglines and asked to match it with the brand that we associated it with. For one of the taglines I said Kohinoor (a brand of condoms). Later, some of my classmates, who knew I had a boyfriend, asked me whether I used ribbed or plain. They wouldn't have asked me whether I preferred masala or chicken if I had said Maggi, would they?" she asks. "That was 20 years ago, but I think nothing has changed since." The demarcation is clear: good girl vs bad girl, and the minute someone is vocal about sex or about her desires, for most, she crosses over into bad girl territory.
Sex in relationships: 'I've never wasted time thinking about morality'
Rose*, 40, has always had a no-nonsense attitude. "If I want it and he wants it, I've never been one to waste time thinking about whether this is a moral thing to do," she says with a smile. "Just wear a condom and I'm a happy girl." Sexuality, she feels is essential to any strong relationship. "What use is a Platonic relationship? I don't want to just moon over someone when I long for him."