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Why are Indian women hesitant to talk about – or even admit to – female sexual desire?
For a culture that gave us Khajuraho and the Kamasutra, we are a relatively squeamish bunch when it comes to sexuality; women more so than men. We refuse to acknowledge that we are living, breathing, sexual creatures. But the truth that every woman knows, whether she acknowledges it or not, is that female sexual desire exists and is a strong, powerful force, equal to and perhaps even surpassing male desire, if not reined in constantly.
To men, brought up on the myth that the Indian woman is an asexual creature, submitting to intercourse primarily as a duty to her spouse and for the purpose of procreation, female sexual desire is an unknown concept. A report titled ‘Women in AIDS‘, compiled by the All-India Women’s Conference (AIWC), in collaboration with NORAD, a Norwegian development agency, spoke with 750 middle-class women between the ages of 18 and 60 across India.
According to Dr. Manorama Bawa, from the research team, “Once we started talking candidly, their inhibitions simply vanished. Then they wouldn’t stop talking about their unrequited sexuality. The male myth about women not wanting to talk sex was shattered. Our women are crying out to know so many things. ‘Humko nasha kyon nahi hota?’ (Why don’t we have orgasms?), was a common query.”
According to Anjali Gopal, executive director of Naaz Foundation, an HIV/AIDs and sexual health agency “At least 60 per cent of the women I have met in the course of field studies say they don’t enjoy sex at all. That is because they have probably never experienced an orgasm.”
This lack of knowing what an orgasm feels like is probably the most telling statement of what is wrong with how the Indian woman experiences sex. She is rarely empowered enough to demand that her partner pleasures her in a manner that leads to her reaching an orgasm. For most Indian women, sex is primarily about satiating the male desire, towards achievement of the male orgasm. The female orgasm is a mythical concept much like the unicorn. Few men take the effort to pleasure their partners to orgasm – few women dare tell their partners what pleasures them enough to help them climax.
For most Indian women, sex is primarily about satiating the male desire, towards achievement of the male orgasm.
We don’t have the vocabulary to articulate desire, because we are taught never to speak of it, both men and women. When men talk of desire, it is with the self consciousness of speaking of something connected to a construct of machismo and masculinity and not a natural biological urge. When women speak of female sexual desire, it is with embarrassment, guilt and often concern that they are transgressing social boundaries. Add to this, the all pervading deification or vilification of women in two absolute extremes –the devi or the whore, leads to a fear of expressing one’s sexual needs.
The ideal woman is shy and submissive, content to let the man take the lead in matters sexual. The sexual woman is a threat to the masculine fabric of our society. The good Indian woman doesn’t demand orgasms. She doesn’t acknowledge that her levels of desire might be stronger than that of her partner’s. She shies back from initiating intercourse for fear of being perceived as either a nymphomaniac, or immoral, both damning indictments in our cultural context.
Is this because of the lack of a woman’s right over her body, which is viewed as the repository of male honour and bound by unwritten codes of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour? Is this because of the entrenched atavistic concept that a woman’s acknowledgement of sexual needs must come from a lack of morality?
To quote Dr. Sarojini Sahoo who has written extensively about how female sexuality is perceived as a threat to traditional patriarchal societies, “Women are denied the right to express themselves as sexual beings. They are discouraged from taking an active role or even allowing themselves to experience the act as pleasurable…. If a female admits to feeling sexual pleasure, her own husband may misunderstand her and regard her as a bad woman, believing she has engaged in premarital sex.”
According to feminist author Rita Banerji, women in India have never had a sexual revolution, in the same manner that the feminist movement in the West has had. Consequently, Indian women do not have the same kind of rights and choices over their body and sexuality.
Things are changing though, slowly and surely. Indian women are dropping the social constructs of the ideal woman and opening up to experimentation, sexual aids, fantasizing and more. Women are slowly and surely, accepting that being sexy is not a vilification and that acknowledging female sexual desire is not an indictment.
Sexual fulfilment is not viewed as a lucky bonus from intercourse any longer for some women, a small percentage, in the urban and semi-urban space, but demanded as a right. According to the 2012 India Today Sex Survey, “Women from small towns are treating themselves equal to men, in the bed at least. Sixty per cent of them in small towns, compared to 49 per cent in metros, have an equal say in sexual matters.”
The sexual woman is a threat to the masculine fabric of our society. The good Indian woman doesn’t demand orgasms.
Women are picking up condoms from supermarket shelves, they’re buying themselves lingerie, they’re enquiring about vaginal tightening gels, buying sex aids like vibrators and using them to reach orgasm and being insistent about their right to experience orgasms. They’re visiting sexuality counsellors and reading up about sexuality.
Financial independence and the availability of contraception are playing their part in giving Indian women the freedom to express their sexuality. They might not be talking openly about female sexual desire yet, but they’re taking baby steps towards acknowledging it exists. Someday, they might just dare to speak about it. And that, perhaps, will be the start towards true equality of the genders in our society.
*Photo credit: Nina Matthews Photography (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License.)