Taboos work on the principle of prohibiting or forbidding an individual or a group of individuals from a certain kind of behaviour, tagging it as ‘improper’ or ‘unacceptable.’ Probably owing to the ‘apparent’ nostalgia with Victorian England, most societies still consider it to be its implied responsibility to prescribe and instruct certain kind of ‘accepted’ and/or ‘unaccepted’ behaviour for a woman.
A list of dos and don’ts is subconsciously (or sometimes, on purpose) fed into a woman’s life over the years. Consequently, there is a lot of guilt and shame involved while, after or before doing anything ‘unaccepted.’ Absolutely no area of a woman’s life has been spared in this sense. Restricting other areas for now, I would like to expand on the much tabooed (almost non-existent?!) female sexuality and desire.
Sexuality in India, since long, has been considered as something to be discussed in hushed voices and discovered behind closed doors. Most parents still don’t feel comfortable to have “the talk” with their children and with that, they forget that there is no paucity of sources (not trusted, most of the times) for children to know their body. Growing up in such a hostile environment, children learn to hide their curiosity from their parents.
However, there is a difference between how adolescent boys express their sexuality and how adolescent girls do. Due to the granted societal permission for boys as being overtly sexual beings (“Boys will be boys!”), social acceptance of sexual encounters or discoveries (masturbation, viewing pornography, losing virginity) is more for boys than for girls.
Boys comfortably discuss their sexuality (though it is forced to a fit a certain macho stereotype) whereas far lesser number of girls do it, due to the instilled shame. Because of this, a general (and false) consciousness is formed that girls are (and should be), the desired and not the desiring, only up for male consumption lacking any traces of sexual desires for themselves.
This notion is extremely oppressive for women, who already lack a sense of agency over their lives. It thus becomes paramount to come out of the closet, most importantly for women, and kindle conversations about the apparently ‘non-existent’ or ‘unimportant’ female sexuality.
“The ancients believed that words (especially names) had magical power, so people became reluctant to speak aloud of the genitals or sex acts, and it became more important to hide the organs and behaviors from sight and to describe them with euphemisms.
We no longer believe that words have magical power, so we instead ascribe pseudoscientific explanations to the imagined “harm” they can cause and continue to legislate against them. And we cloak taboos against nudity with meaningless words like “decency” and pretend that for a woman to undress in front of strange men will somehow cause harm to society as a whole.” – Maggie Mcneill, author of “Ladies of The Night”
These “pseudoscientific explanations” and/or myths need to be recognized, questioned and busted at the earliest.
The most problematic of all the myths is that women are ‘not’ (and should not be) desiring beings. This misconception roots from an essentially patriarchal framework which is based on the dynamics of power where man is the provider and woman is the receiver. This power play is also prevalent in a typical heterosexual couple’s sexual activities. A cis man, who has grown up in an extensively patriarchal conditioning, would always want to be the dominating sexual partner among the two. His desires and dominance would overshadow that of the woman’s. This can be the reason a lot of women complain to have not reached climax during sexual activity.
Also, for a patriarchal society to thrive, it is important to keep the subject-object status of a man and woman in place. A woman blurs out her status as a docile object the moment she expresses desire and so, the society does everything in its might to curb it; often taking the disguise of religious or moral ideologies.
The sexual taboos that women face
- Women don’t masturbate
For most part of my life, I grew up believing this. It is only just some time back that I discovered the falsity in this belief. This myth is created and sustained on the premise that women don’t have desires independent of a man. Secondly, a woman touching herself is ‘immoral.’ And third, only a man is capable of and should be involved in satiating a woman. Masturbation gives a sense of autonomy to the woman over her body and a better understanding of what gives her utmost pleasure.
- Women don’t watch porn
The mainstream porn is made for the consumption of male audiences, undoubtedly. And this is exactly what highlights how the porno makers never felt the need to make “sex-positive’’ pornography, spreading the unequal power play in cis sexual relationships and assuming women to be non-desiring beings.
It is fortunate that this been changing because of feminist porn directors like Erika Lust. She stated,
‘’women being in control of their sexuality is an ideal that is sadly lacking from most mainstream porn.’’
She told FEMAIL that her primary concern is to show both the partners as ‘sexually liberated equals.’
- Female homosexuality is also tabooed widely
In her critique of Freud’s Psychogenesis of female homosexuality, Irigaray writes,
“Within this (patriarchal) system of trade, as soon as she relates to another woman, she is a male homosexual.’’
Freud’s overruling of a woman who is capable of “desiring’’ by comparing her to a man, signifies how patriarchy sees ‘desire’ as a male dominated sphere. (A detailed discussion on this topic is outside the scope of this article but will be conducted in later articles.)
- The clitoris is an unnecessary part of a woman’s body
Clitoris is responsible for “pleasure” and “sensation” in female body. The cases of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) have been horrendous in number and the recent news flash of the case of Farida Bano conveys how female desire is being curbed since over a decade now. The mutilation is the most frequent in Africa but Bano’s mutilation occurred in India where a religious sect still believes that ‘’the removal of the clitoris is the will of God.’’
Asghar Ali Engineer, an expert on Islamic jurisprudence and author of over forty books proposing changes, said to Dawn,
“Female circumcision is clearly a violation of human rights, the Indian government refuses to recognize as a crime because the practice has full-fledged religious backing.”
- A woman who loses her virginity before marriage is ‘immoral’
The concept of virginity and the ‘usual’ indicator of the same (an intact hymen) are senseless and flawed at multiple levels. Before anything else, it is important to note that the concept of virginity doesn’t work the same for men, that is, a man is allowed to have sex before his marriage as many times as he wants to and he won’t be shamed for it. Instead, a patriarchal setup often looks down on a man or tags him ‘unmanly’ if he remains a virgin for long.
The scenario for women is completely different, with absolutely no logical reasons for the same. A woman is expected to stay ‘chaste’ before her marriage (note: even a sexual assault would mean the loss of her virginity and thus, she is considered ‘unchaste’) and let her husband do just anything to her body, on account of being her husband. It would be interesting to note here that marital rape is still not considered a crime in India.
It is difficult to understand people’s obsession with female virginity. No matter how much we are progressing (if at all we are), a woman who has lost her virginity as a maiden is still considered to be promiscuous, whorish or slutty. It has almost become tantamount to know about a woman’s virginity to give her a ‘character certificate.’ Most men and their families still press on having ‘virgin, untouched’ brides for them. If this wasn’t enough, a city in Indonesia’s Sumatra island was about to mandate “virginity tests” for female students in order for them to graduate (of course, it was JUST meant to be for girls.)
How can the Two Finger Test (TFT) be forgotten? Even after Supreme Court’s ruling that this test is “unscientific, inhuman and degrading” it is still widely conducted in India. This test is conducted on survivors of sexual assault by the doctor. It is conducted to see the absence or presence of hymen and “laxity” of the vagina which would indicate if the survivor is “habituated” to sexual intercourse (as if it is an alibi for sexually assaulting a woman.) Among all the things that one does with their fingers, conducting this illegal test doesn’t really make any sense at all.
Now, can one say if there has been a sexual revolution? Absolutely not! A million (or whatever number of copies) of a book like Fifty Shades of Grey being sold doesn’t account for any sexual revolution, if we still can’t have a giggle free discussion about what satisfies a woman. Naomi Wolf, the author of “Vagina: A New Biography”, wrote for TIME,
“Indeed, serious or even remotely respectful discourse about women’s erotic well-being has been so marginalized in today’s climate, when one brings new findings on female arousal and satisfaction into public debate, as I am doing in my book, I find that one must make the case from the start that these numbers- and female sexual satisfaction- matter at all.”
The idea of suppressing a woman’s sexuality is a thread that keeps the patriarchal weaving of the society in place. A downright patriarchal society would thus make it a taboo and will continue feeding its home-grown chauvinists (both men and women.) It is blasphemous, UNLESS, it is for male consumption or entertainment.
i. “Naomi Wolf Asks, Why Is It so Difficult to Talk about Female Sexual Pleasure?” Ideas Why Is It So Difficult to Talk About Female Sexual Pleasure Comments. Web. 27 May 2015.
ii. “Infochange India.” The ‘two-finger’ Test. Web. 29 May 2015.
iii. “Female Circumcision Anger Aired in India.” -. 23 Apr. 2012. Web. 25 May 2015.
iv. MailOnline, Annabel. “‘I’m Giving Women in Porn a Voice’: Mother Who Makes Feminist Erotic Films Is so Proud of ‘sex Positive’ Movies She Would Be Happy for Her DAUGHTERS to Join the Industry.” Mail Online. Associated Newspapers, 27 May 2015. Web. 28 May 2015.
Featured Image Credit: A tool used for female circumcision | Courtesy: www.nbcnews.com