The recent public shaming and raids some couples faced in Mumbai, has made it is clear that sexuality, and women’s sexuality in particular, is still a contentious topic. Ironically, it is very strange that gender related issues are sometimes appropriated by these very people who then suddenly want to “protect” women. This is because paternalistic control over women’s mobility and sexuality is a lot convenient under the violence prevention diatribe. When the issue of Indian women consuming adult entertainment or erotica is a concept that is so alien for some people – so much so, that they claim that it hurts the women’s dignity – it is time to re-evaluate why and how the pleasure aspect is denied to women in a patriarchal set up.
Many sex positive feminists have talked about why we need to move beyond the victim point of view since it can be disempowering and restrictive in nature. Here in lies the important question, what about those women whose basic idea of sexuality has been formed by violent experiences? Violence forms a major component of many women’s day to day lives. Learning about anatomy and sexual freedom is great, but what does all this discourse mean for a survivor in the day to day life?
Survivors of abuse and violence can often feel excluded and alienated during discussions around sex and sexuality. A lot of well meaning sex positive projects fail to be inclusive because they tend to appear universal in nature. It is important that disclaimers should be to be added for different experiences and extra sensitivity should be extended to survivors.
However, all this should not stop us from engaging and developing a nuanced understanding of what entails pleasure and desire. More so, because women need to reclaim the very idea that they are sexual beings as well (Although we need to remember that asexuality is a real orientation as well). If you think about it, isn’t this sort of denial a violent practice as well? Keeping women away from adequate knowledge about their own bodies and unique expressions of sexuality is one of the ways through which women are subjugated and oppressed. Not only that, this can also feed into the already violent culture since we could be looking at more bans, raids and what not. And women are the easy targets in such cases. The Mother-Whore dichotomy is a direct manifestation of the patriarchal categorization of women wherein they are extended conditional respectability based on the way they express themselves sexually. Also, this rule then makes it okay for men to harass and attack women who cross the patriarchal boundaries.
The main reason that stops society from engaging in meaningful and honest discussions around women’s sexuality is a blatant desire to control their bodies. Pleasure affirming sexuality can be very empowering because it leads to deliberate consciousness rising among young girls and adult women. Sex positivity goes beyond mere discussion of women’s sexual anatomy because it incorporates efforts to reclaim women’s right to pleasure, end slut shaming and victim blaming as well as discuss consent related issues. It also leads to some serious myth busting. There are many gender based stereotypes and expectations attached to human sexuality that can often be very harmful and restrictive for women. The idea of virginal purity and society’s sexual double standards are some of the examples of the same.
Ideas of masculinity and femininity also affect how women’s sexuality is regarded in society. Dominance and submissive roles during sexual intimacy are often influenced by gender roles. Sexual double standards are a direct result of patriarchal thinking and so is a lot of misinformation regarding pleasure and sexual intimacy. A lot of research and findings of scientists who have studied human sexuality has until very recently ignored the primary pleasure center for a woman, the clitoris which is a collection of almost 8000 or so nerve endings (thus, making it a highly sensitive erogenous zone).
Instead, the focus has been on the vagina, which is basically a birth canal. In fact, the model of female sexual response is very different from what is shown in pornographic movies, where mostly the women exist as objects and degraded for the primary consumption by men (however, sex positive feminist pornography is an up and coming thing as well!); in fact the main emphasis is on the male ejaculation. The adult movies usually have a linear storyline from start to finish but in reality sexual intimacy can be a lot different and need not adhere to a fixed routine at all. Often times, these images feed and translate into ignorance in the bedroom. Mutuality is missing and women cannot relay and negotiate the ways they can achieve orgasm. In reality, hetero normativity has played a huge role in the over enthusiastic emphasis on peno-vaginal intercourse for obvious reasons. Even the discovery and peddling of the G Spot is not untouched by these ideas. No wonder a lot of women are mistakenly assumed to be sexually frigid! The “Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm” by Anne Koedt is a brilliant scholarly piece that discusses the politics of orgasm and myths related to women’s sexuality that are perpetuated in society.
Interestingly, hetero sexual men too face certain issues due to the stereotypical ideas of masculinity, such as the importance of having an adequate penis size and the pressure to be sexually adept and more experienced than their partners that lead to performance anxiety. Women are encouraged to repress their authentic desires and end up faking orgasms in order to avoid offending or hurting their partner’s feelings or worse yet, to avoid being labeled promiscuous.
Sex positive and pleasure centric discourse also help in inspecting andocentric ideas around sexuality. Women are constantly under the male gaze and their bodies are commoditized to a large degree. In a way, they become sexualized without actually feeling sexy. Even if they do, the ideas of what entails sexy and attractive is predominantly shaped by unequal power relations in society. The police personnel who were involved in the raids, have they never themselves enjoyed a “Shiela ki Jawani”, or “Chikni Chameli” number? Oh, so it’s okay as long as women’s bodies are used to sell items in advertisements and item songs?! Women are denied sexual subjectivity and are viewed as mere objects for men to have sexual intercourse with. We need to remember that sexual revolution for women does not necessarily mean having multiple partners, although heavy insistence on monogamy is also a hetero normative idea. But what it instead implies is the dire need to focus on an authentic female response to pleasure and desire, which is untouched by the popular misogynistic culture as much as possible.
One of the biggest benefits of sex positive ideas is that they are also body positive in nature. In a patriarchal landscape, the female body is often associated with pain, shame and guilt. Sexual confidence is often tied to the way one regards their own body and if we look at the popular media representation of women’s bodies we shall see how it leads to negative body image for women in general. This happens due to unfair comparison with air brushed images of models in magazines, television and movie screens. Neo liberalism dictates how women’s sexuality is shaped, such as finding pubic hair as distasteful and altering one’s body with vaginoplasty, etc. Therefore, subversion happens as soon as we recognize that almost all bodies (and not just abled, cis gendered, size zero figured bodies) are capable of acting as vehicles that can bring women a lot of pleasure and satisfaction. This leads to unconditional acceptance of women’s desires and fantasies and in turn helps to reclaim women’s body, which is then regarded as beautiful and not dirty.
Thus, it is important for women need to restructure their own sexuality. They need to re write the terms of intimacy and embrace their unique expressions of sexuality, which is inclusive of different voices and experiences and definitely not just limited to cis gendered white upper class ones. This can only happen when proper sexuality education is disseminated in society. Partner sex and intimacy is about mutuality and recognizing the importance of consent, open communication and respecting each other’s preferences and dislikes. Embracing a general culture of sex positivity and adopting a non judgmental attitude towards intimacy and sexual desire is a huge step forward in this direction.
Featured Image Credit: Feminspire.com