I recently came across this article, based on a survey which found that women have only one orgasm for every 3 orgasms enjoyed by men in heterosexual encounters. The article debunked the myth that the gap was the result of biological factors since the study revealed that women were able to achieve orgasm at a much higher frequency in lesbian relationships and through masturbation.
As per the article, the orgasm gap was mainly the result of the upbringing of men and women where men are brought up to be aggressive and powerful and women to be passive and pleasing. Though I agree with the article, I wanted to explore the issue from an Indian context, where I felt the reasons for the orgasm gap could be a lot more complex.
I spoke to 8 women from age groups varying from 18 to 50 with different relationship status’ and sexual orientations to explore the subject from their life experiences and came across varied perspectives.
Almost all of these women went through a similar upbringing, where sex was not discussed at home while growing up. While some parents carefully avoided the subject, some women were either explicitly or implicitly conveyed the message that sex was taboo, either by changing the TV channels the moment there was even a mild love scene, or making judgmental remarks about the sexual choices of movie characters and known people, or even preaching about how sex needed to be preserved for marriage.
This negative conditioning about sex is not just received from parents, but from society in general, such as relatives, media, school, etc. Akurti*, 18, an aspiring law student, narrates how she approached her school teacher on some doubts on textbook material related to sex at the age of 13. The teacher told her it was not important for her to learn.
Her tenth standard science teacher, while on the chapter on sex, included a personal sermon as to how sex was meant for procreation and should be experienced only post-marriage. Thanks to her progressive mother, few open-minded friends and early exposure to feminism, Akurti has a healthy attitude towards sex and regularly masturbates. Many women carry the burden of this conditioning much later into their lives, sometimes all through their lives.
sex was not discussed at home while growing up.
Pallavi, 28, a software engineer from Bangalore, is still unable to break free from the morals she was fed during her growing years. While Pallavi is a progressive young woman, she is unable to be in the moment during her sexual encounters with her boyfriend. She says “While I know there is nothing wrong with sex and I really want to enjoy it, I just can’t stop feeling the guilt and shame during the act. I keep thinking, what would my parents think of me, if they know I am doing this?”
According to Manisha, 43, a trainer, who spent the majority of her life in Bihar, women are made to believe that sex is only meant for men and they are the enablers for providing pleasure to men and procreation. Women are not taught to be comfortable with their bodies or own their agency in sex.
This is aggravated by men being fed the idea of sexual entitlement and belief that women of ‘good’ character do not enjoy sex. Manisha endured pleasureless sex and often, marital rape for around 10 years, before breaking free and starting her life again. She narrates how she had her first orgasm only a year back, after going through vigorous therapy sessions to heal her earlier wounds and a considerate boyfriend, who helped her in getting comfortable with her sexuality.
Maggie, 39, a physiotherapist, recounts how an incident during her teens helped her break free from the negative upbringing she received till that point. She had suffered an incident of minor sexual abuse from one of her uncles and when she took it to her mother, her mother had just hushed it off and wasn’t angered. Nor did she confront the uncle, as Maggie had hoped.
This made her realize that her parents’ moral preaching was not about what was “right” or “wrong” but more to do with what society would think. This helped in liberating her mind as she decided to listen to her inner instincts and not go by what was believed to be right by people around her.
Also Read: Women And Orgasm: Ours Should Come First Too
Pragati, a 25-year-old lawyer, identifies as polyamorous and bisexual. While she thinks of herself as a sexually liberated woman, she states how she still doesn’t orgasm every time she has sex, though her orgasm rate is better with women as compared to men. Pragati says “Some men don’t have a basic understanding of a woman’s body. Most women orgasm not through penetration, but clitoral stimulation and sadly not many men know this. Maybe this is also one reason why I end up having a better time with women as they understand how a woman’s body works”.
However Pragati also partially blames herself for not being completely assertive in communicating her needs to her sexual partners, unless they explicitly ask her what she wants. She says “I think this is to do with a sub-conscious effect of social conditioning where women are expected to be passive during sex. I am consciously working on getting rid of my inhibitions in opening up to my sexual partners”.
Asha is a chartered accountant, aged 40 and married for 12 years who hardly feels the need for sex. She says she always thought of sex only as a means for procreation and that is also what she was led to believe by her parents. The fact that she stays in a joint family makes it also practically difficult for the couple to have sex at their leisure.
The couple manage to have a quickie once in 3-4 months, when they find some alone time at home. While there is a good possibility that some women’s sex drives could be naturally low, her conservative upbringing could have also attributed to her not discovering her sexuality.
The sex lives of many Indian couples are obstructed by living in joint families, especially in middle-class families with limited housing space. Added to this, most Indian marriages happen through arranged set ups, where partners are chosen based on a checklist which includes every other parameter, from caste, financial status, skin colour to astrological mapping.
The sexual chemistry between the couple is not even a point of consideration. It is believed that if a man and a woman are thrown into a room together, they will have sex, which is good enough for procreation, even if it doesn’t fulfill their deeper sexual possibilities.
women are made to believe that sex is only meant for men and they are the enablers for providing pleasure to men and procreation.
Apart from the above cited reasons, there are many other factors which are responsible for repression of woman’s sexuality. Women who are open about their sexuality are judged harshly by society.
Pallavi narrates how being with a right friend could have helped in exploring her sexuality better. She says “I used to feel very judged by my best friend whenever I spoke about my attraction to any guy. This coupled with my parent’s rigid outlook towards sex shaped me into a prude during my college years”.
A ray of hope finally emerged when I spoke to two wonderful mothers: Vaishali, a 50-year-old stay at home mom and Bharati, a 52-year-old bank employee. Vaishali, who calls herself a feminist, ensured that her daughter received comprehensive sexuality education at the right age and never tried to censor her exposure to reading.
Her daughter, Akshara, is 19 now and studying at Oxford. Vaishali says, “I am sure she must be sexually active. All I tell her is to take necessary precautions. Though I am worried about her getting hurt sometimes, I understand she is an adult now and entitled to learn life through trial and error like how all of us did”.
Bharati thinks similarly. Her daughter Trisha is 20 and a law student. Trisha identifies as queer. Bharati initially had some reservations, but soon came to terms with her daughter’s orientation and is supportive of her. Such positive parenting can bring a sense of change in how young girls look at sex and wipes away whatever shame or guilt they could feel in exploring their sexuality.
The repression of Indian women’s sexuality as seen from above accounts is deeply rooted in our patriarchal culture. Change can happen through a change in mindsets at multiple levels: parents, media, schools, politicians and society at large. Since sexual liberation plays a very important role in woman’s liberation, feminists also have an important role in bringing about this change by building awareness and exposure towards sex among women.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
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