Too recently for my own liking, my mother had the ‘awkward conversation’ with me. She asked me not to “get too carried away” with anyone I might meet on my first foreign holiday alone. I could not contain my amusement. “Are you asking me not to have sex or are you asking me not to have sex with a stranger?” I asked, nonchalantly while eating my oatmeal. She chose an expressionless demeanour as her final response, but not before a look of horror flickered over her face. She resumed reading the morning paper, satisfied that I had got the point. On the other hand, when I approached women in Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia, to talk about their sex lives, they seemed far more welcoming.
Comfortably answering most of my questions and chatting away about their adventures and misadventures (or the lack of both) between the sheets. When it comes to sex, like most other things, India has one foot in taboo and the other in supposed liberation. The only thing we know for sure is that everyone is having it. But are we anywhere near for a conversation around the quality of sex? And more specifically, how women feel about the kind of sex they’re having, given that female pleasure has always been woefully neglected even across any conversation that does exist. This isn’t so much about answers as it is about dialogue, which is exactly what we tried to do via a survey conducted online and on field.
Who took the survey and how was it conducted?
- 170 women across India
- The age group of the women ranged from 18-40 years.
- We kept it inclusive in terms of seeking contributors from all sections of socio-economic strata and diverse professional backgrounds.
- It was also inclusive in terms of gender, sexual orientations and relationship status. (83% of the participants identified themselves as heterosexual, 16% as bisexual while the rest identified as queer)
- We encouraged qualitative responses. So we did not push people to force-fit their responses into the available list of options but provided space for them to write expanded responses, if they wished to.
- There was no compulsion to answer every single question.
- The names of those contributors who have requested anonymity have been changed to protect their identity.
While this report wishes to remain as objective as possible we have to admit that the alarmingly falling sexual security for women on a global level was a catalyst behind this survey. Movements like #MeToo that swept social media last year in which women from every corner of the world shared stories of sexual harassment, abuse and rape has been pivotal in resuming the conversation around the state of sexual health in the present millennial. The Aziz Ansari case and back home, the allegations against spoken word poet Shamir Reuben and other public figures, for their sexual misconduct with women beg for a deeper, more nuanced look on the politics of desire. That is if we are to move towards a future where women can freely celebrate their sexuality.
In an article by the Business Standard in 2013 (at the time of the Delhi gang rape) journalist Mitali Saran said that one of the ways to combat sexual violence was “to separate the criminal horror of it from the happy raunchiness of a rape fantasy consensually played out in the bedroom without the woman ever losing control of situation or ever actually being raped. Yes, sex is fascinating and complicated. Start talking.” We decided to do just that.
What’s Good Sex, Anyway?
Sticking to the promised objectivity, I would like to describe good sex in mathematical terms. Good sex for me is that part of the venn diagram where the circles intersect - the space where you and your partner(s) meet in complete emotional and visceral harmony. Having said that, you are probably going to fumble a lot before you hit that sweet spot (pun intended) because sex isn’t an innate skill nor is it a one-trick pony. It’s an art by itself and like any art form you need to practice it to truly get ahead in the craft. Still, like in each canvas how you might find yourself suddenly lost or found, the same can happen when it comes with human bodies. The women who took our survey–48% of whom have had two to five sexual partners while 32% have had more than five and the rest one partner each–have had varying degrees of experiences with sex in monogamous, non-committed, and polyamorous relationships.
Here are a few choice excerpts of what good sex looks like to our interviewees:
- “emotional intimacy”
- “Hitting the G-spot”
- “paying attention to my needs”
- “if I orgasm!”
- “a sense of anticipation”
- “candles, good music”
- “dirty talk before sex”
- “spiritually nourishing”
- “allowing yourself to be deeply vulnerable”
- “letting go of fear”
- “being playful”
- “a good anal session”
- “multiple orgasms”
- “if he can go on even after you are done”
- “Happiness for the family”
- “masturbating in front of your partner”
Yes, what good sex means for women have their origin at very different ends of the desire spectrum. Dr. Sejal Desai, who is a practicing gynecologist for the past 18 years in Mumbai says, “Female orgasms are quite complicated. They begin from the brain before going through different stages in the body. They are also of various types, commonly, clitorial (short spurts of intense satisfaction), vaginal (longer and more satisfying) which are characterised by the acceleration of the heartbeat and as for the G-spot one, there is still much clinical debate on whether it even exists or not.” To put it colloquially, when it comes to sexual satisfaction women don’t work like taps. There is great deal of work to do before we actually get going. What makes it even more complicated is that “this process” can often work to the disadvantage of some women. 33-year-old Mumbai based writer Damini confesses, “Women are taught that sex is only beautiful if it fulfills you emotionally. Especially the old offender, ‘meaning’. Mostly post sex, I am left craving for a deeper affectionate connect.”
So is the answer to good sex in the realm of an eternally grey limbo? Not necessarily. To know what women enjoy, you have to ask them and they have to respond in all truthfulness. Sometimes you have to get deep and dirty with the Q&A before anywhere else. The pattern of movements, motion and pressure on specific parts of the skin must be tried, tested and adjusted before the sex Gods smile on you and your partner.
Who Wants Bad Sex And Why Do We Continue To Have It?
Coming back to our venn diagram, discovering what lies outside the colour penciled area (throwback to bored math classes) is the realm of bad sex. Here is what our respondents had to say about their varied descriptions of it:
- “Only one person making any effort”
- “Bumping and grinding”
- “Not taking no for an answer”
- “Unhygienic body health”
- “Makes you feel humiliated”
- “When I’m too dry”
- “When I’m not in the mood”
- “When it’s only about sex”
- “Drunk sex”
- “When he comes too fast”
- “small penis”
- “When he cums in my mouth”
- “rushed sex”
- “Casual sex between teenagers”
- “When he only cares about his own pleasure”
24-year-old Adrija, a writer from Delhi, sums up these multiple responses on bad sex at in a single line– “when I feel like I want it to end.” So why are our women having bad sex in the first place? Is it an obligation to finish what you already started?
Answering this question, Ella Dawson an American feminist millennial said in a post on her website that, “the problem is this idea that you can’t just stop, say no, and leave. You feel like a ‘bitch’, like you’ve given a guy ‘blue-balls.’ In culturally different India, 23-year-old Raina from Bhopal feels that the guilt that leads to bad sex also has exterior sources. “Sometimes I think of my parents while giving a blowjob to my boyfriend. I know that might sound neurotic, but I can’t help but think how much they would disapprove of my premarital sex life.”
So if you have agreed to pleasure your partner, but are completely distracted while doing so, does it need to stop?
Consent And Everything In-Between
In this article by the Washington Post while discussing the nuances of consent in the Aziz Ansari case the writer remarks, “To an extent, the old model was ‘nice girls don’t say yes.’ Now it’s ‘nice girls don’t say no.’ And there’s something very weird and retrograde about this sort of protection of the male ego.”
Echoing a similar thought, 23-year-old Swati Narula, a journalist from Kolkata says, “Sometimes you are not in the mood but the person you always wanted to have sex with is ready so you don’t wanna miss out on that.” 21-year-old Vaidehi Tandon from Delhi has had sex “a lot of times” even when she doesn’t feel like it, for what she considers pragmatic reasons. “After a long day, your boyfriend thinks it is the best time to get sexy. So you do it to shut him up,” she says matter-of-factly. 23-year-old Diva, a marketing professional from Mumbai feels that women often subvert their own pleasure because of social conditioning. “Culturally we are taught to dote on our men,” she says. “It’s not surprising we end up giving their pleasure greater importance than our own.”
While their motivations for having sex despite not wanting it might be different, there seems to be a uniformity creeping in–women are continuing to have sex despite not enjoying it fully, or at all. And many are resisting speaking up about it with their partners. So the ubiquitous question remains–are we fostering an environment ripe for sexual misconduct?
Finding The Line
“I hooked up with this guy who, after very awkward conversation, just placed his hands on my boobs and then pretty much used me like an object. He made no eye contact with me. He was immediately distant after he came inside me,” says Maya a 33-year old writer from Mumbai.
Devika*, another writer, has had a similar experience. “One of my partners was too aggressive with fondling my breasts. I bruised badly at various places. Still, I feel I can’t entirely blame him as I wasn’t assertive enough to tell him to stop,” says the 21-year-old who moved from Dehradun to Mumbai for college. “I have healed from the incident but I still don’t like any of my partners touching my breasts till date.”
24-year-old Nazma who lives in Dharavi and is now pregnant with her second child doesn’t give much thought to her own sexual pleasures at all. She’s never been told to and she doesn’t think it is of great importance. “I don’t express my likes and dislikes. Sex is a man’s job. We enjoy whatever he suggests. I am happy that he always takes my consent,” she says satisfied.
For 26-year-old Fatima, a small-time beautician in Bandra East, sex with her ex-husband was just a routine. “It was an arranged marriage. My compatibility with him and his family was really bad. In that mentally disturbed state I felt no pleasure or displeasure during sex. But he never forced himself on me,” she says with hollowed eyes.
So are these forms of implicit sexual assault? With clear consent from your partner such sexual encounters are may not be criminal but they are still very unequal. An equation that completely disregards female enthusiasm for pleasure.
Unless of course you are like Chennai-based researcher, Kylie, for whom a good sex session rarely backfires even when she’s ‘not in the mood’. “Sometimes I am really mad at my husband, and I don’t want to have sex, but I still do it because he wants to. I typically end up enjoying it anyway!” she says quite candidly.
This might make consent sound like a tricky terrain to traverse. We still feel a clear ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ from any individual during sex is the basis of consent but it would be in our best interest to go beyond the the question–“Do I have permission?” to “So how does this make you feel?”
Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby
“Oh, it’s that frank kya?” exclaims 30-year-old Shashi from the Siddharth colony chawl in Bandra East when I probe her to reveal the details of her sex life. Her mother-in-law and aunt who are within hearing proximity, smile and leave the house for a walk so she can “freely” open up to me. “My husband and I are very open with each other about our pleasures. Like, I don’t like watching foreign sex videos in which one woman gets fucked by multiple women before having sex. It’s too much yaar!” she says slapping my arm in jest. Before I leave, Shashi lets me in on a secret–when she discusses sex with her friends who are also mothers, they unlike her don’t continue to suffer from coital pain after childbirth. “Do you know why it hurts?” she asks me in all seriousness. When I advise her to see a doctor, she smiles ruefully.
Dr. Sejal Desai who is also a Gynaec-Cosmetic surgeon for the past six years has had female patients from the age-group of 18-60 years, who come to her because they wish to make a change in their vaginas for better sexual experiences. The most common treatments are vaginal tightening, improving lubrication and G-spot enhancement - all for better orgasms. Many of her patients who seek these treatments suffer from sexual dysfunction– which globally affects 40% of women. Apart from these functional procedures Dr. Desai also provides aesthetic surgeries–one of the most popular ones being labia minora plaster which surgically trims the lips of the vagina to make the vulva more defined or appeasing to the eye.
“It’s a known fact that 99% heterosexual men don’t care about the aesthetics of a vagina, but women who undergo such surgeries from me always come back with happier and more satisfying sex lives,” says the doctor whose procedures cost anywhere between Rs. 3000 to one lakh. Before you can get yourself a ‘designer vagina,’ however, Dr. Desai understands the history of her patients and their sex life. “We often discover that women don’t need our surgical help but just mental counselling. Many Indian women suffer from vaginismus, a condition which prevents them to engage sexually in a healthy way,” she informs us.
39-year-old Meena who is originally from Kerala and now lives in Dharavi lives a fragmented part of this reality. In the past ten years she has never talked about her sexual experiences with friends or her husband of ten years. “I enjoy sex but I don’t want to talk about it. It’s too embarrassing,” says the BA graduate from Khalsa college who has also been a primary teacher in the Gulf.
Whereas Paromita Vohra the founder of Agents Of Ishq, a first of its kind bilingual online platform for love, sex and desire in India, has a completely different story to tell. “We faced no challenges to get people share their experiences. Within a week since we launched, people began to take ownership of the website–writers and artists were reaching out to collaborate with us. Our biggest contributors are women,” she tells us. And this is a trend we continue to notice at Homegrown as well. Having traversed a wide range of topics that require willing participation and vulnerability of all kinds, a majority of our contributors continue to be women, which is an indicator of the problem in itself. If men refuse to engage with the world of female pleasure at all, no amount of assertion on women’s parts is going to get us off.
In one of their podcasts–Jeep Mein Beep, Dil Mein Dhak Dhak, Chandni from Bundelkhand in UP narrates the story of her extra-marital affair, where at the end, to prevent their respective families from breaking up, the lovers ultimately don’t unite. What stays with you (or at least did with me) is not this tragedy but Chandni’s last meeting with her lover– “Hamne pachas rupiye ka room liya, raat bhar masti ki aur bas yuhi beeth gaye chaudah saal…” (We took a room for 50 bucks, had fun all night and since then fourteen years have passed.)
Without a trace of moral guilt this, was a still a surprisingly liberating narrative for a city woman like me. However for Vohra such candid stories of love and desire from the hinterland of India aren’t all that awe-inducing. “There will always be people with sexual constraints and there will always be people who have the courage to live the life they want to. It has little to do with what class you belong to,” she states simply.
So where does this dichotomous world of liberation and constraint take Indian women’s sex lives? Is it flawed to even view it through a dual lens? And what about all the things we didn’t consider, like how different sex is for women in same-sex relationships or what of the men who want to be better but have never been taught or shown how?
Like we said right at the get go, neither we, nor the 170 women who partook in our survey have all the answers. But they did prove one thing to us–the best sex is never a one dimensional experience. If you truly want to enjoy it, you have to peel back all the layers of its motivations. If you find a crossroad, you must wait, ponder and communicate before plunging deeper, if you are looking for, what can (and should) be a great ride for everyone involved.
[Note to readers: We are continuously exploring topics around sex and sexuality in India. If you have a story you’d like to share or a conversation you’d like us to explore, write to [email protected] with your suggestion with the subject line ‘HGSexts’. Our inbox is a judgment-free zone.]
Feature image illustrated by Aaroolya Rajesh for Homegrown.
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