By Shruti Arora:
“I’ve never told this to anyone before, but I liked it when he kissed me. I wanted it, but I was always scared that if I say it to him, what would everyone think of me? And so, I could neither tell him nor anyone else, that I wanted it,” confessed a woman participant at one of Nirantar’s Gender and Sexuality training sessions. In my moment of reflection I realise that when women talk about their desires, there’s always a risk attached to it, risk of being seen as a ‘bad’ and ‘characterless woman’ with the potential of losing respect. This is how patriarchy has managed to maintain the social norms, by punishing those who flout them.
The conflict within oneself of pursuing one’s sexual desires or not outside a socially sanctioned relationship, the guilt of having pursued them beyond ‘a limit’, the regret of not having done so because of the fear of being tagged as a ‘characterless’ woman, deter women’s choices and mental well-being in many invisible ways. If we work towards women’s empowerment, we have to talk about their right to say ‘no’ to sex but also empower women on their right to say ‘yes’ to sex, guiltlessly.
Patriarchy has taught women to be passive, in their sexual expression as well. In the trainings that Nirantar does on Gender and Sexuality, when we talk about the right to pleasure, we realize that most women are not familiar with the clitoris. The clitoris, is the most sensitive part in a woman’s body and its sole purpose is of experiencing pleasure on stimulation without any fear of unwanted pregnancy and whether or not there is a partner. It is not talked about in books, in homes, in schools, or even in bed.
Since discussion on sexuality either happens within the framework of sexual violence against women or when they are seen as ‘perverts’ and ‘immoral’ for expressing their desires, there are hardly spaces for women to talk about these desires and fantasies. Porn mostly caters to men’s demand and is created with a male audience in mind. Isn’t this statement influenced by patriarchal gender and sexual norms, implying that women aren’t entitled to sexual exploration, that they don’t have desires and so they cannot feel aroused watching porn?
The conundrum of what a woman’s ‘yes’ or ‘no’ means – as the famous saying also goes “aurat ki na mein hi haan chhupa hai” (the hidden meaning of a woman’s ‘no’ is ‘yes’), whether it be about being in a relationship, about a kiss or about any other sexual act – may get resolved if women get the space to express their desires without worrying about the risks involved in how to consent, accepting a proposal, or approaching someone with a proposal. A question I want to pose is, if the centre of sexuality becomes sexual violence, in the media, in Sexuality Education curricula, in engaging with the law and the State, in our minds and in the discourse on sexuality, then wouldn’t that mean that women must always be seen as victims, sufferers or survivors (without any sexual agency or autonomy) and men as oppressors?
To subvert the patriarchal norm of oppressed and oppressor, talking about positive shades of women’s sexuality, about desires, self-pleasure, about safer and pleasurable sex, about exploration and talking about affirmative sexuality, about ‘yes’ understood as ‘yes’, ‘no’ understood as ‘no’, ‘I need time to think’ not assumed as a yes or a no but that ‘you need to wait’ may help.
About the author:
Shruti works with Nirantar – A Centre for Gender and Education on the issues of Gender and Sexuality with a feminist understanding. She has created resource materials for Gender and Sexuality trainings; done perspective and capacity building trainings with staff members of organizations working on young people’s rights and women’s rights. She loves locating anecdotal narratives into feminist discourse.