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Why Sexuality & Sexual Freedom Need To Be Discussed Beyond Violence Against Women

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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.

woman pelvis
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.

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  1. The Hulk

    A key which can open every lock is a valuable key. A lock which can be opened by every key is a worthless lock.

    Modern women who want to act like men and open their legs to whoever gives them the tingles are only doing themselves, and womankind in general, a disservice. Men are only too happy to take advantage of a woman putting a low price on herself.

    1. jeet

      You’ve never known and will not know how it is to feel that YOU give YOUR woman(wife) pleasure. You’ll never see this in her eyes and you will not know how it feels. And it feels wonderful when you know that you two were united in that moment of pleasure. Otherwise you enjoy yourself and she’s thinking what to cook tomorrow for dinner. You don’t love her. You use her for your enjoyment.

    2. The Voice of Reason

      OK so going by your logic, MEN who talk about sexuality and flirt with women are also putting a price on themselves? Should they be called characterless man-whores?
      Why can’t sexuality be understood as another aspect of life’s desires? Why does it have to circulate around a woman’s precious virtue? Expressing one’s choice in food, books, movies and other things in life doesn’t make us characterless, does it? Then why should talking sexuality do that?

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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