Ironically, in a sanctimonious institution, undesired marital sex is a grim reality that its women have to live with each day, without any reprieve.
It wouldn’t be preposterous to say that largely, marriages in India traditionally strip women of their independence and put them in male custodianship for life. With the quagmire that is marital rape in India, it was troubling me that perhaps we had gotten off on the wrong foot, seeing how the concept of consent within marriage is a notion that so many of us don’t understand.
Coming from an environment where I wanted to ask uncomfortable questions but was expected to “just know things with age”, it was difficult to broach the topic.
“I met him only after marriage. I was nervous but that couldn’t be an excuse. In our times, we never knew we couldn’t say no. You can’t discuss bedroom matters in a courtroom.” However unsurprising my mother’s reluctant admission was, it did start a train of thought that refused to stop without talking to other people in order to make sense of what women in my life thought about consent and marriage.
Growing up, sex education came from really questionable sources that inhibited me from actually being able to interpret my own body. It’s the case with most women. People are discouraged from talking, from laying ground rules and boundaries in an intimate relationship with a partner because of the power imbalance. “I was married at 15. Had never been touched before. But that is for the husband. He leads, I follow. If I say no, he’ll look for it somewhere else,” my incredulous maid laughed it off as the very thought of denying the husband his carnal pleasures is outrageous to her.
Because, as a culture, we are opposed to discussing sex as a healthy topic. I believe we have duped our women and men into believing that denying sex in marriage is exiting the role of a traditional wife whose duty is to give pleasure, but who isn’t entitled to any herself.
Since both men and women have never understood their own bodies nor their partners, they relate bodily reactions to consent which leaves room for misunderstandings. Men ‘assume’ that active and enthusiastic consent is a given, and discomfort is equated with ‘traditional shyness’.
My teacher, who has been married for over a decade and whom I have admired for her assertiveness told me, “In marriages, consent is underlying. Sometimes I’m confused whether it is just anticipation or I’m actually uncomfortable. After being married, you stop asking for consent every time or it ceases to matter. That’s why it is expected of you to overlook violations.”
While men have no qualms in expressing sexual desires, women are stuck in limbo where they aren’t able to determine whether their consent is active and informed, or a result of pre-existing notions. It renders them unable to actually recognise themselves as victims, even when they should.
Upon asking whether she would refuse sex more if it came without repercussions, my friend, who is newly married, exclaimed quite wistfully, “I’d like if there’s an option that I can refuse without using periods as an excuse every time.”
It’s interesting to note that we do still understand rape outside marriages. Even in violent and turbulent marriages, it’s seen as an extension of domestic violence. The problem occurs when these incidents happen in isolation.
“If he forces himself on me, despite my refusal, however passive, I’d like to talk to him first. I understand that sometimes it is difficult to stop. And even if I complain, who’s going to believe me? The legal battle will suck everything out of me. I’d rather go for divorce if it keeps happening.” I won’t lie and say that it wasn’t upsetting to know that my own best friend thought so.
A lot of women I talked to were inclined to give the benefit of doubt to their husband and chalk it up to a misunderstanding. It frustrated me to no end that they’d be forced to let go because of social pressure and legal loopholes. That no one would believe that the same person they have been having loving sex with is capable of violating their bodies.
The experience forced me to think that whether married or single, sexually active or not, women need to explore and develop their consensual boundaries. We need to do away with the concept that men must know everything and the imbalance it invariably creates in the relationship.
How will you raise your voice against it, when you aren’t clear if it is, in fact, rape or not? Until then, even if a law is made, it would be of no use.