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Why Is Sex Considered Such A ‘Bad-Boy’ Thing?

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Editor’s Note: This post is a part of What's A Man, a series exploring masculinity in India, in collaboration with Dr. Deepa Narayan. Join the conversation here!

Sex, in popular perception, is constructed as a very lewd, vulgar thing that ‘spoilt’ or easy-going people indulge in.

This is the perception which a shy, introverted adolescent boy in India is likely to imbibe when he learns about sex for the first time. When I was growing up, I was a very quiet child and I was socially isolated for a number of reasons, beyond my control.

So, I never had a chance to be actively involved in the conversations about the taboo- word ‘sex’, that begins to erupt within hushed whispers in school classrooms once a child reaches adolescence.

Representational image.

When I hear accounts of other people who say that their teachers did not even bother to teach the topic of Reproduction in class and conveniently left it for ‘self-study’; for a very long time, I used to feel that I was one of the more fortunate children because the biology teachers in my class at least made the effort to teach the chapter on Reproduction, with all its details.

However, now when I look back, I feel that due to the heavy moralistic notions which I carried as a child, I realized and accepted much later in life, what to many would appear to be common sense; that ‘sex’ is not merely a means of reproduction, but an act of pleasure.

This one sentence, as simple as it sounds, carries nuances that need to be reflected upon.

Because our culture does not permit an open and honest conversation about sex between adults and children, and most of the references to sex in popular culture are made in the form of subtle jibes, hints and innuendos, one ends up internalizing the notion that there is something inherently ‘dirty’ about it.

Moreover, with the onset of teenage, many boys begin to develop this desire of asserting their masculinity by talking about sex in a very rough and vulgar fashion. Because sex is perceived to be a hidden, ‘dirty’ thing that can pass about in hushed whispers but must not be spoken aloud in ‘decent’ environments, children never get a chance to learn something that they should have always known; that sex is a basic instinct in human beings. It is futile to try to curb it because repression is unhealthy, and does more damage in the long run.

Nobody teaches children that it is okay to have sexual desires, as long as one does not violate the boundaries and consent of others. That it is important to treat people with respect, dignity, and as much empathy as possible, during sex. That you could do it for fun, but one must always take care and actively think about the consequences of their actions upon other people, during a sexual encounter.

a girl and teacher laughing at sex education

Unfortunately, the manner in which sex as a concept is taught to boys through different means of socialization, and the gendered nuances involved within them, mete out dangerous implications. Television shows, films and conversations in daily life are often ridden with the assumption that ‘sex’ is supposed to be an emotional experience for a woman, but a more of a physical experience for a man.

This notion is based on the prevailing gendered stereotype that while women and girls are emotional creatures, boys and men are supposed to be more stoic and emotionally numb, in comparison. However, as a man, I wish to convey through this article that nothing could be farther from the truth. It is erroneous to generalize a whole set of people on the basis of their gender.

Sexual impulses and desires could be both physical and emotional in nature, and one might lean more towards either at a given moment, depending on the nature of thoughts, feelings, emotions, habits, behaviours and other traits that comprise the basic personality which a male has. It might not always be easy to distinguish physical and emotional attraction from one another, for one could veer into the other.

It is faulty socialization and gendered stereotyping accentuated by patriarchy that has led us to erroneously believe that just because popular culture is teeming with images of men who are obsessed with a perfect body-shape and sprawling muscles on ad commercials and daily soaps, that all boys and men in real life would also aspire to become that prototype of masculinity, or necessarily think of sex as a very assertive act symbolic of their pride, and so-called ‘masculinity’.

The notion of a very tough and virile man who must be active and assertive in bed might be the fantasy of several people, but it is important to be aware of the fact that there is a gap between fantasy and reality.

Body-image issues in men and boys is a real thing, and because media persistently sells the male body as a repertoire of brimming muscles and a throbbing chest, we have forgotten that many boys and men in real life are lean and thin, gawky or socially awkward.

Representational image.

Some of them are carrying the burden of childhood abuses and traumas within their psyche, the resulting insecurities out of which, might reflect in their posture, body language and gestures.

Unfortunately, the concept of ‘manhood’ is so intrinsically attached to notions of perfection, fearlessness and daring that it becomes difficult to articulate and convey male experiences of vulnerabilities, fears and insecurities, which are not homogeneous because the experience of all men and boys hasn’t been the same in life.

While discussing love and sex for a man, it is imperative to ponder upon the stereotypes that the media continually throws at us.

There are so many binaries associated with the way in which sexual portrayals are presented on sitcoms and films in popular culture that one ends up thinking in binaries without being consciously aware of them: such as ‘male’ v/s ‘female’, ‘physical’ v/s ‘emotional’, ‘serious’ v/s ‘casual’ etc. The way in which TV serials and movies depict sex scenes colours our perceptions about the act.

While the biology teachers in the school classroom manage to teach the entire chapter on ‘Reproduction’ without even uttering the word ‘sex’ even once, serials and films nearly always show men indulging in sex as an outcome of a momentary impulse, a desire to engage in something wild, and spontaneous.

This kind of dichotomy between what our teachers and parents hinted to us when we were children, compared to what the virtual world out there seems to be preaching to us as we navigate our path towards adulthood, has given us contradictory messages and perceptions about the binary between ‘tradition’ and ‘modern’.

While traditional norms and ‘moral’ values that our parents and elders try to indoctrinate within us make us think of sex as an unavoidable fallacy, an act that is necessary to beget children, but which must be confined within the institution of marriage between a woman and man; the modern media seems to be persistently telling us that sex is a wild, impulsive act that people with an appetite for thrill and unquenchable lust wish to indulge in.

One doesn’t get to see emotionally sensitive, or overly anxious men enjoying sex that often on screen.

Subconsciously, the media is giving us a very dangerous and problematic message by telling us that sex is enjoyed more by men who are driven purely by their baser instincts and do not experience qualms about what they did, later on.

Keeping the moralistic and conservative notions attached with sex which dictate that it ought to happen only between people of opposite genders, or after marriage, aside; what most people tend to forget is that irrespective of whether one has a casual or serious approach towards sex, it is still something deeply tied to our mental health and emotional well-being.

Different men experience sexual desires differently, and irrespective of whether one chooses to have sex only within a serious relationship, or does it casually with strangers or acquaintances, the stereotypes and notions attached to sex can be stifling.

Dating Apps And Masculinity

An overly anxious man with mental health issues could also experience intense sexual attraction, and the desire and need to experience physical intimacy. But we live in times when dating apps are teeming with phrases such as ‘looking for something casual’, ‘nothing serious’, ‘not into hook-ups’ etc.., which are really not as simple as they appear on the surface. While it is healthy to state one’s preferences and be clear about what one is looking for, to think that it is okay to not treat people with sensitivity and kindness while approaching them for casual sex is a problematic approach that people need to change.

Sex, whether in a relationship or between two consenting adults for ‘casual’ pleasure, is a very intimate act and could stir various kinds of turbulent emotional responses within a person. People, especially on dating apps, follow this mistaken notion that they are not obliged to treat the other person with sensitivity and kindness unless they are approaching somebody for a serious relationship. This attitude is ridden with a number of erroneous and harmful stereotypes.

Why do we assume that people who are emotionally sensitive are only fit to be in a serious relationship, and ought not to harbour desires for casual sex? The unspoken norms of so-called ‘casual’ sex have been written by the people who have been privileged enough to probably never have suffered from depression, anxiety or other kinds of mental health-based and emotional troubles. So, they think that they can treat others in any whatsoever manner.

I am a man, and I do feel that dating is not as simple as the relaxed, and so-called ‘casual’ approach of youth towards romantic and sexual affairs might make it seem. The mental and emotional state of a person varies according to situations, and the anticipation and excitement associated with thoughts of a sexual encounter could at times trigger a lot of anxiety in a person.

While there is no ‘perfect’ method of dealing with people and one cannot be held responsible for the troubles faced by somebody else, I really think that people should make an honest effort to care for the mental health and emotional well-being of their partner with whom they are planning to engage in a sexual act, even when it is outside the bounds of a serious relationship, and for casual pleasure.

Representational image.

It really does not help when media continually tries to make us believe that men who enjoy casual sex do not need to bother about their emotional and physical safety before, during and after the act; that men cannot experience complicated emotions and anxieties related to sex, that communicating about one’s needs and expectations and setting norms and boundaries takes the ‘fun’ out of it.

The fact that queer desires are shamed in society and pursued secretly on dating apps, might make it even harder for bisexual and gay men, whose experiences are nowhere close to those of heterosexual men. Media really needs to take cognizance of the fact that anybody can experience sexual desire, and as spontaneous as the act may seem, the consenting partners still need to have conversations about setting up boundaries between them, regarding what is acceptable behaviour and what is not, and show due consideration for the emotions of one another.

Media also needs to diversify the scope of its representations. The current understanding and imagination of sex for a major chunk of the populace is still heteronormative; we really need to normalize the idea of sex between two people of the same gender. Even the word ‘man’ is perhaps more likely to trigger the image of a heterosexual male in the popular imagination. The experiences of bisexual and gay men in dating and sexual encounters, with other men, needs to become a part of the public conversation.

As a man, I do wonder at times, why is it acceptable for a man and woman to kiss in public, but for two men to even hold hands evokes so much fear and worries about the invasive and scrutinizing gaze of people.

Any conversation about love and sex for a man in India would be incomplete if it fails to take into account the voices of bisexual and gay men in it, and if children are old enough to comprehend the idea of sex between a woman and man at the onset of adolescence, they really should not be deprived of the knowledge that the purpose of sex is not just reproduction, but pleasure too, that sex can take place between two people of the same gender as well, and that even the agency to determine what constitutes as ‘sex’ should be left upon the consenting partners, and it need not necessarily involve penetration.

Science textbooks taught us reproduction, but nobody ever gave us sex education when we were in school, and as I grow up, I realize and feel that the lack of sex education is not only inadequate, but actually dangerous, not just from the purview of unwanted pregnancies and sexually-transmitted diseases or infections that need to be avoided, but from the purview of mental health as well.

As a man, I do wonder at times, why is it acceptable for a man and woman to kiss in public, but for two men to even hold hands evokes so much fear. Representational image.

Sex-education for the youth of all age-groups is absolutely essential because norms of consent are never as straightforward in practice as they are made to sound in theory, and dating, in reality, is a much more complex and nerve-wracking affair that involves so much anticipation, uncertainty and reading of non-verbal gestures.

Educating adolescent, youth and adults about sex in schools, colleges and the workplace is a necessity, and we need counsellors to impart this kind of education from the perspective of mental health as well, and the LGBTQ lens needs to be placed within the centre, and not the periphery, of the sex-education that we impart to people.

It is a prime necessity in today’s day and age to sensitize people about mental health in life as well as within the realm of sexual affairs, and to normalize the idea that sex can take place among two consenting adults, irrespective of whether they are of the same or of the opposite gender.

Furthermore, the notions of ‘masculinity’ attached to the idea of a man in bed might be a person’s fantasy, but to enforce a fantasy upon all men and boys in real life is oppressive.

Boys and men who are shown to have sex on TV shows and films worry about their performance but seldom do we get to see a male character within any narrative worrying about his emotional state, and feelings.

We desire sex, but sex isn’t always easy. Some men experience anxiety along with sexual desires, which need not always be about their performance but could also be about their emotional well-being, and mental health.

We really need to bust the stereotype that sex and the urges associated with it, cannot be an emotional experience for a man or a boy because it really can be. Sexual desires could feel very tender and delicate to a man too. We need to stop essentially constructing it as a ‘bad-boy thing’ which only people with a somewhat reckless disposition seem to enjoy.

Featured image is for representation purposes only.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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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