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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 smash 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.