Living in a world that desperately tries to compartmentalize people and put them in boxes, sex and sexual liberation remain to be things that we do not talk about. Besides the intense stigma attached to such issues being discussed, there is also apprehension and danger.
For people who identify as women, expressing their sexuality is not merely an occasion of being shamed but also an “invitation” to people about their sexual availability. There is a constant threat of being molested or harassed looming upon us just because we decided to be sexually expressive.
Female pleasure is intricately connected with this issue. The constant suppression of sexual expression in women has led so many of us to be oblivious about what gives us pleasure.
Needless to say, women are often condemned for exploring their own bodies and their sexuality, the shame and silence that society attaches to female masturbation has rendered us unaware of our pleasure principles.
In this article, I will try to elucidate on the myths attached to female pleasure and sexual liberation, evaluate the reality of the situation and also analyze the probable causes behind such a social structure.
Established societal norms have always played a major role in forming ideologies in people. Indian society has always put women on a pedestal of chastity and purity. The most desirable quality in a woman is supposed to be her lack of sexual appetite and experience.
Here, an obvious question arises–what about men? Maintaining congruence with almost every other issue, sexual expression in men has received a lot more liberty, research, and discussion. The deeply gendered norms sanction sexual expression, often violent, as a chief constituent of masculinity.
Men are supposed to be sexual, men are supposed to be pleased. In fact, the glorification of the whole concept of “alpha male” has also justified rape and molestation by referring to the supposedly “uncontrollable urges” experienced by men.
A man is not shunned for being sexually active because of the notion of “mard hai, itna toh karega”, but such social sanction is highly absent in case of women.
The ridiculous glorification of virginity in women has led to the popular discourse that “losing one’s virginity” makes a woman less pure. The whole idea is completely unjustified as a woman’s honour does not rest in her vagina.
A more feminist explanation would be that having sex for the first time does not result in “losing” anything. There should not be any sense of loss attached to not being a virgin.
Virginity is a social construct. If anything, one is “gaining” sexual experience from it.
The constant shunning faced by sexually active women has worsened the situation to an extent where women are even afraid to explore their own bodies. A person’s sexual history does not define her worth. As long as it is consensual and safe, there is no reason for shaming her.
Here, it is imperative to say that the same kind of limitations is also imposed on a person’s sexuality. A woman who has had sexual experiences with other women or people with vaginas is often labeled as a “virgin” due to the lack of penetrative intercourse.
The idea of virginity is thus, not only gendered but also very heteronormative. There is a growing outrage among people with vaginas to bring about this much-needed change in the way people perceive a sexually active woman.
Besides the obvious anomaly between the treatment of genders when it comes to sexual expression, there is also a rigid imposition on women to please men. Such a discourse is absent in the case of men and thus, they often feel entitled to a woman’s body.
It is an unsaid rule in most heterosexual relationships between two cisgender people, that the woman has to please the man in bed. The sexual process is dedicated to a man reaching climax and female pleasure is either suppressed or ignored.
Men seldom enquire what pleases women sexually, their entitlement in this case stems from the misogyny that they have been made to internalize over the years.
There is a glaring difference between the minimum sex education that is provided to cis men and women. Keeping aside the whole debate about educational institutions being non-inclusive of trans people or gender non-confirming individuals when it comes to sex education, there is also the persisting problem of concealing facts from young students.
To start with, women are only taught about the reproductive function of sex. From the very age they attain sexual maturity, they are indoctrinated about the elevated concept of motherhood, the requirement of it to complete your womanhood, and the unrealistic expectations associated with it.
The indoctrination is so deep that women start believing that they should only have sex to give birth to children. The pleasure factor of sex is concealed, and every attempt is made to keep a woman oblivious to it.
If we start evaluating the social constructs that limit our sexual freedom, we will notice the subtle attempts the society engages in to prevent the development of individuals, especially women, as sexually active and liberated beings.
Masturbation, watching pornography and other different forms of sexual exploration is normalized in the case of men. Schools even refer to masturbation in men as a sign of their sexual maturity, but the same treatment is not given to female masturbation.
It is perceived as unnatural and women are not even taught, let alone encouraged about it. Such conditioning deeply affects a woman’s perception of sex. Most women face a dilemma when they first explore masturbation.
There is the intense pleasure of knowing their bodies and experiencing something that has been marked “forbidden” by society on the one hand; and a deep sense of guilt and regret evoked on committing “a sin” on the other hand.
I conducted an online survey on female pleasure from March 23-25, 2021. The responses that I received for my questions on female sexual experience and masturbation has made it quite clear that the age-old myths attached to masturbation have led many women to view it as something “good girls” do not do.
Riya Susan, a college student said that she was shamed for being sexually expressive and unapologetic about her pleasure.
Apart from the highly unscientific and ridiculous myths like “masturbation will make your clitoris fall off” or “women lose the ability to be aroused during intercourse if they masturbate”, there is also a feeling of shame and secrecy attached to it.
A woman declaring that she masturbates is bound to turn a few heads as it is viewed as almost obnoxious.
Nilasri Bhattacharya points out the unhealthy peer pressure faced by women to have sex for the first time. She said that a person should never be compelled to engage in intercourse, unless they are completely ready, and that being a virgin or a non-virgin has nothing to do with one’s age.
Rayana Ghosh, a student of sociology, said that orgasms should not be the only goal in sexual intercourse. The process is supposed to be enjoyed without putting pressure on either of the partners to climax.
Kinjoli Das, a student of psychology, condemned the slut-shaming that society directs at a sexually expressive woman. Das said that her sexual expression is often perceived by men as the license to harass her.
Notions like “you are being too bold” leads to online molestation as men assume that if a woman is being blatant about her sexual desires, she is “available”.
Another anonymous participant said she reached sexual maturity at a young age and ever since then, people have looked at her differently. They have called her “too mature” and “shameless” for being frank about it.
She talked about how different people reach sexual maturity at different ages and there is nothing to be embarrassed about.
Shinjinee Bhattacharya talked about how people perceive asexuality and says that there is a popular myth that leads people to believe that asexual individuals are completely averse to sexual experiences. In reality, asexual people can also have sexual experiences, it is just that they are not attracted to anyone sexually.
Bhattacharya said that sexual attraction and sexual pleasure are not mutually exclusive parameters.
The survey responses clearly yielded the observation that sexual pleasure is made inaccessible to women. It can be interpreted as one of the many limitations society imposes on women to control them and restrict them.
I have been making preparations for starting a campaign on female pleasure and sexual awareness.
There are queer-friendly and ceritified experts like Leeza Mangaldas, who use social media to educate people about such issues. She often speaks about how female masturbation is perceived by men as a stimulus for them.
In an article by Suzannah Weiss, she says that the way female masturbation is represented in popular culture is also highly dedicated to the male gaze. The forced and dramatic sensuality associated with it gives an impression that women masturbate for men, and not themselves.
Such assumptions are dangerous and take away the agency of women over their bodies.
Withholding resources only increases and intensifies one’s curiosity. Women must have access to exploring their bodies, reading materials available on sex and pleasure, and experiencing it as and when they feel ready.
People of all genders must have the freedom to explore their sexuality and pleasure principles. Although pornography is still made mostly for male satiation, feminist porn is also on the rise and we must be open to it.
There is no shame in watching porn as long as the content is consensual.
Women have complete autonomy over themselves and it is time that we break the stigma and the silence attached to female pleasure and sexual liberation.
Healthy conversations, gender-inclusive sex education in the formative years, and realistic representation of sex and masturbation can help in normalizing pleasure; and reform the preconceived, gendered notions around pleasure in our society.
By Titas Goswami