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Women Have Complete Agency Over Their Bodies And It’s Time We Realised That

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.

How Traditional, Indian Culture Affects Sexual Liberation

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.

Men are put at the center of sexual relations, while women and trans people’s needs are ignored. Representational image. Photo credit: Picpedia.

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.

Glorification Of Virginity

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.

Heteronormativity Sucks

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. 

Myths Attached To Female Pleasure

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.

Women are selectively educated about the reproductive aspects of sexual intercourse, but not about seeking out pleasure, when it comes to their sexual health and reproductive rights. Representational image. Photo credit: HippoPx.

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. 

Online Survey On Female Pleasure

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.

Women Are Slut-shamed

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”.

Representational image.

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. 

Asexual Women Exist

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.

Yes, Women Masturbate

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.

Temple carvings from Khajuraho depicting women engaged in sexual pleasure. Representational image. Photo credit: Flickr.

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

Featured image is for representational 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.

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 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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