19 Sep 2009
The Oxford Dictionary refers to sexuality as sexual practice, sexual preference. Sexuality is also an emotion, the condition of being sensual, a way in which we view our bodies. And here’s the truth: all the Kaanta lagas of yesterday, the Rakhee Sawants of today, don’t change the fact that Indian women are extremely ambivalent about their sexuality.
One one hand, women’s magazines tell you how to up your sizzle quotient. Studies reveal that Indian women look for sexual pleasure from their men, that girls want to marry men of their own choice, that almost half of India’s urban women (43 per cent according to one study) willingly acknowledge the importance of sex in their lives.
But one the other hand, a different study finds 50 per cent of Indian women prefer to marry sexually inexperienced men. Premarital sex continues to be taboo, dirty deeds definitely done in the dark as are topics like masturbation, oral and extramarital sex.
Most Indians read/watch/listen to some ‘sexy’story with an interested and faintly scandalised air, then turn to their staple: the conventional soaps on TV, where women are basically dressed-up doormats selling sex and suffering. Women may want to wear‘skimpy’ clothes but their others/fathers/husbands — and now, elected representatives, too — actively discourage such ‘boldness’.
After years of covering up, how easy is it for women to let it show? How comfortable are women with their sexuality?
There are external and internal influences at work here. Traditionally, Indian women have always been shown their place, a position of serenity, humility and servility. Religious mythology gives us a gracious Lakshmi,
womanhood personified, and Kali Ma, womanhood unleashed. Women worship at both these disparate altars but find Lakshmi the easier one to emulate.
And then, men. Men have always been chary and distrustful of women’s sexuality and in a male-dominated world it has been all too easy to make women suppress that sexuality. What’s acceptable on that woman, they won’t tolerate on‘their woman’. Our social mores frown on women ‘exhibiting’themselves. Willy-nilly, women have absorbed all those restrictions.
So, Indian women continue to carry the burden of their sexuality in the most awkward manner. On the one hand, we have a parade of lissome beauties bringing home beauty crowns from across the world. On the other, we have young girls subjected to daily harassment on the buses, trains and streets of the country.
Women in some cities band together to hire male dancers, or watch porn films together. And women in most parts of India still marry men of their parents’ choice and live largely unfulfilled lives. And then, there is that great leveller: female foeticide and infanticide.
Sometimes you wonder if the media is making up the notion of sexual freedom since it’s still a sexist sexuality at work in India. Ads portray women as being in control of their lives, their bodies, their sexuality. Ads also show women running to buy fairness creams, which will land them better marriage proposals. Bollywood may have blurred the lines that delineate the vamp = evil/ heroine = good, images, but inevitably, the good girl has to reign in her sexuality once she gets her man.
According to fashion impresario Prasad Bidapa, “The Indian woman has always been sexually evolved, it is just that it was never acknowledged, never out in the open. Premarital sex was always prevalent but no one admitted to it. The days of abusive marriages are over, women will no longer stand any nonsense in their relationships.”
Bangalore-based psychiatrist Ajit V Bhide parses the issue: “The modern Indian woman is sexually liberated rather than evolved. However, that pertains only to a minority and is confined only to the metropolises, not the rural or even semi-urban areas. I find premarital sex and extra-marital affairs more common now — women are more open to relationships. For all that, women still need some persuasion to discuss sex-related problems.”
But Bangalore-based gynaecologist Dr Kamala Unnikrishnan is succinct when she pronounces, “I do not see much of a change in the sexual behaviour of the Indian woman. All taboos are very much in existence; most women still hold virginity as a virtue. There are too few females to males. Soon we will end up with a lot of Draupadis in this land — and that’s not the height of sexual emancipation now, is it?”