Sex and Sensibility


My first ever encounter with the world of sexuality was when I hit puberty and started menstruating at the age of 11. My mom embraced me saying ‘ tu aai honyas siddh jhalis” (you are now worthy of becoming a mother). As I tried to cope with the changes that my body was going through, sometimes with utter disgust, sometimes turbulent with emotions, my mother bought me a book.

The book dealt with the basics of sexuality education and tried to explain puberty, as was experienced by boys and girls. But it did not really talk about sex or the different kinds of relationships and sexualities one can have. It explained the male and female body in clinical terms and spoke about sexual needs after marriage.

My mother also called my aunts over to celebrate my blossoming into womanhood; the symbolic celebration of my fertility. They gave me the customary “dress” to be worn by women (as opposed to the clothes I wore as a girl) as well as a coconut and a few grains of rice, symbolising the reproductive miracles of nature, and of womanhood. I cannot forget the happiness on my aunt’s face as she gave me the dress and granted me entry into the “women’s world”. It was a sign of recognition of my entry into adulthood. Now I was expected to carry out all the tasks associated with being a woman; in anticipation of my marriage, I was expected to learn to cook, clean the house, start dressing differently, stop jumping around and start being more of a companion to my mother. There were remarks from neighbouring aunties about how bad it looked when I went to dance in the first rains of the season, which i thoroughly enjoyed and which made me feel alive. All socialization once I started menstruating went into, in a way, safeguarding me from the perils of sexual activity outside of marriage and into moulding me into becoming a good wife. The other aspects of adulthood- the feeling of happiness in one’s own body, the male gaze, dealing with sexual advances and one’s own sexual desires never came up. These things remained shrouded behind talks of appropriateness and respectability. My body, my breasts, were to be properly covered; I was to sit with my legs crossed all the time; I was not to talk to boys (something which was reinforced in school too).

So as my family saw it, my sexuality was something which was to be carefully kept away till marriage. And sex was a step to motherhood. Till marriage then, I was allowed only that which was considered respectable: dressing up on occasions and pursuing dance as a hobby (which fortunately happened to be my passion).

In fact, this still continues. Whatever little of romantic relationships I have experienced; it has always been with 2 things on my mind. First was the necessity to do everything on the sly. And second, the yearning to talk to my mother about it all. In times when I feel utter despondence and helplessness in handling situations related to intimate relationships, I know that talking to my mother is going to get me disapproval and censure in return. If it reaches my father, it might even lead to my father resorting to drastic “disciplining” measures.

Today, I can talk to my mother about topics like homosexuality, sexual harassment on a very abstract level but I know that when it comes to my very own personal life, talking to her about anything is not an option.

Thus, most of my sexual education has been through romantic movies and books, which we all know are really effective in portraying the female characters as strong willed, independent and capable of handling romantic and sexual relationships. (Sarcasm intended!)

The “sex ed” classes in school were also of little help (kids today don’t even have those!); though they explained the “scientific side” of sex, it was of little help when it came to relating to our own bodies, knowing more about and indulging in healthy sexuality and sexual behaviour. For example, our teachers never thought it necessary to demonstrate how a condom is used; or to encourage boys and girls to talk to each other not only about our bodies, but also about our feelings. For, this was the time when awareness of the difference between the two genders was at its peak, as was the awareness regarding one’s own looks, way of talking and acting.

The occasional porn clip has caused much headache and disgust but has also been educational and enjoyable, depending on the content. ( Rarely do they portray women as anything more than sex objects and sex as more than peno-vaginal sexual assault.)

What has really been of help and support to me has been talking to my friends about it-talking about crushes and exchanging notes about dates, taking about bras and our changing bodies, giggling over the first kiss and promises of having each others’ backs, no matter what happened; sharing experiences of buying condoms and backing each other up to buy them; talking about pregnancy scares and contraceptive methods, and of course, poking fun at the attitudes of our families. They have also helped a lot in dealing with the emotional turmoil that ensued after sexual experiences – the feeling of having done something wrong, of having betrayed my family in some way and at the same time, having experienced pleasure and expressed myself with a person I care about. Talking with friends, boyfriends and the rare understanding cousin have been the only ways of allaying these fears and discomforts. Bad relationships, doubts regarding my looks and attractiveness, meaning of terms like “cum”, etc have all been dealt with by talking about it with friends, with occasional help from books and the Internet. So like all things, talking about things, even those considered inappropriate or taboo, is necessary and even fun.

So, let’s talk sexuality!

– Payal Gandhi

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