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The shame that comes with wanting it...

From issues surrounding gender identity and sexual orientation to societal expectations around virginity and marital fidelity, sexual stigma in India manifests in so many forms, writes Neha Bhat
Last Updated : 09 June 2024, 00:07 IST
Last Updated : 09 June 2024, 00:07 IST

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“He wants it every day, she wants it never” is an old saying often shared in light jest at parties and gatherings — a saying that is supposed to humorously describe the differences in sexual desire between men and women. While the saying perhaps reflects a fairly common phase in long-term relationships that many couples experience, the saying itself cannot be further from the truth!

I’m an Indian sex-focused trauma therapist, which means I work with Indians on issues related to sex and sexuality as they intersect with emotional and mental health. I have worked in various parts of India, from semi-rural to urban. I see individuals, couples, families and communities of people in my clinic daily regarding issues related to sex, sexuality and sexual trauma. 

Having had these experiences, there is a popular narrative about Indian sexuality which I must throw some insight on. This narrative is a fairly linear one. It often starts with the idea that an average Indian receives an awkward biology lesson in school, then moves to college, where he/she/they explore their repressed desires in secret, and their psychological growth around intimacy and sexuality ends with jokes on one’s wedding day about marriage being a “freedom killer”. This reductive narrative is not only superficial in its understanding of Indian sexuality, but it is also actually quite untrue. In this narrative, cis-men are portrayed as constantly horny, insatiable beings of aggression, and cis-women are represented as “frigid”, rejecting beings of submission. Men are believed to always be the perpetrators of sexual violence, specifically towards women (because “men cannot experience rape”) and women, are always the victims of that violence. The fact that instances of childhood sexual abuse or marital rape perpetrated on men is high as well, isn’t factored in. Women are believed to be “naturally” shy about their sexual desire, while men are believed to be “naturally” loud and extroverted about it. Anyone who is transgender or queer in any form doesn’t really get curiosity, coverage or representation in this narrative, even for the superficial fun of it!

There exists a double standard regarding sexuality in postcolonial Indian society today, where men are encouraged to be sexually assertive and promiscuous, while women are expected to be passive and chaste. This double standard reinforces the notion that women’s sexual desires are inappropriate or shameful if they deviate from the expectations of that narrative described earlier. Having served hundreds of urban Indian adults through a creative, artistic, sex therapy lens, I can write with confidence that sexual desire and its expression is a matter not just of biology, but also a unique and individual blend of personality, cultural norms, cultural messaging, schooling, religious values, traumatic experiences endured during one’s life and more. High or low sexual desire which also manifests as high or low libido does not depend upon only one’s gender identity. Biology is just one factor. As a shape-shifting society, with the advent of newer technologies, exposing us to various ways of living, currently I see our deep-seated sexual stigma and sexual shame coming to the surface, affecting the mental and sexual health of millions of our citizens. Despite massive strides in economic and social progress, discussions about sexuality are still considered quite taboo, leading to pervasive stigma and discrimination. From issues surrounding gender identity and sexual orientation to societal expectations around virginity and marital fidelity, sexual stigma in India manifests in so many forms. In India, the “get married and have children” narrative of Indian sexuality is just the very tip of a deeply submerged iceberg of diverse sexualities in a beautifully chaotic ocean.

Any depth-oriented Indian thinker must ask themselves, “what shapes sexual desire if not just biology?” While there are some general trends and factors that may contribute to differences in sexual desire between men and women, it’s essential to approach this topic with sensitivity and avoid oversimplification. Understanding and addressing individual differences, as well as recognising the influence of societal norms and relationship dynamics, are crucial for promoting healthy and fulfilling sexual relationships for people of all genders. While discussions about male sexuality often focus on stereotypes of promiscuity and sexual aggression, it’s also essential to recognise that men do face stigma and challenges related to their sexual experiences and desires. Society often expects men to be highly sexually active and assertive, which can create pressure to conform to hypersexual norms. Men who do not meet these expectations may feel inadequate, and emasculated, leading to feelings of shame. Performance anxiety is a common stigma expressed by cis-men in sex therapy. Now, often men and women are told “if the love is right, he will desire you all the time,” which creates unnatural pressure in intimacy, leading to anxiety and stress. The truth is that sexual desire and libido are both fluid — on some days people can feel highly desirous of their partners, while on other days, they don’t — and some other task or activity takes priority. For some men, sex is a form of connection that makes them feel valued, for others it is a weekend, or once-in-a-month activity they build up towards engaging in with their partner. Many people fear being ridiculed for expressing insecurities about their sexual experiences. This fear of judgement often leads to feelings of isolation and shame, making it harder to admit to one’s experiences. 

Men and women may have different communication styles when it comes to expressing their sexual desires. Stereotypically, men are often encouraged to be more direct and explicit about their desires, while women may be socialised to be more indirect or hesitant. These communication differences can affect how sexual desires are communicated and understood within relationships. Societal expectations and gender roles can influence how men and women express and experience sexual desire. Traditional gender norms may encourage men to be more assertive and proactive in pursuing sex, while women may feel pressure to be more reserved or passive. These expectations can impact how individuals perceive their own desires and navigate sexual relationships. Testosterone, which is typically higher in men, is associated with libido and sexual arousal. However, the relationship between hormones and desire is complex and can vary among individuals. When people adhere to strict gender norms, they tell me that they often experience psychological restriction during sexual encounters — leading to a focus on physical satisfaction rather than emotional intimacy.

Women express to me often that they want to be loudly receptive to their pleasure in intimacy, they want to direct their partners to teach them how they would like to be touched, they want to be more unashamed — but are terrified of the social consequences of those behaviours. The dynamics within a relationship can influence sexual desire. Factors such as emotional connection, and mutual satisfaction play a significant role in determining levels of desire for both partners. Communication, trust, and the ability to navigate differences in desire are crucial for maintaining a healthy and satisfying sexual relationship.

(The author recently published Unashamed with HarperCollins India.)

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Published 09 June 2024, 00:07 IST

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