fbpx

How the Lack of Sex Education Makes Many Indian Women Unable To Communicate Their Sexual Needs, Pleasure

By

Jul 22, 2022

Share

Image Credit: Getty Images/Hitesh Sonar For The Swaddle

In the first season of Netflix’s Bridgerton, Daphne enters into matrimony not knowing what sex is or how it works, which eventually, spawns a massive conflict with her husband. That was 1813 — 209 years ago. At present, granted, men and women can be seen together, unchaperoned, without the sighting necessarily devolving into a scandal; women are, technically, allowed to say “no” when a man asks them for a dance; pre-marital sex isn’t frowned upon as much. Still, the glaring absence of sex education for women prevents them from effectively communicating their needs to their partner — provided they’re not rendered incapable of sending those needs due to their lack of knowledge about their own bodies, of course.

Our society’s treatment of sex as a “taboo topic” often deprives women of the vocabulary they might need to navigate their sexual relationships. “My current boyfriend is extremely loving and cares about my pleasure. But I always lack the words to describe what I want… or even to voice my appreciation if I like what he’s doing and want him to continue doing it,” L., 23, says.

Most Indian women who grew up in the pre-Internet era, like L., didn’t receive adequate sex education in school. Instead, they were exposed to social conditioning that paints anything remotely sexual as “immoral” and “shameful.” Past research has shown how this can result in sexual repression for people. Naturally, then, L. says she “finds it extremely difficult to see sex as something normal, and something that has to be done with me… [Instead] I still see it as something done to me.” And so, while having sex, sometimes, she admits to feeling “out of place” and “disconnected” with her body. Sexual repression can lead people to feel guilty and ashamed about even experiencing sexual desires, leading to communication about bettering their sexual experience automatically taking a backseat.

On the one hand, the lack of sex education in India results in a limited understanding of sex for Indians. On the other, the scarcity of discussions around sex — especially considered unseemly for women to participate in — prevents them from knowing what they could potentially like or dislike in bed, leave alone asking for it.

Roshni*, 35, says it’s precisely this treatment of sex that made her sex life “miserable during her late-20s and early-30s” when she was the most active sexually. Her partner was the only person she had ever been with, and together, they were considered “#couplegoals.” But even though they were willing to communicate with each other about ways to improve their sex life, they didn’t understand their own bodies very well — making mere intent unhelpful. Roshni explains how the lack of discourses around “gender identities, sexual orientations, gender expressions, and biological sex” had severely limited her knowledge of sex. As a result, she had to wait 33 years to find out that she was, in fact, queer.


Related on The Swaddle:

Believing Sexual Satisfaction Takes Work Can Lead to Better Sex Lives


Lack of sexual communication, however, doesn’t just impact people’s sex lives — it impacts the quality of their romantic relationships too, as past research has shown. “For many [sex is] the cornerstone of intimacy within the relationship. Being open, honest, and vulnerable is important to the long-term success of the relationship. It’s not fair to expect your partner to read your mind,” said Rachel O’Neill, a mental health counselor. “Feeling inhibited sexually can put a strain on your emotional and mental wellbeing. When you’re comfortable discussing sexual needs, it’s generally reflective of having a stronger relationship with your partner. Individuals who feel sexually unfulfilled may notice that they are more irritable and frustrated with their partner.” 

Further, society tends to treat men’s sexual desires as natural — resulting in problematic maxims like “boys will be boys.” For women, however, the rules are vastly different — so much so, that it discourages many of them from learning more about female desire because they’re conditioned to treat it as “wrong.” So, through steely resilience, if they somehow even manage to inform themselves about their bodies, and pick up the vocabulary to communicate about sex, they’re shamed into silence.

Meetali*, 29, says she wasn’t extremely comfortable voicing her sexual needs to her partner, but wanted to work on building an open channel of communication — so they could understand each other’s needs better and work towards a richer, more fulfilled sex life. But when she worked through her hesitation and approached him, he implied that she was “impure” for seeking pleasure out of sex – when, according to his religious upbringing, it was merely a biological function one has to perform, particularly for reproduction. As a matter of course, her needs remained thus unaddressed.

The insidious impact of the manner in which society treats sex doesn’t just stem from a purity-inspired sense of covertness; it also actively discourages heterosexual women from communicating things to their male partners if there’s even the tiniest possibility that their egos could be hurt. “As a young woman, I received a lot of information — from friends, older women, the media — about how to ‘handle’ men, and a piece of advice I commonly heard was to do your best to protect men’s sense of masculinity,” said Jessica Jordan from the University of South Florida.

Earlier this year, Jordan led a study that found that women do indeed censor their sexual communication with their partner to ensure their masculinity isn’t threatened — jeopardizing their own sexual needs and satisfaction, in the process. With the male ego being acutely fragile — again, as a result of society’s conditioning — there’s much that remains unsaid between heterosexual couples. Jordan explains how “women undergo this chain reaction of perceiving a male partner as insecure in his masculinity, experiencing anxiety, and subsequently withholding communication, which ultimately predicted poorer sexual satisfaction.”


Related on The Swaddle:

Orgasming Less Often Can Make Women Give Up Trying, Widening the ‘Orgasm Gap’


This is pretty much the reason why heterosexual women fake orgasms, too: to protect the fragile egos of the men they love. But then, there are women who, for the longest time, aren’t aware that they can even orgasm — let alone attempt to reach it. “My first exposure to women masturbating and taking control was through Paulo Coelho’s Eleven Minutes… For quite some time I had thought it was only men who masturbated. The idea of a woman pleasuring herself was alien to me,” recounts Khushi.

Like Khushi, many women are left to learn about sex from literature — or, worse, from movies and pornography. None of these sources offer scripts for healthy communication about sex, be it in terms of one’s pleasure, needs, or discomfort. Moreover, literature tends to conflate sex with romance and reinforces antiquated gender roles, leading women to absorb toxic ideas about sex. Porn and cinema, on the other hand, present sexist attitudes around sexual relationships and can trigger body image issues among female viewers.

According to L., while the ship may have sailed for millennial women and those older than us, the sex-positivity movement online might still be able to salvage the sexual fate of younger women. But gender gap on the internet aside, as L. points out, even on sex-positive accounts, “there are several people who leave extremely offensive comments that might mess with people’s perception of sex, making them feel guilty for even following such accounts or watching such videos.” Further, given that women are disproportionately bullied online — leading to mental stress and even fear for physical safety among them — it is unlikely that social media is a viable, long-term solution.

However, there may be ways to regain agency and forge newer pathways of communication and connection — perhaps, finding a compassionate and trauma-informed sex therapist could be a way for many to start working on overcoming their sexual repression. And, despite their pitfalls, the many online resources available today can also be a trove for boosting one’s sexual vocabulary and acquiring critical communication tools. 

Otherwise, until society’s attitude towards sex changes, happy, healthy sex lives might feel like a myth for many women – especially those within the confines of heterosexual relationships, where sex is often built on the premise of male pleasure.


*Name concealed to protect identity.

Share

Written By Devrupa Rakshit

Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, and a painter by shaukh. She has her own podcast called #DateNightsWithD on Spotify. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.

Share

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields *.

The latest in health, gender & culture in India -- and why it matters. Delivered to your inbox weekly.