Tag Archives: sex

The Venus Flytrap: The Vocabulary of Violence

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Somewhere near the end of a marriage, a well-regarded author had an initially consensual sexual encounter which turned violent. She looked this truth in the eye in an essay published a few years ago, when she perceived the encounter in a way that was complicated, but cathartic. Time passed, and she seems to have found herself still triggered by news about the other person, who continues to thrive in the world. She looked more of the truth in the eye, saw more of the ugliness that remained despite her will to narrativise her experience in a nuanced way. Last week, she tweeted and deleted and tweeted and deleted, finally saying that she chose “a peaceful life” over this struggle.

As Harvey Weinstein, notorious sexual predator from the cinema field, finally goes to jail, there are all kinds of thoughts swirling about what we’ve learned in the last couple of years, how we’ve reckoned with our experiences, and about the limits of language. Most of us will never know the vindication of having those who destroyed us, or tried to, have justice meted out to them. Some may have pursued due process, and found that the system is designed to fail them. Many more won’t or can’t. I am speaking not only of abuses of a sexual nature, but of all violations that become unspeakable because the consequences of revelation are too high.

But let us return to the topic of only those grim events that some say fall under a “grey area”, where consent, pleasure and violation (and even love) were all present to different degrees. Concepts of justice that come from rigid or punitive frameworks, which require cleaner experiential demarcations, may not give us release. The “peaceful life” of not being forever known by someone else’s wrongdoing is preferable.

The Me Too era has helped many privately reframe and understand certain experiences differently. I know that I have. This kind of excavation takes courage. The feelings and the words for them get jumbled like alphabet soup. Some of those words cannot be walked back. I do not want to freeze myself into them. The point of the grey area is that it is not either/or. Where events were complex, and where we resist simplifying them, it can be powerful to keep the knowledge that one’s feelings are tidal.

There’s no statute of limitations on trauma. The whisper network is not only about warnings, as is commonly understood. It’s about being able to see one’s truth whole, and process it meaningfully with those one is close to. Some silences are not suppressions, but ways of retaining power or peace. They aren’t necessarily silences at all, but allow for holding experiences and healing from them.

“The vocabulary of sexual assault is not always enough to communicate our experiences of violence,” decolonial feminist scholar Dr. Anjana Raghavan said to me in a personal conversation. “Often, our stories are cut short by responses of outrage or defensiveness. It will not suffice as a long-term strategy.” I quote her with permission; in the messiness of forming and unlearning strategies, among the silences and incompleteness, her words are succinct.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 27th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: I Want To See People Kissing On The Streets

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I want to see people kissing in the streets.

Impulsively. Without stopping to check all sides for traffic. Without waiting for the light to change. Without nervousness. Without fear.

I want to see people kissing in the streets, kissing as slowly as dust motes in a slab of sunlight. As slowly as water leaking from an air-conditioner into a bucket on the side of a building with balconies on which other people also kiss (and kiss) – as though kisses, like plants, need bright light and open air and time to grow.

Languidly. Without wanting to be invisible. Kissing instead of speaking with the eyes.  Kissing without having to keep it briefer than a blink, so infinitesimal that even the kissers can’t be sure it happened later, licking their lips to try and remember. Kissing and disappearing into pedestrian crowds, only to turn around and come back for another one, to linger sweetly on the lips in a smile for the separate journeys home.

Kissing even though the breeze is immodest with their dresses, because no one will break stride to shame them, or stare too long, or try to destroy them. Kissing with their eyes closed tight, because there is no need to be vigilant. Kissing with their eyes wide open to the possibilities of a better world.

Kissing passionately. Or tenderly.

Kissing because they want to. Kissing because they can. Kissing because they forgot – even if only in the way that a kiss can contain and keep out the world at once – a time when they could not. When kisses had to be acts of subterfuge, when moments had to be stolen, when whole lives had to be operations of secrets and silences, and sometimes even lies.

There are rainbows everywhere – have you seen them? And we’ve no need to speak in codes anymore, but what would rambling through these streets be if we couldn’t pause to enjoy a metaphor? (And a kiss fills a pause like no words can).

There are still so many who cannot cross that street – let alone kiss there – without danger, even loss of life. Still so many loves that are not equal. Still so many who must draw the curtains, even though the walls are always thin – except when someone being battered is screaming. Still so many violations, upheld by the bed of the law or protected by the umbrella of society.

But let’s begin. I want to see them – whoever they are – be who they are. Kissing, with abandon, in the streets. I hope that one day we won’t be voyeurs anymore, won’t be stunned (even with joy) at the sight. Because love will be something we take pride in, and we’ll celebrate it by simply letting it be.

Because the human heart, homed in the hot-blooded human body, is ancient and dependable. The law, in comparison, is capricious. It speaks, sometimes poorly, only for a time. I want to see people kissing in the streets now, because here we are in an era – and may it last forever – when the language of the law has finally begun to speak with love’s own mouth, love’s own tongue.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 13th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

 

The Venus Flytrap: On Romantic Nemeses

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I was telling a friend about how I’m likely to encounter a romantic nemesis of mine in the coming weeks, when he asked me to explain the term. Was it just a fancy way of saying “ex”? Haha. No.

You see, in order to become an ex, one first has to have been acknowledged as a girlfriend, boyfriend, partner or bae. There are whole swathes of our pasts that have no such acknowledgment, yet somehow we’d been pulping tamarind in their kitchen at 9pm, or been bubble-wrapping something that made us think of them for a long-distance care package, or been the one they texted through their father’s surgery instead of talking to their fiancée. Only you were not, you were never, “the one”. No – you were “a friend”. Or worse, “just a friend”.

The past tense of “romantic nemesis” is usually “lover” – a word I like very much but which makes a lot of people queasy. Is it because it’s associated with illicit affairs? Ahem, well… Of course, it might also make any said romantic nemeses queasy, because it contains the word “love”. This activates their allergies.

Having left my uninhibited 20s behind a few years ago, I now find there’s an entire category of could-have-beens who, without having gone through the lover phase, plonk right into the romantic nemeses gang like they bribed their way to graduation. Before, the shift from lover to romantic nemesis seemed awful but logical. Now, I belong among the wizened elder millennials who’ve conducted entire non-relationships on the basis of cautious approaches, boundaries, and (gasp) conversations. Sadly, the ghosting, cowardice, non-communicativeness and general bad behaviour that necessitates the nemesis tag still happen, eventually. Just without the passion that’s supposed to precede them. It’s terrible, I tell you. It’s basically like they’ve seen you naked even though you’ve never slept with them. How could “ex” suffice?

It’s difficult to explain this romantic nemeses thing without being told that one is too dramatic or sensitive. But what I’m describing is far more common than not, a kind of duplicity that we don’t question. There are so many lingering non-relationships, with all the emotional demands of full-fledged ones and some but usually not enough of the fulfilment. And even though our attention spans are but the length of one finger’s scroll, even brief interactions leave a lasting, often silenced, impact. We haven’t and shouldn’t evolve out of the longing to connect deeply. Sometimes, the heart is wounded not because you loved someone, but just because you trusted them enough to think they may not play to pattern. And then there’s the wounding that does come with love, only it’s never named.

I could dismiss someone a friend was briefly involved with as a “player” or a “dudebro”, angry at how he wasted the privilege of having known her, but if I put myself in her shoes honestly – if I truly consider how all pain is a palimpsest and that heartbreak of this nature is also historical – “romantic nemesis” is a far better description. Nemeses, that is. It’s funny how many there are, no, the ones who aren’t even supposed to count?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 2nd 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Imaginary Women, Imaginary Villains

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Neha Gnanavel, who is married to film producer Gnanavel Raja, obviously wants us to forget the objectionable things she posted about women in the cinema industry last week. Which is why she deleted the Tweets in which she threatened to name those who she believes have had consensual affairs with married men, referring to them as being “worse” than sex workers (she used less polite language). As yet undeleted, however, is her long defense of her views. Fair enough. There’s no need to scapegoat Ms. Gnanavel. She was only expressing the same sentiments that many in our deeply misogynistic society hold. Let’s talk about those sentiments, two in particular: that women – rather than the men who chose to be with them – are to be blamed for destroying families, and that sex workers are contemptible.

Infidelity is complicated, just as human desires, emotions and decisions are. Of course we want to simplify it, if only so that it becomes less painful. That doesn’t have to be done by painting women as villains by default. A recent meme I saw went so far as to hold culpable the woman who raised the woman who became involved with a married man – that’s two generations of woman-blaming! Anything to protect a man from taking responsibility for his choices. Whether blaming a married man’s lover, her mother, or his own wife – any culprit will do. As long as the only one who behaved dishonourably, the one who did the cheating, is absolved.

In heterosexual contexts, when the gender roles are reversed, the partnered woman who has an extramarital affair is still the one who is condemned. I cannot think of even one instance, anecdotal or celebrity-related, where the other man in the picture had his name forever tarnished by his involvement in what is called “home-wrecking”.

This is where the second of Ms. Gnanavel’s expressed sentiments comes into play. Why is calling someone a sex worker (using less respectful words, or not) a slur? This prejudice is premised on the idea that sex workers have agency and own their bodies entirely – something which it’s worth noting that most other women in patriarchal societies are not allowed to. Just as the imagined sex worker has control over her sexuality, so does the imagined mistress and the imagined adultress. Their imagined autonomy challenges the status quo. They choose (while married men do not – ha!). So consumed is the average, often incognisant, patriarchal agent with these hypotheticals that they don’t stop to ask themselves what they find so frightening.

Aside from a fundamental lack of understanding about capitalism, the idea doesn’t even hold water against that other favourite bugaboo – that girls and women will be kidnapped and trafficked (thanks, Mahanadhi). So which is it – that sex workers have volition, or are forced? How does the muddled misogynist mind hold these contradictions at once?

I wouldn’t know, but it’s a contradiction that the feminist mind also manages to hold, and engages with through the concepts of consent and desire. And there’s space in this discourse for even the heartbreak of betrayal, without resorting to either the assumption of villainy or the presumption of victimhood.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 29th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Enthusiastically In Favour Of Consent

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Once again, the men are talking about consent. From a High Court acquittal in the Farooqui case to the attendant buzz of “well, actually…” on social media, they’re pontificating mainly on how consent exists even where it is not intended. Sexual consent, of course – the distinction between rape and sex.

This is not, even in disagreement, a useful discussion. For a useful one, we need to move beyond instances where consent has been withheld. We can’t discuss consent only retroactively. This leads to confusion among those who actively want to practice it. In order to establish and normalise consent as a part of general sexual behaviour, we need to speak not only about desire or its absence, but bring three elements into familiarity: respect, communication and emotion.

Respect for another human being is common civic sense, and if that is inculcated in all contexts, it will naturally trickle into the sexual context too. For instance, if a heterosexual man doesn’t really believe that women should be given respect unless they conform to certain roles, he isn’t going to be respectful to his sexual partners who don’t. His lack of respect for people outside the bedroom will, at some point, translate into a lack of regard for them inside it. Or even in a boardroom, where he perpetrates sexual harassment. And it doesn’t matter then how nice he seemed, or how many female friends he has, or how he hasn’t had those problems with his exes. If he cannot respect where one person has drawn the line – that is more than a mistake. That is a crime.

Communication is not just a question of how loudly you say No, but what you mean even if you say “Maybe”. We need to stop and ask each other, reassure each other, and sometimes stop entirely even mid-way through an encounter because of what one partner has conveyed. Communication, as always, is only part articulation – the other part is listening and understanding.

Which brings us to: emotion. India has a deeply dysfunctional relationship with sex and sexuality. We’ve been taking our recent sexual cues from the West, which in itself is not a problem, except that we don’t think and talk through the emotive aspect, which is impacted and subjectivised through cultural and societal contexts. For instance: can you really have casual sex like you see on TV shows living under your parents’ roof? Unlikely. So how do we actually make these negotiations, and how do we deal with deep conditioning like shame, fear or secrecy? The shame around rape is deeply connected to the shame around sex and desire. We must destigmatise pleasure itself. Only then can we become clear on why the absence of desire in an encounter is so very egregious.

Learning healthy, well-adjusted ways to be sexual beings is a comprehensive – and in many ways even lifelong – process. Maybe it will be easier for us to honour each other’s right to extend or withhold consent when we see all of it in a holistic fashion. Not just Yes or No. But If and When and How, too. And Why (and especially – enthusiastically – Why Not?!).

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 5th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Desires Unmet

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In Balli Kaur Jaswal’s novel, Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, a group of mostly illiterate older women share and write down sexual fantasies and revelations with one another in a gurudwara classroom, while those in charge believe the old ladies are actually learning English. In Alankrita Shrivastava’s film, Lipstick Under My Burqa, four neighbours with significantly varied lifestyles conduct the shine-and-subterfuge that so many women in conservative places like India do. In secret, they work, party, sing, join protests, read erotica, conduct affairs – slipping on and off masks (or more literally, articles of clothing, be they burqas or swimsuits) that allow them to move between their true and ordained selves.

In both cases – the book, set in suburban London, and the film, set in Bhopal – the women’s solidarity with one another is a natural falling-together, an effect of proximity and circumstance. They have not been influenced by rhetoric, or raised with exposure to it; they have been moved only by logic and desire, despite how incompatible the two may seem. Indeed, I can see both groups together, crossover-style: among them, the resourceful Shireen who climbs the ladder of a sales career without her husband’s knowledge, the elderly Arvinder who reveals a memory disguised as a story, the wilful student Rehana who articulates rebellion in front of the sudden spotlight of a camera, the grieving Kulwinder who finds that life can still hold pleasure.

It was by coincidence that I watched Lipstick Under My Burqa on one of the days when I was also reading Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows. They complemented each other so well, such that the middle-aged, widowed character of Usha in the film, played by Ratna Pathak, would have found herself at ease in the English gurudwara. Like the migrant widows, she is regarded as a non-sexual being. In truth, they are anything but – something which is routinely unacknowledged, either in fiction or in life. It was only extraordinary to see her portrayed in Indian cinema, for the many Ushas around us are dismissed daily, their desire seen alternately as non-existent, humourous or shameful.

Lipstick Under My Burqa left me saddened for hours afterwards. Was this the movie that had caused such a controversy with the censor board (not to mention the creation of that odd little phrase – “lady-oriented”)? There’s a little bit of sex, sure – but more vividly, there’s rape. Marital rape, to be precise, which does not legally exist in India. And humiliation, heartache and helplessness. It’s a film about women’s fantasies, yes – but more pertinently, it’s a film about women’s realities. About need and nature and how both are crushed by force. Nothing titillating about that.

It’s a film about fulfilled desire only as a matter of luck, and sexual repression or frustration as demands. I won’t say more, because I shouldn’t give away what happens in this poignant and disturbing film. But I will say this: if, like me, you are filled with sorrow afterward, turn to the surprisingly uplifting Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows as a chaser. I’m grateful I was consuming both pieces of art at once. Book and film, too, fell together in quiet solidarity.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 7th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Paan Or Peen?

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Two old ladies were smoking outside their nursing home when it started to rain. One of them immediately pulled out a condom, snipped off the end, rolled it over her cigarette and continued to smoke. (Don’t ask me about the logistics: let’s just say it wasn’t really a cigarette but a cigar, or maybe a fat roll of medicinal herbs). “This way it doesn’t get wet,” she says coolly between puffs. Her friend, impressed by this jugaad, asks where she can get her own, and is informed that any drugstore will have it. So when the rain abates, the little old lady pops down to the nearest local one and asks for a box of condoms. The pharmacist is embarrassed (again, don’t ask me why – maybe this story is set in Chennai), but tries to be professional. He asks her which brand she prefers. “Anything will do,” she shrugs. “As long as it fits a Camel.”

I came across this joke on the same day that an Indian condom company announced its new pickle-flavoured launch, and so I laughed extra hard (that pun was so unintentional that I’m going to keep it). At first, I thought “For the Parantha and Achaar lovers!” was just too bad a tagline to be real, and refused to believe this product could exist. After all, a global competitor had punked us a year ago by announcing an eggplant-flavoured one, which turned out to be a publicity stunt to spark more discussions about safer sex. Then I remembered that the less easily impressed you are, the more difficult it is to get laid. Clearly, I wasn’t their target market.

In fact, a little research told me that betelnut-flavoured condoms were supposed to be made available to the Indian market ten years ago, developed specifically after taste tests with Mumbai sex workers, who preferred it to common ones like chocolate, banana and strawberry. I can imagine why – wouldn’t you rather have some paan in your mouth than some random man’s peen? I also learned that in addition to the usual ice cream flavours, bacon, durian, and even garlic condoms have been manufactured around the world. (Don’t worry, there are mint ones too). And sure, you could say they’re all more likely to be party favours or novelty items, but I guarantee you that in the heat of the moment, many people have been glad to have some latex lying around. (PSA: Flavoured condoms are meant only for oral sex, and may cause allergies if used otherwise).

Then there’s everything from cannabis flavours (not to be confused with cannabis lube, which can actually get you high), a limited edition caipirinha one that was sold at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and even vegan liquorice ones. Manforce, the company behind the achaar one, already has the synthetic tastes, or at least scents, of jasmine, butterscotch and banana (also known as the original eggplant emoji) in its range.

So is Manforce going to, erm, withdraw instead and claim the pickle condoms are just a conversation-starter campaign? Or are things going to get ooruga-smic (yes, I had to go there, and I’m not sorry!)?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 10th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Fire-Trampoline Marriages

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We need to talk about those fire-trampoline marriages. You know: the kind where after a grand time running around town setting other people’s hearts on fire, someone takes a leap off a ledge, bounces right into the waiting arms of the patriarchy, and looks back up (still bouncing, not a toenail singed) and shouts: “I always told you I’d marry someone of my parents’ choosing!”.

If only real life was as comic panel-perfect as this analogy. Because what happens next largely happens out of sight. While the man or the woman with the trampoline conducts their socially-sanctioned conjugal bliss in full public view, cheesy captions and all, there is also a person trapped in that metaphorical burning building. The ashes of charred dreams and the mess left for them to clean up are not metaphorical at all. (The jumper’s spouse is a contemplation for another time).

It should be no surprise that in an India where only 5% of marriages are inter-caste (i.e. actually based on something other than upholding the system), there are a whole lot of fire-trampolines. This applies especially among those who are more educated, more affluent and for the most part, urbanites. There’s a profound disconnect between the veneer of liberal values and sexual mores that are enjoyed superficially and one’s actual beliefs.

But more so than a question of ideologies, this is really an issue of accountability. To mislead and treat someone badly then write it off as something you needed to do for the sake of family, culture, religion, money or general appearances is not “the right thing to do”. There’s nothing honourable about it. The most devious version of all is when the jumper pleads their cowardice, and claims they wish they were strong like you. Don’t believe it for a second.

I hear many stories from the people left holding the broom, the bucket and the bad end of the stick. Here’s what I told the last woman who cried to me about a man who suddenly got engaged to someone else while almost simultaneously declaring his love for her for the first time. (Yes, men do seem to jump into fire-trampolines more than women because the system is essentially designed to serve them better). This is what I told her: “It’s not that he doesn’t know what he wants, despite what some will tell you, including him. It is that he knows what he can have. He can have the convenience of his marriage, and by leaving this door ajar, he can also have emotional intensity – and more – from you.”

Because anyone who keeps a fire-trampoline handy has got other tricks up their sleeve. It’s no leap (pun intended) from “I told you I’d marry someone of my parents’ choosing” to “You knew I was married.”

At first it’s horrific, the aftermath among the embers. But eventually, you see distinctively what happens to the two survivors. The one who jumped continues to keep jumping, through more and more hoops of their own making. As for the one who was trapped in the inferno, the one who walked through flames? You already know what resurrects from ash.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 27th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Creature Coupling

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If you look up moorland hawkers, a species of dragonfly, you’ll find that their conservation status is a cool “Least Concern”. They’re thriving just fine with or without human intervention, but a new study has drawn our attention to them. The females of this species have been observed doing something the females of our species may find familiar: finding resourceful ways to avoid unwanted sexual advances. While we give out fake numbers, plaster on fake smiles in discomfort, and finally namedrop fake boyfriends (the worst one – because an imaginary man’s claim is given more respect than your right to refuse), pregnant female moorland hawkers are simply dropping out of the sky and faking death. Like I said, least concern. Literally no ‘F’s given.

The researcher who observed this phenomenon, Rassim Khelifa of the University of Zurich, hadn’t seen this behaviour in ten years of studying the dragonflies, but further investigation revealed that 27 out of 31 dragonflies were noted making this risky plummet to get away from an aggressive male. I can just imagine the first dragonfly who decided that a predator isn’t just one who wants to consume you, but also one who wants to have sex with you, performing a freefall then telling her friends about her dramatic escape.

The animal queendom is full of extremes when it comes to courtship, and for every example of brutality by one sex, there’s one of brutality by another sex. The black widow spider is famous of course, but you’ve got to appreciate her frankness as compared to the males of the nursery web spider species. They keep food in their mouths and play dead, then begin to copulate when the female comes to inspect these gifts. Then again, a Darwin’s bark spider is forced to perform oral sex up to 100 times in one session; so that his partner won’t eat him. Enough of spiders and their seriously kinky but totally unsexy mating. Take the hermaphroditic banana slug, some of which are pretty much all penis (that’s eight inches for you). They must take care to choose mates that are able to accommodate their size; otherwise, the slug in the female role may find the phallus stuck inside itself – and have to chew it off to live. Drones break their penises off inside the queen bee. And you thought your sex life was interesting.

These are known behaviours in species propagation, and evolutions in the same, such as the moorland hawker dragonfly’s death plunge, are fascinating. Consider more innovations in the world of creature coupling. Two species of the African queen butterfly can no longer produce male hatchlings owing to bacteria; they mate with migrant males, but create only female lineages in a newly evolving subspecies. Oh yeah, and the female caterpillars eat their dead brothers. Last year, a female shark in a Seoul aquarium got so annoyed by the brat who kept bumping into her that she ate him (the brat was another shark; she just another man-eater like you and I). The unicorn is passé (and according to legend, can only be touched by virgins) – maybe your spirit animal is one of these.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 4th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Sexlessness And The Single Woman

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In the 5th century BC, the Athenian empire waged the Peloponnesian War against a league of city-states headed by Sparta. This inspired the playwright Aristophanes’ 413 BC classic, Lysistrata, in which the women of Greece decree a sex strike as a means to end the war. Actor Janelle Monae recently referenced this concept when she told a magazine: “until every man is fighting for [women’s] rights, we should consider stopping having sex.”

Obviously, we know that not only men desire sex. So the premise of the Lysistrata strike bears pondering. When you withhold sex, you withhold it from yourself too. The truth is that long periods without sexual contact are common among highly independent women. Being outspoken or open-minded comes with its own set of barbs.

If you refuse to play by the rules of heteronormative engagement, you are denied respect, just as women who do play by those rules are. But there, the lack of respect occurs within certain comfortable scaffolds, such as the assurance of monogamy, convenience or protection. Here, because you are more adept at identifying small-scale manipulations and refusing to react accordingly, the disrespect is even more insidious, designed to ultimately convince you of your undesirability. What most people accept as a courtship dance feels like a fencing match to you. Over time, poorly-thought politics, rudeness and other such personality markers become real turn-offs, cuteness be damned. And if you practise ethical principles, you don’t see people uni-dimensionally, making casual disengagement difficult. You can’t sleep with people who treat you badly; but you can’t do the objectifying, either. The result: less sex than everyone thinks you’re having.

A friend shared a page from Heather Havrilesky’s book of advice, How To Be A Person In The World, that resonated for me. “We have to be self-protective but vulnerable… You don’t put yourself in situations where you’re going to cycle through bluster and neediness. That means you really can’t hook up with random men. Even if you never let your guard down in those situations, they still hurt you. They [expletive] your sense of self. They lead you to believe you’re only good for sex, and you can’t EVER settle for feeling that way.”

Reading these sentences made me realise how rarely we discuss this outside personal conversations. There aren’t enough sentences in the world about this aspect of the sexuality of singlehood because they are confidential sharings, never set down. With our confidantes, we move beyond limiting, self-deprecating complaints like “haven’t been laid since Obama’s first term” to deeper revelations about need, validation, boundaries, instincts, ennui, inadequacy and sublimation.

All this applies especially if you have “trouble” compartmentalising. But why idealise compartmentalising in the first place, instead of a more holistic approach to self and other? Not compartmentalising, not assigning people functional roles and not demarcating yourself all sound pretty healthy to me. Similarly with “not being able to tell the difference between sex and love”. Why is the person who decides this difference never the one whose emotions are involved? To fully embrace ourselves as sexual beings, we cannot stop at simply shifting the shame from our bodies to our hearts.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 20th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Candlelight Dinner With A Difference

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“No, I won’t write about Valentine’s Day!” I texted my friend back, when he suggested the topic. I’d barely hit Send on my next line – “V-Day is vaandi-day only” when I remembered that for several years as a politically-aware young adult, I had refused to acknowledge the romantic festival because I believed so strongly in another V-Day.

V was for Vagina. V was for Violence. V-Day was the global movement founded in 1998 by playwright Eve Ensler (who created The Vagina Monologues) to fight violence against women. February 14th is where you’ll find it on the calendar, and it began as a series of fundraising performances of the play, and expanded to include a variety of artistic and political forms of grassroots engagements worldwide, all of which confront and try to change the disgraceful UN statistic that 1 in 3 women will be beaten or raped in her lifetime.

I couldn’t ever observe Valentine’s Day, knowing that it is in intimate relationships that this abuse is most pervasive.

“Do I write too much about women?” I started texting my friend, and once again I corrected myself: I realised that when we talk of violence against women, or any form of gender-based violence, we need to stop calling it a ‘women’s issue’. If anything, it’s more of men’s issue. It’s an issue of toxic masculinity, of what happens to men in any society that demands that they be unemotional, aggressive and authoritative. Women aren’t the problem. Men aren’t the problem. Patriarchy is.

I had never stopped believing in its principles, so why had I somehow forgotten about this other V-Day? It was probably because once I moved to India, I discovered that Valentine’s Day itself is subversive. To declare romantic interest or sexual involvement under the hostile watch of right-wing ideologies and discriminatory constraints is itself a radical, and therefore dangerous, act. Every year, couples are attacked, forcibly married or forcibly separated, by powers-that-be that do not recognise the power of love.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s probably healthy to crinkle one’s nose at least a little at saccharine hormonal garblings and socially-pressured exhibitions of rosy veneers. But let’s not forget that to feel love and not be ashamed of it is a human right. And before we celebrate it, let us first demand and exercise that right. It belongs to people of all genders, across all castes and communities, and of any sexual orientation.

So if you’ve got a candlelight dinner planned this weekend, why not bring that awareness to the table? Light at least one candle in memory of someone killed for falling in love with someone of a different religion, or someone driven to suicide because they were bullied for being gay, or even an ancestor of your own who was forced into an arranged marriage while the heart longed for deeper companionship. And maybe light another candle for the other V-Day: in memory of a woman lost to violence in a bond where there should have been love. Bring the revolution to the table, let it illuminate the conversation, and see if it doesn’t change your relationship for the better too.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 11th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Dating While Being Intimidating

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“Strong women intimidate boys and excite men”. There is an image of a woman wearing a tank top with these words on it that has been doing the rounds online recently. It’s a glamour shot – an advertisement for the American clothing company that sells the top. But the line is so powerful that the image, free of branding, has gone viral. Is it cocky? Only if you’re someone who hides behind the idea that people fear you, like a little creepy-crawly that casts a looming shadow. But for most people for whom the line strikes a chord, particularly straight women, it appeals not so much to the ego as to the never-not-broken heart.

            No one gets to be strong without first having been shattered. The Japanese have a beautiful artform, kintsugi, in which a lacquer of powdered gold is used to repair cracked pottery, rendering an object more beautiful not despite but because of its brokenness. Some of us are thus now made almost entirely of gold.

            I wish I had a rupee for every time someone said to me, as though it was some major insight they were offering me, “I think men are just afraid of you.” (I’d always have exact by-the-meter change for autorickshaws then). But what does the “just” in “just afraid” really mean? It’s a word that seeks to paint as obvious what is in fact an imbalance, a reflection of the disturbing reality that empowered women are punished most of all in the arena of personal relationships. How can a positive trait like strength – and attendant qualities like ambition, success, independence and candour – be anything other than desirable?

            When a man, especially in a romantic context, is put off by a woman’s strength it is not because he isn’t sure that he can handle a life that demands more of him (this is what he will invariably say as he conveys his regrets). It’s because he actively prefers to not try. The kind of woman he is not afraid of is the one he will choose. She is not necessarily weak. But she is always afraid of him. The truth is, fear does excite weak men – her fear, that is.

            But I think of all the times I have held the beverage before me with slightly shaking hands, lowering my eyes as I received the condescension of being told or showed that I am too strong to love, and I can tell you – of course there was fear then. And despair. And anger. But when I finally raised my chin, the only emotion they’d register would be the last. Scary lady.

            I reject the idea that I am too difficult to love. And if that means being rejected by anyone less than my perfect equal, then so be it. (Why try, why not do the rejecting first? Well, that’s what really separates the weak from the strong – whether you embrace vulnerability or seek to avoid it).

            I’d add a clause to the quote on the tank top. That bit about exciting men? Boring. And easy. Anyone – intimidating or otherwise – knows this. I’d rather be seen, not just salivated over. I’d rather be understood than craved. Of course I want to excite you (it would add another crack to my gold-filigreed heart I didn’t) – but just as much, I want to challenge you, to learn from you, to provoke your sense of purpose, to arouse your best self, to stimulate in you – just as there is in me – an insatiable appetite for life.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 9th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Mondays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.