Tag Archives: sex

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.