by Vandana Sudha Venkatesh
“You think I disapprove? Why? Because people disapprove of that sort of thing where you are from? Because people disproved of Oberyn and me where you are from? Here, no one blinked an eye. A hundred years ago no one would have blinked an eye. It is always changing, who we are supposed to love, who we are not. The only thing that stays the same is our desires and that we want who we want.” – Ellaria Sand to Jaime Lannister on incest, promiscuity and lust.
Game of Thrones, S05 E09.
Perhaps just like Oberyn-Ellaria’s relationship was in Westeros, the idea of female masturbation is disapproved of, especially in a country like India. Most 14 year old boys experiment with their “plaything”, but sadly, that’s not true for the women I know – a very limited sample set, but one nevertheless. The fact remains that most women in India have had sex or have made out with someone before they have ever masturbated. I know enough women who fit in that list. This might not seem very important, or there could be other crucial issues that we are battling with respect to sexual harassment, social shaming and gender equality. However, I don’t think you should “pick your battles” when dealing with a broad area of rights and should call out things that need attention, and this, I think, deserves at least a post. So I decided to share my experiences in NLU Delhi with respect to the masturbation taboo, the lack of a good sex education, and end this piece with some institutional measures we can adopt to ensure that women don’t feel dirty for, simply put, touching themselves.
I remember this incident in our first semester of college around five years ago. A number of us excitedly gathered around a pornographic video which we got from a boy in our batch. Most of us have never seen anything pornographic before. I also remember some of us “chee”ing it and “yuck”ing it. Admittedly, in retrospect, it was a badly made video with terrible dialogues upfront when the wife walks in on the husband and receptionist. It was probably more funny than arousing. However post that a few of us discussed how we’d never seen a pornographic video before and how it was the first for us all. A guy later asked me “if you girls have never watched porn before, how do you masturbate?”
We don’t. At least, I did not. I speak for myself and most girls from our first semester anyway. Or maybe some did and felt the need to lie about never having masturbated before. I don’t know which is worse, to be honest. But that fact remained that a LOT of us have never explored ourselves to feel pleasure which we knew we’d get with a bit of tinkering around. Which, if you think about it, is weird. You have a happiness button right there. Yet all your post puberty adolescent age, you’ve never thought of jilling off. All those times in the shower, in the washroom, alone in your room, whenever – the idea that you could spend all your teenage years without exploring a part of your body is surprising. The clitoris is not like the male counterpart. It has one sole purpose – female sexual pleasure. And yet, we shy away from admitting to it. We shy away from exploring it.
And the thing is that people crack poop jokes. We are okay informing people that we need to take a leak in the middle of a long bus journey. We are okay talking about even sex clinically. We are okay with biological processes that involve bodily fluids. Talking about puking a lot is even okay. However, once it is about female masturbation, we enter the realm of taboo.
I thought this was just limited to me and the girls from my conservative school before I came to college. I figured it was because in my school we were deprived of any kind of real sexual education. For context, discussions about sex were primarily dealt with in biology class, under the topic “Reproductive system”. It was very clinical, and no questions were asked or answered. In a co-ed class of 13-14 year olds, people were made to feel more uncomfortable about the subject than comfortable. Girls were asked to stay back one day, all guys were asked to leave, doors were shut, windows were closed and we were told that since most of us are getting our periods, we should learn to dispose of our used sanitary napkins properly. We even had a popular sanitary napkin brand come one weekend and have a session with just the girls. The invite to this session was also given in private without boys knowing of its existence.
Reproductive organs were listed in the NCERT book. We learnt it. And not once were sexual desires or hormonal changes ever discussed. The only thing we learnt were physical changes like breaking of voice, etc. Like I said, clinical. We have been ingraining menstrual taboo, sexual taboo and the masturbation taboo since then at an institutional level.
We had never been given an open talk about sex. The one sex-ed class we had was in our 12th standard. A female gynaecologist told us the ABCs of sex – Abstinence, Be faithful to partner, and Condoms. Abstinence was advocated for us 17 year olds. And if we ever marry or indulge in sexual relations, being faithful to just one partner and use of condoms were necessary. Then the talk went on to the harm caused by HIV. After all, the anti-AIDS ad campaign in Tamil Nadu, “Pulli Rajaku aids varuma?” was a huge success in creating HIV awareness. It dealt with a man named “Pulli Raja”, an invisible man in the ad campaign, who was a playboy of sorts. The advertisement involved people wondering aloud if he would get infected with AIDS. Our school invited someone for sex education because of the resulting popularity of the ad, for the ad did not really tell us what AIDS was. And needless to say our “sex-ed class” was merely a prevent-AIDS talk. It was about how abstinence is the best way to prevent HIV and other STDs. The talk ended with the gynaecologist asking us “So who here is going to abstain till marriage?” and all of us raised our hands.
While I vehemently disagree with sexual and menstrual taboos, society at least graces us with screwed up logic on why they exist. Sexual relations are taboo because the society cannot see a woman who is no longer “pure”. Male ego, in many cases, prevents someone from being in a relationship with someone who has had an active sexual life. “Used commodity no boy would want to touch anymore”, to liberally borrow Aarushi’s words and most women’s experiences. Ha! But masturbation taboo is something that does not even fit that bill. I have tried to understand the root of it. Why do women shy away from talking about it? Why do women shy away from exploring themselves? Is it wrong to feel sexual desire at all? Is it the mark of a ‘good girl’ to not just not engage in sexual relations but not even think of engaging in any? Is lust something that should be so alien to women? Are we so conditioned against the idea of female masturbation?
A few days back I had a classmate send a YouTube video to everyone in our batch in NLUD – 17 different ways to masturbate, with the subject title “I finally learnt how”. A few girls actually replied thanking the sender for the video. That is when it hit me how sad it was that we’re 23 year old adults finally taking control of our sexual organs. It also hit me that most schools have terrible sexual education classes. This got me thinking. We in our college are subjected to a very plain, uninspiring anti-ragging video at the start of every year. We have a poster of a jail cell on how ragging is punishable. And the first month is carefully monitored to ensure that seniors do not enter a junior’s room. All of us are given an anti-ragging form to sign etc etc. We can be proud to be one of those few colleges now without any form of ragging – irrespective of the artistic quotient of that video. I don’t know how many colleges can boast of it.
At the same institutional level, we need to have a sexual education class each year and cover a whole lot of topics, including taboos surrounding masturbation. While the idea of female genital mutilation is revolting to most, this is not because of the idea that women’s desires are to be curtailed, but because of the action of mutilating the genitals. Looking around, bad sex-education is not restricted to my conservative upbringing alone. We need this in NLU Delhi, and we need it now. Look at the stories of harassment. This class should detail the harms of harassment and what sexual harassment is. It should talk about menstrual taboos and why it is something we should consciously break them. Should talk about consent, age of consent etc. Should not treat us as beings without sexual desires, but tell us that we are and how it is okay to take control of it IF we want to.
It should tell us that just because sexual activities are restricted on campus does not make it “taboo” or “shameworthy”. That there is no shaming needed when we are autonomous adults taking control of ourselves. It needs to make us understand that sexuality can also include you being asexual. Talk about how some of us are pansexual, bisexual etc. Have an LGBT support group at an institutional level. Ask people to share experiences of harassment, social shaming, fat shaming, slut shaming, menstrual shaming and any kind of experience they might have faced with the society. Talk about the clitoris and masturbation, etc., and restore some kind of normalcy in our lives with respect to sexuality and the discourse around it. Actively ensure people feel more comfortable with their bodies, and hopefully ensure women in our college enjoy a little more pleasure in their life… Here is hoping next year starts with institutional mechanisms right in the first year to break all our social conditioning surrounding these taboos. Let us be more Dornish and less of the High Septon. #TeamClitoris