At 23, I’ve grown up in a progressive, liberal, fairly elite section of New Delhi. I grew up with male best friends, with boyfriends, and the occasional girlfriend. I watched sex scenes un-cringingly with my parents, and freely discussed ‘necking’ with teachers at school. I had my first serious boyfriend at 16. I knew I was in love, yet when it came to making out, I couldn’t.
My first tryst with sexuality was when I was four. I did not know what it was then, but a friend of my parents babysitting me one day caught me masturbating. While she found it amusing, my parents were concerned. A stern lecture followed and masturbation found its place alongside lying and stealing, in a corner of my brain that stored what was wrong. It didn’t stop me, even then I knew it just felt too good, but it taught me that it was something to be ashamed of, or at the very least to hide and do in secret. I am glad therefore that as a teenager I chanced upon Judy Blume’s ‘Deenie’. It took away from masturbation the shame, yet the secrecy remained. In time, however, I opened up about it with my friends. I was surprised that most of my girl friends had never tried it, or pretended not to. Somehow, even then, this comfort with a personal act of sexual expression did not translate to comfort with another person.
Before I blame it entirely on Indian society, and the secrecy with which we surround sex, it is important for me to acknowledge that my home wasn’t like that. My mother, an active feminist, believed that women should live, walk, think, and love independently. Yet, growing up I always felt that this wouldn’t hold true for me. That she would support me if I got pregnant, but would be disappointed in knowing I was alone with my boyfriend.
We started dating in the tenth grade, when I was 16, but it wasn’t till I was entering my final year of school, nearly 18, that we first kissed. I am grateful that he gave me that time, knowing all the while that he wanted to kiss the very day we met. But, I constantly question why I needed that time. When we did finally kiss, it wasn’t as liberating as I hoped it would be. That voice in my head had not been silenced, although it was wonderful physically. I was enjoying our long overdue making out, but with the same pangs of secrecy and conscience with which I enjoyed masturbation. It didn’t make the pleasure any less; it only left me with a nagging sense of guilt. A sense of guilt that was palatable, because he didn’t push me to explore further but stopped. And when I asked him more recently why he didn’t, he said I didn’t look comfortable; “I was afraid you were unhappy and so stepped back.” He was waiting for when I would ask for it myself.
It’s difficult even today to put my finger on what this sense of guilt was. As a rational individual I knew that sex was perfectly healthy, natural, and an accepted expression of love. I knew also that the relationship I was in was good and healthy. Why then was I holding back? While it took me two years to kiss him, it took me many more to let go completely.
I was afraid of the disapproval that I believed I would be met with at home. But, more than that, I did not know that desire was a good thing. As I went to college, I had my first random drunken hook up. I’ve had nameless relationships with forgettable men, because I wanted them for that one night. I would then question the binary that I had fashioned for myself. I was either a woman who carried herself with pride, had relationships that were built on a deep intellectual and emotional base, or I was a ‘slut’. I enjoyed my sexuality and found in myself the ability to love my own sex drive. I realized I could be both. That the classification of a sex drive as one belonging only to a ‘slut’ was a dangerous myth.
It has taken me three years to accept carnal desire as a positive thing. To shut out the voices of friends, of random strangers, of my mother, and hear only myself. I’ve never felt better. My relationship has never been better. It was a long journey to sex, one I didn’t think someone like me would need to make, but I did, and I’m glad I made it to the end. Finding my ability to confidently ask for love was the most empowering thing I can imagine.
A thought therefore for parents bringing up their children, their young girls in particular. Teach them in no uncertain terms the dangers of unprotected sex, stand by them if they need an abortion, but also remind them that sex when done right is beautiful and exciting. To my mother, and the many like her, thank you for giving me the strength to say no. But, I wish you took out some time to teach me how to say yes.