“Well, so he is supposed to begin by kissing you near the nape of your neck and then hug you for some time. Then the man is supposed to do something with his um, you know, “thing” and then they remove their clothes. In a few days you can even become pregnant, Voila!”
We were sixth-graders huddled in a small group outside the dingy school bathroom listening to a friend animatedly explaining what sex ‘really’ is with whatever vocabulary she had pieced together from scraps of adult conversations. This was the millionth time that one of us had ventured a guess about the subject. Though everyone looked suitably fascinated with this incomplete and incorrect explanation, we all shared a thorough repulsion to the idea of sex. As something wrong, restricted, and undesirable. A conversation meant to stay in the dingiest corners of our minds.
Things changed for the worse as we became high school students. We had outgrown our skirts and donned kurtas, which clung to every inch of our body protectively. Despite being introduced to the bare minimum on reproductive systems in Class 8th, conversations on sexuality or our body continued to elude us. We were left grappling in the dark trying to find ourselves in the spaces in which we were allowed, whilst the surveillance on our bodies had become stronger and the moral judgements harsher.
By the time my peers discovered the pleasure of masturbation or got excited about sex, I remained indifferent. I had been a mute spectator for many years, watching my friends fit right in whilst hoping (but also secretly dreading) to finally reach the point where everyone had arrived much earlier. Amongst the social norms and the peer pressure to 'fit in', I was stuck for long trying to put a finger on who I am until I discovered the asexual community.
According to Asexuality India, asexuality is described as ‘little or no sexual attraction to anyone, or low or absent interest in sexual activity’. Asexuality (ace) is an umbrella term and ace identities exist across a spectrum. I was among the privileged few who had access to virtual safe spaces through online communities. Though the ace community had been extremely welcoming, I sensed a constant dissonance between my experiences with asexuality and theirs. This conflict wasn’t surprising as I was interacting with people from the Western world whose reality and experiences were different from mine. The lack of context affected how I realised my identity. Since talking about sex was taboo and sex education classes a distant dream, I barely had the vocabulary to articulate how I felt. While many seemed to have the freedom and the bodily autonomy to say no to what made them uncomfortable, my culture seemed to deprive me of this basic right. The unnecessary and dangerous connotations attached to women’s sexuality in the tightly knit communities of caste and religion around me further stigmatised these conversations. However, these problems didn’t seem to have a place in the online spaces where I found myself.
Setting a context
Identifying with a label is a personal and political act and thus context is important. The norms of Indian society affect asexual women strongly as every institution from the family to the state functions on heteronormative and patriarchal principles. Women’s sexuality is strongly regulated as it forms the basis of every hierarchy that litters our social lives. Women are expected to be devoid of sexual desires and God forbid you to decide to take charge of it too.
As an asexual woman, I never had trouble fitting this bill. This modesty expected of women oppressed many, while it gave me the freedom and space I craved. This ideal is dramatically reversed when a woman is married and is expected to be available to her husband’s sexual needs constantly. Consent is not required as the legal bond created by marriage in India has gives a husband unequivocal access to his partner for fulfilling his sexual desires. The apathy of the state institutions to this can be summed up in a single supreme court verdict given in 2014, where the judges ruled that denial of sex for a long time to the spouse is akin to mental cruelty. This judgement comes from the same court that also believes that criminalising marital rape would shake the foundations of Indian families. The amount of pressure faced by closeted asexual women in heterosexual marriages is dreadful. The probability of facing abuse, both emotional and physical, increases manifold for ace women. Not only is sexual subservience expected of wives, but it's the reproductive capacity of women that seems to make them useful to Indian society. Marriage and having children are seen as the ultimate goal of a woman and so saying no to sex can would be unacceptable.
Artist: Meera W
Picture taken from www.Asexuality.in
Patriarchy’s twin burden
When unjust and unequal familial systems are the norm then patriarchy places a double burden on asexual women. On one hand, the imposition of a heterosexual marriage where women’s consent is negligible and fulfilling the sexual needs of her husband is a foremost wifely duty, how do asexual women articulate their identity? On the other hand, patriarchy prevents the nurturing of safe spaces where conversations about sexuality can freely happen. Social norms dictate everyone must maintain a stony silence on sexuality. The privileged among us have access to virtual communities which provides us spaces to question our identity and assert ourselves. The archaic school system and conservative ideals embedded therein prevent us from discussing identities like asexuality even though it could have the power to dismantle every hierarchy based on sexuality. These issues increase for ace individuals who are homo/bi/panromantic as their love is further stigmatised and silenced. Creating a distinction between one’s romantic and sexual identities remains unintelligible to many. This results in the constant invalidation of the ace identity. Despite decriminalising Section 377 in 2018, the refusal to acknowledge same-sex marriage, hate crimes against queer people, and so much more of the day-to-day experience of queer people all point towards the fact that India IS queerphobic. Tall claims that ancient India celebrated sexuality is very little comfort to our present conversations and lived experiences.
The lack of conversation on asexuality or positive mainstream media representations means that ace identity is very misunderstood. This has consequences for those who identify as asexual including violence such as corrective rape and corrective therapy, as well as mental health issues which can make ace people feel broken. Biases and stereotypes I had imbibed from society made me feel conflicted with identifying as an asexual. The looming self-doubt and the misunderstandings around my identity only made relationships harder. For a long time, I felt like a terrible feminist because I incorrectly believed that being asexual could be characterised as being inherently repressive and thus shameful. Misconceptions that tie asexuality with hatred towards men or ‘too much feminism’ only worsened this isolation. As I unlearned my biases I discovered that distancing asexuality from pathology is central to making a case for asexuality and feminist theory. it helped me learn that being asexual did not mean I was dysfunctional. I simply didn’t care for sex.
Our regional languages haven’t expanded to include a respectful vocabulary that is inclusive of the experiences of ace people either. When we discuss the experiences of the ace community in India, social hierarchies like caste, class, and gender identities have to be taken into account as they inform and shape our experiences. Women with caste and class privilege who are financially independent will have the choice to refuse sex in a marriage or a relationship as they have the right to their bodies. This luxury might not be afforded to many others. In Garima Kaul’s short film Desire? on Indian aces, these intersectionalities are closely examined. Advice to ‘loosen up’ are constantly meted out to asexual men, whose masculinity comes under scrutiny. Questions on their potency and taunts are constant as an active sex life and expressing sexual desire are considered to be the most basic part of normative masculinity. Stumbling across these videos and articles from other Indian aces was a relief because they managed to speak to me in a way the online spaces didn’t.
We have been constantly told that our bodies are not our own. Our bodies have repeatedly been sites to protect and regulate unjust social hierarchies. Gradually, we have begun to reclaim our bodies, and embrace our sexuality, making the feminist and queer movement more diverse and inclusive. Asserting our right to bodily autonomy is central to these movements. This should expand beyond the online communities to inform India and the world in which we exist. Writing articles, integrating SOGIESC(Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression, Sex characteristics) into our curriculum, speaking about our experiences and creating safe spaces for the same are a few steps towards breaking the silence and developing the asexuality movement in India. For this, we must be responsible for telling our stories from wherever we are, with whatever we have.
In doing so, we encourage a diversity of voices to speak up, making the ace movement as heterogeneous as we are. The bridging of solidarity across multiple cultures will strengthen the asexuality movement by encouraging several contexts and celebrating diversity of experience. This upholds the freedom to find one’s voice, carve out one’s niche, and take strength from our story. All we are struggling for is the freedom and right to describe desire and love, in our own terms.
Sivakami Prasanna (she/her) is part of تحریر // Tehreer, a 6-month writing group housed within The Rights Collective which supports writers who identify as South Asian to develop their own voices in writing about social justice.
Article co-edited by Huma Riaz Khan (she/her), Lead for the تحریر // Tehreer 2021.