A crisis in sexual desire
A folded letter to Bengali actor Soumitra Chatterjee on “sexual crisis facing Indian women”
Hello Mr. Chatterjee,
A letter on sex and desire may be the last thing you would have expected, but wait, don’t judge me just yet. On 10 September, in your much read, much loved interview to my colleague Shamik Bag for Mint Lounge you talked about how Bengali cinema has become cunning, fashionable and formulaic. “Now, to use explicit words and speak about sex candidly is the fashion. But is there any effort to go deeper into the sexual crisis facing Indian women?” you said. In those few bristling sentences, you shifted from one bruised territory to another. From the crude trappings of contemporary Bengali cinema, you flipped to the “sexual crisis of Indian women.” Something rankled in my mind. I found myself agreeing and debating it. I asked some female friends, a male friend, my spouse and then a few days back at a fashion event, I asked a well known designer in the business of making “sexy” clothes what he made of the sexual dilemmas of his female customers.
The top sliver of my curiosity (and lament), is this question: what is it that you perceive as a crisis? And why did you say “Indian women”; and not men and women? Is this crisis about women in sexless marriages, is it about sex becoming a footnote in most relationships for single or married people or is it about the quality of sex in intimate relationships?
Sex and good sex are different zones, so they can’t be lumped together. Great sex is yet another and when ripped by crises, these secret domains of the brain and body shatter in different ways. So, are we saying that in this day and age of multiple sexual hook-ups, there is little that is earth-shatteringly intimate, tender, trusting yet steamy? Or are we talking about a crisis of romance?
Perhaps it is all of these: infrequent sex in long term marriages (as my female friends suggest), too much infidelity going around (as the couture designer suggested), and a growing lack of trust between the sexes (as a male friend said) that kills the romance between the opposite sexes. Apparently, it puts (some) men on an awkward guard even when they are strongly attracted. Young girls say they are “afraid” of being sexually brazen before their sexual partners—what if their intimacies are betrayed.
So, there is a crisis. The kind of crisis that should be studied through a reliable sex survey or a non-fiction book reported through credible personal accounts if such research is possible in India—a country of million moralities.
For the moment though, all I have is this blog. To me, the crisis is of too much sexy stimuli clashing with too little vulnerability. Some lament the lack of space for sexual love, others the lack of time, obesity and diabetes. But all around us is an exhausting slew of sexual, verbal and visual stimuli. Pornography, dating sites, sexually charged language, fuck buddies, sex toys, sensuous clothes, shirtless men with desirous pectorals, item songs, strip clubs, aromatic spas, masseurs who advertise happy endings and an unending list of turn-ons. Daniel Craig too, allow me to add.
All this is then messily foiled—at least in India—by stalking, rape, abuse, sexual harassment, khaap panchayats and honour killings, homophobia, cyber bullying, moral policing, public shaming, sexually incompatible marriages that carry on as charades, personal and social pressures that push women to cosmetic surgery, Botox, boob enhancement and vaginal tightening. An older, married female friend of mine says she is horrified by her own flabby body and orange peel thighs to the extent that forget sex, she can’t even bear to look at herself naked in the mirror. She and her husband sleep in different rooms. Sex is dead obviously but so is vulnerability, a pulsating part of foreplay.
If you are vulnerable, you are dead, they say in survivor language. Put on that mask and armour, brave it out. Wear a Wonderbra but don’t allow anyone to see your throbbing heart. Wear sexy clothes but don’t wear passion. Don’t even blink.
If you can’t blink, if you can’t reveal your muddled, passionate, uncensored self, you can’t have great sex. Besides erotic imagination which currently seems influenced by too much external “market” stimuli, sex needs vulnerability. Intimacy builds from risk—emotional risks, it is a risk we take every time we “bare” ourselves.
The crisis then Sir, is not of sex. It is a crisis of desire. There is a crisis of sexual honesty. It is not about female orgasms; it is about the inner freedom to be orgasmic—I am not sure if we are able to give it to ourselves.
You are right Mr. Chatterjee; it is easy to mouth explicit sex words in reel and real life. It is also easy to look sexy with help from a dietician, a cosmetologist, a Pilates trainer. But how does one sculpt and dress desire in a world so fraught with existentialist tension that erotic tension becomes a mental gamble we are set to lose.
Whether the Indian man is in a similar crisis or not is a question we must also definitely ask. Don’t you think so? After all, it takes two people to fuck up something as tender and blazing, fiery and honest as sex.