The first time I was asked, ‘do you masturbate?’ I remember feeling like I was put in a spot. I didn’t know how to answer it. I didn’t know what would be the appropriate reply. I didn’t know if I was supposed to masturbate or not.

And, should I openly speak about it, since I was asked? Also, if I may mention here, the question came from someone I knew very well during a conversation on the subject, and not from some random stranger, who of course would have had no business asking me such a question.

Masturbation is often considered a ‘privilege’ reserved only for men. For that matter, sex as pleasure, is reserved for men. To this end, a woman’s body is looked upon as a means of pleasure. Hence, the objectification, you see. We conveniently choose to forget that just like men, if women have sexual organs, they have sexual desires and needs too. But do we talk about that? Of course not! Because a woman’s body and conversations about it are taboo.

Unless, of course, it’s porn. What an irony!

Studies and surveys done on sex have shown that the female orgasm eludes majority of women during intercourse. But we don’t say that to the men. Why? Because it’s emasculating! There are ‘roles’ or ‘acts’ women are expected to perform. I came across this article where Peggy Orenstein, the New York Times best-selling author of Girls & Sex, on the Women’s Podcast with Kathy Sheridan, revealed she heard so many stories about, “this non-reciprocal experience,” that she came up with an analogy. “I started saying to them: what would you do if every time you were with a guy, he told you to get him a glass of water from the kitchen, but he never offered to get you a glass of water?” The girls she spoke to “would laugh and say: well when you put it like that.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. If a woman likes it, she likes it. However, similarly, she may like a role reversal as well. A point to be noted.

You know, sometimes I really think it would do well if women knew as much about their clitorises as men do about their penises. But the problem really is how can we know, when we are hesitant to even take the names of woman’s body parts? Why don’t we discuss vaginismus when we can discuss erectile dysfunction? I knew about erectile dysfunction even before I knew how sex is done! I did an article on it too while studying journalism. And it didn’t take me much research to gather informative material. On the other hand, vaginismus — something I should be aware of since I am a woman — is a condition I heard of only recently. You see the dilemma?

As Orenstein, in the same podcast show (and in the article), says, “We really perform what I think is a psychological cliteroctomy on girls. We tend to name our baby boy parts and we go right from ‘navel’ to ‘knees’ with little girls… we never say vulva, we never say clitoris… then they go into their partner encounters and magically we expect that somehow they will be able to express their wants, their needs, their desires, their limits.”

In my opinion, the only time when society wants to refer to a vagina as a vagina is when it wants to suggest we tighten and lighten our vaginas. No, no, don’t be mistaken, it’s not for ourselves. But for the men. They like it tight and light, no? Or, when it wants to degrade men. “Don’t be a pussy,” they say to men who behave ‘unmanly’ in various situations.

In reality, talking about clitorises and orgasms is too far-fetched when we don’t even tell girls about menstruation until they menstruate for the first time. When there is so much taboo attached to sanitary pads, tampons and menstrual cups, where is the space to speak about bleeding from the vagina?

I remember this instance when I went to a local shop near my home to buy sanitary napkins. The moment I mentioned ‘Stayfree Extra-Large’, the young guy at the counter froze, as if he had heard something sacrilegious. He refused to give me the pads, and instead called a girl at the store, and whispered something to her and told her to attend to me. She on her part, wrapped the napkins in a newspaper at the corner of the store, away from everyone’s eyes, and only then handed it over to me. Standing at the store, it made me wonder if ‘Whisper’ was called so for a reason.

Not surprisingly, we also do not ever talk about period sex. Oh of course, people do it. But ssshhhh! Who wants to know about bleeding vaginas and sex when we have a problem showing the real colour of blood in sanitary pad advertisements! It’s not blue, just in case you
were wondering.

Apuurva, a student of Masters in English at the central university, and a former journalist, says, “Women’s bodies have always been a problem, and society has a very tenuous relationship with us. They look at us as a source of pleasure, but they are also threatened by us. So long as our body parts are being objectified and sexualized by men, it’s all fine — after all, it’s ‘locker room banter’. But heaven forbid if we start talking openly about our bodies or our sexuality and desires! Right from judgmental comments to the assumption that we are available for every sexual rendezvous, everything goes through the minds of a patriarchal society that cannot imagine a woman having normal sexual desires.”

She further says, “When it comes to us, everything becomes taboo — especially our bodies. If there is a body positive woman on Instagram, sharing workout images of herself, celebrating her body, she is called a ‘whore’, an ‘attention seeker’, a ‘slut’. In fact, our bodies create such anxiety for the so-called morality of society, that social media posts that show women’s breasts are reported for being vulgar and offensive, and ultimately taken down for ‘violating terms and conditions.’ This is a direct statement from the community guidelines page of Instagram: “we know that there are times when people might want to share nude images that are artistic… but for a variety of reasons, we don’t allow nudity on Instagram… It also includes some photos of female nipples…” Please note that while it is perfectly acceptable for men to post shirtless pictures of themselves (nipples showing of course), it is improper for women to bare their breasts, because, after all, they are so sexual they need to be policed!”

As she spoke of shirtless men, it reminded me of transwoman Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju’s profile that I recently came across on Instagram. Sharing pictures of herself before sex reassignment surgery and after it, she wrote: “Don’t believe male privilege exists? Ask me. I went from “stud” to “slut” and “launda” to “randi” in less than a year. Wonder when my nipples suddenly turned obscene and worthy of censorship. Or when I transitioned from asking for appreciation to asking for rape. Or when my body went from normal, to ambiguous, to item (which still doesn’t feature in any undergraduate medical textbook, by the way). The last 24hours have had me questioning a lot of things, but primarily it’s the hilarity of it all. I was uncomfortable with my body and didn’t want it. Now, society is uncomfortable with my body, but wants it too.”

Yes. That’s the sad reality. The ones who do talk are labelled everything from easy, fast, slut to whore. I write erotica, and I can’t tell you enough of what I get to hear. I have been asked everything from: ‘do you get horny and write erotica?’ ‘Did you just do it?’ ‘Are you wet right now?’ to being sent nude pictures, or being asked for nude pictures. And when I have tried to tell them to mind their own business, I have been told that I called this upon myself.

Radhika Gummadi, a young professional says, “a lot of us are brought up with the school of thought that a girl shouldn’t be talking so openly about her body parts and desires. So it’s engrained that if a girl is speaking out, she is trying to initiate something. I never even uttered the words vagina, breast or boobs till I moved to Delhi from Hyderabad. The culture change allowed me to start talking and mentioning these words even in certain context that I was taught was taboo. And now back from Delhi, I am looked upon as someone who is open for anything
and everything!”

Radhika further points out that because we do not talk about our ‘private’ parts, we know very little about our own body parts. “We lack basic knowledge about vaginas and breasts because they are so sexualized, as if they have no other role to play in the human body! They are only seen as ‘assets’ for men to conquer!”

I think the only way to bring about a change is to talk, talk and talk. Of course, it’s easier said than done. But it’s our body, our parts; if we don’t talk about it, who else will! We will be labelled sluts. Big deal. They will call us names anyway. Why not do things our way?

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