It is ironic that in a country with over 1.3 billion people, sex and sexuality are still a taboo. Rarely are we encouraged to discuss sexual wellness in the open, as a result of which several aspects of it often go unaddressed. One such topic is that of asexuality; a sexual orientation about which most of us understand very little.
Dr Pragati Singh, a public health professional and founder of India Aces- Indian subcontinent’s first support group for asexual people, talks to SheThePeople.TV on why we need to speak more about asexuality, also busting some of the biggest myths about it that most of us harbour. Dr Singh was honoured by BBC as one of the world’s 100 most inspiring, innovative, and influential women of 2019, for her contribution to the sexual and reproductive rights discourse, especially for the asexual and nonsexual women.
What is asexuality and how does one know if they are asexual?
Asexuality is a sexual orientation just like any other orientation such as homosexuality, heterosexuality, bisexuality, etc. It is defined as an orientation in which you feel sexual attraction to no gender.
Tell us about a bit about Indian Aces?
Indian Aces was ideated when I realised that there were a lot of asexual people from India looking for a community platform but they just didn’t have anything. I kept looking for a really long time for such a platform, but there wasn’t any. I started with something as simple as a Facebook page with some memes and information on asexuality. I had never really envisioned it to become as big a movement that it has. Now we do a lot of other things such as research, advocacy, awareness sessions, a lot of campaigns online and offline, meet-ups, training and academic and non-academic work.
Why is sexual wellness such a low priority among Indians?
There are multiple reasons for that. For the masses, sexuality and sexual wellness take a back seat because there are so many other things to take care of on a day-to-day basis. You are more concerned with survival, financial security and feeding your children, partner and family. Daily security, safety and many other things that are happening around us socio-politically, all of these things take up too much space.
We do not really even get to know how many Indian people are actually seeking services or help in terms of sexual wellness.
But even among people for whom these issues are not necessarily of pressing concern, sexual wellness isn’t much of a priority because of the stigmas attached to it. So even if I am sitting in a really nice house and I do not have any concerns about my safety and financial status, I will typically not be able to find somebody to help me with my sexual anxiety or will be too ashamed to look for it.
This doesn’t mean that there is no Indian audience needing sexual wellness services because if you go to certain parts of Delhi, for instance, in the shadiest corner you’ll find a shady clinic which supposedly treats sexual ailments. So it is not like people don’t need help or that they do not face any challenges with their sexuality. They do, but it is all very hush-hush. We don't really even get to know how many Indian people are actually seeking services or help in terms of sexual wellness.
While sex remains a big taboo in our country, sexual oppression and sexual crimes against women are at an all-time high. Is there a correlation?
Yes, I absolutely see a correlation. But I don’t think that sexual crimes against women have to do with sex as much they have to do with power. Most violent crimes that are gender-based have pretty much to do with power that co-exists with other issues like the taboo around sex, the entire power hierarchy between men and women, the fact that the law does not really support complaints against sexual crimes, or if you do complain there is a long process that you have to go through. There is definitely not one reason or the other, it is a hundred different reasons that contribute in different ratios and proportions.
Why is the topic of asexuality one of the least discussed in the LGBTQIA+ spectrum?
When I started doing this work in 2014 there was not even a single blog post from India that talked about asexuality. Over the years we’ve been working very hard to convey the point that this is a critical issue and it could be a life and death situation for many people who are on the asexual spectrum. But there are still many people who are completely incapable of understanding the criticality of this work.
The interesting thing is that for the conservative wing of society, it is a pious thing to be asexual. People think that being asexual means that you are not having sex, which is great, so why do you have to do any work around that? On the other hand, among modern and progressive people, especially in western cultures, for some reason liberation seems to have been correlated to sexual liberation. So a lot of people think that if you are not having sex then you are not liberated enough. When you start talking about asexuality among those circles, they think of it as a problem. They think that this is not something normal or natural, which is strange because it is the same attitude that a lot of people have had to LGBT in general for the longest time. Even within the LGBT circles when you talk about asexuality, a lot of them are not able to understand how this is also a viable orientation and lifestyle for anybody.
The interesting thing is that for the conservative wing of society, it is a pious thing to be asexual. People think that being asexual means that you are not having sex, which is great, so why do you have to do any work around that?
Is there a gendered trend that you have observed, when it comes to asexuality?
Typically, we do see more women than men in most of the surveys, studies and community efforts that we do with asexual people. But I am not sure if that really represents the actual asexual population that we have. There could be many reasons that hamper how many asexual people actually come out of the closet and own their identity.
So do you think that it is much more difficult for men to say that they are asexual?
I don’t know if it is difficult for men to say that they are asexual, but I definitely suspect that it could be more challenging for them. For instance, when you meet an unmarried girl from a traditional Indian family, who is not active sexually, it is considered to be a very nice thing. We call her a “good girl” or an ideal Indian woman. But if you are a man it becomes a question mark on your masculinity. So there could be more hurdles in coming to terms with your own asexuality and then also coming out as an asexual if you are a man.
What can be the consequences of not opening up about your asexual orientation to your partner, especially in arranged marriages, where intimacy only happens once the couple is in wedlock?
First, let me clarify that asexuality does not necessarily mean nonsexuality. It is not true that all asexual people do not have sex or don’t want to have sex. On the other hand, all nonsexual people (people who don’t want to have sex) are not necessarily asexual, as they could be of any orientation.
So, let me answer this question in terms of non-sexual people. If you don’t want to engage in any sexual activity then arranged marriage is one of the biggest challenges that may end up facing in Indian society. Typically, we don’t live in families where we can go up to our parents and say that I don’t want to have sex, so don’t marry me off to a person who will expect sex from me. Neither can you have such a conversation with a person before they have been made your partner. People meet in formal setups, amidst family members, and even if you go out to talk to that person for five minutes, you’d not be able to say things that are so private to you.
The biggest misconception is that asexuality and nonsexuality are one and the same thing. When I say the word asexual, people immediately assume that I am talking about people who do not want to have sex. But that’s not true, anybody can not want to have sex.
Once you have gotten married it becomes a challenge not only for the person who is nonsexual, but also for your partner. They might be understanding and may not force themselves on you, but their life is going to be tumultuous. How do they handle this issue? How do they convey it to their parents, their in-laws? On what basis do they get a divorce without letting this reason be known in their family or their social circles? On the other hand, if your partner is not the kind who will listen to you or cares for your consent, then it is quite possible that your boundaries will be violated. It is also possible that you won’t get any help because socially, you are expected to provide sex, and legally, marital rape is not even considered a crime.
What are some of the common misconceptions about asexuality that you have come across?
The biggest misconception is that asexuality and nonsexuality are one and the same thing. When I say the word asexual, people immediately assume that I am talking about people who do not want to have sex. But that’s not true, anybody can not want to have sex. A person of any orientation can feel that I don’t want to have sex. Asexuality is lack of sexual attraction and nonsexuality is lack of sexual behaviour, this distinction is very difficult to convey and typically it is missed.
In an era of speed dating and hook-ups, has it become more difficult for those who are dealing with asexuality to embrace their orientation and open up about it?
On one hand, all of the work that we do with Indian Aces has helped people to own their identity. But in parallel, dating apps have become a norm and somehow dating seems to have become all about this one thing. It's not even romance and sex now, it is just sex. People who are on the asexual or nonsexual spectrum have to constantly negotiate every time they go out on a date with a new person. They have to clarify their orientation and put forth what is going to be alright with them and what isn’t before they take any steps ahead.
A survey conducted in India last year found that nearly 72 percent women between the ages of 20 to 65 were dissatisfied with their sex lives, while 98 percent men said that they were happy. Why this massive gap in sexual pleasure?
I will not directly comment on this because I have not read this study personally. There could be a lot of things that may be missing, for example, even the way a question is framed came to make a massive change in the number of people who say yes or no to a question. But I would say that there is very little focus on women’s sexual pleasure in our culture. For a lot of people, the idea of female orgasm is very alien. They don’t know that it’s an actual thing that happens, and that is also true for many women because they have never been able to experience it themselves. There is definitely a huge imbalance between how much importance is given to male versus female sexual pleasure.
We live in a context that is very patriarchal, where there is a power imbalance. For men to get their own sexual pleasure is typically enough for them, they don’t necessarily want to or need to please their partner and their partner may also not demand to be pleasured. So all these factors play a role in the bigger picture.
Image Credit: Sumit Kumar Singh