Sexual agency of married women remains conveniently ignored in our society both behind the closed doors of a bedroom and outside of it. Indian wives are mostly expected to ‘listen’ to their husbands, even on their marital bed. They often do not have the agency to lay their sexual demands, or decline that of their husband. With sex still perceived to be a ‘dirty’ act, though legitimate need of men, women largely continue to suffer in silence, as their bodies are either abused or neglected. And even when they do express their opinion, how many times are they heard by their partners, of family members? How many manage to get what they want from marital sex (read consensual pleasure) without being labelled promiscuous or disobedient?
- Can you confidently say that you have the same sexual agency in your marriage, as your husband?
- Does your husband take your consent before sex?
- Do you have the liberty to put forth your sexual needs to your partner?
- Does your partner ever shame you for expressing your sexual desires?
You can understand the absolute patriarchal brainwashing of our society from the fact that marital rape still isn’t criminalised in India.
In fact, ex CJI Deepak Misra said in April this year that marital rape shouldn’t be regarded as an offense in India, because it will create absolute anarchy in families. “Our country is sustaining itself because of the family platform which upholds family values. We still respect the family background and many other facets.” While the ex CJI’s comments disheartened many, they infact held a mirror to our own mentality. We think of marriage to be such a divine relationship, the working of it are beyond the law. Since a majority of women and men still opt for arranged alliances in our country, consent to marry is interchangeable with the consent to have sexual intercourse. It is given that a married couple has to consummate their relationship, and thus consent doesn’t even feature in the dialogue here.
According to National Family Health Survey (NFHS) conducted in 2015-16 33 percent of married or now divorced women have experienced physical, sexual, or emotional spousal violence. Sexual violence, says the survey, is most often committed by individuals with whom women have an intimate relationship. When rape or any sexual violation at hands of your spouse isn’t even considered a crime, no question of justice arises. Women hide physical and mental scars of abuse, put on a smile, and carry on living the idea of a happy married Indian woman. However, marital rape is just one aspect of violation of married women’s sexual agency in our country, which the society tells them to keep mum about.
The virtue of morality and hesitation still shrouds marriages in our country. It seeps amidst marital bonds, enabled by male entitlement and female conditioning to be providing, not demanding, especially sexually.
Lack of sexual agency could also mean getting little to no intimacy from your partner and having no say in it. How many women can say confidently that they can demand sex from their partner without any inhibition? That their friends or husband don’t look down upon them for having something as basic as sexual desires? The virtue of morality and hesitation still shrouds marriages in our country. It seeps amidst marital bonds, enabled by male entitlement and female conditioning to be providing, not demanding, especially sexually. There are no scars to show here, just a deep seated sensation of shame, a conflict between awareness that you have an equal right to sexual pleasure as your husband, and the age-old stereotyping of women as asexual beings. What does a woman do in such a situation? Whom does she reach out to, when she knows that despite modernised outlook towards matrimony, many around her will surely judge her?
No matter if the society or even the law isn’t on our side, women need to continue speaking up about sex and consent. That is the only way to normalise female sexuality and to evoke a sense of empathy among Indian men. We have to keep in mind that they haven’t been raised to respect women’s sexual agency, largely. They feel entitled to sex and pleasure from their wives, but they aren’t simply aware of the fact that their partners can have sexual needs as well. That consent isn’t just given once, when comes to sex. Even if you are bound to your wife for seven coming lives, she has the right to say ‘no’ as and when she wishes, and a husband has to respect it each and every time.
Yamini Pustake Bhalerao is a writer with the SheThePeople team, in the Opinions section. The views expressed are the author’s own.