Sexual liberation is the siren call of the new Indian woman, as magazines, advertisements and newspapers urge us to dare, bare and do it all in the name of freedom. Cosmopolitan, for example, wants us to know how to have fabulous sex with a new guy, be ‘a guilt-free swinging single’, master the ‘cowgirl’, and all this in the same issue. Yet amid this deafening chorus of sex-talk is an odd lacuna of silence, a seemingly careless yet persistent omission of that most basic act of feminine pleasure: masturbation.
For all the rah-rah rhetoric about our sexuality in these enlightened times, auto-eroticism remains a males-only domain. Sex columns that dole out advice on everything from threesomes to anal sex are inundated with queries about male masturbation with nary a word on the female kind. The most frank discussions of the female orgasm invariably assume the presence of a partner. A Times of India article titled ‘Bust the Big O Myths’ encourages anxious women to fantasise during sex, experiment in the bedroom, and communicate with their partner. ‘Tell your partner about the particular kind of stroke that will give you maximum stimulation,’ urges the piece without mentioning the best, most reliable method to figure out just what that stroke might be. A daring Marie Claire story on the vibrator coyly brushes past its very raison d’être to describe it instead as a sex toy for ‘getting inventive in bed’. Any kind of sex is A-okay for the liberated Indian woman except the solo kind.
In telling comparison, we view onanism as a natural urge in men. It’s what they do when left to their own devices. “The basis of taboo is a prohibited action, the performing of which a strong inclination exists in the unconscious,” as Freud cleverly observed. “There is no need to prohibit what no one desires to do.” Semen loss has therefore long been the subject of great social apprehension, dating back to seventh century Ayurvedic texts that detail both stringent prohibitions and cleansing rituals to make amends for the inevitable lapse. This long-standing anxiety finds modern expression in the so-called dhat syndrome, a common psychosomatic disorder that affects young men who suffer from fatigue and loss of appetite, which they attribute to imaginary semen loss. Our unwavering preoccupation with male auto-eroticism over the past millennia is perhaps better understood as a ringing affirmation of the modern Indian male’s mantra: mera hath, Jagannath.
History is not entirely silent on the subject of women. Ancient sculptures, texts and cave paintings include depictions of women in a state of unassisted ecstasy. A 1994 translation of the Kama Sutra by Alain Danielou, The Complete Kama Sutra, offers some vivid detail: ‘They use objects with the shape of the virile member: carrots, turnips, and fruit such as bananas, aubergines; roots like that of the sweet potato [aluka] or others, as well as wall pepper roots [talaka]; fruits such as marrows [alabuka], cucumbers, etc. Having cleaned the fruit, they grasp it and insert it in the organ, so as to cause a pleasurable feeling.’ More telling, however, is the near-absence of any specific rules on female masturbation.
“There is no need to restrict or control what is not mentioned,” says Saroj Gumaste, a Bombay-based sexologist. What is unspoken becomes invisible and therefore unspeakable, creating a taboo more powerful and enduring than a public decree. As Gumaste points out, self-pleasure techniques were quietly passed down from one generation to the other in villages and within families as a cure for various female ailments or simply to release “pressure”. “It was simply something you did. No one named it or felt they must name it,” she says. But with growing urbanisation, collapse of the joint family, and the rise of nuclear households, women lost access to that oral knowledge. Repression compounded by isolation left many educated middle-class women worse off than their grandmothers.
“I learned about sex long before I knew anything about masturbation,” says Rashmi, an ad executive in her late thirties, “The only thing you heard were stories about someone getting caught with carrots or something. It was something for sex-hungry perverts, not normal girls with boyfriends.” While attitudes are changing in the new generation, according to Pune-based clinical sexologist Dr Shashank Samak, most women over 35 grew up believing that “touching those parts is dirty or unhygienic, except during the act”. Madhu, a 43-year-old writer, never discussed the subject with her friends. “To say ‘yeah, I do it’ was something disgraceful,” she says, and remembers being deeply embarrassed when someone mentioned it in passing, even though “I was 22 then, and in my first year of post-grad”.
To this day, women are far more comfortable talking about their sexual experiences with their peers than about self-pleasure. A great part of this discomfort reflects a lingering anxiety about female desire, which is still seen as legitimate/normal only when evoked in the presence or service of a man. “Advice columns for women therefore focus on the ‘romance’ bits: how to make yourself alluring, light candles, wear satin underwear and so forth,” says Meera, a single corporate executive, who says, “Most discussions I have had about masturbation have been with my sexual partners. The dildo I own was a gift from one of them.”
Easy as it is to blame men for our sexual caution, in Shashank Samak’s clinical experience, husbands rarely protest when he asks their wives to explore self-pleasure as the first, essential step toward marital satisfaction. “Most of them are surprised at first,” he says, “And that is because they didn’t even know such a thing is possible. But their reaction is almost always that of relief.”
American sex activist Betty Dodson describes masturbation as “our first natural sexual activity. It’s the way we learn to like our genitals and how we discover how to give ourselves pleasure”. In the West, medical research and feminism helped push female auto-eroticism into the mainstream, shaping the modern view of masturbation: good sex is good for you; sex is good when you feel good about yourself.
As the Hungarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz wryly put it, “Masturbation: the primary sexual activity of mankind. In the nineteenth century it was a disease; in the twentieth, it’s a cure.”
Where Indian sex therapists may demur at other aspects of Western sexuality, they fully endorse the idea of masturbation as a stepping-stone to a healthy sex life. “Young girls must know how their bodies work,” says Gumaste, “They don’t know how to protect their bodies. They don’t know how to satisfy their bodies. And that means they don’t know how to take charge of their bodies.” The auto-erotic woman is free, independent and in control, and the power to become one lies quite literally in our hands.