Recently, a dear friend sent me the lovely illustrated book ‘Embroideries’ by the Iranian writer Marjane Satrapi. I had read it before but didn’t own a copy. I was excited to reread it. I rushed through it in a couple of hours. (If you haven’t read this yet, I can’t recommend it enough.) The first time I read it, which was several years ago, I wouldn’t have dared give the book to Amma to read. Things have changed these past few years. I handed it over to her and said, “It is lovely. Lots of Iranian women talking about sex and their lives. Let me know what you think.”
A few days later, I saw the book lying in the spot where she left my books after she was done with them. She usually offers her opinion spontaneously once she is done with a book. But this one was different. I asked her what she thought. “It was okay. Interesting to read these women talking so openly,” she responded.
Amma and I had developed for ourselves a new pattern. I looked for books that she would enjoy, ok, make that books that might shock her and gave them to her in the hope that we could talk about these topics after. Feminism. Sex. Sex in mythology. Lesbians. Alternate forms of love. Being single.
It was working well for us. The books did most of the uncomfortable talking and she continued to ask me for recommendations.
This wasn’t the first time we were presented with opportunities to have the crucial discussion about sex. A good five years ago, Amma found a condom in my bag’s side pocket. An opened one without its cover. Yes, it felt like disaster in slow motion. I knew she had found it when she told me she was looking in my bag for something and couldn’t make eye contact two full days after. She hesitated bringing up the topic, perhaps terrified of finding out her youngest daughter had been sexually active. I was tempted to ask her about it so we could finally discard the shroud of secrecy around my sexual life. But I panicked and turned into an ostrich instead. I conferenced my sisters in to find out what I should do. They couldn’t find words through the loud laughter. When she couldn’t handle not knowing anymore, she brought it up.
“I found an…,” she paused and continued, “open condom in your side pocket.” I turned to stone while I looked for words and tried my hand at a poker face. I am miserable at lying but it was my only go-to in a state of panic. “It was from a water balloon experiment A and I were trying,” I said. She squinted her eyes like she does when she suspects I am fibbing. Fortunately, she didn’t ask further questions but the awkward air didn’t leave us for days.
Growing up in a sort-of conventional household, sex was not taboo but nobody broached the subject. We are a family of four women, dad and the doggess. We never really had ‘the talk’ though. We joked a lot about the doggess’s libido yet the topic never reached humans having sex. Occasionally, the topic would slip into conversation but we managed to circumvent anyone in the house actually having sex. Sometimes we spoke with reference to rape, otherwise mostly how it was portrayed in the movies or in books. The conversations were usually with Amma and always in whispers in the privacy of our home.
A while ago she accompanied me to the gynecologist. She joked about how women from her generation never went to the doctor until they conceived. I responded with things are different now and it is good that we come to ensure we are healthy. She nodded along. She insisted on waiting with me and talking to the doctor about all the tests she had conducted. I, on the other hand, frantically messaged a friend from the waiting room, freaked out about how to inform the doctor that I am sexually active without Amma noticing. Why couldn’t there be a secret wink code? Or one with a specific number of taps to convey – “I am sexually active but Amma doesn’t know.”
After we came out of the doctor’s, I began to think about why I hadn’t told Amma yet. What was holding me back? Why couldn’t we have this conversation like we had the other conversations? I do think it is essential to have conversations with your children about sex. But as adults how do we talk to our parents about it. I have been negotiating this complex conversation with Amma for over a year now and I find myself falling short of words each time. How can two of us speak about it honestly? Without any lies or euphemisms. How can we have conversations about safety, pleasure and the act itself? Some days I do believe we make progress. But I sense the tone of the conversation would change once I am married to one which was less coloured by fear and concern. Even Amma is more comfortable talking about this with my sisters. Since I wanted to be open with her, I kept looking for new ways to talk about it.
Books were not the only entry point for Amma and I. Nearly a year ago, while working with a feminist organisation in Hyderabad, we organised a two-day film festival. I was very excited by the wide range of movies we were screening. My eldest sister, who was in town, was keen on watching a documentary called Accsex. Accsex is a spectacular movie on disability and sexuality. It has women with different kinds of disabilities speaking about love, sex and life. My sister and I agreed that Amma should come to the screening. She sat through 52 minutes of women talking freely about their experiences. The movie explicitly deals with sex and women’s experiences with pleasure. The illustrations and poetry enmeshed with the women’s narratives question our own prejudices and ideas of normal. The movie celebrates the body in its varied forms after taking out the pity glasses. Then, the group which had gathered to watch had a short discussion about the silence around the sexuality of persons with disabilities. Amma did not speak. She seemed to be reflecting what she had just witnessed. Many from the audience spoke about their own prejudices and how they had perceived persons with disabilities before the documentary.
Amma, like me, is an introvert. Taking some time to process the movie, Amma asked us later, “How do lesbians have sex?” My sister tried to explain to her immediately. A few days after reflecting on how best I could bring it up again, I brought Amma the laptop and told her jokingly, “The internet holds the answer to your question. You should read.”
I am aware that the question is often asked and not in a nice way. But we were presented with a window to talk to her about sex beyond its often limited framing of penile-vaginal penetration.
Through the movies and books, there has been a change in the way we spoke about sex. She even insisted that we go to watch Margarita with a Straw. I told her there were a lot of explicit sex scenes in the movie. She responded with a grumpy, “So?”
We never did end up watching it though she dutifully reminds me even now that I didn’t take her and go.
Some of the conversations make me wonder if she is aware about me being sexually active and just chooses to not acknowledge it. It seems like the only possibility. Perhaps it is her way of dealing with it. However, these conversations, books and movies bring us closer to the day when I can openly talk to her about my own experiences, without any hesitation.
These openings aren’t just to shock her. It matters how she sees me. I joke about the fact that the world doesn’t have to see the real me but I sure would like Amma to know. Engaging with her has helped in bridging this gap between her versions of us and the real us. Amma’s interest in understanding and her ability to engage has deepened the understanding between us. It has given us the opportunity to build a more loving and open relationship based on trust. This has made it easier for me to be real with her with worries about judgment.
Today, Amma, my sisters and I often speak about sex, power within intimate relationships, using condoms or other contraceptives. The hush tone of the conversation is definitely passé.
I hope that someday I wouldn’t need cheat codes at the doctors and Amma would already know the secret.
Srinidhi Raghavan is a feminist who reads a lot. An introvert who advocates for human rights and writes about women and girls’ rights, equality, and sexuality. She hides in poetry for comfort. You can read her other article ‘The Diary of An Indian Sex Educator‘.