Graphics by Debasmita Das
Over the last few months, we’ve been discussing the violence that happens as sex, the violence that happens in sex. If we want to change the interactions inside sex, especially heterosexual sex, we believe we have to talk more about sex actually. We have to talk not just about the concepts around sex,about what happens in sex, the sexism and misogyny as well as the respect, pleasure and mutuality, not only the concepts around sex. We have to be able to say what works for us and what doesn’t and make that a normal part of the world. Diverse women’s diverse experience of sex and their diverse interpretations and responses of their sexual experience should inform discussions and understandings about sex.
That is why earlier this year we started the campaign Sex Actually in collaboration with The Ladies Finger. To get that conversation started. We asked people to contribute a story about a sexual experience they couldn’t forget – awful or awesome or ho-hum.
The stories came in a steady stream – and we published a two-part series in March. But the stories haven’t stopped. So we are back with more accounts – this time in a 4 part series.
“We quickly undressed each other and that’s when I remembered my broken vagina”
Sharanya (27 then, 27 now)
I was convinced that I had a broken vagina. How else do you explain the fact that while I had had sex with a couple of boyfriends and a couple of non-boyfriends over 10 years, only three of those encounters had resulted in penetration (once by a boyfriend, twice by a non-boyfriend and never with the others) and I had orgasmed a grand total of two times (and not through penetrative sex)? I wanted to have lots more sex and lots more orgasms but my vagina wasn’t cooperating. I kept comparing myself to other women’s sexual experiences. How come everyone else seemed to be able to have sex so easily? What was wrong with me? I had almost resigned myself to my broken-vagina fate (Yes, I realise how ridiculous that sounds. I was neither very sexually experienced nor very sexually liberated. I have a long way to go on this path to being woke, as the cool kids say).
Cut to: I met a boy online, we spoke on WhatsApp for two weeks (I wasn’t really looking for anything romantic having just broken up with a boyfriend; he was happy to go along with that), met in person and realised that despite our (my?) platonic intentions, we were intellectually, emotionally and physically very attracted to each other. The next time we met was two days later. I went over to his flat where we binge-watched an excellent TV show and ordered some food. I was going to catch a train back home after dinner but thought I’d watch one more episode. All the while I was there, he had made absolutely no move. We were even sitting on separate sofas! Had I imagined the sexual tension? Was this actually a platonic date, despite our previous WhatsApp based confessions that we had a crush on each other? I needed to know. I also needed to get the kissing out of the way so that we could get to the being comfortable part of this dating thing. If it was a date. I don’t usually make the first move because I’m usually semi-convinced it’s all just platonic. But he wasn’t making one either so something needed to be done.
After dinner, we finally sat on the same sofa, and continued to watch the excellent show. He then asked me if I wanted to cuddle. I did. So we did. Might still be platonic, I thought. Friends could cuddle, I suppose. So I kissed him. He didn’t seem aghast so I thought okay, not platonic. We cuddled some more, kissed some more, and he realised it was getting late. He asked me whether I wanted to stay over or if he should drive me to the train station so I could catch the last train home (later he told me that he prefers to let the girl make the first move so that he’s sure she’s completely comfortable and not pressured into doing anything. He’s much more woke than me, this boy). Staying over wasn’t in the plan. But the show was good as was the cuddling and kissing. I said I’d stay and we finished watching the show. Then, what began as a very enthu make-out session ended with him carrying me from the living room sofa into his bedroom (it felt so absurdly filmy that I couldn’t stop giggling). I had inadvertently stumbled into one of the cool kids these days situations with the “Netflix and chill”ing. We quickly undressed each other and that’s when I remembered. My broken vagina. Maybe it’ll behave itself this time, I hoped. I was very into this boy and really needed it to cooperate. Reader, it did not cooperate. We tried having sex and failed. I had to tell the boy about my (to me) shameful secret. He didn’t think it was a big deal. He whipped out some lube, but even that didn’t work. So we kissed each other goodnight and went to sleep.
The next week, he came over to my house. There was no lube, but some penetration happened and I was very excited. It wasn’t wholly successful but it was a start! My vagina seemed to be coming around. The time after that, disaster struck. My vagina was on strike. Oral sex, lube, different positions – we tried it all. But my legs involuntarily stiffened and penetration wasn’t working out. I really wanted to have sex with him and I really wanted a normal vagina. I suddenly became so upset that I couldn’t even make eye contact with the boy. Even though it had only been two weeks since we first met and four weeks since we first started talking, we had both realised that we were falling for each other way too hard. I’d never felt that way about anyone before and I was convinced he would never want to have sex with my difficult vagina again. Even I didn’t want to have sex with my difficult vagina! As I continued to refuse eye contact and hid under a blanket, he forced me to emerge, hugged me hard and told me in no uncertain terms that I was being a silly fool. It still wasn’t a big deal, we had only just started having sex, and we had a long time ahead of us to try and get it right. I didn’t need to freak out, he didn’t see it as a problem, and he was definitely willing to wait and keep trying. And now would I please stop hiding and not go to sleep upset because he couldn’t stand seeing me so dispirited. And that’s when I knew for sure what I had only suspected for several days. Not only was I the sort of girl who accidentally Netflixed and chilled, but I was also the sort of girl who, despite all her reservations, had accidentally found herself in whirlwind romance territory. I had fallen madly in love with this kind, woke boy. And if he was willing to be patient with my vagina, so was I. I stopped mentally hurling curses at it, kissed the boy, and went to sleep.
The next night, my vagina decided to work like it has never worked before. No lube, no oral sex, no fancy positions required. I was so surprised and delighted that I couldn’t stop laughing during our first properly successful time, cheered loudly at the end, and couldn’t wipe the big stupid grin off my face. The boy was also startled by how quickly my vagina had cooperated but was more delighted at my unadulterated happiness. Apparently, all my vagina needs to work is for me to be emotionally close to (and possibly in love with) the penis owner. So not exactly broken, just possessing very high standards. Which is still bullshit because it makes any one-night stands or more casual hookups nearly impossible. But I think this boy makes up for it. We’ve had lots of successful sex since then. I myself haven’t been quite so successful in the orgasm department, but like the boy once told me, we have a long time ahead of us to try and get it right. (In case you were wondering, the show was called Glow. Great for Netflix binge-watching and great for Netflix and chilling).
“She whispered into my ear that she loved me. All I could say was, ‘I know’”
Lisa (37 then, 38 now)
I walked out of an dispassionate and manipulative 12-year marriage and found myself right in the middle of a bitter divorce. Fuelled by long-standing craving for all things intimate and maybe some love, I led myself, eyes wide open, into a functional relationship, where the driving function is sex and a partnership to explore its different forms.
The relationship filled the void of several years of absent sex, but it did nothing to help experience the feeling of being loved. Three years I struggled to keep the emotion of love at bay and to not wait for reciprocation. I worked at understanding the concept of compartmentalising emotions though I feared I wasn’t capable of it.
Last year, our explorations led us to begin swinging as a couple. I had opened up enough to talk to my partner about being bi-curious. The first couple we met, the girl and I hit it off pretty well. We connected within the first few minutes of us meeting and I found that I was a natural at flirting with a woman. On the way back home we couldn’t keep our hands off each other and by the time we got home the men were ignored. That night we had sex with each other’s partners and as a group and eventually just the both of us. When she and I made love, she whispered into my ear that she loves me and she asked me if I felt same. That has remained etched in my memory, for I could not say it back to her, ‘cause that night I had realised I had just compartmentalised an emotion.
All I could say was, “I know”.
“I was on my period. We had sex and I felt disgusted by it but he did not”
Amiya (21 then, 27 now)
We were both 21, in college and really close friends. I secretly desired him, he told me later he did too. But we never admitted it until one day when we were alone in my parents’ house, and discovered how our lips and our bodies felt on each other. A few days later he fingered me, it was the first time someone did that with consent, and god! The pleasure. We both had never had sex before, but he was reluctant to have sex right away and wanted to wait. So we did everything else, he fingered me, went down on me, and I went down on him. Then the one day we felt that we had to do it, but I was on my period. He said he did not care and we had sex despite the fact that I was bleeding. He said it was a part of me being a woman and he cherished all of it. I felt disgusted by it but he did not. It was good but frankly I was traumatised by the sight of the blood and for some reason he was not.
A couple of days later when my period got over I went over to his place again. We had sex again. We did it on the corner of the bed, the study table and the floor. And I can’t forget the way he looked at me. Like magic, after 10 years of being together, he still looks at me like that and I still go back to that day when we bunked classes to end up on the floor, being loved like everyone ought to be once.
“Negotiating consent in a long-term relationship like a marriage is something nobody wants to talk about”
Mandakini (27 then, 32 now)
Post the Ansari case I have been trying to make sense of much of this conversation. I initially read it with significant disappointment. I have been a huge fan of his work – his comedy, writing and his show. I have liked his goofy takes on life and have gushed at having this wokeboi on our team. So when I read about it, my first instinct was to find loopholes. To say hey, come on. It wasn’t that bad. Thankfully that passed instantly. I still breathed a tiny sigh of relief when I read his apology. And then I got sucked into the chatter of social media and buzzing WhatsApp groups. The overwhelming verdict there was to say that it was just a bad sexual experience and not a case of assault. And that if she didn’t like it she should have just left. Much joking about how we will now need contracts before sex lest we be accused of rape. And much table thumping and woohooing with viewpoints which said that #MeToo had gone too far. I hated it. I hated everything about these conversations. But it was through these conversations that I unpacked and carefully examined consent in my own life.
I think negotiating consent in a long-term relationship like a marriage is something nobody wants to talk about. While consent in hook-ups and short-term relationships has much written about it, the only conversation about sex within marriage is about marital rape or bad ‘not tonight darling, I have a headache’ jokes.
So through my marriage (which has now ended), sex was a prickly issue. Differing libidos and differing needs. I think the fault here is more with the idea of monogamy. But that is a different conversation. So whenever I said no, I don’t feel like having sex, there would be sulking and grumpiness. No violence in what we normatively understand as violence. But there was this whole emotional manipulation which I had to deal with, and which often made me just have sex even when I didn’t want to.
The incident I really remember is one where we hadn’t had sex for a few days and I had to go meet some friends at a house party. And just the idea of negotiating that was stressing me out. Because the discussion would absolutely be about how we haven’t had sex for so many days and how there would be no sex today and how we would probably have no sex the next day because I would be hungover. So I did it. I had sex. Sex was my gate pass. There was absolutely no pleasure for either one of us. I mechanically did the deed and got out of the house.
I do not yet call myself a survivor of sexual assault in marriage because it is painful to go there. Painful to even think of oneself in those terms and acknowledge that.
So yeah, more conversations about everyday consent, please?
“This torture only stopped when I threatened to go to the police and his parents with the email he had written to me”
Ahenbla (16 then, 25 now)
I was 16 when I got into a relationship with a boy I liked, from my school in Delhi. I felt like I was in love, and that he loved me too. Soon after, not yet 18, he persuaded me to have sex with him. I agreed. It was consensual. What followed for the next five years, however, was not.
Essentially in a long distance relationship, he came to visit once every few months. During those times, he forced himself on me, forced me to indulge in sexual activities in public, forced himself on me on the street, commented on the kind of clothes I wore, got angry when I said, “No, I do not want to have sex,” went off his rocker when I interacted with other men, ridiculed me saying I had no male friends, and introduced me to his mother, who body-shamed me.
One of the times we had sex, he clicked pictures of me WITHOUT my consent, filmed me WITHOUT my consent. He told me about this only when five years later, I broke up with him. He threatened to misuse the pictures and videos, threatened to come down, and/or send people to Chennai (where I was studying that time) to fix me, wrote me a nasty email comparing me to rotten fish, whores, sluts, and accusing me of being a terrible daughter who had no sense of “compromising for the family”.
This torture only stopped when I threatened to go to the police and his parents with the email he had written to me. For years, I lived in fear, blaming myself for not speaking out, speaking to my friends or family, for not exiting such a toxic relationship.
I opened up about this abuse to my best friends only last year. When he and I broke up, all our mutual friends from school, by default, questioned me, persuaded me to get back with him, blamed me for not understanding him and letting go of such a great guy. The most ridiculous bit was that I felt the need to explain myself.
Not a day passes when I don’t shudder thinking about everything he subjected me to, while he saunters about in his circle of friends, pretending to be the good guy.
We don’t talk now. We’re not in touch. But I deserve to live my life peacefully, without being afraid of sexual intimacy, with men who respect me. And this is my closure.
“I was both excited and curious. That first time we made out was the most awkward thing I have ever done”
Zena (33 then, 33 now)
My partner and I were quite turned on by each other from the very beginning and had great chemistry. The first time we made out was very early into our relationship. It was also the first time for me. I was both excited and curious. That first time we made out was the most awkward thing I have ever done. It was at a fairly isolated place. We were sitting on his two-wheeler. We started exploring each other, and one thing led to the other. And in no time we were down on each other. The fact that it happened so fast and so early into our relationship still gives me goosebumps, though we are not dating each other any more.