Kozhikode: How do we talk about and understand women’s sexuality in a society where such conversations create a collective anxiety? And why is it important do so?
That was the subject of a conversation between Amrita Narayanan, psychologist and psychoanalyst, and Meena T. Pillai, professor at the Institute of English, University of Kerala at the Kerala Literature Festival on Thursday (January 12). The two were discussing Narayanan’s book, A Pleasant Kind of Heavy and Other Erotic Stories, based off of her free-ranging interviews with Indian women about their sexuality.
One of the problems with public discourse around women today, Narayanan argued, is that speaking of trauma and tragedy in women’s lives is rewarded – at the cost of silencing conversations around women’s sexuality and desire. There is a risk, then, of women becoming defined by their victimhood, of sex only being spoken of in the context of sexual violence and safety.
Even when it comes to desires, Narayanan argued, we need an understanding of how multiplicitous they may be – an understanding that can arise only from open conversations, from asking women how they see their sexuality.
But isn’t such sexuality too framed by a patriarchal upbringing and living? “Even if I speak just for myself,” Pillai said, “I know that some of my own desires are forged through patriarchy. And that is a problem.”
“It’s a problem only if we make it a problem,” Narayanan responded. “My book explores whether it can, in fact, be okay. Whether we can reject oppressive parts of patriarchy while not closing doors to aspects of women’s desire, which have been hard-won to begin with.”
Modernity in India too hasn’t left a space open for women’s desires, the speakers argued. “We’ve been sold a monolithic idea of the modern women, based on Western perspectives. That means that we have to argue the so-called ‘traditional’ voices inside us to fit this frame. But often, that is not how sexual desire is felt and experienced,” Narayanan said.
The issue Narayanan returned to again and again was the ignored trauma born of having to suppress sexuality and desire, and what that does to women’s bodies and beliefs. “There is so much daily oppression that we do not think about. Like, when someone points out that your bra strap is showing, the first instinct is to thank them – as if they have done you a favour. But in fact it is an intrusion,” she said. Arguing against that sort of oppression – small, daily, ubiquitous – is rarely encouraged, while narratives of trauma emerging from more extreme violence are given much more play. And in that process, the idea of women as meek, in need of saving and entirely without their own sexual desires is furthered.
“How do I fight oppression when I am told that my oppression looks so damn good?” Narayanan asked. “Even the #MeToo movement, which was so important, did not help with that, as there was no room in that conversation for exploring sexuality beyond oppression.”
The answer is not, Narayanan made clear, to ignore the baggage of violence and trauma altogether, and conversations around those must continue. Instead, she believes they must occur alongside open discussions around women’s sexuality and desires, whatever forms they may take, and the recognition that this sexuality exists even while it is suppressed.
“Tell sexual stories. Meditate on desire as much as we weep over damage. Both are essential. We will never know what women find pleasurable unless we ask them,” she said.
A teacher in the audience asked Narayanan how conversations of this kind can be taken to more closed settings – classrooms, homes, etc. – when often the result was discomfort and numbness. In those situations, Narayanan responded, “it is important to sit in the discomfort”. Because only once that has been interrogated and overcome can further conversation be possible.