One would think the advent of Addyi would mean a fillip for women’s sexual lib in India. A Viagra for women has been played up for the good news it can only be. Women in India are ready for it, right? Didn’t Deepika Padukone announce it in Piku, her character’s sexually liberated life, and her father, played by Amitabh Bachchan, tell a potential suitor that his daughter was not a virgin? And cinema is a slice of life, isn’t it?
But step into the real world, the one of India’s small towns or traditional families in big cities, and sexual liberation of women in India begins to get exposed for the myth it is in most cases. The Indian bedroom is still the stage where the man does all the strutting, and female desire is strictly second lead. Heck, even talking about female sexuality is sin. It’s what led Aarti Sood (name changed), a working woman in her mid-20s, to walk out of her marriage. “It was not as if he was a bad man,” she says about her husband, “but the fact that he saw me as some kind of toy to fulfil his needs alone caused me severe depression.” She tried talking to relatives, even a family counsellor, but nothing could convince her husband that she was a woman with needs of her own. “To my astonishment, most of my friends sniggered at me, calling me delusional.”
How then should the Indian woman greet the news of a libido enhancer (generic Flibanserin) for them? Move over blue pill Viagra, welcome pink pill Addyi? Never mind its efficacy or its side-effects (dizziness, nausea, sleepiness), will it make women’s lives meaningful in a larger context?
“Tell a normal woman with an inept partner to take Addyi is like adding insult to injury.”
Sudhakar Krishnamurti, Andrologist, author
Should they want to talk about their unfulfilled desires or lack thereof, urban women might have an agony uncle in the world wide web, who provides answers without asking questions, and anonymously at that, but the rest do not have any real person they can thrash out their sexual issues with. Says Sudhakar Krishnamurti, an andrologist who has authored Sex is Not a Four Letter Word and who also counsels couples, “Women in our country find it difficult at large to discuss issues dealing with their sexuality. Women who are not ignorant have to pretend that they are ignorant because if they discuss carnal pleasures, they are considered amoral. There are ignorant men and women equally. But if a normal woman is saddled with the sexual ineptitude of a partner and is then told that Flibanserin—the female Viagra—can help her, it’s like adding insult to injury.”
It wasn’t always the case. Playwright and Samahaara theatre group founder Anjali Koda feels that several cultural invasions seem to have left Indians inhibited. “Snow-white purity, prudishness seem to be a post-colonial thing,” she says. “I feel that several centuries ago, Indian women were far more expressive and had a definitive say in the bedroom.” Today, women in our society are uncomfortable admitting they are sexual beings simply because they are told good girls don’t talk about sex. Even gynaecologists can be judgemental, she says, they try to shut you down even before you get someplace in a discussion about sexuality. “Is it any wonder that some women have difficulty expressing intimacy,” she asks. The male response was typical. Asked to comment on the subject, most men this correspondent spoke to came back with an “oh, you want us to talk about horny aunties and their problems with their husbands?”
The disdain colours most relationships which is why even in today’s apparently liberalised age, “female sexuality is just about coming out of wraps”, says Vindhya Undurthi, chairperson of the School of Gender Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. “Emphasis on female sexuality is of recent origin, say the 1970s, when sexual liberation began emerging as a matter of research and debate. Sadly, in much of India, a traditional understanding of female sexuality is nymphomania. Desire and pleasure were considered an active initiation, not one of passivity. And that part was always associated with masculinity.”
“Prudishness is a post-colonial thing. In ancient times, Indian women were more expressive.”
Anjali Koda, Playwright
A junior actress in the Telugu film industry speaks of her own experience to demonstrate how Indian men “are trained not to be giving in bed”. “An orgasm is rare,” she says, “since my partner never waits long enough, and any foreplay is only on my initiation. And if I ever try anything new, he starts suspecting where I am learning it from. So it is better to stay safe. Since I love him, I just grit my teeth and bear it.” She absolutely rules out talking to her boyfriend since she believes it would damage his ego forever.
Spiritual counsellor and healer Nandita Asthana Shanker says “suppressed desires and emotions invariably transform into health issues such as migraines, abdominal and throat issues”. “Women who come to me in the age group of 30s and 40s are those who are caught between wanting and not knowing how to manage it.”
Nandita who uses alternative forms of therapy such as reiki, past life regression and energy balancing, says some woman clients come to her specifically because they feel unfulfilled in their love lives but “a lot of the time, I have to drill it down to them that it is repression that they are undergoing”. Nandita and Anjali wonder why it is considered amoral for a woman to talk about her sexual adventures or to end a relationship with a sexually incompatible partner.
“Women are perceived as asexual and looked down upon when they talk of their problems.”
Dr Sharmila Majumdar, Hyderabad sexologist
Dr Sharmila Majumdar, a sexologist in Hyderabad, says that owing to a lot of inherent hypocrisy in the socioeconomic set-up, women with sexual problems are stigmatised and ostracised. Stating that a right to good sexual health is as much of a right as one to mental and physical health, she says it is being recognised as such in urban India. “Many are not aware of the sexual response cycle and how it differs between men and women. Once they are briefed, there is lot of relief,” says the doctor. Globally, she adds, the societal structure is more attuned to a man’s problems. “At least 43 per cent of women across the world suffer from low desire but no one really talks about it. Women are perceived as asexual who don’t need help and usually suffer in silence or are looked down upon when they talk of their problems,” says Sharmila.
So is Addyi the answer women have been seeking? “If Addyi is freely available, at least more women will now garner the nerve to speak up about their problems when they come to the doctor and ask, ‘can I take this pill’?” says Sharmila. But the pill is not a cure for marital problems or psychiatric issues. Addyi would have done its job if it encouraged women to at least acknowledge their sexual desires. In doing so, they are not aping men. They are just being human.