As a young girl, I remember feeling like needing a bra was something to be ashamed of. Boobs also meant unwanted attention and that your clothes didn’t always fit right. As I grew older, I realized that breasts along with hips also meant that there was an expectation that you hide them—they were not meant to be seen.
Many people who grew up in South Asian households can relate to feeling like there is a link between our bodies and shame. We did not get to choose their size or shape. We did not get to choose whose gaze lingered, and why. Yet as soon as we were introduced to womanhood, we were also introduced to shame.
As young girls we were taught to cover up in the presence of men. As young women, the pattern continues when we are told to change our clothes or not dress a certain way in the presence of anyone who will judge us.
We carry shame from the moment we are born simply for existing as women, and our autonomy over our bodies is taken away not just when we are told how to dress and what parts of ourselves to hide, but even in how we are taught to interact with the people around us.
How many of us have been told to give a hug to a family member despite our comfort level? Our consent and right to govern our bodies is taken away at such a young age, and because of this, we struggle at times to own our bodies in intimate relationships.
These experiences have shaped the South Asian female perception around sexuality. A study by Buksh (2019) found that “given the strong propensity towards sexual conservatism, South Asian cultural taboos surrounding sex may contribute to the silencing of matters related to sexuality” (p.4).
If we never talk about sex in our households as an equal relationship between two people, then we also fail to address the individual experience of sex for women, namely that it is supposed to be pleasurable.
Women are often taught to see their bodies as a means to an end. Our purity is important for marriage. Our body is a necessary vessel for children. There is nothing in these narratives that indicates that we should also have the right to enjoy our bodies for pleasure. Instead, we are taught to see sexuality as a tool.
Strong religious beliefs, levels of acculturation and relationship status (married vs in a relationship), also play a significant role in how South Asian women embrace sexuality (Buksh, 2019). Many of us struggle to define what sexuality means to us as adults because as children, the word was given a negative connotation. While it was expected that men would explore their bodies behind closed doors there was never any conversation around how a woman can and should explore as well.
Instead the narrative around sexuality has been confusing. What does it even mean to be sexual? Can we be sexual outside the parameters set by the patriarchal confines of society? Is it even okay to be sexual? For much of our life, many of our experiences have told us it is not safe to explore our sexuality.
In her book Girlhood, Melissa Febos examines how at a young age women are taught to see their bodies in terms of attention. How we dress, act, hold ourselves, the places we take up space, it is all about how we’re being perceived by the opposite sex.
Society assumes that women want attention and men want to give attention but things are never this simple. When you add in cultural layers of wanting to explore sexuality but carrying guilt and shame for having these feelings; sexuality for SA women becomes even more complex.
Additionally, not everyone has similar sexual desires. If sexuality is oppressed in heterosexual SA women, it is even more complex for SA women who are processing their identity and needs outside of the heteronormative lens.
In her book, Febos goes on to explore how humans are the only population where women actively work to be smaller, and to not occupy any space. When it comes to embracing sexuality, we repeat the same patterns. From a cultural lens, SA women are taught to be obedient and to not take up space in conversations or places where men have predominantly held power.
Our obedience becomes tied to our sexuality. When we don’t feel safe speaking up about our everyday needs then it becomes harder to speak up about something as vulnerable as our intimate needs. How do we voice something that no one has ever spoken to us about? How do we find a voice to speak about sexuality and intimacy when we have been silenced in our own homes about anything that would give us agency over ourselves?
Growing up watching Bollywood movies, we have witnessed first-hand the expectation that as brown women, we can be sexualized on the screen—but god forbid we embrace that sexuality in our relationships or in our personal lives.
Let’s recap: when our bodies develop we are taught shame, so we hide our new curves. When we get older, we are taught blame and reminded that we must not tempt men. Then, if we attempt to unlearn the patriarchal thinking that leads us to internalize shame and blame, we are sluts, because only a slut would be comfortable exploring her sexuality.
It’s a shitty cycle and one that we are doomed to repeat unless we can take a step back, accept our sexuality, explore it, embrace it and most importantly, feel safe in doing so (men, I’m looking at you here).
But how do we speak up about our sexual needs when we’ve internalized shame as pre-teens and then are taught blame as adults?
Exploring our sexuality, let alone acknowledging that it is an oppressed part of ourselves is a big deal and an important part of embracing our authentic self. There’s nothing wrong with being sexual. There is nothing wrong with having needs.
Society has made us feel that being sexual is a male domain and that a woman exploring this side of herself is shameless. However, we cannot hope to break patterns when we continue to repeat them. Exploring our sexuality is not an easy task and even opening that discussion with a partner can be hard.
So where to start?
Start with conversation. How do we talk to the women in our lives about our sexual experiences and needs? How do we accept each other during moments of vulnerability as we navigate a sexual experience that didn’t feel right or ones that did? How do we support each other in our sexual journeys?
As teenagers most of us read Cosmo with our friends and approached sex with curiosity. As adults, we often lose that curiosity and camaraderie. As we work to rewrite narratives around sexuality it’s important to reopen this door and approach sexuality as a journey rather than a destination.
It’s also important to remember that perpetuating the toxic cycle of sexuality and shame is something that women can be guilty of as well. We need to stop shaming those around us who have not explored their sexuality. Calling someone a prude reinforces shame around sexuality and is not helpful. We also can’t tell men to stop using words like slut and whore if we are going to use this same terminology when speaking about women who we deem “too sexual”. If women create a spectrum of what is “normal sexuality,” then we continue to uphold patriarchal narratives around sexuality and the cycle of oppression continues.
South Asian women can’t begin to embrace their sexuality without a conversation that also involves the men. We can embrace our authentic sexual selves all we want, but the truth is that breaking patriarchal structures means having men break them too.
If men continue to refer to women as sluts and whores for also enjoying sex, then women can never feel free in their sexuality. If men can begin to have these conversations and break negative patterns alongside women, then maybe, just maybe, we can start to change the narrative around what it means to be sexual as a South Asian woman.
Conversations are a great starting point but the work also needs to be done at home and by this I mean the home of our bodies.
Listen, we all grew up being told masturbation was a sin and exploring our bodies with curiosity and desire was a male domain, but it’s 2022 and I’m here to tell you you can love yourself - like literally love yourself.
Not sure where to start? Here are some great books by BIPOC authors that can help you explore your relationship with yourself:
- We have always been here: A queer muslim memoir, Samra Habib
- The Body is not an apology: Sonya Renee Taylor
- What a time to be alone: Chidera Eggerue
Here’s the part about exploring sexuality that may seem a little difficult for those of us who have internalised shame for so long, but we need to start that exploration in a safe setting with a safe person, namely ourselves. Have you taken the time to reflect on what sexual experiences have felt good and what hasn’t? Have you considered why something felt good?
Take the time to get to know yourself, what you like, what you don’t like and the boundaries you would like to share with your partner. As SA women our sexuality is still deeply routed in cultural expectations that sex is solely for the purpose of repoducing.
Most of us grew up in households where intergenerational trauma around sex is very real, especially since our moms and grandmothers were not only expected to have sex whenever their partner required but also because they likely did not feel that they had the agency to say no. As you start your own journey examining your sexuality and what it means to you, be gentle with yourself. You are unlearning so many toxic norms and finding a voice that hasn’t always existed for women in our community.
As a South Asian woman myself, I also struggle with my sexuality. I can’t tell you what I want or need because I’ve been taught to not consider this as important. I’m relearning this now. I’m understanding now as a 31-year-old woman that not only can I have needs, but I can say them out loud, and so can you.
About the author
Manjot MannMore by Manjot Mann
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