Illustration by Suneesh K.
Note to readers: Healing Space is a weekly series that helps you dive into your mental health and take charge of your wellbeing through practical DIY self-care methods.
*#TriggerWarning: Contains mention of sexual violence
Sanjay Dutt is so wrong in the video in which he calls for toxic masculinity that keeps resurfacing, as it did this week. We aren’t linking it because it doesn’t need amplifying, but what it calls for does need addressing. It leads to heightened sexual aggression, among other ways of dominating women. And that’s already a problem.
Several women who have access to therapy have been asking how to stop partners from demanding sex. Several who don’t have access to therapy are calling helplines with accounts of being hit or forced to comply sexually. Many more suffer silently. Reporting of violence in sexual relationships has shown a marked anecdotal increase.
It’s important to place this in context.
Sex in itself is not an activity to be shunned. Research shows that sex is a valid instrument of stress relief if it occurs in a satisfying long-term relationship. Global research shows that sexual activity worldwide has dropped during the pandemic. India witnessed a corresponding 33% rise in pornographic usage.
The issue is not sex in consenting or mature relationships, or with healthy access to pornography that is based on consensual sex work. The issue is when sex is used to abuse, control or manipulate, gaslight and inflict violence on a non-consenting party.
Indian women do not typically have avenues to speak about their sexual life, and in the lockdowns, this has been worse. Many suffering have been locked in with abusers without an avenue of escape, which access to the workplace, extended family, or a social life offered. Abuse has become extended, with no end in sight. A woman in Hyderabad recently threw a note out of the window to ask for help and had to be rescued by the police. It’s just one case that has become publicly known.
It is natural to seek sex from one’s partner for relief and togetherness in this time. However, it is important to consider the partner’s consent, their need and capacity to cope with physical demands. Sex that includes violence is about control, and has nothing to do with love.
Many men are dealing with fear of job loss, wage cuts, the cost of medical needs, and are being overworked to the point of burn out. In many cases, dependency on alcohol and intoxicants has also risen. Studies show that over 80% of Indians need mental health intervention for anxiety and stress, most affected are men in the 15-35 age group and the standard 40-49 age group.
Women who are locked in close proximity with them also share many of the same responsibilities and anxieties, whether working or not. They have also become default caretakers for extended family, handle household duties and are coping without domestic help.
The fatigue may manifest differently in men and women, but the mental exhaustion caused by the pandemic for both is real, it sits in the body, and is not comparable one to the other. Even if one’s home has been spared of illness, the atmosphere of doom and gloom weighs heavily on the mood and mind. Just because a partner is not facing an obvious challenge does not mean they should be willing to participate in sexual activity.
Men and women can approach sex differently. Men may see it as the fulfilment of a physical urge, women may see it is as an expression of romance and need to feel in the mood. These perspectives may also reverse, depending on the individual and relationship. Indian women also have vital sexual urges and do not get avenues to express them in the same ways as men. They cannot take to porn, express their fantasies and avoid initiation especially when they lack privacy. Overall, the pandemic atmosphere has not been conducive to stimulate sexual passion or sensuality for a lot of women.
Even within a relationship that is not under regular circumstances violent, the sexual equation has become lopsided. One is not ‘in sync’ with a partner. With confinement, there is also heightened sensitivity to rejection. This can result in behaviours such as sulking, petulance, refusing to talk to each other, and irritability. A build-up of sexual tension can be displaced as anger.
The problem occurs both ways: when either partner demands sex and is frustrated by not getting it, or when either partner doesn’t want to engage in sexual activity and is forced to comply. In marital relationships, it is hard to make out consent. A partner may agree to engage just to make the demand or argument stop. All agreement to have sex is not consent. All sex must have consent for it to be satisfying and healthy.
If you want to be a real man, be a sensitive one. You’ll also be more likely to enjoy a healthy sexual relationship with your partner that way.
*If you face sexual abuse please contact your nearest mental health professional or the following helpline numbers:
National Commission for Women: +91 7217735372 (WhatsApp); email@example.com
Women Helpline (All India) - Women In Distress: 1091
Women Helpline Domestic Abuse: 181