Covid-19 has impacted us in many ways, including the way we see our identity. It has changed—and may change without our awareness—our core notions of our sexual schemata and identity. The isolation it has generated has suddenly brought us together as sexual beings, creating an intimacy of a kind seen never before in human history. In the process it has questioned and torn apart some of the ideas we have held about our bodies, and in times to come may change what it means to be sexual beings.
As a psychologist, it is not unusual for me to be asked for advice on sexual issues by couples. The difficulty is that there is no such thing as perfect knowledge that one can cite as certainty. The matter is deeply subjective and rooted in individual consciousness, which should be best left to unfold on its own. My sexuality is a curious amalgamation of a large number of psychic, physical and even spiritual forces that have all blended together to form me, none of which can be unearthed as a single factor. It is compounded by an explosion in information, a hundred million sensations that have over-flooded our bodies during the growing up years, leading to a mythical confusion that has invaded our inner-most beliefs about who we are. Matters that nobody a generation ago would have been comfortable talking about are discussed threadbare. Sexual mores and values have changed quite a lot over generations. Everything seems to be going in the direction of becoming more relative, unlike two or three generations ago where some absolutes still held sway and were seen in black and white. The motto of the coming generation seems to be going in the direction of “if it feels good, it must be good”.
Harish and Naveeta (names changed) came for a session on what they said has almost brought them to the point of separation during the Covid-19 period. They had been married for just more than a year when Covid-19 restricted them to home, thrusting an identity and matrix on them that they were not ready for. They faced it at first like a god-given gift that they thought would increase their intimacy, only to find it opened a raw side that had lain dormant. If it weren’t for Covid-19, it would have never opened, felt Harish and blamed the epidemic, while Naveeta felt it helped her to become aware of something in herself that makes her feel whole.
“He wants to know what I desire during love-making, yet when I tell him I don’t have any such desires, he believes I am not being completely honest with him and hold back. For me it is nothing like that,” she said and then asked me: “Is a woman supposed to know her desires and tell the man? Are desires made in black and white or do they emerge during intimacy? I don’t know. He says that when I tell mine to you, why don’t you? Does it make me repressed or someone suppressing her desires as a woman?”
Consent, desire, arousal and vulnerability have often been called the four pillars of human sexual experience. Each one of them resists a simplistic explanation, a reductionist analysis or being categorised in an abstract boundary. Each one of them has a multifaceted definition that within it contains a mass of inner contradictions, an aporia as Sigmund Freud would describe it, that raises more doubts in the mind rather than a closure.
As a psychologist, I have heard men and women describe their desires in ways different from each other. In almost all cultures I have worked in, I haven’t found it to be an exception in any. A woman’s desire emerges slowly, often taking a meandering path of its own through a labyrinth of sensations, beliefs and, unfortunately, the threat of living in a violent world where the woman’s body is seen as a commodity and her sexual thoughts a weapon that can be used against her. Rarely if ever do women express their desire openly and directly, least of all confidently. It is men like Harish who want to know what they want.
So, is it men who are more uncertain about their sexuality and what they want today as compared to women, threatened by their rising sense of sexual identity? A couple of years ago, at the invitation of my friend, a well-known psychoanalyst, I had joined a group that he conducted—a group known as men’s group. The themes of consent, vulnerability, arousal and desire had interplayed with each other. Most men had felt inadequate at understanding these issues in their partners, often mistaking them for doubts about their partners’ lack of interest in their bodies.
Till a couple of years ago , it was routine for defence lawyers in sexual assault cases to search for any clue that would reveal the thoughts, feelings or desires of the woman to prove that it was only she who had strayed and provoked the man due to her emerging sexuality and provided consent. It was the emerging desire of the woman before which the man’s morality and control faded and had little meaning. A patriarchal judiciary bought, sold and traded this narrative ad infinitum, resulting in miscarriages of justice—one that gave mythical powers to woman’s desire to transform and alter male libido, and gave her consent an ambivalence that could be modified, crushed at the altar of the will of the man violating her.
Every war, natural calamity, displacement and migration forces us to think of human intimacy with newer definitions that make the old ones fall by the wayside. Forced to confront each other minus the traditional structures that give safety, we fall upon each other, no pun intended—upon our sexual selves—to resolve the trauma, the crisis. During a riot, I had witnessed a young boy and girl sitting in a corner away from everyone, holding hands. Seeing me look at them askance, the camp leader had told me they were neighbours. Both lost their whole family. “Both were having nightmares and now they well…” Saying this he stopped, adding: “You understand. You know, in our camp many couples become physically intimate and we all keep quiet about it.” I had nodded remembering the old aphorism that trauma is both sexual and political.
As Freud had famously said not so long ago, sexual desire may well be the most perplexing and complex emotion to untangle in human beings, and in understanding it may well lie our freedom from chains.
“My desire is my own. I can’t map it like you do to your own. My consent too had many layers, unlike yours,” Naveeta explained to Harish in therapy. “My desire is not a package that unfolds itself in one go as you may want to believe. For me, not knowing what my next step will be, what I want next, is the key to both my erotic imagination and being a woman.”
As we discussed further, Naveeta talked of growing up as a woman in Delhi and pointed out how for her and her entire circle of friends, their sexuality revolved around issues of threat , safety and protection in a worldview that every man is a predator or turns into one when you open up to your sexual feelings. “How do I talk of arousal, desire and consent in such a milieu?” she asked.
It is time we rethink our notions about how we came to form our sexual identity and how this forced matrix of Covid may force us to rethink it all over again. In a world bent upon looking at sexual identity as rooted in violence and power, it is time we start looking for the true meanings of desire and consent in relationships.
(Dr Rajat Mitra is a clinical psychologist.)