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Growing up in a traditional Indian family in 1980s Mumbai, I was taught that sex was shameful or dirty – chee chee, as we say in Hindi.
In fact, everything I knew about sex I learned from the assorted ‘aunties’ who hold Indian society together.
Firstly, I learnt that sex is for men, not for ‘good’ Indian women – we are too chaste and pure to actually want something so dirty.
Second, women only have sex when they get married – and even then, we have no interest in the actual act. We just lie back, think of India, and let our husbands take their divine right between our legs.
Third, if any of the above-mentioned aunties see you “getting up to no good”, your reputation will be ruined and no one will want to marry you, end of story.
Fourth, if you wear anything remotely revealing or sexy, you’re inviting unwanted attention, molestation, even rape. All of these are your own fault. And no one will marry you, end of story.
Finally, if of course you did somehow escape those snooping eyes and find enough privacy in crowded Mumbai to have actual sex with an actual male, even once – you’d get pregnant. Oh, and no one will marry you, end of story.
“Sitting at home on Saturday nights watching crap telly and painting my nails, I’d find myself thinking about all that lovely hot casual sex everyone else was having.”
As you’ve probably gathered by now, this upbringing didn’t exactly lead me to a life filled with sexual pleasure and orgasms. No, I had to move to the UK to get either of those.
When I was first in the UK, single and ready to mingle in my 30s, I was very judgemental. I’d see women hooking up oh so casually with guys they’d met at Friday night drinks or over Saturday brunch cocktails, and I’d hear my inner Indian Aunty muttering: ruined, that girl will be RUINED. Clearly, I had to cross a lot of hurdles in my own mind.
Eventually, judgement gave way to envy. Sitting at home on Saturday nights watching crap telly and painting my nails, I’d find myself thinking about all that lovely hot casual sex everyone else was having.
I plucked up the courage to join a few dating sites. Before I knew it, I was in a frenzy of dating. I began to kick that inner Indian aunty out of my headspace, and instead I started having sex. Lots of sex. Casual, no-frills sex. The kind of sex that makes your skin glow, your hair shine and your butt sashay as you walk down the street.
Often after a night of steamy, illicit sex, I’d find myself chuckling inside. I felt no guilt or shame. Just pure unbridled joy at doing something that I had been told was SO wrong. If only those Indian aunties could see me now!
“Those super sexy years made me realise how the shame and taboos I had grown up with had kept me constrained.”
I didn’t want to learn anything about any of the guys I was having sex with – I didn’t want to even have breakfast with them the next morning. Instead, my focus was single-minded: it was all about me and my pleasure… and then it was goodbye (selfish, I know, but living for thirty years believing sex is sinful and shameful will do that to you).
I began to realise how incredibly liberating sex was. As someone who had been taught that men were at the centre of everything, including sex, not really caring about the men involved felt, frankly, revolutionary. I realised that sex was actually amazing, that there was nothing remotely shameful about it. It made me feel incredibly female and powerful.
These days, my sexual appetite is a little calmer. I still love sex, how it takes me out of my mind and into my body. How an orgasm lights me up, and lifts me up at the same time. But those super sexy years made me realise how the shame and taboos I had grown up with had kept me constrained, kept my power chained. Taboo prevented me from becoming the woman that I was meant to be.
But now, I know our sexuality is such a fundamental part of who we are as South Asian women. I wanted to help others realise this, and so I set up Soul Sutras, a platform exclusively for South Asian women to talk about taboos like sex, sexuality, periods, mental health, menopause – all those things that keep us locked into systems that no longer serve us.
In the writing workshops, theatre shows, podcasts and books that I produce, we talk about sex and orgasms. We discuss how toxic shame can be. We explore, and overcome, these taboos together.
Because as I know first-hand, once we own our own power, pure magic happens.
Sangeeta Pillai is the founder of the South Asian feminist network Soul Sutras, which is all about tackling taboos in the culture.