About 52% women, roughly between the ages of 16-45 have masturbated at some point in their lives.
Masturbation was new and scary to Reema. The fact that she wasn’t very good with gadgets made things a little worse.
Her new bright-pink vibrator lay there, waiting to be used.
A hundred questions popped up in her head simultaneously as she tried to figure out what each button did.
First, the lights went dim. She tried to set the mood appropriately, lighting a candle by the bedside.
The nightgown came off and the sheets came on – covering her bare curiosity along with her body. Her legs and her mind opened themselves now to new possibilities.
Exploration commenced into an uknown terrain starting with her own touch and then setting the stage for her vibe.
A few minutes and a few moments of dizziness later, the faint electric buzz died down and her breathing steadied.
She had just masturbated, and she liked it. No one had seen her. No one knew what she had done. Her pleasure was her own to enjoy, as was her guilt.
So How many Women Masturbate in India?
Gone are the days when notions like “women don’t watch porn” or “women don’t masturbate” dominated public discourse.
Pornhub’s annual analytics had some encouraging news for Indian female porn consumers.
“The Lesbian category remains the most popular among women in 2017, world over, viewed 197% more by women than men this year,” quotes their annual statistic.
Indian female porn viewers have gone up by 129% in 2017.
India is not the masturbation-shy country it once was. The land of the Kamasutra has opened itself to experimentation.
According to the India Today Sex Survey, a country where 75% people claimed not to masturbate back in 2003 saw that percentage plummet to 35% last year.
India’s legislative forces have found themselves perennially shuffling their feet when dealing with the country’s sexual fabric.
While sex toys and other devices are considered banned, a Quartz report hints at a flourishing field of business.
The industry was worth Rs 1,000 crore (the $161 million) in 2014. That figure is predicted to rise to Rs 8,700 crore ($1.36 billion) by 2020.
Interestingly, in 2017, it was revealed that Punjabi women buy the most sex toys in India.
We know more people are masturbating. Question is, how many of them are women and how “okay” are they, leave alone society, with it?
The Masturbation Basics
A Google search for “sexologist in India” will probably deliver a worryingly male-dominated list.
The lone woman on some of those searches is Dr Sharmila Majumdar, India’s first female sexologist.
Also a practising psychoanalyst, she knows too well about the lack of data on female sexual health in the country.
“To masturbate is a physiological process in a man but a learned one in a woman.”
The solo act of sexual gratification for women is based on their own methods of creating that pleasure. Be it stimulation with or without sex toys.
The Hyderabad-based expert underlines how common masturbation is among women across big and small cities in India, saying:
“About 52% women, roughly between the ages of 16-45 have masturbated at some point in their lives. It has no side effects and is a healthy habit to have, provided you don’t overdo it and maintain good hygiene. Healthy conversations about self-stimulation are not as common though.”
Coming of Age: Discovering Self-Pleasure
For 29-year-old lifestyle writer Fatima, the hand nozzle was her first insight into the world of masturbation:
“I was 14 then. When I used the hand spray in the shower once, I found that it aroused me. I then experimented with the shower head and it was an epiphany of sorts. I had no idea what the feeling was, except that it felt good.”
A raunchy description of masturbation in a Meg Cabot book led Ria, a 23-year-old United Nations employee to discover what this sensitivity in her nether region was.
“I can’t remember the name of it – but in the book, she had described what I was doing. It all made sense. After I read about it, I got even more excited.”
Sharon, who recently celebrated her 40th birthday, recollects reading Jackie Collins and Harold Robbins with the excitement of her 13-year-old self.
One of her school friends caught her reading The Stud by Collins and spread the word about her supposed delinquency:
“I was in class 8 and the entire class, except one girl, wouldn’t speak to me. I studied in an all-girls school and would practice volleyball in a boy’s school nearby. Word spread to them too and they started treating me differently. I lost friends then.”
Not everyone could ease themselves into the habit and accept the necessity for self-pleasure.
Neha, a 25-year-old engineer and social work says:
“I was ashamed that I was indulging in what people on these ‘dirty’ websites do. I kept my masturbation habit a secret.”
“My parents couldn’t know I was surfing the net for or indulging in these ‘obscene’ activities.”
23-year-old research student Prerna’s story is a little different, which is the biggest fear of any adolescent, never mind an Indian one. She recalls when her secret got busted:
“My parents caught me masturbating once and were scandalised. I was 12. They just shouted at me and did not talk about it after.”
Why do Women Indulge in Masturbation?
Masturbation was a way for Mahima to come out of post-divorce celibacy.
“My ex-husband and I had sex at least once a day. After my divorce, for a good two years, I found myself disinterested in sex. I was emotionally and physically exhausted.”
Incidentally, a little experimentation on an aeroplane changed that for her.
“It was a very out-of-the-blue decision. I have been generous to my tropical paradise since though.”
Mahima says with a grin.
Neha found masturbation when she decided to explore porn for the first time at the age of 11 and says:
“I do it almost three times a week. Especially when I am bored or sometimes when I am stressed.”
Ria struggles to contain a chuckle when describing her experience of also turning to pornography for advice.
“The adult film industry is dominated by men. Most of the videos of women masturbating are exaggerated and look nothing like what I do to myself.”
Not many women have this luxury. While sex is becoming a living room conversation, personal habits like masturbation are still tucked behind the curtains of sexual deviance and obsession.
Fatima vouches for this thought process as she explains her equation with her parents, saying:
“My folks are pretty open about many things including relationships and making dirty jokes. Masturbation though is something we don’t talk about because it’s a private thing. What you do for your own pleasure need not be necessarily discussed with your parents, of all the people.”
‘I’ in Relationships: Bringing the Partner on Board
Masturbation doesn’t necessarily have to be an I-me-myself activity.
The women we spoke to vouch for the fact that it makes for some great foreplay, a learning experience for the partner and a turn on.
Kamni, a 25-year-old software programmer says:
“I find that my partner loves to watch me and it’s definitely helped him understand what I enjoy being done to me sexually even more.”
Not every couple is very comfortable with the idea of a partner masturbating though.
A New Delhi-based sociology graduate, Jordan says:
“If I ever walked into my girlfriend’s room and found a vibrator, the first thing I would notice is how big it is.”
Soorya, a Chennai-based investment banker points out:
“It’s a big bruise to our egos, a sort of sign of our inadequacy perhaps. Hence, the discomfort in talking about it.”
Sharon seconds this point of view:
“My ex-partner once walked on in me masturbating once, during one of our cool-off periods. He somehow took what I was doing as a testament to his lack of prowess in bed. I had quite a hard time consoling him about how great he was in bed (he really was).”
Sudha, a 32-year-old radio producer found herself on the wrong side of masculine ego though:
“My long-term partner and I often found ourselves arguing about why I needed to indulge. Name-calling ensued. I was described as sex-starved and ‘impossible to satisfy’.”
In the process, she learnt how important it is to know one’s way around one’s own body for a good sex life.
“I had very unsatisfactory sex. Perhaps, not knowing my own pleasure points was perhaps a big reason why. I sat there hoping for the best,” she adds, adding that she eventually chose self-discovery to get to the elusive ‘O’.
Abhishek, a stand-up comic and engineer says:
“We are alright with men expressing their physical needs but a woman who does the same is perceived as ‘thirsty’, an extremely problematic portrayal at that.”
Overindulgence and Masturbation
For 36-year-old Shaira, the vibrator was the death of her kegel muscles, for a short while of course. Recalling her overindulgence, she says:
“I was single after a good decade spent in relationships. I was sure I did not want anything physical involving a person. My vibrator was my best friend for a while.”
“When things got physical with a man I quite liked after, I realised I couldn’t orgasm, because well, it was not the buzzing little thing at work.”
She adds with a faint giggle accompanying her story.
Sharmin, a gynaecology student narrates how she feared to lose the ability to naturally orgasm after reading about vibrator overuse in a Cosmo article:
“I wrote to a local sexologist who took enquiries in the paper and her advice was to go back to the basics. If you feel your device is making sex mechanical, slow things down by actually working for an orgasm with just your hands. Then move on to let your partner.”
Echoing the words of the piece in the Cosmo, she strongly recommends spicing things up.
Indicating that the right balance is quite important when it comes to self-pleasure versus pleasure received from a partner.
Forty’s Club – India’s Inofficial ‘Asexuals’
Sudha recollects finding an open porn website on her mother’s mobile.
“My mother has been single for a good 20 years now and I just assumed that you don’t have these urges at the age she is in. Seeing these things on her phone really took me by surprise.”
Ratna Pathak Shah’s Buaji in Lipstick Under my Burkha threw light on a topic that many women quickly shoved under the pleats of their sarees – the desires of the quintessential elder women in India.
Dr Sharmila says:
“There are two categories of elder women. One who has genuinely lost interest in sex either because of the bodily changes that come with menopause or because they feel like having these urges when they are grandparents is a deviance that can be a bad influence. The other category is those who now feel liberated to explore their urges without the worry of pregnancy or the preoccupation of familial responsibility.”
Prerna’s mother, Geetha says her lack of knowledge about masturbation cripples her understanding of its benefits.
“I had no idea that pleasure can be felt in this way. My daughter has spoken about it sometimes in conversation and I am happy that at least she is aware. With time, I feel like I have been deprived of such pleasures. Well, now I know.”
Shireen, a 52-year-old designer has a different story.
“Not every man is a Milind Soman post 50. They’re not always as energetic and excited to slave for your pleasure.”
“Younger men quite oddly view older women with a very porn-influenced perspective. Every sound coming out a woman’s mouth isn’t a thumbs-up to your skills and you’re going to be able to decide that only if you’ve explored your body well enough.”
The Kama Sutra and Female Masturbation
In her blog, mythologist Seema Anand writes: “Unsatisfactory sex for women was considered debilitating, almost life-threatening, with far-reaching mental and physical consequences that could impact the life of the man negatively. Unsatisfactory sex was an evil to be avoided at all times.”
A woman’s bodily fluids are infinite, thereby pushing preservation to the back seat. Masturbation would aid metabolism and optimum organ function.
Sanskrit called the art of using the fingers to aid arousal Ardhendu. It was one of the 64 important skills for one to perfect, according to the texts.
Interestingly, the Kama Sutra and the Sushruta Samhita (an ancient treatise on medicine) have a whole manual for self-stimulation too, where objects find a mention as well.
Seema’s blog says:
“There are certain erotic nerves in a woman that cannot be accessed by traditional sex – fingers and devices were essential in these cases.”
This liberalism doesn’t reflect too much in India’s medieval and modern cultural folds though.
The fact that researchers and theorists like Sigmund Freud often associated masturbation with insanity and addiction did not help people understand and indulge in self-pleasure as much as they would have wanted.
Therefore, the question arises, does sexual pleasure become an obligation and an opportunity to submit, based on texts like the Kama Sutra, which is not simply just a sex manual?
Is Masturbation a Feminist Activity?
The prejudice that tips the scales in favour of men’s ‘right to masturbate’ versus women has also created societal monsters like genital mutilation.
Prevalent even in first and third world countries alike, this heinous and heavily condemned practice involves deliberating cutting or modifying female genitals without a valid medical reason.
The appalling motive seems to be a desire to restrict female sexuality, ensure virginity before marriage and to increase male sexual pleasure.
The 21st-century patriarchal narrative has gone beyond violence to shroud feminine exploration.
This explains why masturbation is such a vital aspect of modern third wave feminism.
In her piece in the New York magazine titled For Women, Is Masturbation the Last Sex Taboo, writer Ann Friedman comments on how social conservatives are threatened by the idea of a woman enjoying her company. Sharon mirrors this view.
“People tell us things like, ‘wear a dupatta’, ‘always cover your legs/chest’, ‘don’t sit with your leg apart’, ‘no deep necks in blouses unless you’re covering it with a sari’,’ etc. It makes you restless in your own skin. Society teaches us embarrassment and shame “
Women today watch more pornography and are also increasingly opening up about their preferences. One issue does remain though – the movies are invariably always male-directed.
“Pornography was never intended for the female gaze. Exaggerated body parts and the image of the screaming woman all underline this. Have you noticed how most porn stars have chiselled bodies, pouty lips and droopy eyes?” she adds.
Why is this Conversation Necessary?
The mere mention of the word – masturbation – often makes Indian women red in the face.
While giving yourself a hand is a locker room topic for men, masturbation continues to be a big no-no in a woman’s arsenal of conversation topics.
Something as simple as touching one’s nether is a matter of shame, deviance and sin, depending on which lens – religious, social or cultural, one chooses to put on.
A few years ago, as reported in The Guardian, Sweden held a contest to coin a female-specific word for masturbation. Klittra – the results declared.
Meanwhile, a few thousand miles away, women struggle with their understanding and experience of the word, often turning to the internet for information.
With age, Neha got a little more experimental, trying different types of penetrative options for stimulations. She says:
“The brinjal emoji isn’t a misplaced metaphor. I have tried using other thick and long vegetable substitutes to stimulate myself.”
She also points out that several of her friends did the same and ultimately spoke about it only because of related discomfort or infection.
Horror stories surrounding the use of objects gone wrong are abundant online.
Dr Sharmila points out:
“This is the biggest concern surrounding masturbation.”
“The safer option, by and large, is to use a vibrator, after properly sanitising it, of course,” she recommends.
She also strongly discourages the dependence on Google for sexual exploration:
“If you’re doing something wrong, or you feel you need to know your way around something, there are journals academic and scientific sources for one to refer. So many resources, but zero awareness about the same.”
Sex Education: A Call for a Serious Rethink
For others like Bindu, a 30-year-old counsellor based in Canada, the conversation of sex was a big no at home.
“My parents wanted to me have a baby. Consequentially, we had to discuss sex. They actively avoided it otherwise.”
“I don’t think I am comfortable discussing masturbation with others. When you’re married, this perception comes about that either you’re someone with loose morals or that your husband just doesn’t know how to satisfy you.”
“Social settings deems masturbation as a bad word. Apart from that poorly drafted chapter about sex at the back of every biology book that backbenchers snigger about, sex education is virtually non-existent in our homes and schools. Masturbation doesn’t exist in the educational sexual discourse.”
In the world that we live in, misplaced perceptions about sex have clouded our understanding of what’s right and wrong.
Sex education and more importantly, normalising sexual health for the living room is slowly becoming an urgent priority today.
In this light, several apps and online resources have attempted to encourage a healthier attitude to the female body and its working.
“I have a four-year-old and I have started talking to her about body parts and explaining what good touch and bad touch can be,” says Dr Sharmila.
“It’s unfair to keep looking at the government to deal with this in a curriculum. Charity starts at home. A healthy perception of one’s body and needs should too,” she adds.
Show and Tell: Why Representation Matters
From how-to mobile apps to scenes in films, the representation of female masturbation on different mediums is also changing.
Popular representations of women and masturbation have evolved from the American Pie mould.
Most noteworthy of examples is Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water. Sally Hawkin’s character flicks the bean as part of her morning activities.
This was a refreshing deviant from the usual hyper-sexualised portrayals of women masturbating. No curling up in fancy bed linen or sensually toying with lace underwear.
The Oscar-winning director was quoted in an interview to an American web magazine saying,
“I wanted to show the way she dreams of water, uses water to boil her eggs, and then goes and gets in the water, and masturbates, shines her shoes, and goes to work. A perfectly acceptable routine by any standards.”
Sudha refers to Indian cinema and the problems that come with a “prudish Censor Board”.
“Only niche films like Fire, Angry Indian Goddesses and Margarita With A Straw explore female sexuality. There are exceptions, not the norm.”
The likes of Emma Watson, Rihanna and Miley Cyrus have all spoken unabashedly about masturbation. We cannot say the same about the public figures in the sub-continent.
Ranveer Singh’s statement that he enjoys sex earned him the label of a sex addict. The social consequences for female celebrities may be much worse.
With the healthy increase of women in production crews and fresh female directorial talent, there seems to be a silver lining.
“We need more films created by women with women for some fresh perspective. This holds good for cinema and porn because we could all use a reality check once in a while,” Mahima adds.
“We need smart conversations and in the right settings. I don’t owe details about my sex life or what my fingers do when I am alone and aroused to anyone. However, if speaking about it and keeping an open mind could lead to a healthier attitude towards pleasure, then why not?” says Shireen, a little wink added.
“As necessary as it is, it’s hard. Two-finger salute to all who already do it.”
In conclusion, it seems apparent that Indian cultural profile from the Kama Sutra to the world wide web has always maintained a healthy opinion of female self-pleasure.
Women have served themselves through the ages. However, the volume levels of constructive conversation have dropped.
With more celebrities talking about it and more resources to develop a healthy understanding of the practice available today than before, going against the grain doesn’t seem too bad an idea anymore.
After all, self-pleasure is all about personal preference and it does not mean that any Indian woman not masturbating is not enjoying a great sex life. But those who are, are perhaps finding a way to satisfy themselves in a way that partners cannot or with the freedom of being single and to do as they please feeling guilt or not.