By Sudhamshu Mitra
Illustrations by Alia Sinha
Now, I’m trying to unlearn everything I’d absorbed in predominantly male spaces. It’s making me a better person.
Lately, I have been going on dates using apps such as Tinder, Coffee Meets Bagel, and Ok Cupid. I have been trying to understand how to navigate the dating space and the ways in which I can interact with the people I date. I am trying to reflect on how to practice kindness, empathy, and honesty in the relationships that I build with them. Some of this has to do with having new-found knowledge and realisations about the world around me, after completing a liberal arts course. In other words, when you start thinking about your actual life and actions in the light of the theory about rights, equality and power you are reading, you begin to ask yourself some searching questions. While it has been only 5-6 months since I began, I have learnt a lot over this period. I have learnt how much I actually know (or rather, how much I don’t know) about dating, sex, and relationships.
During my days as an engineering student, my male friends and I talked about sex and about women constantly, but not in ways that were kind to us or them. These conversations involved sexist comments about women on our campus – how “hot” a woman was, how “bang-able” one was, and fantasising about what it would like be to have sex with a particular woman. We would share pictures of “hot” women with each other and comment on them. We would crack sexist jokes that involved caricaturing and objectifying the different body parts of a woman in many of our conversations and through doodles on our desks. “Boobs” and “ass” were words we used all the time. And there were conversations around masturbation predominantly through jokes. We would talk about how many times we would have masturbated, the different ways in which we did it, and shame the ones who did not know about masturbation. Instead of saying “get lost” or “go away”, we would say “go masturbate” (“hodko” – as it is said colloquially in Kannada).
The fact was, most of us hadn’t had real sexual relationships with women (at least in my circle of around 20 men). But, even among the ones who did, the conversations centered around the kind or number of blow-jobs that one would have received, whether it was first or second or third base, or if a particular porn position was tried out, or how the woman appreciated how long one’s penis was. We’d talk about the porn videos that we watched, the best porn stars, the size (in gigabytes) of porn videos that we had or had just downloaded afresh.
But we never did talk honestly about sex and our emotions. We hit the bottle most of the times we felt lonely or disappointed because of rejection from a woman. We didn’t have conversations around our ignorance and apprehensions on how to have sex, around our physical and emotional needs of being cared, loved, validated, and held, on the ways in which we could deal with our libidos instead of excessively consuming porn, on the ways of building a nurturing relationship and handling jealousy, or the ways in which we could handle the breaking up of a relationship in a healthy manner.
This was also the time when many of us weren’t being hugged, held, and provided other forms of physical affection by our parents who distanced themselves from us when we became adults. The only intimacy we as men could share was when we hung out together playing computer games, in bars, hanging out in college, and attending concerts. If one did not have a girlfriend or wasn’t dating, then one would be bereft of any physical affection. Any other forms of intimacy such as cuddling, hugging each other for long, holding hands, kisses were all sexualised and our homophobia prevented us from being intimate. (We would make videos about “gay” relationships with sexual undertones, post multiple Facebook statuses and comments laughing about how “gay” someone is or how one is of the “other” gender. All of this also meant that if there were times when I wanted to explore my sexuality with men, I would feel so overcome with guilt about just having these desires that I could never even allow myself to think about it, forget summoning up the courage to talk about it with my friends.)
We could only cry in front of each other when we were completely drunk. After a year or so of being in college, most of us dealt with our loneliness, sadness, grief, heartbreak and anger predominantly by ourselves in our rooms crying, writing poetry, and distracting ourselves. While we hung out together very often, we rarely opened up, touched each other affectionately, or dealt with our thoughts and feelings honestly without the fear of being shamed, sexualised, or laughed at. We did not know about the idea of patriarchal masculinity, or that it had resulted in a loss of touch and intimacy, neither did we discuss this loss with each other nor were we taught how to deal with it by our parents and relatives.
Right now, in the dates I go on, I am seeing the repercussions of growing up amidst a traditionally masculine space. It takes effort to identify the emotions I am going through at every point and then deal with my emotions in a healthy manner through constructive conversations. There is always an apprehension that I may not be good when it comes to making out and that I might disappoint my date. What if things go further, and I am not good in bed? Will my partner be okay with someone who is inexperienced, and who is still learning how to have sex? Is my inexperience going to be an impediment to having a relationship? These are things I sometimes feel fear and shame about.
Sometimes, it is difficult to understand whether or not I am using my date as a distraction from my other needs, and confusing my need for love and affection, for a need for sex. At times, it is hard to be truthful and say that I am not interested in a sexual experience, and at other times I am not sure how to articulate my need for wanting to explore another body without alienating my date. But as I read about the #MeToo movement or different articles on feminism I see so many of these experiences in a different light and the need to explore a new path ahead.
Thinking of all of these things, my behaviour has changed. Every time I go on a date with a woman, when we are in a private space, there seems to be an unsaid pressure looming around on me – the pressure to “make a move” or to “make out”. It is, in fact, very hard for me to understand if my desire to make out comes from this pressure or if I truly want to make out. I had always believed that the man should make the first move. “What’s a date without hanky-panky?” is a thought that I always have had to encounter. In one instance, I chose not to “make a move” first. Instead, without succumbing to the unsaid pressure, we spend a marvellous time together filled with conversations and a movie.
Once, I asked my date if she wanted to kiss, and she said yes. It felt liberating. While there is this notion that it is unsexy and ruins the moment to talk about these things before making out, I do believe that you can establish consent through conversations and being acutely aware of how the other person is responding to your move, and still make it sexy and romantic. Now, I have made it a thumb rule to try my best to talk about my feelings before and after sex. While I’m still uncomfortable talking about things like loneliness, existential angst, sexual desire, longing to be held, my limited experience of having had sex, and my limited knowledge on different sexual positions, I have realised that talking about them enhances the relationships that I share with my dates.
Not making sex or making out the central purpose in my relationships with my dates also opens up other forms of relationships that we may not generally get to experience. One of my relationships now involves us calling each other when we want the physical presence of a human being around – either while doing work – or sleeping at night beside each other. Since both of us know why we are meeting and we have discussions around this, this enhances our well-being. It allows us to meet our needs of wanting human presence and touch. It allows us to feel less lonely the next day and more complete. We do feel energised and more productive on the next day whenever we sleep next to each other or cuddle.
Lately, I have been trying to navigate orgasms. It has been ingrained in me (mainly through porn) that sex is centred on the man’s pleasure, that sex without the man coming is not sex. Most of porn videos have a set routine of some foreplay, an extended blow-job by the woman, different sexual positions mostly involving peno-vaginal intercourse, and then end with the man ejaculating on the woman. However, in all my recent dates, I haven’t come or felt the need to. I find sex more interesting when I try to focus on the pleasure of the woman I am with, either by trying to understand the ways in which she is responding to my actions through her body movements and her breath, or by just following what I am told to do instead of expecting things to play out like a porn sequence. And in doing so, I am able to reflect on what my needs are and thus delineate it from how I have been told how sex should be.
Being this way challenges my masculine notions of sex – I have been choosing it consciously, but it has revealed new pleasures and helped me cope with some insecurities most men have, instead of brushing them under the carpet. I really enjoy providing pleasure to the woman I am with. So that means sometimes doing away with the traditional penis-in-vagina thrusting that I’ve been conditioned to believe is the standard, and focusing more on giving clitoral orgasms with my fingers, hands, knees or thighs. I have realised the importance of being constantly aware of how the person is responding and verbally asking if she would be okay with a particular move, the necessity for taking things slow and providing enough space and time for the woman to be able to respond.
Here’s one more thing I’ve learned: I do not properly know how to have peno-vaginal intercourse. Most of the time, I do not know how to express this apprehension to the one I am with. Usually it is the woman who guides me. At times I am embarrassed that I do not know how to go about it. But I had never discussed this with either the men or women in my life, until I spoke to a male friend a few weeks ago.
For the first time, I had an honest conversation with this friend and shared my apprehensions, fears, and doubts. We talked about our first sexual experiences, and discussed the fact that we are really unaware of so many different aspects surrounding sex such as how to put on a condom, how to navigate consent at different points during sex, how to talk about our likes and dislikes, how to have peno-vaginal intercourse, how to find the clitoris and the vagina, and importantly how to ensure a fulfilling sexual experience for both ourselves and our partners. We lamented the fact that we never had sex education either in our schools or from our parents. My friend explained that he had to surf the internet to understand how to put on a condom, how to have intercourse, and understand the best ways to have sex with a woman. We even talked about how masturbating for about 24-25 years and then finally having a sexual relationship affects the way in which we have sex. (Certain sexual positions make us come faster – and thus “last” lesser in bed – because we are used to masturbating in a particular way. At times we are so used to masturbating that we prefer masturbating over sex, and only that leads to ejaculation.)
We also touched upon the pressure to “perform” when it comes to sex. I told him something I had never ever spoken about before – that recently, when I was with a woman, I lost my erection as soon as I tried putting on a condom, and again as soon as I tried to put my penis in her vagina. He asked me why it might have happened, and said maybe it was because of stress. And I think that my sharing personal things opened up room for him to do the same. My friend told me that online, he had looked up how to last longer in bed. Apparently, if you first make your partner come, your confidence will increase, and then you can go on to have intercourse. He did tell me that there was a phase of about a week when he was coming too soon and that felt like a shameful experience for him. But then he immediately followed this statement with a grin, saying that he was able to get his mojo back and was able to last longer in bed after that. At this point, I couldn’t help but ask him if he had checked what his partner thought of all of this and if in fact her pleasure actually comes from longer intercourse or if she prefers other aspects of seeking pleasure. He mentioned that they did have a conversation about that, and that she was also very supportive during the time when he came too early, expressing that it was okay for it to happen and that he shouldn’t feel ashamed. And we found out that while in porn the pleasure is centred on the man, in our relationships we actually both enjoy giving pleasure to our partners in the way they want us to.
I felt relieved to be able to talk about these things with someone. After we went back to our homes, we both texted each other expressing how wonderful the conversation was and how great it was to spend time this way. And I realised that if I don’t bring such topics up and make myself vulnerable, I won’t ever get to have such conversations with men – they are unlikely to make that kind of first move!
Right now, these times feel like the heyday of my exploration of and reflection on my needs surrounding care, sex, love, and affection. These are also the first few times I am honestly dealing with my apprehensions, emotions, fears, and doubts about sex, consent, relationships with myself and with the men and women in my lives in a constructive manner. I have realised that it is a slow process of really trying to understand how not to deal with loneliness – as men we are conditioned to deal with longing for physical touch, presence, affection and intimacy in a ridiculously traditional masculine manner through tonnes of porn, alcohol/weed, gaming and sports, conversations with men about everything other than our lives, or through sex disregarding our partner’s (or partners’) being and their emotions. I’ve learned that feminism is about practicing goodness, kindness, empathy, and affection – both towards oneself and towards others. These things may not make me very ‘manly’ by the warped standards I grew up with. But they’re making me a better – and I think happier – person.
Sudhamshu is a 26 year old cis-male still exploring the spectrum of sexuality and a waking (never-woke) practitioner of feminist ways of being. Professionally, he is a researcher based out of Bangalore.
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