I often start thinking when sitting in a ladies’ carriage, what is a real concrete sign that some country somewhere has reached gender equality. Seeing so many sweaty women together squeezed in a compartment reminds me of Finnish saunas and what they meant to us when growing up – learning about womanhood and its travails.
Ladies’ carriages are similar places: intimate and rich in shared codes of what it means to be a woman in the city. But will they be useful in bridging the gap and easing today’s tension between genders? What will it take for women to feel at par with men? Will it be focusing on a career? Will it be the equal division of house chores and guys doing laundry, like in the ads? Will it be feeling comfortable wearing short skirts at a bus stop? Will it be a matter of economic empowerment – equal opportunities and pay? Or splitting a bill when on a date?
Maybe because I spend a lot of time talking about physical intimacy and relationships, I often feel the answer is equal access to paid sex. Believe it, or be appalled by it, or not, I hear so many men across the city talking about their happy endings at spas in South Mumbai, quickies with escorts in 5-star hotels in the city, home visits of sex workers and Lonavala trips with sugar babies. I hear it all and refrain from judging because these are just quick convenient fixes to what is articulated as the pressure of being ‘a man’ and deep but human fear and craving for intimacy.
How does a woman deal with this same fear and desire? We have them too but there is no current safe release outlet for us, there are no convenient fixes. Yes, we can go shopping or have a girls night out. We can also use the latest vibrators and sex toys like women magazines suggest us to do, or have affairs that we are then more or less stuck to. But that’s not quite like commodifying a real body. We have been socialised to believe that we don’t need this as men do and if we do it’s based on pure deep feelings of love and commitment.
Yes, we might need more emotional connection than men when getting intimate, but not all of us and not all the time. I often wish I could access an attractive man for a few hours, no strings attached, pay for the exchange and don’t have to deal with infinite messaging, emotional drama, safety issues. Be treated nicely because you are paying. I see a lot of power and value in that, but to get it in this city I would have to pay at least three times what a man pays.
In the past ten years, I have been approached online by a number of ‘service boys’, gigolos, male escorts, massage boys, initially via LinkedIn and later through other social media platforms and communication apps. I am not sure if my race or if me crossing the 40s has anything to do with it, but it started happening and I got curious. I was really tempted because I was very busy with work and didn’t have the energy and time to deal with another human being in an intimate way.
The biggest blocks were safety and costs. Don’t get me wrong, I am a privileged white person sitting in India probably making more than what I should but knowing how much men pay simply feels unfair. This also means that only very few well off women can afford paid sex in a safe way while men from all social classes have access to sex workers.
Coincidentally, this week I received a message from another random ‘service boy’ so I wanted to find out how things were for him in these COVID times. Like all sex workers, he had to lower prices, which made me feel sad. I didn’t take the sale offer like I would have had for a pair of shoes, so perhaps it is not about the money after all.
I feel I personally have achieved many milestones in the path of gender equality: don’t feel always awkward in skimpy clothes, earn enough to have a maid sort my house, demand my orgasms and split the bill at dates. But I am not yet de-socialised or empowered enough to commodify a male body. Will I feel accomplished and at par with men once I do? Who knows, but at least I would like to have it as an option for the day I will want to play like a man.
(The writer is an Intimacy & Relationship Coach and an Independent People and Culture Specialist focusing on relationships, sexuality, youth and social media in South Asia)