Women's Day 2021: Seema Anand explains why self-pleasure for women in India is considered akin to adultery

London-based mythologist and narrative practitioner Seema Anand is an acknowledged authority on the Kama Sutra and lectures on Eastern Erotology, Tantric philosophy, the Mahavidyas, Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita, among other subjects.

Her work on the revival and reproduction of oral literature from India is associated with the UNESCO project for Endangered Oral Traditions.

As for the millennials, Seema is best known for her book The Arts of Seduction.

This Women’s Day, Seema speaks to The Free Press Journal about the idea behind a book that speaks of sexual pleasure, reactions she received for taking up a taboo subject and why intimacy for women in India still remains submissive.

At what point did it occur to you that “The Arts of Seduction” should be encapsulated in a book?

Actually, I didn’t want to write a book at all. I have spent many years training to become a storyteller - there is a serious process that goes into your rebirth as a storyteller, not least of which is unlearning everything you have ever been taught about sentence construction and grammar; understanding how to break a sentence into 3 pieces, dumping the ‘big’ words and convoluted plots and clever metaphors and embracing the simple, the straightforward and the repetitive - almost sacrilege for a Lit Hons student, but at the end of the day that is the mark of good storytelling.

The only problem is that in the process you unlearn all the things that make for ‘good writing’.

So, although I have been passionate about the Kama Sutra and its teaching for a very long time it was only when I came across the idea of how jewellery was used in teaching teach the correct performance of the lovemaking positions that I had to write about it. The beauty, the elegance, the sheer deliciousness of the idea had to be preserved for posterity.

It was like unpacking Aladdin’s cave - the excitement of discovering one little bit of information at a time. I can only describe it as someone making popcorn inside my head - each little nugget of information would pop and bounce around my brain for days.

Intimacy in our ancient Kama shastras was the path to heaven, pleasure was a shakti and love making was an art form - so you did not just thrash around mindlessly in bed, you learnt how to execute each position in just the right way in order to heighten the pleasure and make it beautiful. And you learnt this by how a specific piece of jewellery moved on your body during a specific position.

So, the next time you read that the heroine had “put on her jingling girdle” give it your full attention because this means that she had taken her position on top and with utter accomplishment was going to bring herself and her partner to pleasure by moving only her hips - the proof being that the jingling girdle worn on the waist would not make a sound.

I don’t think there is anything in the world more evocative than this.

As a woman who took up the task to explain the artistry of Kama Sutra to the modern world, were you ever looked down upon to even have a conversation around sex in India?

It was bound to happen and it did. And it wasn’t just individuals, certain literature festivals as well decided that my words would not sully the ears of their audiences. But perhaps it is just the preconceptions around this very taboo subject that make people react like this because to be fair I have never had a negative reaction from an audience. People who heard me speak on the subject have always come back for more.

Women's Day 2021: Seema Anand explains why self-pleasure for women in India is considered akin to adultery

Your book begins on a subtle note that may seem to be “acceptable” in morally ethical standards. However, as we progress to the chapter on “curved finger”, you speak on self-pleasure/masturbation – again a taboo topic, especially for women. Not to mention, actors who take it up on screen have also faced backlash. Why do you think there is so much shame around women pleasuring themselves?

In the world of perfume, they say that large areas should have a subtle fragrance, the strong fragrances are applied to the small areas and the parts of the body that someone will first come in contact with - like the arms and the neck - are fragranced with “innocent” perfumes like mint and jasmine, non-intimidating fragrances that make one feel safe. The layout of the chapters was a conscious decision on the part of my editor.

On the wall of the Kandaria Mahadev temple in Khajuraho, about 12 feet above your head, amongst thousands of other sculptures is the stone figure of a woman, standing straight, head thrown back, in the act of undoing her lower garment so that you can see the opening of her vulva and slightly engorged clitoris visible between the lips of the vulva and an etching of a scorpion on her left leg. Not only is it absolutely exquisite, but to my mind this is the most erotic sculpture in the entire complex.

The scorpion symbolises rising desire. You can sense her mounting passion, see it in her face, feel it in her stance (I’m always in awe of the unknown hands who crafted the Khajuraho sculptures and managed to pour so much rasa, so much emotion into ordinary stone) but her lover is not at hand to satisfy her and so she is either going to pleasure herself or maybe a female friend or maid will do it for her.

Self-pleasure was essential for one’s wellbeing and had almost a divine stature.

2000 years ago, the Kama Sutra believed that pleasuring a woman with the fingers, whether she did it for herself or it was done for her by others, was the doorway to orgasm. It was so important that it was a part of a well-bred, sophisticated man’s skill set, men were taught how to pleasure a woman with the fingers so that they could perform this for their lovers before or even during lovemaking.

The vagina holds an incredible amount of very sensitive nerve endings which are dotted all around the walls, on different sides and at different depths and the soft tipped finger alternating with the gently grazing nail could do amazing things. It was the key to mind blowing orgasms.

Today’s India, much like 18th century Europe looks upon self-pleasure as a plague, a disease, a symptom of immorality that needs to be stamped out. It is almost seen in the same light as adultery - a virtuous woman would never dream of giving herself pleasure.

But putting aside what society thinks, the concept of pleasure has become so divorced from the woman’s narrative that even women consider the idea of self-pleasure - sexual or otherwise - a guilty forbidden act. Be it a spa day, an evening with friends, a handbag, shoes - whatever - it is an ‘indulgence’, a ‘treat’, something that was ‘unnecessary’ and hence something to feel guilty about. It is so deeply imbedded in our psyche that do not believe that we deserve it.

It’s strange to think that from a culture that wrote the book on it - literally - we have now done a full about turn and decided it is the road to hell.

Stories disappear of course - it is a part of the evolutionary process. Societies change, beliefs change, practices change.

Removing this story however was a not a random chance, it has taken centuries of careful misogyny and meticulous tyranny to get us to this point.

Research shows that in all probability this shift of narrative started with a fairly innocuous reason - Ancient India believed that women had eight times the capacity for pleasure compared to men and since pleasure was a shakti and the path to moksha this could unbalance the portals of power. And in a society bound by patriarchy and riddled with superstition this was seen as a real threat to male supremacy.

You also mention using a dildo during sex (if only it was easily accessible) – women are looked down upon for simply using a tampon or a menstrual cup, how does one bring up the dildo in conversation with their partner?

Unfortunately, the baggage that comes with certain words is enough to cripple them. The word “Dildo” is dead on arrival, it epitomises all things immoral. I sometimes wonder if we could change the word - just like one can say the word ‘yoni’ in conversations but ‘vagina’ would be entirely unacceptable - would that help? Like maybe ‘apadravya’ (which is not precisely the same thing but after all who would know the difference)?

Or perhaps it boils down to the same thing yet again - changing the story back?

In the time of the Kama Sutra dildos were not about solitary masturbation, they were tools that lovers used to bring each other to greater heights of passion and fulfilment. For the myriad scenarios, why sexual fulfilment may not have been possible, it says there was no reason to despair and certainly no reason to settle down to a life of bad sex. The answer was the dildo.

The dildo was designed to bring variety and enhance pleasure in lovemaking and it came in many avatars. My personal favourite innovation was the practice of wrapping a string of pearls around a dildo - it changed the shape and texture and experience beyond belief.

And dildos were not just for the pleasure of women. Men with problematic erections could strap them on as prosthetics during sex - a most effective tool for building self-esteem and ensuring mental wellbeing and also giving the man with the immeasurable pleasure of being part of the sexual act.

In the West doctors today recommend dildos for men with cancer or severe erectile problems, to pleasure their partners with, so that they can still enjoy a degree of intimacy, to make it possible to live their healthiest, most normal life as far as possible.

Maybe that’s the way forward? A medical prescription for dildos?

Stories of change have to be aspirational. A person has to see some benefit for themselves to embrace the change, whatever it is. If you really want to introduce the idea of a dildo to your partner, as something to use together, and if you are worried about how they will take it, think of a way to present the story to them in a way that makes them curious and excited. Introduce the idea in tiny stages, have a follow up plan ready (like how to get hold of the right kind of dildo) and use lots of lubrication.

Oral sex is something most Indian women have been deprived of. While women don’t shy away from going down, most men skip the part. Through this medium, what do you have to say to our readers who probably haven’t thought of putting their tongue to good use.

Oral sex truly is the most pleasurable of the sexual acts. The tongue is the second most powerful muscle in the body, it is warm, it is wet and when combined with the lips and the teeth it can create the most explosive sensations inside you.

But it is even more than that. Oral sex is mindful sex, it is a coupling of passion and stillness. Because there is no pressure to get the rhythm right or be in the ‘correct’ position, as a result there is no frenzy or panic or performance anxiety. Both mind and body slow down and create a stillness that in turn allows you to feel all the subtle little sensations that you did not even know existed. It is your chance to explore pleasure at your own pace.

Add to that the fact that you can use your hands over other parts of the body at the same time - an immeasurable advantage.

But it is also the one that people are most hesitant about so let’s see if we can help with your concerns.

The biggest stress is always about 'swallowing'. There is no rule that says you have to swallow - you don't have to swallow; you don't have to do anything you don't want to. Go down on each other for just a short while, enjoy the little diversion and finish with traditional sex.

Science tells us that the pheromones produced during excitement make the groin area of both men and women smell wonderful, so that’s another thing for you to enjoy.

You can coat your partner in flavoured lubricant like chocolate or honey or whatever else works for you - you get lubricants in all flavours these days. It’s good way to disguise the sexual fluids till you have a chance to get used to them.

Semen doesn't generally taste of anything at all but can take on an unpleasant flavour if you’ve been unwell or drinking a lot etc. Laying off alcohol and drinking a lot more water, even for one week, can completely transform the taste of you. It might be worth trying

Hygiene is paramount. Wash with soap and water before going to bed together (as part of your shringar) and keep it clean and unsweaty.

Breathe deeply and have the best time of your life.

It is a known fact that most of the time women fake an orgasm or simply don’t bother and get done with the sex to save time. Your Opinion.

Imagine being offered a plate of your absolute favourite dessert. Would you rush through that? You would savour each mouthful, you would consciously feel each taste bud come alive, you would make it last as long as possible.

No one fakes an orgasm or rushes through sex if it is good, if they are actually enjoying it. Unfortunately, all too often sex is boring, monotonous and uninspiring and fake orgasms become the easiest way out. And after a while when a fake orgasm is not enough partners will turn elsewhere for a real one.

Whatever the pace of your life there are some things that cannot be fast forwarded - cooking a meal, watching the wind in the trees and good sex. And they all have to be done sometime.

Yes, quickies are an option but they should be the exception rather than the rule. If your intimate life is only made up of quickies then you may as well not be doing it.

Performance anxiety is mostly a self-imposed problem arising from what we believe is expected of us. A lot of men have this notion that being a good lover means grinding on your partner “hard and long”. I do not know who created this story but it is absolute nonsense. Take a woman’s word for it - women do not enjoy that at all. Touching, kissing, laughing, cuddling - that’s the secret.

We only think life is fast paced. This last year of being locked down has proved that there is nothing, nothing, nothing in the world that cannot wait, that the world will survive if you do not meet a self-imposed deadline.

Your relationship on the other hand may not survive. And your mental health will definitely not survive.

So just slow down for long enough to be self-aware.

What is that one golden tip you wish to give for those who plan to engage in casual sex or save it for “the one”, since there exists equal shame for both parties – the ones who do indulge are slut-shamed, the ones who don’t are considered to be uncool.

Whether you choose to have multiple partners or save yourself for the ‘one’, remember that pleasure is the essence of your intimacy because without pleasure sex is merely a mundane, robotic, pointless act that will add nothing to your life.

But - and here’s the important thing - your pleasure is your responsibility. You partner can be a part of your pleasure but no one can ‘give’ it to you. And pleasure can only come when you open the channels of your mind to acknowledge it, when you give your self-permission to feel it.

Pleasure is an art form; develop it, work on it, respect it so that you can enjoy it for the rest of your life and it can truly be, as the Kama Sutra says, the path to heaven.

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