Why Sex Becomes Just Another Chore for Many Indian Women
“I felt like I had to save the relationship in some way or the other.”
“When there’s no communication, no emotion, sex is the only ground where you can think about protecting your relationship.”
About five months into her marriage, Jaya* says she felt like she stopped being a person in the bedroom and become more of a “participant,” engaging in mechanized desire.
Many women, like Jaya, often feel sexual obligation within their relationships, known as duty sex or maintenance sex. It refers to sex that goes from being a mutually pleasurable activity to a barter for stability within one’s relationship.
“I was not enjoying the sex but couldn’t say no because I felt the guilt of denying sex,” says Ashima*, 24, about her relationship with her ex. She hoped that if she gave it her all and didn’t complain, this would be the first relationship to work out.
“Even though my desires were not fulfilled, I didn’t want it to affect my relationship.”
Amrita Nandy, a gender scholar and independent researcher, explains this behavior using a social lens. “We are almost taught or come to see love and/or marriage and/or romantic relationships as entailing sacrifice, as requiring compromise,” she says. “In that frame of reference, some of us participate in the sex barter.”
This participation falls in a gray area, where consent and desire overlap. According to intimacy coach Pallavi Barnwal, duty sex is different from marital rape or sexual assault in the sense that it is not non-consensual. Here, the partner might feel “obliged” to have sex for various reasons, such as the guilt of not maintaining some unsaid rules of a relationship or fearing abuse if they don’t “provide” sexual satisfaction.
On the days that Jaya’s former husband wanted sex, it was on his terms; it didn’t matter if she was in the mood for it. It felt like they had to “plan” these things to “save something bigger.” The matter of consent in unequal marital relationships thus becomes an afterthought. “It becomes almost impossible to think of if I’m consenting to this because you feel this pressure, you know?” Jaya says. “That your relationship is on the line so if sex is what it takes to save it. There is so much pressure socially to protect your marriage, so consent doesn’t really matter or isn’t really considered. It’s almost as if: kya kar sakte hain ab?”
“Even though duty sex is not exactly sexual abuse,” Barnwal notes, “it certainly deadens and desensitizes women to the unfairness of it all if it happens over a period of time, which it often does as it stems from the patriarchal notion that women always have to be dutiful in any romantic relationship and give sex.”
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This idea of giving has been legitimized over time, with different iterations of relationship advice columns online arguing for the “merits” of maintenance sex.
On multiple occasions, even Indian courts have observed that denying sex to your partner amounts to “cruelty.” It creates a fractured understanding of intimacy in Indian marriages, especially when the duty to be a wife is conflated with the duty to have sex.
In a patriarchal set-up, male desire will always be “legitimate” and viewed as valid at the expense of dismissing female pleasure. This slow deterioration of a woman’s idea of intimacy does not always take place when it comes to duty sex. The roots are deeper and can be traced back to the way institutions contextualize intimacy and sex for women. “Women are indeed systemically discouraged from meaningfully understanding intimacy as the discouragement is institutionalized — from our education curricula to ‘family values,’” explains Nandy.
Nandy cautions that she is “not sure if even men understand intimacy deeply,” for it has at its core elements of care, consent, and love. “Yet, at least their sexuality is legitimate unlike the vilified sexuality of the female.”
This vilified understanding of intimacy and agency also manifests in some women internalizing the notion that they are not supposed to vocalize what they truly want, truly desire.
“Over the past three years, I’ve only subtly dropped hints [about my pleasure] which he never understood,” says Sarita*, 30. “If I tell him that I don’t want to have sex, I don’t think this rejection would be very good for his morale.”
It certainly didn’t help that Sarita’s mother had told her that “when the men want it you give it to them because you don’t want them to be looking outside.” Sarita admits that she might have internalized this problematic approach toward sex. It is at this grey intersection between desire, agency, and intimacy that duty sex rears its ugly head.
Women are either discouraged by societal norms and more formal institutions around them to own their desires or are just deluded into believing that marriage inherently comes with its own set of limitations that must be accepted. Even Jaya’s family and friends told her “this is how every marriage is.”
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Arguably, “intimacy in a marriage has to be understood not just through the way two people in a particular marriage perform it, but also within the larger society it functions within to take into account the cultural scripts that influence it,” argues Himalika Mohanty, Ph.D., and research scholar at TISS whose masters thesis was an exploratory study of women’s experiences of marriage. “Sex among my participants was spoken of mostly as a means to talk about children, and not framed in terms of desire.” Interestingly, she noted that especially among women who were married for a long time, they had “never really reflected on their marriages in such a way, or indeed in any way, before.”
This hollowness is socially engineered. “A fulsome understanding of intimacy will give women sexual agency which can jeopardize the very foundations of the institution of marriage,” Nandy explains. “If women were to disassociate intimacy from marriage, and we were to accept or condone non-marital intimacy, then we may not choose marriage, given the heavy demands of marriage and motherhood,” which exist as conjoined twins.
There’s something subversive about women recognizing they are capable of intimacy too. More so, because it questions the place a marital institution holds in women’s lives – as an oppressive structure that is seen as an eventual step by people at a certain age and time, and “not as something one voluntarily does when one feels the need for it,” Mohanty notes.
A lot of the women that Mohanty had interviewed for her thesis told her that their own aspirations from their marriages were simply to be cared for and have someone to care for. “At the risk of stating the obvious, intimacy in a marriage has to be understood not just through the way two people in a particular marriage perform it, but also within the larger society it functions within to take into account the cultural scripts that influence it.”
The way intimacy coach Barnwal sees it, duty sex robs people of the many possibilities that sex otherwise holds, restricting an act of genuine intimacy to a performative one. “In duty sex, sex becomes like a two-course meal of penetration and ejaculation. There is no playfulness and no room to experiment and bond. We all deserve better.”
*Names changed to protect anonymity.
Arman Khan is a freelance writer and journalist based in Mumbai. He writes on the intersection of gender, lifestyle, and art. Saumya Kalia is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Her writing explores issues of social justice, digital sub-cultures, media ecosystem, literature, and memory as they cut across socio-cultural periods. You can reach her at @Saumya_Kalia.