Covid-19 has affected us in many ways, including the way we see our identity. Our basic notions of our sexual schema and our identity have changed—and might change without our awareness. The loneliness that it suddenly generated has brought us together as sexual beings, and created an intimate relationship of a kind never before seen in human history. In the process, it has questioned and torn some of the ideas we have about our bodies, and in times to come it may change what it means to be sexual beings.
As a psychiatrist, it is not unusual for husbands to ask me for advice on sexual issues. The difficulty is that there is no such thing as perfect knowledge that one can cite as certainty. Matter is deeply subjective and ingrained in individual consciousness, which is best left to unfold on its own. My sexuality is a strange amalgamation of a plethora of psychological, physical, and even spiritual forces all mingled together to form me, none of which can be detected as a single factor. Exacerbated by an explosion of information, the hundreds of millions of sensations overly overwhelmed our bodies during our growing years, resulting in a mythic confusion that has invaded most of our inner beliefs about who we are. Things that a generation ago no one would have felt comfortable talking about are archaic. Sexual customs and values have changed a lot over the generations. Everything seems to be going in the direction of becoming more relative, unlike two or three generations where some absolutes are still prevalent and seen in black and white. The next generation’s mantra seems to go in the direction of “If it feels good, it must be good.”
Harish and Nevita (both names have been changed) came to a session on what they said had brought them to a breaking point during the Covid-19 period. They had only been married for over a year when Covid-19 restricted them to the house, prompting an identity and matrix they weren’t prepared for. They initially encounter it as a God-given gift they thought would increase their intimacy, only to find that it opens up a raw side that has been sleeping. Had it not been for Covid-19, it would have never been opened, and she felt horrified and blamed the pandemic, while Navetta felt it helped her realize something in and of itself that makes her feel whole.
“He wants to know what I want while making love, but when I tell him I have no such desires, he thinks I’m not completely honest with him and back off. She said to me and then asked, ‘Is a woman supposed to know her desires and tell a man?’” Are desires made in black and white or do they appear during intimacy? I do not know. He says that when he told me to you, why don’t you? Are you making me repressed or making me someone to suppress her desires as a woman? ”
Consent, desire, arousal, and vulnerability are often called the four pillars of the human sexual experience. Each of them resists simplistic interpretation, reductive analysis, or categorizes within abstract limits. Each of them has a multifaceted definition containing within it a mass of internal contradictions, aporia as described by Sigmund Freud, which arouse more doubts in the mind than closure.
As a psychiatrist, I’ve heard men and women describe their desires in different ways than one another. In almost all of the cultures I’ve worked in, I’ve never found her an exception. A woman’s desire emerges slowly, often taking its own winding path through a maze of sensations, beliefs, and, unfortunately, the threat of living in a violent world where a woman’s body is seen as a commodity and her sexual thoughts a weapon she can use against her. Women rarely express their desire so openly and directly, at least, with confidence. Men like centipedes want to know what they want.
So, are men who are more certain about their sexuality and what they want today compared to women, threatened by their heightened sense of sexual identity? Two years ago, at the invitation of my friend, a well-known psychoanalyst, I joined a group he was leading – a group known as the Men’s Group. The themes of consent, vulnerability, arousal, and desire interacted with each other. Most men felt insufficiently understood by their partners about these issues, and often mistaken them for suspicions about their partners’ lack of interest in their own bodies.
Until two years ago, it was customary for defense attorneys in sexual assault cases to seek any evidence that would reveal the woman’s thoughts, feelings, or desires to prove that she alone had strayed and provoked the man by her sexuality surfaced and given her consent. It was the emerging desire of women that vanished before the morals and control of men and had little meaning. The patriarchal judiciary endlessly bought, sold, and circulated this novel, aborting justice—giving mythic powers to a woman’s desire to alter and alter male sexual desire, granting her consent a duality that could be modified, and crushing at the altar of the man’s offending will.
Every war, natural disasters, displacement and migration forces us to think about the intimate human relationship with newer definitions that make the old fall by the wayside. Forced to confront each other without the traditional structures that provide safety, we fall upon each other, no pun intended – on our sexual selves – to resolve the trauma, the crisis. During the riot, I saw a boy and a girl sitting in a corner away from everyone, holding hands. When he saw me looking at them anxiously, the camp commander told me that they were neighbors. Both lost their entire family. “They both had nightmares and now they’re fine…” He paused, adding, “You understand. You know, in our camp, many couples become physically intimate and we all keep quiet about it.” I nodded, remembering the old adage that trauma is sexual and political.
As Freud famously said not so long ago, sexual desire may be the most complex and intricate emotion to untangle in humans, and in understanding it may lie our freedom from chains.
“My desire is mine. I can’t put it down as you do yourself.” Navetta explained to Herrich in The Cure. “My desire is not a package unfolding at once as you would like to believe. For me, I don’t know what my next step will be, what I want next, is the key to my erotic imagination and being a woman.”
As we discussed further, Navita spoke about growing up as a woman in Delhi and explained how for her and her entire circle of friends, their sexuality revolves around issues of threat, safety, and protection in a worldview that every man is a predator or transformer. In one when you open up about your sexual feelings. “How do I speak of excitement, desire, and approval in such an environment?” She asked.
It is time to rethink our notions of how our gender identity is shaped and how this coercive matrix of Covid may force us to rethink it all over again. In a world bent on viewing gender identity as rooted in violence and power, it is time that we begin to search for the true meanings of desire and satisfaction in relationships.
(Dr. Rajat Mitra is a clinical psychologist).