Illustration by Yozana Magar
Written by: Babita Rai
This piece was originally translated from Khas Nepali language. You can find the original article here
Translated by: Bibhu Luitel
The story of self-censorship
‘Do women masturbate, too?’ This question that I came across on a Facebook page about four years ago bothered me a lot. Under the comment section which was crowded with men, I wrote, ‘Masturbation is normal if women are also sexually humans.’ Then I started receiving messages from strangers which weren’t easy for a teenager to handle. The questions and comments bombarded on me indicated that when a woman talks about masturbation, she is a person worthy of violence. This was probably the first time I got introduced with the violence I experience when talking about common sexual issues on social media. Fear of getting blamed stopped me from sharing the incident with anyone else. If I had the clarity that I have today, it would have been easy to handle but at that time, it was very hard for me to convince myself that I was not responsible for the abuse.
The incident affected me so much that for some time I prohibited myself from writing openly about sex. I kept censoring my expressions for fear of having to pay a high price for speaking openly about sex. After trying for some time, I managed to overcome my own fear to some extent but the stigma attached to being liberal instead of stopping has increased. However, for me, the online space remained the most convenient place to share my daily life experiences, express dissatisfaction, resentment and express my views on issues that are forbidden in society. Not to bring some great change in the society, but to show my resistance and to advocate for my personal freedom, I have been using the online medium. Social media has been a very helpful medium available to me to express my sexual experiences, perceptions and outrage. The fallout of suppressing a woman’s only sexual expression and treating her as a person worthy of violence is not immediate. The same expression may be their last for some women. In conversations with me, most women say that they can’t open up because of the fear of consequences while using their freedom of sexual expression. Most of us sharing stories about sex, masturbation, writing openly, talking, arguing, laughing, fear of engaging in virtual sexual activity have common stories of fear, self-censorship followed by psychosocial consequences. Whether it is about the sexual harassment one has suffered or the sexual pleasure one is looking for, when a woman talks about this with courage even for once is made feel guilty. Sometimes while honestly confessing, we often admit to have participated in virtual sexual activities by hiding our identities. The reason for hiding our identity is more of a fear than choice. It can not be said that the digital ‘footprint’ we have left behind at various times may not be used as a weapon to harm any of us at any time. We have no reason to believe that men produced by this toxic structure will never engage in such activities to satiate their fragile egos. To live as a woman in this society is to fight with many fears every moment. Such fears are born out of a situation where one has to be socially ashamed of mistakes they have never committed. On one utter of the word ‘sex’, all the frustrated men in the society come sliding into our private chat boxes showing their real sides. Trolling in some media, words used for character assassination are there. On top of that are the accusations from family, relatives, and friends that weaken our morale.
Virtual sex and insecurity
With the proliferation of digital media, our lifestyles are changing dramatically, and our sexual behaviour alone can not be unaffected. In a more conservative society like ours, the role of digital media in maintaining sexual relations and contact between people has become special. A new culture of virtual sex and romance is being established, especially among the youth who have access to the internet. Various practices of such sexual behavior are becoming common. Actions such as exchanging pictures and videos of each other and expressing sexual desire have become prevalent among the youth. It is an exercise in freedom of expression but as the struggle of women to become ‘individuals’ is still not complete, many parties are here standing to interfere in their exercise of freedom. The burden of shame and dignity imposed on women’s sexuality is first and foremost forcing them to impose self-censorship on themselves. Fighting with one’s own beliefs and only opening up to some extent after some censorship does not leave room for fear of possible risks. We have seen plenty of examples of incidents where photos, videos, conversations exchanged were shared or threatened to be shared on the grounds that confidentiality had been maintained initially. We are aware of the recent example of a man publicly threatening teenager Sapna Rokka Magar who had been listed on BBC 100 women, 2020. Not only voices raised in order to demand for the arrest of the culprit, but also in support of Sapna go on to convey the hope that our society has moved a little ahead of the time of Shreesha Karki and Jessica Khadka. But the important thing here is that women who are considered ideal by a society like Sapna, can easily get support from their loved ones, but women who live openly beyond the norms of the society are far from getting it. In such cases, several attempts to defame them are made.
Disclosure of secret conversations, pictures, videos, including any sexual expression, means different things for men and women. We have seen how difficult it is for women to get out of such situation to the extent they are forced to commit suicide. As we become accustomed to digital tools and media, its presence in our sexual behavior increases, that keeps women at risk. When intimate photos and videos taken by mutual consent are illegally made public, the spotlight is on the face and character of the woman. The visibility of the male participants is not of anyone’s interest. Men do not have to face an impact as much as a woman’s family and social lives have to because he has the freedom and comfort of being a man. In such an incident, no one pays attention to the real culprit who actually should be questioned. All our attention is drawn to the question and debate of morality and immorality, and there is no indignation against the person who reveals such materials. Even in the case of legal recourse, the toll on social life can not be stopped or compensated by any law. Mutually consenting adults who take pictures and videos of sexual activities should have been ashamed but one of the greatest contradictions in the society is that a person with a criminal mentality is not so ashamed of illegally disclosing the private content. In most cases, it’s men who make the secret photos, videos and conversations public. Dignity associated with women’s sexuality becomes the most convenient weapon for men and he considers it appropriate to use it to avenge, to control women, or to demonstrate their power and victory over them. Men can take such a step even if their own involvement and privacy is violated. It is because he is a man and nobody in the society questions his character and morality. It does not really affect his family, social and political life, and his relationships. When a woman sends a nude picture to another person with trust and then that person or someone else makes it public, it’s the woman who is blamed. Fear of such consequences also prevents women from engaging in virtual sexual activities. Women’s sexual behavior is under control as they are not able to express their natural desires. In the offline or physical world, the space for women’s sexual behavior is even less. The reality of shrinking virtual space is known to all. In the case of women, not just their family and social relations change, but they can also be attacked for years. In this world of the internet, content that is impossible to erase completely can bring the same pain again. As the question of a woman’s sexuality and dignity is not limited to the individual, it can also have a negative impact on their family relationships. It is not easy to seek legal redress because our legal system is not accessible and friendly to the survivors. Once it is realized that the problem is not in the pictures and videos but the male psyche starts being questioned for making them public, the mental and social damage also starts declining. Otherwise, women will not be able to exercise their right to sexual freedom in the midst of these dreadlocks.
The meaning of expression
People are embracing digital media as an easy way to express themselves. Nowadays we can see various groups being formed on Facebook. Plenty of private groups created with only women as members. My experiences and observations on being in some of these groups have also helped me study different forms and meanings of women’s expressions. Since only women with shared interests are members, some degree of security and freedom is felt. They feel free to express their deepest personal problems, feelings, and curiosities and to give suggestions to those in need. Some women express themselves not only through sexual and reproductive health problems but also through sexual arousal, fun stories, and jokes. Screenshots of such posts with sexual content initially written in the belief that privacy will be maintained are often found being circulated in men’s groups and the family members of the women. We have come across a lot of incidents of women being abused by unknown men after their expressions went beyond the boundary of these groups, and in most of the cases they were subjected to mental torture on the news reaching their family members. After such incidents, some women can take a clear stand but most of them feel guilty and decide to control their sexual expression. In our social setup where there is no space to quench sexual curiosity, concern and enjoy jokes and stories on sex, women are trying to create their own space using digital media. They are found practicing sexual expressions through tweets, Facebook statuses, TikTok, Instagram stories, pictures or memes. But just as there is an attempt to monitor and control every activity of women in their offline lives, the same pattern is sometimes seen in the case of online activities, sometimes explicitly and sometimes in a slightly different form. As a result, they are subjected to mental torture and embarrassment from their families, relatives, and friends. The experience of not being victims of abuse, shaming or comments after each expression is rare for women who openly express their views on sex on social media. If you are not in a good frame of mind, it is risky for you to take some steps as it is more likely to be disturbed by the reaction and abuse in private and public. On social media, men sharing double meaning words, memes on masturbation and sex and jokes in their conversations is considered very common but in the case of women, they have to be concerned about these digital footprints and their impact in their current social lives to married life, career, etc. Women are deprived of even cracking jokes on sex. Some time ago when Simran Pandey’s stand-up comedy video went public on YouTube, she had to face a lot of criticism. In a society accustomed to watching and listening only to adult comedies made from the perspective of men, the scene of a female comedian trying to dismantle it could not be easily digested. As far as the web of controlling sexuality is concerned, on the one hand, it does not want to accept women as a free sexual being and on the other hand, it does not accept the complete asexuality of women. Attempts are made to make women with disabilities and those who have reached the age of puberty even more embarrassed. They are dehumanized on the basis of their disability status and age, and the intensity of control is higher. We don’t often talk about issues of ‘ageism’ and ‘ableism’ which are contributing to thickening societal restrictions.
The number of people in the newer generations having a clear idea about sexual expression, freedom and rights is increasing. Despite many negative comments, the number of women standing stronger does not seem to have decreased and it is not going to decrease for sure. It is also uncommon for women to share a sexual meme on social media, which can lead to a never ending list of questions and abuses. They must have stopped themselves thousands of times from sharing that meme. Sharing the meme might have led them being called a characterless person in gatherings and online chat rooms. Sharing a meme can be their movement. Sharing one created by others can also be a big rebellion. They may be resisting by sharing a meme on a subject they were banned from for years. Despite the fear of having dire consequences due to a sexual expression, women continue to take risks. A generation that rejects the shame which tags along with making full use of virtual sexual freedom is growing. Despite these many risks in the online space as a whole, they are claiming the right to freedom of sexual expression. They are constantly showing their middle fingers at the patriarchal system, which is firmly devoted to taking control of women’s sexuality. The sharp rise in women’s sexual expression is also a sign that sexuality confined in the claws of patriarchy is slowly fading.