Sexual Autonomy of Married Women in India
In this patriarchal setup wherein, men assert dominance in all spheres of life, you would not be surprised to know that for most married women in India, getting access to any form of autonomy in taking decisions about their sexual activity and reproductive choices continues to remain a far-fetched dream.
What Does Sexual Autonomy Entail?
In the simplest sense, sexual autonomy of women emphasises their role in decisions relating to when, with whom, and how sexual relations are practised. It also includes the idea that women must have the freedom to decide their sexual relations both within and outside of wedlock. Sexual autonomy could take the form of demanding the use of contraception, refusing to engage is both risky or non-risky sexual relations, among others.
Grasping the concept of sexual autonomy is becoming even more important in recent times with discourses around marital rape coming into the limelight every now and then. In 2022, unfortunately, India remains one of the 32 countries where it is not a crime for a man to rape a woman—so long as they are married. Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) considers forced sex in marriages as a crime only when the wife is below age 15. Thus, marital rape is not a criminal offense under the IPC. This is done to protect the “conjugal rights” of a husband. This is based on the notion that upon marriage, a woman surrenders her agency to her husband, including when it came to consent for sexual intercourse. However, women after marriage, DO NOT pledge their sexual autonomy to their husband, and they cannot be deprived of their choice to have consensual sex.
Sexual Autonomy, A Holistic Perspective
When you read the phrase “sexual autonomy of married women,” what comes to your mind? Do you think that absence of sexual autonomy is restricted to intimate partner violence (IPV), which includes physical violence because of issues relating to sex or sexual violence? It is important to understand that in addition to marital rape and sexual violence, which are extreme forms of lack of sexual autonomy, married women are also subject to subtler or more indirect forms of sexual constraints. An Indian study by Nanda (2013) found that married women considered sexual and reproductive decisions such as when the couple would have sex and who made decisions about using contraception as indicating women’s autonomy, which is the bare minimum conceptualization of sexual autonomy for women.
The taboo around women’s sexuality denudes them of the space to express their sexual desires that go beyond the purpose of procreation, which is even truer for married women. Not to mention, the family and society’s moral judgements about a women’s character for indulgence in sexual activity are solely dependent on the marital status of a woman. While unmarried women are actively discouraged and castigated for being sexually active, as soon as your honorific changes from Miss to Mrs, suddenly the status of your sexual activity changes. Your sexual activity now becomes something that is actively encouraged the society, for the sole purpose of child bearing. This irony is baffling to say the least.
It is an unfortunate state of affairs that in some demographic and health surveys, while constructing an index of autonomy, indicators like “is a husband justified in hitting or beating his wife if she refuses to have sex with him” were included. This just reinforces the discourse around considering issues like domestic and sexual violence and marital rape as subject to situational factors, instead of outrightly outlawing these forms of violence and treating them as heinous crimes, which are an absolute violation to human right and everything that humanity stands for. Remember, under no circumstance can we justify or explain marital rape or violence. This is not up for debate or discussion.
In addition to sexual liberation purposes, women in heterosexual marriages should also have a right to refuse sex if the husband has a sexually transmitted disease. They should be in a position to negotiate and mutually decide on safe sex practices to prevent STDs and STIs. However, according to the Hindu Marriage Act, denial of sexual intercourse for no specific reason has been construed as mental cruelty. Such inaction, therefore, has been held to be a ground for divorce under the law. This not only deprives women of their sexual autonomy in marriages but is an outright breach of human rights. This is especially true because, in India, marriage allows sexual intercourse to man as a matter of entitlement. Furthermore, laws exempting marital rape only reinforce this notion and instead of protecting women who are in a vulnerable position, further add to their vulnerability.
Sexual autonomy is an important indicator of women’s empowerment and liberation in society. In fact, the sexual autonomy of everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, should be a basic human right. Everyone should have the liberty to express their desires in a consensual manner, and choose when, how and whom to practice sexual relations with. It is high time we stop debating the so-called contentious topic of marital rape, and start regarding it as a crime.
Cover Illustration: Youth Ki Awaaz