Paranoia about having intercourse is not uncommon in a culture that places sex on a pedestal, and condemns premarital sex

Chanda Sharma* is a 31-year-old virgin. She’s been dating a 34-year-old man for the past one year and despite wanting to consummate the relationship, hasn’t been able to do so. The moment he puts on the condom, she panics. “My body shuts down. I go dry within seconds,” says the software engineer. “I try to relax, but I just tighten down there.”

After dozens of wasted condoms, bouts of crying and the guilt of putting her boyfriend through such anti-climatic episodes, Sharma figured that her paranoia wouldn’t just simply vanish. She saw a counsellor earlier this year, and realised that her fears stemmed from the age-old anxiety about giving up her virginity to a guy who might leave or that their relationship may not lead to marriage.

“Sex before marriage is not a big deal,” she clarifies. “But on a subconscious level, this fear (about losing my virginity to someone who’d leave) had become so innate that my body reacted by shutting down.” This was the case even in her previous relationships and she would avoid intimacy.

Sharma is one of those women for whom the very thought of intercourse induces paranoia to such an extent that they end up remaining virgins even if they’d rather not. And while fear of rejection after sex is a major factor, the other underlying reasons are religious, cultural or emotional.

“My mom drilled into me that only with the blessings of god can we give our body to a man,” says Rita Mathias*. The 30-year-old investment banker didn’t have sex until a week after her marriage because Catholic upbringing equates pre-martial sex with sin. “Sex is still a big deal for me.”

Pointing to what Andrea Dworkin wrote in her 1987 feminist work, Intercourse: “Violation is a synonym for intercourse,” Mumbai-based psychologist Suchismita Bose says that the physical nature of the act itself can seem like violation. “Women are not allowed to think about their sexual desires. Indian culture stresses on keeping the virginity intact for the husband,” says Bose. “The idea of being sexual doesn’t comply with being a wife. Even if women are aware of their sexual desires, they often find it difficult to communicate them.”

Trauma and shock
For Megha Choudhary*, coming to Mumbai for higher education after living a cloistered life in the Middle East, was a culture shock. Commuting brought with it the violation of being felt up, flashed at, molested when she was in grade 12 and regular sightings of the male genital on railway tracks. “The sheer size of the penis…the thought of it being thrust into me freaked me out. Whenever a lover expressed interest in having sex, I’d back off,” says the 29-year-old freelance writer. It took her a year of dating her boyfriend before she was able to get intimate with him five years ago. “It just happened one day, and it felt right,” she says of the man who is now her husband.

Being molested earlier, says Bose, is a big reason that comes in the way of women’s sexual experiences. “The body has memories and identifies the same touch even years later,” says Bose. Sex therapist and sexologist Dr Uttam Dave adds. “A woman may think that if she enjoys sex (with the partner of choice) would mean that she enjoyed the abuse. So it is imperative for her to be re-educated. There has to be an understanding that it (the molestation) was a one-off incident and that this (intercourse with a partner) is a completely different person, one who respects her body.”

Fix the fear
In extreme cases, overcoming such fear of sex may require medical intervention, says Dr Dave. Especially if it’s Vaginismus, in which vaginal muscles reflexively tighten such that penetration becomes painful. Intervention involves weeks-long therapy using phallic, glass dilators meant to be inserted in the vagina at pre-decided intervals till the woman is comfortable with the idea of intercourse. Breathing techniques or Kegel exercises to relax vaginal muscles offer another remedy. “First understand the origin of the fears. Explore your body, know and communicate what you want, and accept that you can be a sexual being,” advises Bose.

Cultural conditioning around sex, though, involves challenging cures. Instead of painting sex as a taboo, parents can talk about the perils of unsafe or early sex. “No child wants to get into trouble. You might stop the child from having sex today but the fear can lead to performance anxiety,” says Bose. “No parent goes back to their child saying, ‘Erase whatever I told you about sex to scare you when you were a teen.’ So why instil that in the first place?”

*Names changed to protect identity