For Marianna – a 29-year-old, high-school teacher who lives in Mumbai’s Dharavi, one of the world’s largest slums and also one of the most densely populated spaces in the world – each time she was able to have sex appeared to be a miracle in itself.
Aside from the very real issue of physical space, there were several seen and unseen factors that had to be taken into consideration before she could think of being intimate with her partner. Marianne asked VICE to use just her first name so she could reveal intimate details without having people she know find out about it.
“I remember falling in love with my neighbour when I was 20,” she told VICE. “It goes without saying that neither of us could afford a room, so we had to make do with brushing against each other on the street or holding hands.”
Marianna believes that when one doesn’t have an air-conditioned room or the luxury of privacy, the need for intimacy becomes more acute, which can make sex feel more special. You have no choice but to find creative ways to have sex, and you can’t waste time cribbing about how some people have it easier than you.
Our attitudes towards being intimate in shared spaces and the ways in which we navigate those spaces are anything but uniform. Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski reported how the Trobriand Islanders (on the east coast of New Guinea) did not shy away from having sex with their children around. If the child unintentionally interrupted their parents’ lovemaking, he or she “would merely be scolded and told to cover its head with a mat.”
On the other hand, the Huron tribe in the Great Lakes region of North America consummate their marriage “not in the dwellings but in the surrounding woodlands.” In the Bison-Horn Maria tribe of central India, I had reported for VICE how intimacy and the idea of spaces take on a progressive and institutionalised hue in the ghotul system — a youth dormitory where unmarried adolescent boys and girls gather after dusk, away from their parents, to socialise, sing, dance, and have sex.
According to intimacy coach Pallavi Barnwal, the idea of physical space in the context of sexual intimacy is complicated because most Asians are raised with the approach that “restraint,” particularly when it comes to sex, is a virtue.
“We are constantly told, especially women, that we need to control our urges – it could even be the urge to shop or to watch television,” she said. “We are made to feel guilty about our desires, and so we don’t view or design our spaces to accommodate [sexual] intimacy, to begin with.”
Recently, Barnwal visited villages in northern India where parents slept in the same space as their children – this was the norm and not the exception. The same holds true in urban spaces as well, specifically in low-income households where space is at a premium.
“There is an understanding that parents sleeping in the same room as their children, or [even in] the same bed, is the norm,” Barnwal said. “I’ve had clients who have told me that it’s no big deal because sex is [anyway] just a 15-minute activity that needs no special arrangement or a delineated, private space. So, we keep de-prioritising [sexual] intimacy every day.”
She added that in such cases, it’s usually women who are at a disadvantage as men can more easily orgasm through sexual penetration, but women take longer to orgasm in partnered sex.
Mrinalini, a 38-year-old homemaker based in the city of Jamshedpur in central India, said that her house is divided by plastic curtains into three spaces: the single washroom, the kitchen, and the space where she sleeps with her husband – barely inches away from her mother-in-law.
“The desire to just cuddle in peace is sometimes all the motivation for me and my husband to work harder towards moving to a bigger house,” she said. “I don’t even remember the last time we held each other’s hands and slept because a claustrophobic space simply diminishes all desire.”
For the queer community, the idea of a safe, physical space where they can sexually engage takes on a different hue. In conservative societies, such spaces are fraught with tension, with the almost palpable threat of a homophobic mob looming. In a 2021 VICE story, Indian queer activist Aditya Tiwari wrote about his experiences finding love and intimacy in public parks — away from the judgement and risk at home. Come twilight and these public parks are transformed into inclusive spaces of intimacy, where queer and straight-passing married men peacefully coexist.
“On queer dating apps, particularly in cities, the first question anyone will ask is if you have a ‘place’, and that dictates your privilege even within the community,” said Tiwari. “In small towns, to have your own ‘place’ is almost impossible and in big cities, you have to be very rich to own private space. This gives you the authority to even abuse your position of power because it’s your ground and you set the rules of the game to favour you, knowing full well that there is only so much your queer hookup can do.”
Karishma Swarup, a sexuality educator, told VICE that scoffing at couples making out in public parks or movie theatres or on beaches behind sun-baked rocks is something only a privileged person is likely to do. In many ways, when someone rolls their eyes at these couples and tells them to “get a room,” it’s often lost on them that many can’t – quite literally.
“There is just so much stigma associated with sex that you cannot have it anywhere – not in parks, not in theatres, and not even in your own home,” she said. “I’ve [met] many couples living in shared spaces who [use the] bathroom to have sex or wait for everyone [in the house] to fall asleep.”
Swarup said that this need to be clandestine about sex, stemming from the stigma attached to it, can sometimes manifest in the discrete packaging of sex toys (passed off as neck massagers and vibrators) as well as menstrual products such as sanitary pads and tampons being packed in newspaper. However, the psychological toll of always being up against a wall when you want to have sex can be profound.
“When you are in a shared space, surrounded by people and worried that someone will ‘catch’ you, it has a deep effect on your ability to orgasm,” said Swarup. “After all, having sex has a lot to do with one’s mental perception of freedom, too. If you are a married couple, have that hard talk with your parents about boundaries, about having your own time, or go on short vacations if you can. Find the window [of opportunity], start small, and incrementally push the boundaries.”
Barnwal, the intimacy coach, cited the example of a couple living by the railway tracks in a confined house shared with their extended family, with only a semi-transparent curtain to demarcate their sleeping space.
“They wanted to moan and go all out, but they couldn’t because they had no privacy,” she said. The couple did, however, find a way to express their pleasure. “They timed their orgasms to whenever a passenger train passed by. That one-minute window was all they had.”