Around 11.30pm, while washing her dinner plate, Sunanda M. had a sudden craving: for a warm, tight hug that would make her forget the stress and loneliness she had been battling for six months. Her roommate had moved out to stay with her boyfriend as soon as the pandemic-triggered lockdown was announced in March, leaving Sunanda alone in their rented two-bedroom apartment in Ahmedabad.
“There was just so much pent-up frustration…always thinking about life, work, parents (in another city), the virus. I wanted a release…someone to hold me, to tell me it’s going to be okay. I wanted to feel wanted, desired,” she told me over a WhatsApp call about that August night, her voice hushed. She moved back to her parents’ home in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, on 10 September.
Ten minutes after finishing the kitchen work that August night, Sunanda, an architect, grabbed her phone and did something she had never thought she would: text the person she had matched with on a dating app five hours ago, to indulge in sex chat, or sexting. “That was my first question to him. You should have seen my face while I typed it,” she laughs. For Sunanda, 27, it was a big step. She had been in a five-year relationship till late 2019. “Casual sex was never my thing, and the idea of using a dating app always felt so unnatural. But after being stuck inside day and night, I felt touch-starved.”
After a close friend repeatedly suggested she try virtual dating, even sexting, for “fun”, Sunanda gave in. Since August, she has been chatting with four-five men on two dating apps. “They know I am there only for sexting. There’s no video, no commitment; it’s the safest sex in this climate,” she says. “And it’s so liberating; I can express any desire I want. I think it has made me more aware of my needs.”
The past 10 months have shown that people have the ability to adapt to anything, even when it comes to dating and expressing sexual desire. In a year when physical touch became something to be wary of, more Indian women turned to their mobile phones to fight isolation, find love and pleasure. Dating apps such as Tinder, Bumble and Truly Madly reported a consistent spike in activity throughout 2020, with more women swiping left or right to discover the joys of slow dating—less small talk, more getting-to-know conversations—and sexting.
A spokesperson for the women-first app Bumble, which has over four million users in India, said Indian women are sending twice the number of messages on Bumble as women in the rest of the world. “More women in India are being proactive and confident to make the first move,” the representative says.
In September, a study published in the journal PLOS ONE offered, for the first time, a glimpse of how women in 191 nations were using mobile apps for sex-related purposes. It found that women in countries with greater gender inequality, including India, were less likely to have used mobile apps to find a sexual partner, but nearly four times more likely to have engaged in sending and receiving sexts. Of the 23,093 Indian women who participated in the study, 62% said they engage in sexting. Over 60% said they send text-only sext messages, and 46%, sexts as well as images, lead author Amanda Gesselman, associate director for research at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute in the US, explains on email.
“Women expressing sexual desire is nothing new; they have been doing it for centuries. It’s just that they have found a new medium to express it—their phone,” says sex therapist and counsellor Neha Bhat. “It has become a place where you have the power to control and express yourself the way you want.”
A touch of art
To capture how people shared their innermost wants and fears virtually, Mumbai-based artist Indu Harikumar started a quarantine edition of her crowdsourced art project, #NotesToMyLovers, early April on Instagram. People could mail her a kind note, a ditty, a compliment or an instruction to their current lover, former lover, multiple lovers or an imaginary lover, and she would turn it into art. The idea was to learn from each other and create a broader language of love and respect, says Harikumar, a “fan of sexting”.
The medium has also given people a new kind of vocabulary, she adds. “There are things so personal that we can’t even say to ourselves but the comfort of texting is such that we are able to express without any hesitation. Recently, a person sent me a note for the series, mentioning how she told her partner about putting on a lot of weight and he replied, ‘You look like a sculpture to me…. I can finish you in two bites.’” That’s the power of sexting, she insists. “It can give you a space to be assertive, to articulate better and to build your own world.”
It’s not just about sexting, though. One boring May afternoon, Urmi, who’s not comfortable sharing her last name, downloaded Bumble, looking for a relationship—and almost instantly found one.
“It has been six months since we have been together. I think what worked was that I could state what I was exactly looking for, and Bumble’s Relationship filter also helped. Virtual dating is about knowing exactly what your needs are.”
2020 will be the year women became certain of their needs, proclaims Jaipur’s Nisha K., a wildlife biologist. “Just like Charlotte discovered the vibrator in Sex And The City and couldn’t stop for five days straight, we found ourselves during the lockdown,” laughs the 30-year-old.
Nisha, who travels a lot, has been sexting for over two years, but the frequency has increased manifold over the past 10 months. “I am in a casual relationship right now and we regularly sext. We have blocked our calendars accordingly.”
Like Sunanda and Indu, Nisha, too, finds it liberating, “being out there without any inhibitions”. “I live with my family, but it still gets very lonely. When the lockdown started, it used to feel like I was sitting in a dark room but after I started sexting and just generally chatting with people, I realised that we were all sharing that dark room together.”
Sexting, of course, doesn’t always ward off loneliness. Nisha, for instance, often craves a hug after a session of sexting. “I think I am going to gift myself a body-sized pillow, besides a new vibrator.”
Go, look closely
Not just dating platforms, the online sex toy market too saw a rise in business this year. A report by sexual wellness platform ThatsPersonal.com shows a 65% spike in sales amid the post- lockdown phase, with over 300,000 products sold online; vibrators were the most popular product among women.
“Men are still buying more but women’s basket size has increased considerably ( ₹2,800, compared to ₹1,600 for men). Women were earlier more dependent on men in the bed but now they know they can fulfil their fantasies on their own,” says ThatsPersonal.com founder Samir Saraiya. Among the reasons for the change he lists are the power of the internet and the opening up of the world. “Pandemic, of course, has been a catalyst. But if you notice, a lot of services related to sexual pleasure are geared towards men—from online porn to magazines. It’s not that women never had desires. Popular Hindi magazines Grihshobha, Meri Saheli always had an article about sexual fantasies or needs. In 2008, I came across a survey that said women in smaller cities were using carrots and cucumbers to pleasure themselves because they didn’t have any other option. Now, they have.”
The first thing Lucknow-based interior designer Mansi J., 32, did once lockdown restrictions were eased was to buy a vibrator. “I never got it all these years because I thought it was shameful. I have wasted so many years,” she says, chuckling.
Mansi, a single mother, also discovered sexting. “I was always juggling between housework and teaching my son fractions. In between all this, I missed intimacy. One day, I saw a survey, I think it was American, which talked about the rise in sexting. I thought maybe I should try it.” She started enjoying the freedom it gave her. “I could be anyone with anybody. For once, I was calling the shots.”
It has its limits, though. She continues to use dating apps but it’s no longer fun. “I did video chats too. But I don’t want to get into the loop of casual sex, even virtually. I want to have a good, real relationship.”
That’s the problem with sexting. “After all that sense of power and freedom, it all falls flats,” says Bhat. “The thing is, this pandemic has made us introspect and realise we have been shortchanged in our relationships, whether it is in marriage, relationship or friendship. There’s a lot of awareness about living authentically and we are looking for quick solutions, which is making us lonelier, and we are not yet realising it. A national mental health crisis is upon us and we are not addressing it.”
Sunanda, who has moved her sexting timings to 11pm-2am after she moved in with her parents, too realises the imaginary worlds she creates on chats won’t end the pangs of loneliness that continue to haunt her. “At least they take my mind off this f*** all year.”