A little while ago, I met a friend for lunch so we could catch up on each other's lives. As we ate, I noticed her phone lighting up constantly with calls and messages.
"Do you need to get that?" I said.
"No," she said, turning it over. "It's just this guy I'm seeing. Well, not seeing. It's a casual thing. But he doesn't seem to get that."
"Yeah," I said. "It's funny. Men love talking about being casual. I'm surprised they aren't better at it."
"It is, isn't it? It's almost like...well, in my experience, Indian men can't handle it. Deep down, they can't process the idea that a woman is capable of a perfectly casual relationship."
"That's exactly what it is," I said, sitting up straight. "Women can have sex like men. The question is, are men ready for those women?"
The phrase "having sex like a man" is commonly understood to mean "sex with no strings attached". There are no feelings involved: The sex is merely a collision of two bodies that then go their separate ways. This is, according to men, the dream.
Popular culture abounds with examples of men who make the pursuit of casual sex seem glorious: Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother, Don Draper on Mad Men, James Bond in every Bond movie. A recurring theme in these men's lives is clingy women.
In Wedding Crashers, Vince Vaughn's character seduces a woman who then attaches herself to his side. He coins the term "stage-5 clinger" to describe her.
The term became immensely popular, but it was merely a new way to phrase an old trope: that of a woman who becomes needy after sex. In the Indian context, in which dating is still a relatively new phenomenon, this trope is everywhere, to the point that men are frankly confounded if you don't "become clingy".
Once, a man straight-up said to me: "Why haven't you called me?" I said: "Well, I'm sorry if there was any confusion, but I'm not interested in dating you." He could not believe that I wasn't interested in seeing him regularly.
As a straight woman, how could I possibly have had sex without immediately falling in love?
Another man I met told me with pride that he left right after sex, without so much as a pause to cuddle.
"Otherwise they start having feelings and thinking you're their boyfriend. You have to be a bit rude to get the point across."
I asked, "Do you really think that every woman you have sex with wants to date you?"
"Well, not every woman," he said after a beat. "Not the sluts."
There is a word for Indian women who have casual relationships. Actually there are several. Slut. Whore. Randi.
These are the words used by men who are confused that a woman didn't call them after sex.
The words men use to describe women who do call are: clingy, crazy, needy. There is no way to avoid shaming. All you do is get to choose the kind of shaming you are subjected to.
I recently returned to India after 10 years abroad, and I assumed my dating life would be much the same as it had been in Boston. I dated several men. I spoke and tweeted freely about being on Tinder, and I didn't care if I was seen kissing someone at a Delhi bar. I thought it entirely normal in the upper-middle-class milieu I was in.
After all, we were the Friends generation.
It was entirely normal to me to have brunch with my girlfriends and discuss – à la Sex and the City – our sex lives. Women desiring sex was simply a fact of life, unremarkable.
Psychologist Terri D. Conley of the University of Michigan demonstrated in a study that women were just as inclined toward casual sex as men.
What prevented them from having as much sex as men was not desire, but the stigma thereof – the sexual double standard, which India is certainly no stranger to.
The men who were texting me and my friends begging for nude pictures were also discussing us in the group chat with their friends. They bragged about how their girlfriends had to go buy the morning-after pill because they insisted on not using condoms. They said things like "She wears the sluttiest skirts", as if they were in a village where they had never been exposed to a modern woman and her legs.
The hypocrisy of it was both stunning and sad. I looked at them and I saw not men, but confused boys who had been exposed to conflicting cultural messages about women.
They all boasted of how much they respected women, but they had missed the first and most fundamental rule of respect: Women are human beings just like everybody else. Treat us accordingly.
In movies, the man who has had a one-night stand is immediately identifiable.
He wakes up, the picture of nonchalance. He lights a cigarette, shrugs out of bed. He waves goodbye to the young woman he doesn't know. "Bye, sweetheart, whatever your name is." He calls another woman as soon as she's gone. This is the eternal bachelor, the man we are supposed to envy and admire.
In movies, the woman who has had a one-night stand is immediately identifiable.
The camera pans over her body, crumpled white sheets lit by the unforgiving day. She slips out of bed and tiptoes to the bathroom, careful not to wake anyone. She stares at her face in the mirror, and her expression is clearly one of regret. What have I done, she seems to be asking. This is the woman we are meant to pity.
Casual sex isn't necessarily an easy thing to negotiate, no matter your gender or orientation. There are many delicate, unspoken questions that surround the act of sex between two people. Is it just a one-night stand? Are we friends with benefits? Are we dating now? Do I have feelings? Do you?
As adults, we have learnt to treat other people politely in a variety of scenarios, but casual sex is one place where we rarely exercise our empathy. Especially toward women who have casual sex, who deserve to be treated as something other than freaks or anomalies.
Gentlemen, free your minds of all preconceived notions about Indian women. Forget all the labels you grew up hearing your boys use. Treat this as if it's something brand new in your experience. Don't assume that she can't handle anything casual. Don't assume that she wants something serious. Don't be afraid that if you spoon with her for 10 seconds, she'll schedule your shaadi the next day.
Don't get weird after you have sex with her. I know you think that it's women who make it weird. I assure you that men are very capable of making things weird.
If you would like to see her again, ask her if she feels the same way. If you see her out in public after the dirty deed, say hi gracefully. We are all adults here.
Most importantly, treat her with respect. This is somebody who chose to have sex with you. Don't shame her for it, unless sex with you is a shameful act.