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Lesbian women and mental health

Snr By Dr Pulkit Sharma , Expert Content / Jan 14, 2013
Lesbian women and mental health

In an Indian society where conventional female sexuality is still a taboo, it is all the more difficult for lesbian women to think about, accept and express their sexuality, alarms Dr Pulkit.

lesbian womenSonal’s parents had discovered a few days ago that she was in a relationship with one of her female classmates. They got very angry and her brother beat her up. She was labeled a pervert, whore, immoral and mentally insane by the family. They seemed to have no memory of her total personality but her sexuality identity troubled them. They got her for counseling and insisted that she should be put on aversion therapy. They wanted her to receive electric shocks to get rid of her lesbian desire. When told that we would not do that but give Sonal an empathic and supportive atmosphere where she could explore her sexuality better and come to terms with it whether lesbian sexuality, heterosexuality or bisexuality, her parents got agitated. They argued that it was against the sanctity of Indian culture to even think about homosexuality and bisexuality.


Sonal shared that since adolescence she felt attracted only to women and not men and took seven years to accept her lesbian desire. After that she entered into a relationship with her close friend. Both loved each other and wanted to be together as a couple. However, life became hell when her parents discovered this. She was abused and beaten in front of the large extended family, even her younger cousins rebuked her and she felt guilty and humiliated. Suicidal thoughts often passed her mind and she saw no point in living. She felt very angry toward her family for hurting her but at the same time felt guilty of hurting them. Her sexuality seemed to have become her worst enemy due to the prevalent socio-cultural biases.


While many Indian women are forced to live a marginal existence in the male-dominated Indian society where they cannot even think about and fulfill their wishes, needs and rights; it is a ‘double trauma’ for lesbian women, firstly they experience marginalization because they are women and secondly they are pushed further into the background as they are lesbians.

In a society like India where conventional female sexuality is still a taboo, it is all the more difficult for lesbian women to think about, accept and express their sexuality. Many lesbian women find it almost impossible to be open about their sexual orientation. For lesbian women, acceptance and expression of their sexual orientation is tantamount to a catastrophe. It brings with it the withdrawal of love from friends and family, the devaluation by the family and society and a resultant sense of loneliness. The choice is never an easy one, either they have to suppress their sexual orientation and superficially identify with the conventional sexuality or they have to risk everything for authentic expression of their sexuality. Both the choices have inevitable losses. On one hand they may feel self-hatred and frustration that they are unable to stand for what they feel and want while on the other hand they may feel guilty that by going for what they wanted they have hurt their loved ones and brought shame to them.


Cultural change and lesbian desire

Many people believe that lesbian sexual desire is alien to the ‘sacred Indian culture’ and a ‘western disease.’ This is a false belief. Same-sex relationships were very much present in the Indian culture right from the ancient to medieval times but these relationships developed secretly within the framework of heterosexual marriages. Once married to an opposite sex person, people fulfilled their same sex desires without the urge to have a lesbian identity. This arrangement worked as the traditional Indian culture idealized the sacrifice of personal needs and wishes over the familial needs and social harmony. However, in the present context, youth are experiencing a greater ambivalence and discomfort while sacrificing their personal needs and therefore the issue is not just fulfilling sexual desire in a hidden manner but accepting one’s sexual identity. The lesbian youth of today want the society to acknowledge and respect their lesbian identity rather than just being content with having a secret sexual encounter.


Development of lesbian sexual orientation

Even as young girls lesbian women may have a vague sense of feeling out of place and different from other girls. It is usually during adolescence or young adulthood that they recognize that their sexual orientation is different. Quite a few girls are extremely scared and depressed due to this discovery and they may decide to simply abstain from developing any sexual relationships. Others may start fulfilling their sexual urges secretively, hiding it from close friends and family members as they fear rejection.

Though it is a common stereotype that lesbian women are more masculine or ‘male-like’, lesbian women are quite different from one another in terms of their gender traits. There are lesbian women who have feminine traits and enjoy female identity and appearance and there are also lesbian women who have masculine traits and are boyish. Lesbianism represents a wish to develop intimate relationships with the person of same sex and has little to do with one’s comfort level and satisfaction with gender identity i.e. how one identifies or does not identify with one’s biological sex.

Many lesbians who come out open about their sexual orientation have to face violence and neglect at home and in their close circle. This experience damages their self-esteem and they may start hating their total self and not just sexual orientation. This leads to a gamut of mental health problems and a huge risk of suicide.


Lesbian relationships

There are some differences between heterosexual and lesbian love relationships. Firstly, in quite a few lesbian relationships sex plays a minor role but it is the emotional intimacy and nurturance that these women seek with one another. This is obviously not to say that there is no sexual attraction but that emotional intimacy is the foremost priority. Lesbian women develop extremely strong attachments and fear separateness and abandonment more than heterosexual relationships. This could represent a combination of internal need to merge with another person and societal denial of lesbian relationships. If the relationship ends at any point it is extremely traumatic for lesbian women, they feel as if everything is gone forever.

Just like women with conventional sexuality, lesbians also wish to form long-term relationships for love, support and fulfillment for sexual desire. However as these relationships are not sanctioned by the Indian society it becomes a challenge for lesbian women to fulfill their basic relational and sexual needs. Many people biased against lesbian relationships feel that these women are pathological and perverted and therefore they have multiple relationships. The short-term multiple relationships common among lesbians are formed due to the cultural pressures and are not a matter of choice for these women. As a majority of women in India continue to be financially and emotionally dependent on family, lesbians do not feel strong enough to openly seek, nurture and remain in a same sex relationship. Usually, lesbian women give in to the demand of a heterosexual marriage. Once in marriage they either try harder to suppress their sexuality or to have secret sexual encounters. This leads to feelings of either shame or guilt. With both the choices, they feel frustrated and inauthentic. They feel that they are living a false existence. Many feel depressed, irritable or a vague sense of vacuum in their life.


People close to lesbians even if they do not approve of their sexuality, should view them with empathy as ‘whole persons’ rather than focusing exclusively on their sexual orientation. This would give them a supportive and reassuring atmosphere to negotiate their conflicts. Lesbian girls and women should explore their sexual orientation until it gets consolidated. They should seek out an understanding and supportive environment where this exploration is possible. After that, they should carefully evaluate the choice of living out their sexuality versus hiding it under cover and then decide on appropriate course of action. Doing things in an impulsive manner can be damaging to their self-esteem. Obviously it is a lot easier said than done.


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