By Keerti Ravindran
My second-favourite scene from the new documentary Ask the Sexpert features the filmmaker Vaishali Sinha asking bystanders if they’ve heard of the column of the same name in the Mumbai Mirror. One woman in her 50s scrunches her face into a tight-lipped smile and steadily says no until her companion helpfully interjects, “You were saying it’s a very interesting column. The column next to that health thing?”
Most others were more forthcoming, except for one dude who pretended he didn’t know which page it’s on (“Oh! The page number just bounced into my head! I think it’s somewhere between 32 or 34!”)
Ask the Sexpert, a newspaper column where readers (mostly men) ask questions about sex and sexual health — and by extension, relationships and marriage — is clearly iconic. It’s been the subject of FIRs against Mumbai Mirror for obscenity, was compiled into a book and even turned into illustrations recently by Homegrown. Sinha’s documentary (which got rave reviews at the Jio MAMI 19th Mumbai Film Festival) takes you behind the scenes and right into the home of 93-year-old Dr Mahinder Watsa, the gynaecologist and sexologist who writes the column on page 34 of the newspaper.
Dr Watsa has been writing publicly on sex for over 40 years (he had a column in a magazine called Trend before Mumbai Mirror), but he’s still as enthusiastic about work as ever. He spends most of his time working in his airy seafront Mumbai home and — much to his children’s chagrin — when he isn’t answering questions online, he sees patients in his house. His kind-of-surly son calls these visitors shady, while Dr Watsa retorts (he admits they aren’t that close) that they are merely people requesting his advice, so he can’t turn them away.
Ask the Sexpert lets you in on these appointments, and they’re so weirdly fascinating: The patients’ body language, their questions (“Doctor, it’s normal no?”), the root causes they’re able to identify themselves (several talk about pressure at work while describing their physical ailment) and Dr Watsa’s light-hearted, non-judgemental advice. Watching Dr Watsa in action, you see how helpful he’s been to Indian men… but also, indirectly, to Indian women.
In my favourite scene, he chats with a deeply worried couple — at least the man seems deeply worried as he angles away from his wife and fidgets — while she answers Dr Watsa’s questions volubly and precisely, and talks about her husband’s total lack of interest in sex, and the fact that he never masturbates or experiences nocturnal emissions (“nightfalls”).
When Dr Watsa hears this, he gives some wonderful advice: “Don’t do intercourse if you don’t want to. You just touch her, kiss her, hug her. You can kiss each other. Can you do that?”
So simple! By recommending that they take their minds off of “successful” intercourse, and instead focus on kissing and touching each other for the sake of its own pleasure rather than as a step towards “completion”, Dr Watsa removes the expectations of penetrative sex, instead tasking couples to simply enjoy each other’s bodies. This has two great effects.
First, it takes the pressure off men to maintain a continuous erection for a sustained period.
Women often say that they need to really concentrate to achieve orgasms. After watching Ask the Sexpert, you realise men do too: Patients talk about their minds wandering for a second, making them lose their erections, after which they find themselves unable to get erect again because of the pressure to maintain it in the first place. Toxic masculinity and internalised patriarchy seem to make men take a lack of erection more personally than women. Women often blame the circumstances or their partners for their lack of mojo or lubrication, or let it pass as a normal part of sex (which is actually kind of sad). Men seem to take it as a personal indictment of their manliness, making them anxious over maintaining an erection the next time they have sex, trapping them in an endless cycle of fear and flaccidity.
Dr Watsa’s advice to focus on pleasure instead of performance — on touching and kissing rather than penetration — allows couples to engage in pleasurable sexual acts that feel good and build intimacy, with no expectation or requirement of an erection. This removes the pressure that may be stopping men from getting an erection, but if they’re still unable to get one, no one feels disappointed or displeased.
Which is the other nice thing about his advice: It nudges men towards acts that actually bring women pleasure.
Research shows that only 25 percent of women orgasm from vaginal penetration alone. Meaning the significant majority of women need sustained clitoral stimulation too. The clitoris is located outside the vagina and needs direct stimulation; the kind that penetrative intercourse simply cannot provide. By taking the spotlight away from penetrative sex, Dr Watsa encourages couples to discover other fun things and to come closer to finding acts that really bring women pleasure.
So when did penetration become the gold standard of sex? Take this man, who was so confused about the purpose of intercourse he turned vaginal penetration into an endurance sport (see clipping below):
When men complain to Dr Watsa about premature ejaculation, erectile dysfunction, lack of interest in sex, or their wives’ lack of interest in sex, his favoured answers seem to be “learn the art of foreplay” and “give your wife an orgasm first”.
Over the years, a number of questions in the column have been repeated, showing what people have been concerned about over time, but I don’t think I’ll ever tire of men being instructed to, as Dr Watsa puts it, “be a foreplay kind of guy”, or to think of their partners’ orgasm before their own.
He also frequently encourages women to make the most of their sexual agency. Most of his patients are male (although many say they were asked to meet him at their wives’ request), but he gets online questions from some women too.
He frequently tells them the gynaecologist-equivalent of “get it gurrl”: Have open conversations about sex, masturbate healthily (he tells one woman that it’s fine to masturbate with a tube of mascara, as long as the tube is clean), initiate intercourse if they want, and to demand their own orgasms.
Excitingly, Ask the Sexpert also gives us an intriguing little glimpse of Dr Watsa’s own relationship with his late wife, Promila, and it’s a little surprising. He speaks about how he misses her, regrets not spending more time with her, and how he wishes he had spent more weekends at home instead of always attending conferences. He also says that he never really discussed the details of the sexual aspects of his work with her. Huh, who’d’ve thought?
Still, it makes me happy to think that for the past 40 years, there’s been one man quietly infusing a part of the country with progressive feminist thoughts on sex, agency and sexual pleasure. As you can see from the opening of Ask the Sexpert, for many kids growing up, especially a decade or two ago, this column is one of their primary sources of knowledge about sex. And it’s great that people are learning about sex from a no-nonsense nonagenarian doctor who thinks female pleasure and orgasms need to be discussed in the newspapers, who encourages you to be a “foreplay kinda guy”, and sees nothing wrong in women masturbating with a clean mascara tube.
Co-published with Firstpost.