Sex and the Indian City

Whether or not the country was ready for it, India received a lesson in sex education, en masse, on November 27, 2004. That day, every major newspaper, television station and online news site carried the story of a young teenage couple from Delhi. The two—students at a prestigious Delhi school—had videotaped themselves having oral sex. The boy circulated the video among his friends allegedly as a bid for popularity, but within a few days it had made its way across India via a common cell phone media service. Not only were the students’ faces easily identifiable in the video, they were in their school uniform with the school’s logo clearly visible on the girl’s shirt. Both were promptly expelled, their families’ subject to social ostracism, and the boy was slapped with a myriad of criminal charges including voyeurism.

Sign for a sex clinic in Mumbai, India. (CreativeCommons License)

With vice, swanky kids, media attention and court room suspense, the story had all the makings of good drama, and the country followed it closely for months. But, more than anything else, the story underscored a reality many Indians didn’t want to face. The girl involved, after all, had nonchalantly asked her principal, “Who doesn’t do it? Haven’t you done it?”

India did not know how to answer, and the question seemed to challenge long-held traditional beliefs about sex and its place in society. But regardless of people’s personal beliefs about sex, the couple’s video made clear that, in India today, thoughts are changing. Liberalized and globalized, younger generations are tending towards a more open, casual attitude about sex, with this nowhere truer than in India’s fast-paced, growing cities. Young urbanites are more promiscuous than ever before.

But having sex is different from knowing about sex, and this is the crisis in which the Indian youth currently finds itself. Most teenagers lack basic knowledge about STDs, protection and contraception, and increasing numbers of teen pregnancy cases are reported each year. According to a 2006 Indian Health Bureau report, 78 percent of Indians below the age of 20 do not know about safe sex. Compare this to the estimate by the same report that 54 percent are sexually active, and the implications are clear: a lot of teenagers are having sex without knowing what they should about it.

This has evoked great public criticism of the central government’s policies—or lack thereof—regarding sex education. The more liberal elements of Indian society, such as NGOs and the media, blame inadequate sex education in state-sponsored curricula and health policies. The more conservative and more populous elements deny the need for such education at all. They contend that this sort of education would be interpreted as an implicit license to be sexually active, a repugnant idea to some of the most fundamental elements of Indian society.

The debate has left schools a battleground in the politics of sex. At issue isn’t just inadequate education, but Indian society’s refusal to acknowledge that teenagers are sexually active at all. Public health interests demand that the government do something, but many of the older generation, especially parents, are still reluctant to admit what a cell phone video made clear: Indian teenagers are having sex.

Changing Values: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

India today is in the midst of a rapid metamorphosis that envelops every aspect of the nation’s identity. The much-discussed epicenter is India’s rapid economic growth. Not too long ago, India was regarded as an exotic land of snake-charmers, spices, overpopulation and religious strife. Now it is touted to become a future world leader and an example for other developing countries.

Yet these economic changes have spurred difficult cultural changes for India, the human element of which has gone largely unnoticed. As Yale Professor Geetanjali Chanda explained: “The influx of foreign companies in the country brings more than just employment opportunities and economic benefits to the country. They bring with them a certain attitude and a mindset that promotes liberalism and, among other things, openness about sexuality.” But these foreign values regarding sexual liberalism have not spread through Indian society evenly, and cultural divisions have developed along geographical and generational lines. India’s traditional norms have been most displaced by foreign values in the urban centers and among the youth.

One example is Prerna Kotwal, a 25-year-old businesswoman currently working at the Mumbai office of Merryl Lynch. Well-dressed in a crisp business suit, her hair highlighted in shades of caramel and her makeup immaculate, she looks like the quintessential working urban woman. Prerna, however, was not always so comfortable in the city. “Coming from a small town in central India, I was in for a huge culture shock when I first moved to Mumbai after doing my MBA.”

Prerna is a new person now, with new views on sex. “I view sex very differently than I did in my teenage years. I do not think there is anything wrong with being sexually active before marriage. After all it is a biological function—and a very fulfilling one at that,” she said matter-of-factly, completely at ease discussing her views on sexuality.

People in the cities are getting increasingly more curious about sex-related issues and, more importantly, they are willing to talk about their experiences and seek out the information they want. As Professor Chanda remarked, “From cooking the perfect daal”—a traditional Indian dish—“to pleasing your husband, magazines such as Femina have dramatically changed the issues being talked about, and clearly indicates a change in women’s attitudes towards sex.” She considers the Indian version of Cosmopolitan to be a striking example. “The topics discussed in it are extremely bold and honest about sexual relations, experimentation and orientation.”

While sex is becoming less of a taboo subject in cities like Mumbai and Delhi, India’s strong traditionalist culture has not yet vanished. Even among the younger generation, Prerna’s views are not always shared. Divya Singh, a 19-year-old student at St. Xavier’s College, also located in Mumbai, was born and brought up in the city. Her parents do not mind her dating and most of her friends are sexually active. Yet Divya strongly believes in abstinence, as traditional Indian values dictate. As she told the Globalist: “We are, after all, Indian and sex for us should not be as casual as it is in the Western world. While I agree that it is each individual’s decision, sex is a very intimate and sacred act in India. There is something to be said about saving yourself for marriage and I have respect for girls who do that, especially today.”

Other urban women, especially from the older generation, have even more radical views on the issue. Geeta Goswami, a homemaker from Delhi, is one such woman. Saree-clad and bejeweled, her opulence and high social status is as clear as her conservative stance. As she put it: “In our culture, sex is a sacred act between husband and his wife; it is not a reduced to a pleasure seeking activity. What these youngsters do not realize is that we are Indian, not American, and once an Indian girl has lost her virginity, she has lost her worth.”

The Great Unknown

As the changing trends in sexuality become more apparent, so does the prevailing ignorance among the youth. Despite growing liberal attitudes, young people today still largely rely on elder siblings and friends for knowledge, as well as through observation and experience. These sources of information are usually insufficient and confusing, generally giving sex an aura of shame and making people extremely hesitant to discuss it. This is exactly what occurs in most rural areas, where most of India’s population still lives. Thus the complexity of the issue cannot be appreciated without understanding the situation in villages where most traditional practices, including the refusal to discuss sex, can be traced back to.

In most rural areas, the existing ignorance is astonishing, especially in the context of the 21st century. As Dr. Kamla Prasad, the founder of Prernaa, an NGO that works with rural women on sex related issues in India explained, “Most rural women I have encountered know little more about sex than the act of penetration.”

She added: “The men are generally not much better off. They are extremely uncomfortable discussing sex with their husbands and are often reprimanded severely for suggesting the use of contraception.”

Perhaps even more serious are concerns about sexually transmitted diseases. “Most people are completely unaware of STDs, though the knowledge of HIV is now spreading. Even if the women suspect something is wrong, they almost never mention it for fear of being ostracized by their husbands and society,” Dr. Prasad said.

While Dr. Prasad may not encounter the same reluctance to talk about sex-related issues with the urban youth, she claims that ignorance is as much a problem for them as it is for rural women, even as, paradoxically, the age at which teens begin to have sex continues to drop. A debate is now brewing about just how India should react. The idea that most teenagers are having sex is abhorrent for many and is simply ignored as a result.

An End to Innocence

Is it true that a majority of Indian teenagers having sex? While the parents of most might vehemently claim that their children do not engage in such taboo activities, statistics tell another story. According to the Indian Health Service, reported teenage pregnancies have increased ten percent each year while approximately 73 percent of people below the age of 20 in urban centers are estimated to be sexually active. According to Dr. Sharana Mansukhani, a gynecologist who has been practicing in Mumbai for more than 35 years, “Five to seven percent of all abortions are for teenage pregnancies, some of them as young as 13, and a decade back the numbers were more like one or two in every thousand.”

Most Indian parents are unwilling to accept this trend. Dr. Mansukhani remarked: “The girls generally come with their boyfriends or friends but almost never with their parents. This is of course an Indian parent’s worst nightmare and unless it happens to their children, they delude themselves into thinking that it is a phenomenon that does not concern them.”

The older generation’s self-imposed ignorance translates into a very hazardous ignorance for their children. Parents hesitate to discuss sex and related health concerns, hoping that keeping their children in the dark will prevent them from having sex. The unfortunate consequence is that Indian youth gain their sex education from unreliable sources, and end up practicing neither abstinence nor safe sex.

The solution is clearly more sex education, but the question is from who? Some feel that it is the parent’s choice whether to inform their children about sex and also at which age they choose to do this, much like censoring television and other adult content. However, the generational difference in values and upbringings has meant that many parents are very uncomfortable broaching the subject with their children.

The responsibility thus falls upon the state. The central government recognizes the urgent need to address this problem, and bi-weekly sex education was made mandatory in public schools. Referring to this plan, Health Minister Ambumani Ramadoss declared, “We are not taking up sex education in a blatant manner but in a subtle way…we have 55% of our population that falls in the reproductive age, and we have to create awareness among them.”

Despite the Health Minister’s progressive views, a majority of India’s 29 states and seven federal administered regions have banned or are considering bans on required sex education. Many others have failed to implement it in the first place. Some state the graphic and inappropriate nature of the sex education materials as reasons, while other government officials blatantly refuse because they believe that such knowledge will lead to increased sexual activity.

The right-wing extremist Hindu organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is one of the influential local parties in Maharashtra, India’s second most populous state, and one of the primary forces behind banning sex education in local schools. It is the same party that three years ago made international news for banning Valentine’s Day celebrations in Mumbai.

A representative of RSS, Divyajyot Madhav, explained his party’s views to the Globalist. Blaming a Western mindset behind the movement for sex education, he said: “Giving sex education on the pretext that India has a large number of AIDS patients is illogical. Just because children these days are getting increasingly promiscuous does not mean that we should further encourage them down this road by giving them this kind of information.”

He added more emphatically, “Sex education implies a tacit agreement that we are OK with them having sex at 13 or 14 years of age! Our generation never received sex education and we turned out fine, what is so special about kids today?”

The response to Madhav’s conservative stance comes mainly from India’s academia and NGOs.  Meera Isaacs, the principal of Cathedral and John Connon School in Mumbai, is an example. According to her, “It is true that growing up we did not know about sex till a much later age, but we did not have to deal with sex the way children have to these days.”

Isaacs recognizes that India’s youngest generations simply cannot escape the sex-laden media that come at them from every angel. “For them, today sex is everywhere, in advertisements, movies and definitely all over the internet.” Pretending sex does not exist is not an option. As she said, “There is a good chance that at least some of their peers are sexually active, according to the general feedback we receive from the sex talks that we conduct starting at the middle school level. Further, HIV is a huge concern today, whereas a few decades back it did not even exist in India!”

Sex education, however, needs to be carefully tailored to the audience. Many of their past measures, despite the Health Minister’s claim of “subtlety” have been completely inappropriate and insensitive to the needs of the viewership. The reading material published for sex education classes has been extremely graphic and, in most states, gave fodder to the opposition. The problem has further been compounded by the fact that teachers are often untrained and uncomfortable with the subject. Children, too, have proven fearful of asking questions.

Lessons have been learned from these first, if extreme, attempts at sex education, as Isaacs can attest. “We need to talk about these things, not order them to memorize an abridged version of the Kama Sutra. We will end up traumatizing, not educating them.”

Such booklets have eventually been withdrawn, but, despite promises for a better, more sensitive scheme, there has been no substitute, satisfactory or otherwise. At this point, schools and NGOs have started making isolated individual efforts for sex education, but there exists no centralized government education plan to promote it. While private schools have been successful, public schools and their millions of students have not, largely due to the government’s inaction. While the politics of sex rages on, the country is still waiting to learn.

The State of Sex

The bottom line is Indian sexual values are undergoing a dramatic change. This has many serious implications for government and social policy.

The debate reflects a sea change in the attitudes of the young men and women who are the future of the nation. The debate also brings with it many painful choices and decisions as the current generation breaks away from past values and traditions. Their sexual independence often comes with a price—alienation from parents, being ostracized by society, and sometimes even STDs.

The lack of information and the nebulous reaction of the government have not helped. These people are young, some only children, and the tremendous societal pressure that comes with sex can lead them to make rash and irresponsible decisions. Since openness about sexuality is a growing phenomenon and can have serious consequences, an organized policy change is required that reflects this change.

Perhaps there is some value in the notion that this change needs to be contained as it reflects the destruction of thousand-year old values and traditions and will eventually lead to an urban Indian society that is indistinguishable from the west. Yet, as Professor Chanda said: “Culture and tradition is not something static; it grows and changes with the people of a country. I do not think that Indian culture is so weak that it will crumble in the face of such a change.”

The question therefore comes down to how the urban youth view their Indian identity. Perhaps their view is best summed up by Nalini Sharma, a third-year Mass Media student in Sophia College, “My identity as an educated, independent Indian woman is not defined solely by my views on sex. I am Indian to the core, and the fact that I do not think my future husband should expect me to be a virgin in my mid-twenties does not change this.”