India’s Sexual Revolution
Tehelka has an outstanding piece in this week’s issue about the hyper-sexualization of Indian culture which you should definitely read. In a land where only one generation ago arranged marriages were the norm and pre-marital abstinence a steel command, India’s youth have undergone a startling shift in accepted mores.
At this moment thousands of Indian parents are uneasily wondering whether they really want to know what is going on. Mini’s parents still don’t know how to deal with what they found out. Mini is a dainty, extremely pretty 14-year-old. When she was 12, her first boyfriend and she were both eager to claim BTDT (Been There, Done That) about oral sex. One evening at home alone, they tried it out, anticipating a definite move up the social ladder. Sure enough, the next day at school her friends congratulated her even while making faces at the slight grossness in ‘going down’ on a boy.
Dr Prakash Kothari, founder of the World Association For Sexual Health, a man familiar to India through his ubiquitous sex columns, says that one reason children are sexually active earlier is because better nutrition leads to earlier puberty. He says of his new, young clients: “Thirty years ago, only married couples came in looking for advice on safe sex and contraceptives. Today, young girls and boys walk in and ask about sex toys and tonics. Some even ask us if being high on LSD andcharas will enhance their sexual experience.”
Tehelka gets major points for noting the influence of American television:
Alisha describes the extent of OC role-play in her circle: Alisha’s slender best friend was considered to be like rail-thin Marissa from the show. Alisha, who used to be plump until recently, was automatically typecast as Marissa’s best friend Summer since the girls considered Summer chubby. (Look up Rachel Bilson, the waifish actress who plays Summer, and decide for yourself whether our kids are gripped with hatred for their bodies.) The identification with these shows is so close that Alisha’s best friend decided to “do it” with her boyfriend after OC’s lead couple, Ryan and Marissa, did it for the first time. The pressure then began for Alisha (aka best friend Summer) to also ‘pop the cherry’. All this is recounted without any sense of its bizarreness.
But fails to take into account what I believe to be a major factor in this trend: the ever-rising age of marriage. 50 years ago this kind of blatant promiscuity may have been uncommon, but teenage sex was practiced and widespread. Except the teenagers tended to be married. I have no statistics on hand, but my grandmother, to take the most parochial example, was married and had her first child by age 16. Mahatma Gandhi, in fact, was married as an infant and first discovered sex at age 13. No one thought very much of it at the time.
Today, among the upper classes, women and men are generally expected to marry in their mid-to-late twenties, respectively. But they are also expected to keep to the same traditions as their parents’ generation, including arranged marriages and strict abstinence. A child that reaches sexual maturity at age 14-16 but is expected to wait a full decade before “popping the cherry” (as the vulgar expression goes), will almost inevitably engage in promiscuity at some point.
The average age of marriage has gone up across the socioeconomic spectrum, but nowhere has the trend been as acute as among the upper-classes. I think it is telling that they are who comprise most of the anecdotes for the Tehelka piece. Among the middle and lower classes (where the average age dips down to the early 20s to late teens), I should imagine one would find this sort of thing quite a bit less.
I don’t want to make too much of this point, because I think the rise of American television in India is the real culprit, as Tehelka mentions. But I want to also point out the conspiracy of silence that still surrounds sexual matters in Indian culture. Most Indian children would be horrified to discuss these issues with their parents, and their parents no less so. It’s the ultimate taboo. In my own experience, my parents didn’t speak a word of it to me – they left that for the school.
But sex education is almost nonexistent in India, and many states have actually banned teaching sex education in schools. The Internet is a dirty place, as you know, and the television shows these children watch (Tehelka mentions The OC and Gossip Girl) contain scenes that would be impossible for a child to understand. With all adults refusing to speak of it, it is natural they should get a warped perception.
However despite all these rationalizations, this is a very disturbing trend in Indian society, and though Tehelka must have sensationalized it a bit, I think it is a valuable lesson in how children, in an absence of understanding adults, will interpret their new cultural surroundings.