Growing up in India, most of us never saw our parents express any physical affection to one another and very few of us are comfortable displaying affection to our partners in public. This may seem like a personal choice but it speaks to a much deeper culture of shame, taboo and violence.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia
On a bright summer day decades ago, my friend and I had just discovered how babies are made. We had watched a movie that mentioned condoms and our journey through the dictionary (the OG Wikipedia) had led us to this startling discovery. As we sat together in my room munching on potato chips that were staring to make our stomachs turn, there was only one, extremely disturbing, question on our minds:
“Did our parents actually do this too?”
I have since learnt that this is a common question among children who have just learnt about sex. In our state of repulsion we came to the conclusion that our parents must have only done it twice each — to make us and our siblings — and after that we decided never to think about it again. Fortunately for me, my mother was quite proactive regarding sexual education for an Indian woman born in the 60s and over the years she managed to set my sexual ideology straight enough for me to move past my disgust and accept sexuality as a natural part of relationships. That being said, there was and there continues to be, disgust associated with sexuality and especially, with the sexuality of our parents. With the sexual conservatism that plagues our society and the concept of modesty that is informed by both our laws and our culture, this is hardly surprising, but in reality there is a much more deeply-rooted phenomenon that enables this sexual shame:
In India, we never see our parents touch each other.
This is, of course, not limited to our parents. Public display of affection in India is not encouraged and often it is not even tolerated anywhere. Several years ago my partner was away for a few months doing a course in a different city, I went to visit him for a couple of weeks and we spent a lot of time together around his colleagues and course-mates. Now I am a person who is very comfortable in their body, a little too comfortable some might even say (and they can blame the yoga, I guess?), and I touch my partner as much as I possibly can, and I also do it in public (and so does he). We hold hands, we kiss whenever we want, we sit close together, we touch each other on the head or arm or back or whatever. We are people in love and we are deeply affectionate with one another and I guess, it shows in our behaviour around one another. I think nothing of it because it is a habit to me (and it’s not a social habit, I don’t touch people I am not in a romantic relationship with at all except to shake hands which also has been taken away from me by this wretched year) and I am determined to live freely in this world so if the person in my life is consenting to being touched, I don’t much care what anyone else thinks. I haven’t cared for so many years that now I don’t notice it at all.
People notice it, though.
After that trip, I found out that apparently we had been ascribed a moniker around campus. We were “the PDA couple”. It wasn’t said to me in a derogatory way, which is only a function of my privilege and how it enables me to socialise only in certain circles, but I’ve heard it said it many different ways over the course of the many years I have been dating. I have no idea when I got so old but this is bullshit. My mother expresses it in terms of casual annoyance. I think she was hoping we would stop after we married but joke’s on you mother. Ha. Some people poke fun at it in a friendly, jovial manner. Others avert their eyes. Some call you a slut. Others tell you to leave their establishment. Some straight-up attack you. Overall though, as a people, we are not cool with PDA, which makes me wonder what does publically displaying affection actually insinuate. To me touching a person I love is like talking to them, I cannot not do it and it will never not be appealing to me. However, socially and on an anthropological level our actions say things about human behaviour and how they are received makes a statement about our times. These times are strange, which I guess everyone believes about their times, and when we touch in public we say could be saying a few different things.
We could be admitting to an intimate knowledge of and comfort with the body of the person next to us which says that we may have been sexually connected before, and that is not a comfortable admission even in today’s world. We could be saying that while we are aware of society’s standard of decency, we choose to flout it anyway, and that is viewed as rebellion against the morays of our times. We could be saying that we are comfortable with sexuality and our bodies, and while that shouldn’t evoke a negative reaction from society, it crosses a boundary that we deem propriety. Essentially it’s very simple, public display of affection is a non-essential (sexual) touch and the conspiracy of morality dictates that we must love and touch not for pleasure, but only when there is due cause and publically there is only one due cause for touching that we acknowledge: Making babies.
This goes to the very heart of how we teach sex and love. You fall in love, you get married and you have babies. You fall in love, you have sex, and that makes babies. Even though sex occurs way more frequently to the end of pleasure, it is taught only as the process of making babies. If you think about it that is the whole reason why pre-marital sex is so taboo in India, because by law of culture you are not allowed to make babies without marriage which means the only reason you would be having sex before marriage is for pleasure. As a country, we are not okay with pleasure. Pleasure is at the heart of immorality which is why we don’t just condemn public display of physical affection, we don’t even like it if kids exchange chocolate and flowers on Valentine’s day. We don’t like to see anyone holding hands, let alone kissing and we definitely don’t want our children seeing that, because we don’t see that as healthy physical expression, we has prescribed an identity to it on the porn-spectrum. Parents don’t touch in front of their kids because there is something unspoken yet decidedly wrong about it and that is what it is.
Most of us, we didn’t see our parents touch. They never kissed in front of us. They didn’t hug. They never cuddled. They never even insisted on bedroom-privacy and many of us were just taught that it’s always okay to enter our parents’ bedrooms (with or without knocking). Our parents’ bedrooms were often just a public space of the house for us. Never touching was a habit for our parents and their sexuality was so hidden from us that many of us would still balk at the idea of our parents being sexual beings too. In response to that we will teach a similar idea of love to our children and when they see two people who don’t even seem to love each other (or have a relationship that doesn’t mimick a fraternal relationship) and two people who never touch each other, they will believe that is what love looks like. When they learn of sex and realise those two people who don’t even seem comfortable with each others touch had sex, that will start to seem normal to them. When that seems normal, they will learn that reluctance, discomfort and shame are part of sexuality and that is how rape culture is normalised. When we teach our kids our delusion that sex happens only for procreation and all pleasure is bad because we cannot bear the idea of our parents as people capable of pleasure, we teach them shame too. We teach them the idea that touch cannot be loving and innocent, it must only be shameful, secret and dirty. Look closely at your own sexuality and you will see how those ideas have informed it.
So I touch my partner in front of my stepson and have for years. We hug and we kiss and we make eyes at each other. We express our love and we are comfortable with each other’s bodies. As a result, he is more comfortable with his. As it changes, he openly asks questions about it. He discusses what he feels and questions ideas of gender and society. He is respectful of people’s boundaries and always asks before he touches anyone. He respects our boundaries which allows our relationship its own space and he understands that he has the rights to set up boundaries around his own body. He is physically affectionate and comfortable with being so. He can think about holding a girl’s hand without it being a wrong or dirty thing in his head. He doesn’t find our behaviour disgusting, nor is he uncomfortable with his own behaviour that he sometimes finds confusing. He sees romantic love as a positive and joyful thing that he looks forward to having and understands it has nothing necessarily to do with baby-making.
We keep saying we have to educate our boys in the effort to tackle rape culture, misogyny and sexism. Well, this is how you start to do it. Body-honesty is a great lesson.