Often when we are young, we have an older sibling or a parent concerned about whether we might be having sex, and sometimes promises not to do it are extracted from us under the garb of deep concern about our well-being. I believe there is something sinister at the heart of these promises, and these concerns. In this week’s sex-column, we discuss the hypocrisy of the Indian attitude towards sex (and I make a few gynaecologist jokes).
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
‘Be whoever you want to be,
Do whatever you want to do,
Get a car and drive it too fast,
Run a race and finish dead last.
Climb a mountain, I’ll pay for a guide,
Travel across the globe for a wild ride,
Bribe a cop on the way back from school,
Worship at the altar that makes you cool,
Pass around a bunch of bad cheques,
But promise me, you won’t have sex.’
We’ve all had a variation of this conversation. Sometimes it is with a friend or perhaps an older sibling or maybe it’s with a parent (or similar authority figure). I’ve had it several times in my life, admittedly a lot more frequently when I was younger, and somewhat differently after I grew up. The first time you have it is probably the most distinctive. Mine was a with a well-intentioned cousin who knew I was in a relationship with a young man, and I suppose she felt, being 10-years older than I am, that she should guide me. Inherently, there is no flaw in that. She was concerned, I was young, and she asked me to promise that no matter what I did, I wouldn’t go as far as to have sex with the boy.
I made the promise.
A very small incident of no consequence to the world, but when I made the promise, I had already broken it. I made the promise even though I had already had sex with the boy, and until that moment, it hadn’t occured to me to decide whether that was right or wrong. The moment I experienced concern on the part of someone who cared about me, I started to wonder whether what I had done was actually scary or wrong. Concern is one of the most common cautionary associations we make while participating in discourse designed to discourage young people from having sex. Man, that was a tedious sentence. It is, though. Concern is the primary reason we tell young people not to have sex. It’s multi-layered, so let’s slowly peel back this onion and cry a disproportionate amount of tears (as is fitting).
There’s concern that’s rooted in physical harm that may come to your ward if they have sex. Part of it is medical and part of it is social. Let’s say medical fears are totally justified, but easily allayed if you teach and promote safe-sex practises (and portray a teenaged girl who accidentally got pregnant on a TV show having a termination instead of life-changing baby every once in a while). There’s the social fear of someone you care about having sex. Sex is viewed as a dangerous thing, especially for women. The guy you are with may take advantage of you and not respect your boundaries. He may take pictures of you. People will find out and think you are a slut. You might get raped. The list is endless, and perhaps the validity of these fears is evident but we send our loved ones out into a dangerous world everyday. How do we know they won’t just walk into traffic? How do we know they won’t stick their fork in a socket? How do we know they won’t lick a toilet to prove they won’t get covid? Either we teach them to navigate the world, or trust they know how to do it (based on how old they are and what your relationship with them is). It’s the same with sexual relationships, if we teach people to navigate them safely, they will know how to judge a situation, and if we trust them to do it, they will learn better.
That being said, ideologically, I do think that the onus of responsibility for raping, revenge porn and consent violation is on the people doing these things, but I realise an ideology doesn’t keep you safe. There’s also the concern of pregnancy and on this front I can absolutely confirm that if my foremothers had spent more time learning about contraception, and more research had been conducted into safe methods of contraception, I wouldn’t be here today, almost 30, and still trying to figure out a method that works and doesn’t try to kill me (or is slimy latex). You don’t eat prawns with the vein still in, and teaching a lot more about taking the vein out would benefit everyone. Contraception should be taught as a rigorous discipline akin to physics and tested more severely than IIT aspirants. There have been enough “it just happened” babies. Physical concerns, as I said, are easily allayed.
But I don’t believe that is the primary concern anyway. For one thing, if people were so concerned about the physical welfare of the havers of sex, arranged marriages would include STD panels but they don’t, instead we live in a country where 9 out of 10 gynaecologists judge you for opting to have an STD panel (and I am not pulling this statistic out of my ass, I have been to a lot of gynaecologists, in a lot of different cities, you’d think it was a hobby for me to have my insides peered into). From where I am standing, there is no sexual behaviour more risky than an arranged marriage. Maybe the modern set-up allows for more communication between the parties involved but ultimately it involves having sex with someone you don’t know well, and certainly don’t know well medically-speaking.
So physical safety, then, is not as much of a concern as they would like us to believe, so perhaps it is emotional concern? The one I hear most often, especially when the conversation is focused on young people, is that they are not emotionally ready or mature enough to have sex. Sex is a big deal, not just in India, but in many of the world, but does it need to be? Indian parents except children to display maturity on a vast array of subject’s from a very young age. You are supposed to display financial maturity and take into account your family’s income before you desire things. If you are a girl, you are quickly taught the concepts of sacrifice and compromise, and groomed for a life spent in service of the patriarchy. You are expected to participate in religious ritualism, with children as young as ten fasting for Lent or Ramadan or Navratras. We do not see our children as too emotionally immature when we expect them to understand familial circumstances, sexism or spiritualism. We do not think they need to be protected from the “realities” of the world like powerlessness, bribery, rape or other crimes, we think they should have a realistic view of the world when it comes to these things, but when it comes to sex, the same children are suddenly too young to understand pleasure, or be able to handle it. I smell a rat.
So it’s not emotional concern then, it’s just a dead rat, which leaves only one thing, and it’s the one thing that unfortunately determines everything in India: Social Concern. After all, what will people think if my child has sex and then talks about it? What will people think if everyone found out? What will happen if my daughter sleeps with a man and they don’t get married to each other? There is an equivocation between morality and sexuality that encompasses perhaps all of time and most of religion. Sex is dirty and unclean, and acceptable only when done in service of the propagation of the species. Fundamentally, India is a country that is suspicious of pleasure, and there is only one reason to have sex outside of wedlock when not trying to have a baby, and that reason is that it feels good. We do not want our wards to feel good in this way. So we teach a horrific style of mythology associated with sex: If you have sex before marriage no one will marry you, if you do it god will punish you for the sin, if you do it you will fall sick and get pregnant, if you do it everyone will talk about your character, if you even so much as hold the hand of a person of the opposite gender you will get pregnant. My favourite one was when someone told me that oral sex would get me pregnant (and as an adult I wish I could find this person and inform them that for decades even the strongest hormones couldn’t get me pregnant). We spread this misinformation and we believe that we are doing the youth a favour, but we are not, because we are not trained to think analytically or determine the consequences of our actions. So let me lay them out for you.
We have created a nation that is so sexually frustrated, bound by the dichotomy of morality and desire, and focused on marriage as a solution to this problem, that people are now getting married (and have been for decades) just so that they can have sex. Given that our marital laws have no room for consent (basically you marry the man, you consent to letting him have sex with you forever, anytime he likes), we have created a hot-bed for sexual abuse within marriages and given that a majority of women do not have access to reproductive health or agency when it comes to reproductive decisions, they are forced into having an unhealthy number of children or unsupervised abortions. Treating sex like it’s a thing we need to actively keep people away from has also created an untenable amount of shame surrounding the subject, and a large number of issues with self-esteem stem from the alienation of oneself from their body, from blaming your body for its needs.
Aside from all of that there’s the way the image of sex itself leads to problems. When we discourage sex, we also define it as peno-vaginal, and like my cousin, who said it’s okay to do other things but not have a penis in my vagina, there are many people who believe that having sex has only to do with penises in vaginas and this heteronormative and (straight) male-pleasure centred view of sex is terrible for everyone else. Sex is about connection and pleasure, it’s not about the one act, and limiting it, and creating a fear-based mythology around just that one act makes it unlikely that others will ever discover their pleasure. Especially in a society where the bearer of the penis gets so much of a say in sexual matters (including whether you are consenting to them or not).
So when you build an entire generation’s foundation of sex on guilt-based, emotionally-extracted promises not to do it because it may impact the abstract and imagined concept of your honour or expresses the selfish nature of your concern (however well-intentioned that concern may be), what you’re really doing is raising a generation that is sexually stunted, and sexuality is an extremely fundamental part of human nature, it influences a lot of who you are in life. Medically and biologically-speaking, sex is good for you, it makes you a happier person (provided you’re not asexual). Emotionally speaking, sex teaches you a lot about yourself. Relationships do not need to be centred on sex, but it is only when you have a great sexual relationship with your partner that works for both of you, that you are able to focus on those other things that make you happy. Please, stop asking people to promise not have sex, instead, maybe start asking them to do it for themselves instead of the expectations of other people. That’s better advice.