India, from the land of the Kama Sutra to the land of sexual ignorance

This was originally posted on Firstpost.com.

“Kissing doesn’t lead to pregnancy,” said model Diandra Soares, after her exit from the reality tv show Bigg Boss, reminding many that ours was once the nation of the Kama Sutra and is now that of “sexpert” Mahinder Watsa’s column.

Soares was presumably being sarcastic, but the idea that someone would think kissing causes babies doesn’t seem entirely impossible in India. For a country whose population can barely be contained within its boundaries, it’s alarming to realise how little India knows about sex. The general assumption is that everything one needs to know about sex is genetically coded into us. The prevailing wisdom is that sex is natural and therefore requires nothing more than functioning body parts. This is the argument most commonly paraded before all those who suggest including sex education in school curricula.

If sex was so simple, then gynaecologists wouldn’t encounter the number of ‘unusual cases’ that they do. Dr Parekh* has been practising in an elite South Mumbai neighbourhood for the past 15 years. She regularly meets couples who complain they’re unable to have children despite “trying”. Upon examination and after a gently probing conversation, this is often the problem: the couple aren’t succeeding because they’re having sex, but it’s anal sex. “The first time it happened, I was really surprised because her hymen was intact but they insisted they were having sex regularly,” said Parekh. “You think people in villages will have these misconceptions, but ignorance about sex is a disease in itself.”

Has the introduction of American shows and films on television, which often contain references to sex (sex scenes are edited for Indian audiences), helped our anatomical knowledge? Parekh is of the opinion that the levels of misinformation have actually risen of late and for this she blames the internet. “Earlier, it was a lot of misdirected thrusting,” said Parekh. “But now, pornography is free for all and I have it on good authority that anal sex gets more play than vaginal sex.” So it is that the good doctor’s duties include introducing couples to the vagina.

Parekh’s experience and Soares’s comment about kissing not causing pregnancy are examples of how desperately India needs sex education. Sex surveys suggest India’s having more sex (and kinkier sex) but that’s not the entire picture. Part of the problem is that as far as India’s understanding of sex is concerned, it’s only associated with procreation. However, pregnancy is arguably the most easily-resolved problem arising out of unprotected sex.

The real danger of unprotected sex is disease and it’s not just the act of penetration that exposes you to disease. Soares is right, kissing can’t cause pregnancy, but it can transmit viruses and bacteria. This means if the person you’re tangling tongues with has a cold, you’re on top of the list of people who could be next in line for a blocked nose and sore throat. More serious infections that can be transmitted by kissing are glandular fever, herpes, bacterial meningitis and hepatitis B.

There’s also a misconception that oral sex is safer than vaginal sex. It isn’t. You can get a rash of sexually transmitted diseases from oral sex, ranging from gonorrhea to the fearsome HPV (human papillomavirus), which can be the precursor to mouth and throat cancer.

Finally, there’s HIV. According to the Unicef, India is home to the third largest number of people living with HIV in the world and the vast majority of HIV infections in India occur through sexual transmission (85.6%).

Faced with all this, you’d think that everyone who is sexually active would make sure they always have a condom in their wallet. There’s some debate about the statistics of condom usage in India, but if you ask people, there doesn’t seem to be much confusion. Condoms aren’t popular and they’re not used by too many couples. A random sample of 40 women — 15 from Mumbai, 10 from New Delhi, 10 from Bangalore the remainder from other places in India — suggested that men are reluctant to use condoms and women don’t place enough importance upon condom usage. Only one woman said that she’s “like an immovable rock” when it comes to male contraceptives.

“I’m not having sex without it and I make it very clear the moment things look like they could go anywhere near heavy,” said this 34-year-old resident of Mumbai. “I’ve had a UTI because I was stupid enough to have sex without a condom, and it was awful. Plus, that whole waiting for a period or popping i-pills is just way too traumatic for me. So yeah, no condom? No sex.” She says she’s trying to build up “the balls” to demand prospective lovers get a health check before she has sex with them. “It’s crazy to think that a virus can be harmless in one person, get sexually transmitted to the other and go ballistic,” she said. “But guys don’t take this business of getting checked up too kindly. No Indian man can deal with the thought that there may be something wrong with him.”

Aside from this one respondent out of 40, everyone else said they didn’t use condoms. “I’ve had six partners so far and none of them would wear one,” said a 28-year-old woman in Mumbai. Some, particularly women in Delhi, said that it was awkward to buy condoms as a woman so it’s difficult to keep a stock and men seem to never carry their own. Not one of these 39 women felt not having a condom was good reason to not have sex.

For at least one, however, it was reason enough for a relationship to end. “He didn’t want to use a condom and was seriously offended that I was insisting he use one,” said a 25-year-old from Kolkata. When she produced a condom, he lost his temper. “He started calling me names, saying that no woman from a good family carries condoms around,” recalled this woman who clarified that the only reason she had one was because a friend of hers works for a company that manufactures condoms. “I probably wouldn’t have insisted on him using it if he’d said at the last minute that he’s not comfortable with it,” she said. “But the way he screamed at me made me see I can’t be with a guy who reacts like this to me not agreeing with him.”

“It becomes an issue,” summed up a 24-year-old in Bengaluru, “and you start feeling foolish about being stubborn about it when he says that he’ll be careful and points out he doesn’t want you to get pregnant either. I just rely on i-pill instead.”

However, the emergency contraceptive is not an alternative to a condom, should not be used regularly and certainly doesn’t offer any protection against sexually transmitted diseases. “We don’t talk about STDs, but it’s not that women don’t know about STDs,” said Parekh. “I have patients who will come saying, there has been a smell or pain or discomfort while urinating soon after having sex. They know that it’s unprotected sex that has caused it, but there is a very strong instinct to ignore that causal effect and instead ask for a prescription.”

As far as Parekh is concerned, the silver lining is that women these days come to a gynaecologist when they feel symptoms of an UTI or any discomfort around the unmentionable vagina or labia. “When we were young, women just ignored it. You couldn’t talk about it to an outsider,” said Parekh.

“It’s slow, but steady,” said a man from Kolkata, speaking “for both Indian men and women”, as he put it. “We’re getting ok with the idea of casual sex, homosexuality, multiple partners. Give us some time. We’ll find the vagina also.”

 

*name changed upon request

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