By Milana Prakash:
Kajal goes to the chemist and asks for a pregnancy test. The shopkeeper looks at her forehead, then her neck, and then furtively tries to grab a glance at her ring finger for any sign of being ‘married’. Kajal senses it and pulls her hand back. Wordlessly, the man hands her a kit and watches her leave with a vindictive gaze.
Sex is sacrosanct, still only a privilege of the married.
We’re a strange country, the blessed land of Kamasutra, where ironically, babies are gifts of gods, quite literally (for instance, Kunti from Mahabharata) and it is quite an irony that in the world’s second most populous country, sex is a taboo. Particularly any sexual act that falls out of the ambit of consummation between a married heterosexual couple.
There are multiple axes to this discourse: gender, geography, age, and upbringing. There is a fifth locus too when we talk about the LGBTQ community in India.
While Section 377 has decriminalized homosexuality, it is nowhere close to being obliterated from being anything less than an aberration in the minds of most citizens. Homosexuality, pre-marital sex, family planning, abortions, and the use of contraceptives are all in their own ways still hush-hush topics. Worse still is the inability to express one’s sexuality, that leads to mental health concerns too (which again, is often terribly stigmatized in the country).
At the heart of this lies the fact that stigma runs inextricably deeply and widely in India, where anything remotely pertains to sex. People are afraid to get tested for STDs, afraid to ask for condoms or other contraceptives, are afraid to teach others about safe sex, and are, most of all, afraid to just say the word S-E-X.
What’s equally alarming is that even among health practitioners and health caregivers there is a lot of stigmatization of patients/clients. Dr. Aruna Menon, a practicing gynecologist, told me that seldom do young girls come by themselves; they usually have a chaperone of sorts, because the general assumption when you see a single young woman approach a gynecologist is that something is wrong. While gynecologists, owing to the nature of their profession, are less likely to be judgmental, there is a strong incidence of a biased eye among paramedics, nurses, and other medical staff who have a strong tendency of being rude towards such patients.
A lot of this stems from the fact that parents and our society at large instill these notions in the minds of girls from very early on. People are unwilling to have a conversation. A 19-year-old woman, under the condition of anonymity, told me that she has been facing trouble inserting even her finger into her vagina. She knows that she can seek help, but she asks how she can broach this subject to her mother.
She says: “I can’t say I want to finger myself, because I long for some sexual pleasure and that I’m not able to do that! It is too trifling yet at the same time too scandalous a problem to consult a doctor for.”
Think about it; this is our reality. Firstly, Indians have a tough time digesting the fact that women too crave pleasure and that female masturbation is a real thing. Secondly, it just seems wrong for a woman to expect and experience any kind of sexual desire before she’s married. Given such circumstances, how can a young, unmarried woman seek help for a genuine sexual health concern?
In the absence of any other outlets, youngsters resort to the very trusty Dr. Mahindra Vatsa, who writes for Mumbai Mirror. I know of a lot of people who look forward to reading what seem like really preposterous and petulant sexual concerns. I must admit, I have too, laughing and sneering at them. But thinking about it now, there’s a reason so many youngsters continually gravitate towards the ‘sexpert’.
Even in schools, while sex-education is increasingly becoming an active part of many curricula, sex is merely reduced to an act of procreation. Sex for pleasure is often expunged by most teachers. For, in a country that is charged with the idea of traditions, this seems like a Western concept that has meandered in to corrupt the ‘innocent’ youngsters of the country.
And just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, people are also disgruntled with the fact that there is no censorship across over-the-top platforms and that exposure to such content with strong sexual overtones is going to spoil the ‘sanskaar’ of our otherwise unsullied people. (Wink, wink, we are the second most populous country… where of course ‘God’ manufactures babies).
Additionally, there are no governmental policies at present that address sexual and reproductive health among youngsters, as a consequence of which there is streamlined awareness and increasing dependence on private health care systems, the costs of which are naturally exorbitant.
Dr. Menon also agrees that financial constraints on youngsters hinders their ability to seek proper help and support. Just as a thought exercise, imagine yourself as an 18-year-old walking up to one of your parents and asking them to give you money to go visit a sexologist.
There is some respite in knowing that things are changing, particularly amidst the urban milieu, but a lot of work remains to be done in the rest of the country. Dr. Menon believes that increasing the conversation around this subject will help improve the current situation.
I asked a few people on social media of the terms they’ve heard people use/use themselves, to refer to anything pertaining to sex. Their answers were jokingly pointing at something bigger and slightly worrisome.
To begin with, people could start referring to sex as ‘sex’ instead of ‘banging’ (you’ll find me banging my head against a wall) ‘galat karna’ (since when did a biological process become ‘galat’?!), the cryptic ‘woh’, ‘Ghapaaghap’, ‘Direct Contact’ (are we talking about circuits here?), and similarly painful paraphernalia.
Then we’ll know that we’ve made progress.
Milana Prakash is the Assistant Editor at One Future Collective.