- As many as 67 per cent of Indian women believe masturbation is unhealthy.
- Forty-one per cent don't know if sex should be discussed with children.
- A staggering 62 per cent say they won't advise their children to use condoms.
THE Indian woman hasn't come a long way. But then, she's never had a guiding hand. Treated as an inanimate object by her insensitive mate, conditioned into believing her sexuality is a sin, her curiosity repressed by centuries of overpowering male domination, she is trying to grope her way out of the darkness of her bedroom.
A few sparks of knowledge, and she is a woman transformed. This is powerfully borne out by the findings of a report titled ' Women in AIDS ', compiled by the All-India Women's Conference (AIWC), in collaboration with NORAD, a Norwegian development agency, which is to be released in December.
"Should sex education be introduced in schools?" the researchers asked 750 middle-class women between the ages of 18 and 60, in 19 centres spread across 11 states and four Union territories. A paltry 31 per cent approved of the idea. A few sessions with the AIWC team radically altered perceptions. And, finally, 84 per cent wanted their children not to share the ignorance that had been their fate.
Researcher Dr Manorama Bawa is overwhelmed: "Once we started talking candidly, their inhibitions simply vanished. Then they wouldn't stop talking about their unrequited sexuality. The male myth about women not wanting to talk sex was shattered. Our women are crying out to know so many things." "
Humko nasha kyon nahi hota? " (Why don't we have orgasms?), was a common query. Once the barriers were down, the respondents wanted to know about positions other than the missionary. Questions as to whether oral and anal sex were unnatural were uppermost in the minds of most women. Some wanted to know if it was immodest to talk to their spouses about their sexual likings. Half-baked notions of homosexuality and lesbianism fell apart with amazing rapidity. Asked if homosexuality was wrong, as many as 51 per cent were uncertain before the issue was explained. At the end of the sessions, an overwhelming 81 per cent felt no moral repugnance about it.
"Sexual awareness is a function of education," says Kiran Sharma, coordinator for the European Commission's collaboration programme with the Voluntary Health Association of India (VHAI). The project spanning six states is aimed at the prevention of STD, HIV and AIDS. "Our experience shows that in Kerala, where literacy levels are high, women are much more confident of their sexual identity whereas in Bihar ignorance and prejudice result in abysmal repression of feminine sexuality," she points out.
Unsure of realities, the woman is in no position to negotiate her terms in the bedroom. According to Anjali Gopal, executive director of Naaz Foundation, an HIV/AIDs and sexual health agency: "At least 60 per cent of the women I have met in the course of field studies say they don't enjoy sex at all. That is because they have probably never experienced an orgasm."
Clearly, the pleasure principle does not apply to a majority of Indian women in the bedroom. "What is the level of communication between most couples anyway? The upwardly-mobile segment in the metros apart, sex talk by men is considered macho while it is perceived as unfeminine in women," says Sandhya Sharma of the Indian Housewives' Federation (IHF). Most women, Sandhya Sharma points out, discuss sex freely only with other women and misconceptions are further perpetuated. "For one, there is this belief that a man's sexual demands are never to be rebuffed.
Many women who come to us to discuss marital problems say that any expression of sexual urges on their part is tauntingly dismissed by their husbands with the quip: " Tere andar aag lagi hai kya? " (Are you on fire within?), she reveals.
The conditioning is so deep-rooted that a survey of 200 professional women and housewives in Delhi found 85 per cent of the respondents admitting that they expected men to take the initiative in matters of sex. Conducted by students of Dr Aushim Gupta, a teacher of psychology in Delhi University, the women chosen for the survey were all graduates. "Our results indicate that there is a systematic repression of female sexuality. Even educated and professional women accept sex as a male prerogative. We have grown up to believe that the woman needs to fulfil, but does not need to be fulfilled," says Gupta.
Devoid of even a modicum of equality in sexual relations, women do sometimes seek other avenues of fulfillment. An IHF activist in Madhya Pradesh was startled to come across the practice of lower-class women being engaged as masseurs for middle-aged, affluent women, ostensibly to massage their breasts. "It's depressing to see such closeted cravings," laments Sandhya Sharma.
Worse, social taboos and family pressures often compel women to live with festering emotional and physical wounds. Subhadra But-alia of Karmika, a Delhi-based women's organisation, points to the case of a young woman who recently approached her for help. The woman had contracted a severe form of STD from her husband, but was mortally afraid to confide in anyone.
"What reason does she cite for leaving her husband? Most Indian women would rather die before they discuss sexual problems with their parents," says Butalia. "So, she continues to live with this infected man and submit to his sexual demands."
An extreme case perhaps. But symbolic of Indian womanhood—inhibited and suffering, but taking that first step to reach out for help.