In this crowded locality of east Delhi, every turn throws up an abortion clinic. Largely a residential area, Laxmi Nagar is Delhi’s abortion clinic central, and hundreds of young women come here every day to get abortions. This is where I met Aanchal. After missing her period for three months, Aanchal, a plain-faced college student of 19, stopped by the ‘ladies’ doctor. It turned out that Aanchal had gotten pregnant out of wedlock, with her boyfriend, in a closet in their college. Even though she had been sexually active with her boyfriend over the past several months, she never once suspected that pregnancy might be the outcome. Aanchal is not alone in her dilemma; in many ways she personifies the challenges that are plaguing India’s young. According to research, ‘first sex’ is more often than not unprotected for the majority of young people.
Scared, nervous and without the support of her 20-year-old boyfriend (a fellow student who stopped taking her calls once she told him she was pregnant), Aanchal did not have the Rs 30,000 she needed for the abortion. She also knew that under no circumstances could she break this news to her conservative parents. She self-induced an abortion using a shaving razor and a pair of scissors. “This is the dark side of sexual liberation,” says Dr Rekha Khandelwal, a Delhi-based gynaecologist, who has seen the number of abortions skyrocket in the last decade. According to Dr Khandelwal, more and more young women are becoming sexually active. Until just a few years ago, she could tell whether young women who came to see her were married or not. The traditional symbols of married women—red sindoor in the parting, beaded black and gold mangalsutra around their necks and ‘general demeanour’—were immediate clues. Today, she can’t rely on any of these symbols, and women come into her clinic with boyfriends, friends, or sometimes simply sexual partners.
India in Love
In 2014, India is in the throes of a major sexual revolution. As I travelled the country conducting interviews for my book India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century, I observed dramatic shifts in traditional values related to sex and sexuality. (These interviewees included men and women ranging from ages 18 to 65 as well as experts, including academics, lawyers, policemen, policymakers, doctors and other participants in India’s sexual revolution.) I met men and women who believed that sexual chemistry was the most important factor in their relationship—and sexologists and relationship counsellors who agreed. I spoke to young educated women who did sex work on the “wide” to earn pocket money. I met sociologists who were baffled at the sudden surge of sexual crime in urban India. I met heads of HR companies of large corporates who told me how problems related to sex and relationships were their biggest challenges and I met ad film-makers and TV and film producers who told me that sex was the number one seller on Indian screens.
My findings included reports that premarital sex in urban areas is on the rise and is currently at an estimated 75 per cent in the 18-24 age bracket. In my travels across the metros and small towns of urban India, I found that sex is coming out of the closet and into public discourse. On a short drive through urban India, one is bombarded with titillating sexual images—of scantily-clad women eating popsicles in an ice-cream ad, an actress spreadeagled on a washing machine, or a couple on the verge of sexual congress in a deodorant ad. The same overt sexuality is present in Bollywood movies. Sex scenes are common on the same screen that only till a decade ago censored French kisses. Pornography is widely available, with a recent Google survey declaring that Indians are ranked number six in the world for online porn views. I also encountered a gay revolution in India as millions of young people come out of the closet on their sexuality, and sexual encounters are online, a click of a button away. Sex-for-sale is easily available for both men and women, relying on a new host of sex workers, from Indian college girls to middle-aged housewives, and reputable five-star hotels across Indian cities are being used as modern-age harems. A hospital-based study, conducted over a five-year period in India, reported a resurgence of syphilis and rising numbers of viral and sexually transmitted diseases. The medical study stated that evidence pointed towards changing trends in sexual practices.
The changes that we see in Indian sexual culture today are the most significant that we have seen since colonial times.
As a result of technological, economic, political and legislative changes over the past 10 years, the choices, freedom and experiences of the present generation have been completely different from everything that has preceded them. Technology in particular has been a major game-changer. The rapid spread of modern communications technology throughout India has propelled a new sexual openness. The internet and cell-phones have helped Indians connect with one another, and the anonymity of digital life has made information more accessible than ever before. According to Ashok Row Kavi, a veteran gay rights activist, “the internet has changed everything. You go on PlanetRome (a popular gay dating website) and there are around 90,000 men cruising the internet at any given time in India. Of these, 9,000 are in Bombay alone.”
Thanks to years of urbanisation and economic growth, there is more opportunity, more entertainment and more freedom. Social barriers are weakening, the mingling of sexes is more permissible and birth control is more widely available. Gender biases are waning, and women are suddenly less dependent on men. Today, almost a third of India’s 480 million jobs are held by women and, over the past decade, urban women’s incomes have doubled. These days, according to imrb, a market research firm, about 60 per cent of urban women say that they are responsible for their own lives.
This opening up of sexuality has also had a profound effect on the mainstay of Indian culture: marriage. Since time immemorial, sex in India has been linked to marriage, and as India goes through a sexual revolution, that too is changing. Love matches have risen from just 5 per cent of Indian marriages to 30 per cent in the past decade. Some polls suggest an even higher rate in the metros.
According to reports, 94 per cent of honour killings are carried out by the woman’s family, with khap support.
The move of the Great Indian Middle Class towards marriage based on love represents a much larger social revolution—a love revolution that will change not only the way that love and sex are handled, but also family life and social structures. In a reflection of the times, the break-up of marriages is an inevitable part of the social revolution, and divorce rates are soaring as joint families are breaking up into nuclear ones. And while up until now the preferred ideal relationship for young men and women has been marriage, this is changing too. Live-in relationships, hook-ups, serial marriages and other permutations and combinations are being experimented with, and it is safe to say that a decade or so from today the relationship map of urban India will look very different from the one we see today.
Across India’s towns, notions of love and longing—of dating and romance—are quickly changing. In the biggest cities, such as Bombay and Delhi, more young people are starting to expect independence, especially when it comes to their personal lives. Their counterparts in smaller places, such as Bhopal, are fast following suit. A recent study of over 50,000 young people across India conducted by the International Institute for Population Sciences found that 77 per cent of unmarried women and 59 per cent of unmarried men said that women should be able to choose their own husbands. At the same time, however, the age-old forces of caste, community, religion, superstition and family expectations push them back, squeezing many young people between tradition and modernity.
The Dark Side of the Sexual Revolution
Over the course of writing India in Love, I discovered a growing tension between the old and the new, between parents and children, between eastern tradition and western culture. As social structures are loosening, and as sexuality enters the visual landscape at cyber speed, liberation (sexual and otherwise) is exhilarating, but it also creates new tensions that a society might not be prepared to face.
One of these is sexual violence. According to latest statistics, a new incident of rape is reported every 22 minutes. Local, ear-to-the-ground surveys have reported that 1-4 per cent of women in the areas surveyed have been raped or sexually assaulted in the past year—close to 50-200 times greater than official rates, which implies that sexual violence in this country is much worse than is reported.
Sexual violence has escalated. According to latest statistics, a new incident of rape is being reported every 22 minutes.
India’s demographics, with the backdrop of an overwhelming patriarchy, have also contributed to what has manifested itself now as the (perhaps inevitable) dark side of the sexual revolution. India has 37 million more men than women, as of the 2011 census data, and about 17 million more men in the 15-34 age group that commits most crimes, up from 7 million in 1991. And amongst India’s youngest populations the gender ratio continues to worsen. This has set the foundation for India’s ‘bare branches’: unmarried men from age 15 to their mid-30s who have limited prospects for employment. With India’s youth unemployment rate hovering in the double digits and labour trends showing young people withdrawing from the workforce, bare branches will flourish. Another consequence of too many men is an increasing deficit of potential female partners. This is likely to accelerate the trend of marriage at a later age and therefore of young men engaging in commercial sex.
There are other sexually repressive forces at play too. Khap panchayats punish couples who stray outside societal borders by ordering honour killings and rapes; families murder and harass their daughters for having romantic affairs (according to some reports, 94 per cent of honour killings are carried out by the woman’s family, usually with the support of khaps), and even our own judicial and political systems attempt to control society through regressive laws—for example, take the recent recriminalisation of homosexuality and moral policing.
The Rocky Revolution
India’s current population includes 315 million people under the age of 25; by 2020, India will be the youngest nation in the world, with an average age of 29 (compared with 37 in China and the United States, 45 in parts of Europe, and 48 in Japan). India is also urbanising at unprecedented rates. Over the next four decades, 31 villagers will show up in an Indian city every minute, which will total 700 million people in all. This will be the biggest rural-to-urban migration in the history of the world. A McKinsey Global Institute study predicts that 590 million people, about 40 per cent of the country’s population, will live in cities by 2030. The prevalence of a young and fast urbanising India means that the sexual revolution will only gain steam.
The skewed gender ratio has laid the foundation for India’s ‘bare branches’: unmarried, unemployed men from 15-30.
There are definite benefits to India’s new sexual revolution. According to studies, societies that are less sexually repressive are healthier and happier, less prone to violence, depression and harassment; there is greater gender equality, more freedom for women, an increasing culture of respect and tolerance in marriage and relationships; see a waning of homophobia, greater freedom of self-expression and less social stigma. Yet no revolution comes without its fair share of casualties.
After her self-induced abortion, Aanchal was found in a pool of her own blood in the bathroom by her parents. Her life was saved, but she will never be able to have children again. As India goes through a sexual revolution, people like Aanchal will continue to fall through the cracks, bearing the brunt of the changes—unless the necessary social infrastructure and education is provided to them. Over the four years that I spent researching and writing my book, I discovered the immense potential of India’s youth, but also that they face the threat of being repressed by outmoded social ideals. The economic and technological advances of the last decade served India in good stead but there are now hugely important cultural and social shifts that must be addressed to drive the next chapter in India’s story.
21, Sex worker, Darjeeling
Before she came to Delhi to study fashion, Nita worked in her family’s restaurant in Darjeeling. By age 20, she got into the sex trade after a fellow student introduced her to the idea. Nita doesn’t mind the sex work. It allows her to earn well, she says, and sometimes it can even be fun. She has the right to choose her clients and to say no. She gets paid Rs 5,000 for one ‘shot’, plus the tips her clients leave her. She meets her clients at 4- or 5-star hotel rooms, which her pimp organises. She typically ‘services’ three clients in one working night. Nita likes the pulse of living in a big city because living in Darjeeling got “very boring”. She has quit fashion school and is looking for a job at the moment, hoping to find something in fashion.
19, Student, New Delhi
An arts student who lives with her family in Delhi, Aanchal became sexually active at age 18, after she fell in love with a classmate whom she hoped to marry. She regularly had sex with him—in empty classrooms, at friends’ homes, in the car. Six months after all this sexual activity, she found out she was three months pregnant. Failing to come up with the Rs 30,000 she needed for an abortion, Aanchal induced one on her own. In the process, she suffered permanent injuries to her uterus and vagina, and now can never have children. She hasn’t heard from her ‘boyfriend’ ever since she told him about her pregnancy.
20, College student, Mumbai
Originally from Chandigarh, Neha has been dating since the age of 16, and has been sexually active since she was 17. Currently she is in a relationship with her classmate with whom she says she has great sexual chemistry, something she considers crucial in a romantic relationship. Most of her friends are sexually active, says Neha, and if “you have a boyfriend, but you aren’t doing it, then you’re just not cool.” Neha has no plans of getting married, at least not for the next decade, though her parents are already putting pressure on her to do so. She wants to focus on a career in advertising and become financially independent.
Mr and Mrs Jain
60s, Neha’s parents, Chandigarh
Neha’s father is a government employee and her mother a schoolteacher. They are proud that their vivacious, confident daughter was a topper in school, a star debater and that she got admission in a good college in Mumbai. They do not know she is sexually active or that she has a boyfriend...and has been dating boys for the past four years. They want Neha to settle down and get married in the next three years and are already “looking” for boys for her through marriage brokers, newspaper matrimonials and relatives. They have no idea about Neha’s desires, her wish or her plans to get married after she is 30 and established in her career.
32, PR officer for IIM Shillong, Actor, Shillong
In keeping with the Khasi tradition, Merlvin moved into his wife’s family home after he started dating her. They had a child together, and got married only when their child turned two. Was moving in with his in-laws into a joint family a problem for him? Merlvin says that though he is a modern man, he had little choice in the matter. In the Khasi tradition, marrying the youngest daughter of the family—the khadduh—is a major responsibility since she is in charge of the well-being of her home, parents and family, much like the eldest son in traditional Hindu families. Live-in relationships are common and couples who cohabit are as “good as married”. Merlvin estimates that in Shillong, close to 50 per cent of the people he knows are living together with their partners and children, though not formally married.
Priya & Kartikey
24, BPO workers, Bangalore
Both from small towns in Tamil Nadu, Priya and Kartikey finished their Masters in Computer Science and fell in love at the BPO both were placed in. Marriage beckoned after a long romance conducted over Facebook and the mobile phone. But both their parents were dead against their relationship and subsequent marriage, because the families were from different castes and their birth charts did not match. Priya knew that if she broke up with Kartikey, her parents would waste no time getting her married off to someone else. So they got married against their families’ wishes and now live in Bangalore, where they both work in bpos. Three years on, Kartikey’s parents have come around since he supports them financially, but Priya’s parents, sisters and cousins refuse to speak to her.
41, Adult products retailer, Mumbai
An ex-employee of Microsoft, Singapore, Sariaya launched an online store that sells adult products to Indians. His online portal has tied with international companies to sell their products, including lingerie, latex, costumes and sex toys. The adult product industry in India is in the range of Rs 1,200 to Rs 1,500 crore, he says, and he expects this to double over the next 2-3 years with an increasingly young, experimental India. His website Thatspersonal.com sells more than a 100 different sex aids, including an edible chocolate body paint that is 100 per cent vegetarian for the Indian market. His other investors include a team of tech professionals working in top companies.
Shammi & Suganda
Shammi, 21, DJ; Suganda, Apparel designer, 18, Gurgaon
In Rohtak, Haryana, lovers Shammi and Suganda had no option but to get married—they had children two years after their marriage. At first glance, they seem like an ordinary young couple, but they have a secret that lifts them out of the ordinary—almost a decade after their arranged marriage, they have agreed to live in an open marriage. Like so many couples of that generation, Shammi and Suganda married at a young age, burdened by its social definition, and of what they were expected to be, but the world around them had changed so much since then that they found it difficult to be living with the traditional conventions of their youth. Shammi and Suganda are parents, best friends, and occasionally lovers, but they have decided to give each other space to experiment while maintaining their marriage.
Kavita & Pavan
21, Runaway couple, Jaipur
Hailing from Mahendragarh in Rajasthan, Kavita is a student in Jaipur, completing a master’s in computer science, while Pavan works at a computer institute. They are from different communities; she is a Gujjar, he a Kumawat. They met in their village and fell in love, taking their affair to Jaipur, till their families came to know. Kavita’s parents pleaded with her to return to the village, telling her that they had found someone else for her to marry. When she refused, they threatened to kill Pavan. Undeterred, Kavita and Pavan ran away, getting married in a hasty ceremony, then making their way to Delhi to get protection from the Love Commandos (an organisation that gives shelter to runaway couples) because they knew that trouble, maybe even death, awaited them. Kavita and Pavan’s is a familiar story. Two young people either across, or far too close within, caste lines fall in love and want to get married. The boy’s family is usually accepting of the alliance, but the girl’s family is not, and they attempt to kill or intimidate the boy. The daughters are usually put under house arrest in the hope that the love, or the lover, will eventually die.
21, IIT Delhi student, Pune
In his hometown Phaltan, 100 km from Pune, Kapil Ranaware is a local celebrity, the first boy in the history of the town to clear the IIT-jee. Kapil did not know he was gay, or even what homosexuality was, till he was 15. It was only after Class 10, when he moved to Pune to begin coaching for the IIT entrance and stumbled upon gay porn on the internet that Kapil realised he liked men. Ultimately, Bollywood showed him the way. After watching Dostana, a 2008 blockbuster featuring Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham, Kapil seriously began questioning his sexuality and scoured the internet for information. At IIT, social media presented a turning point. During his second month there, Kapil found a same-sex lover through his Facebook alias, and had sex for the first time. After several partners, found mostly through websites, Kapil embraced his sexuality and came out to his friends on FB. He is the only openly gay person on the IIT Delhi campus, though he suspects (on the basis of online activity) there are at least 200 more. Kapil is lobbying hard to start an lgbt club on the IIT campus.
28, Police SI, New Delhi
Chand is the man behind two major sting operations which resulted in the arrests of two of Delhi’s most notorious sex racketeers—Ichhadhari Baba and Gita Arora alias Sonu Punjaban (profile on next page). The prostitution business in this country, says Chand, is rising at a disturbing rate, especially the “middle-class” prostitution industry which pimps like Punjaban controlled. The internet and cheap mobile phones have made the business much easier to execute. It has also become more difficult to put pimps and sex workers behind bars, which is why cops usually don’t go after them unless they get “too big”, like in the case of Baba and Punjaban. Chand is shocked at the girls who enter the sex trade: “Anyone in this city could be a prostitute, the college girl, the housewife, even you....”
32, Pimp, New Delhi
Better known as Sonu Punjaban, she began sex work at 18, and graduated to pimping at age 25. In three years, she became kingpin of Delhi’s flesh trade, with networks in most Indian metros. In a way revolutionising the business, she identified her niche market as middle-class men with disposable income who craved a pleasant experience outside the brothels at GB Road. She employed attractive, well-dressed, English-speaking women and set up brothels in flats that she either owned or rented and appointed pimps who worked under her but were in charge of specific areas. Her phone book has more than 1,000 contacts: women are listed according to the prices they charge, pimps according to the area they serve. But though she owns flats and cars,
nothing is registered in her name, a move that may save her from a lifetime in jail.
34, Software Engineer, Noida
Vishal is a software engineer for a respectable MNC, but his passion is his side-project—The Swing—a ‘swinger’s club’ that he stared in the capital two years ago, after attending an eponymous one in Texas during his training. His intention of starting the club is to allow couples to explore their sexuality with each other and with other couples in a safe, honest environment. Only couples are allowed to be part of the club (no singles except for him.) He accepts applications from couples online and then conducts in-person interviews. He invites shortlisted couples to ‘swinging’ parties he hosts in rented apartments. Entry is free, though he takes donations. He uses porn movies, sex toys and props such as the ‘lick chair’ and the ‘grope wall’, to educate couples on their sexuality and encourages them to experiment.
Garima & Suketu
27, 28, Young live-in couple, Calcutta
Garima and Suketu are young professionals who live in the city, while their parents live in small towns a few hours away. They moved in together after a year of dating. The decision made sense financially as well as from a convenience standpoint since they spent so much time with each other. They have no intention of getting married and believe in living life ‘light’, one day at a time. In the beginning it was hard, as they had to face hostile neighbours for a while, but now they are accepted by all the families who live around them. A lot of their friends have followed their example after they saw how convenient living in with your boyfriend/girlfriend could be. Neither Garima nor Suketu’s parents know that they are in a live-in relationship.
22, Professional, Hyderabad
Prayaag classified girls in two categories: the ‘good girls’, who are not sexually forthcoming, dress in simple clothes and are innocent, like his mother and his sisters; and the ‘bad girls’, who have sex, drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes and wear revealing clothes. While Prayaag lusted after the latter, it was the ‘good girl’ that he wanted to fall in love with and marry. All his carefully arranged notions fell apart when he fell in love with a girl who was both good and bad. She dressed in salwar kameez, visited temples, was loving and caring and ‘innocent-minded’, yet was open to having a sexual relationship. Little did Prayaag know that he had come face to face with the 21st century Indian girl and would have to spend the next few years riding the roller-coaster of exhilaration and heartbreak.
52, Owner, A to Z Matrimonial services, New Delhi
Starting his marriage broker business a decade ago, Suri has since then brokered close to 3,000 marriages across the country, across caste and community. In the process, he has seen a sea change in matrimony over the past decade. When he first started, girls and boys were getting married at younger ages, and the parents were the ones arranging the marriage. There were also far more inputs from grandparents and relatives. Today, girls and boys decide who they want to meet and marry. And while earlier the most important factors in arranging a marriage were caste, wealth/job and family background, the single most important criterion trumping all others is “sexual chemistry”, and boys and girls will want to meet at least four to five times to establish this chemistry before saying yes to marriage.
29, Technical director, Nasik
Hailing from Latur, Maharashtra, Shree began a sexual affair at 17 with her best friend in her all-girls’ hostel in Pune, though she didn’t know what lesbianism was at that time. By 21, she was married to a man of her parents’ choice. After two years, when Shree and Prakash were
unable to consummate their marriage, Shree filed for divorce, without her parents’ permission. Then she began exploring her sexuality through the internet and realised she had sexual feelings for other women after joining a support group. Soon she met Sapna, her current girlfriend, through a social networking site. Sree and Sapna plan to get married later this year. Sree’s parents do not know that she is a lesbian but are slowly beginning to accept the fact that their daughter is divorced and will never marry (a man) again.
34, Tile maker, part-time yoga teacher, Jalandhar
Shiny has been married, and divorced, twice. The first time around, it was to his girlfriend of five years; the marriage ended with mutual consent after two years. He married again, this time through the ‘arranged’ route, a match his parents found through an internet matrimonial website. He became a father 10 months after his wedding, and filed for divorce 15 months later. His case is presently in court. Why? Shiny says the modern Indian woman has too many expectations--she wants a provider, a best friend, a good listener and a great physical relationship. Yet she is not willing to adjust or compromise in any way. She wants and expects the best of both worlds, traditional and western, but that is simply not possible. That is why so many marriages are failing, and that is why he will never get married again.
(Ira Trivedi’s India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century is being published by Aleph.)