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Sex In The '90s: Uneasy Revolution

In the decade of excess, buoyed by the media and liberalism, many urban Indians may be pouring out of the closet and signing on for the sexual revolution. But it could prove a long haul.

Sex In The '90s: Uneasy Revolution
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So, what is it? Powered by the amazingly liberal and modern Kamasutra and pulled by the inanely voyeuristic and mushy Baywatch , are we in the process of ringing in the sexual revolution? Or, corralled in by the moral mine-fields of Gandhi and policed by the virulent gendarmes of AIDS, have we decided that our bid for freedom is too fraught with danger? Are we the legendary sensualists of the East, or the mythic ascetics of the Orient?

As with everything else to do with sex—actually, life—there are very few cut-and-dried answers that can be served up for everyone's uniform relish. Between the front door and the bedroom falls a shadow, in the complex circuitry that links the head and the groin fall many. Even without Sade, Freud and Hefner, and in our particular cases Kamasutra , Gandhi, and Rajneesh, sex would have remained obsessive, dark and central to our lives. Because it's the one feast of the senses that enervates us even as it exalts us, we struggle to understand it and come to terms with it, though far more compulsively in the West than in India.

Uniquely, in this feast each person brings his own labyrinthine menu to the table—oral sex in a car, sex with the lights on, making love to a woman while fantasising about a man, or any of a thousand configurations—and hopes to find some others willing to partake of it. And because there are as many menus as revellers, there is a singular curiosity about what other bills of fare contain. Sadly, in India we have long tended to deflect this curiosity rather than address it. Picking its way through the tables, with some degree of science and logic, a survey tries to give us some idea of the prevailing palate.

The West is host to a virtual conveyor belt of surveys and studies—Masters and Johnson, Kinsey, Hite, Nancy Friday and hundreds of others—which in varying measures of exactitude and whimsicality shovel up large fragments of knowledge that unlatch new windows and throw open new doors. Society, that is people, can peep in and find, mostly, reassurance and light. It is a gauge of our—Indian—social insularity and insecurity that we baulk from facing up to this most central of issues—I can think of another equally important one that we duck: communalism—and generally spend our public lives brandishing the simplistic and faux morality of adolescents. It's surprising, and not a little disturbing, that Outlook 's survey of the urban married adult is the only really comprehensive and scientific one ever carried out in India. And this is 1996. The sexual revolution has long been over in the West, and people have settled down to coping with its vim and venom.

Of course, it's not as if we in India have refused to step out of our hutches. We may not yet be a country of sexual revolutionaries marching to an insistent beat, but over the last two decades we have been witnessing a definite transition borne largely on the wings of media and a growing liberalism. But here too the barrage of sexual allusions in mass media could be indicating a change far greater than may have actually occurred. Suddenly in the '90s, in an aping of the West, we are bombarded by an arsenal of sexual stimuli that suggest everyone is having mind-blowing sex, and all you need to do is enroll and fulfil certain norms to get in on it.

In Nineties India, advertising, music, cinema, television, glossy magazines all deal in sexy bodies, sexy images, sexy storylines, sexy words. Music videos have young, hard, semi-nude bodies dishing out the seductive hip roll—even the iconic Bachchan, who could once do without heroines, cannot do without the floozies. Advertising contrives to imbue every product it sells with an irresistible sexual potency. Television soaps routinely revolve around adultery and premarital sex, and glossy magazines base their existence on the pectorals and haunches of concupiscent models. The very atmosphere breeds a heightened sense of sexual expectancy. But does it translate into proportionally more sexual activity? Not necessarily.

In fact, there may be curious paradoxes at play, and veils that reveal only half-truths. For one, there may be a large gap between the perceived proliferation of sex and an actual increase in activity. For example, in 1994, the highly touted National Health and Social Life survey in the US completely debunked the myth of booming American sexuality. The survey discovered that the notion that Americans are having a lot more sex with more partners than ever before was a complete illusion created by the media; and contrary to the image of a sex-hungry nation most Americans were actually quite satisfied with their sex lives. It's a cautionary tale for those who find '60s swinging London in '90s Bombay.

Then there is the paradox that may increasingly manifest itself: as liberalism grows and information flows, people may grow both more comfortable with their bodies and their sexuality as well as become more anxious about their performance and their capabilities. The media's idealisation of youth, looks, potency can leave the less gifted with a nagging sense of inability, and the depressing feeling that they've been left out of the great feast of sexuality to which everyone else has been invited.

The one other paradox we may witness, as pointed out by Sudhir Kakar, a pioneer in the study of the Indian sexual psyche, is a parallel reactionary movement to growing liberalism. Somewhat akin to what happened in Iran, leading to the elimination of the Shah. We westernise too fast, we open up too quickly, and we may find the conservatives, unable to keep pace, digging in their heels, sparking off rump movements that hark back to a more closed society and ostensibly more traditional values. For example, in their brief passage through the portals of government, we saw the BJP, or more accurately Sushma Swaraj, wielding a puritan broom to sweep out advertisements that would not even inflame a school child. This was an isolated incident that in the coming years is bound to find dangerous echoes.

Despite all this, there is no doubt that sexually the modern Indian is witnessing change as never before. And most of it is taking place on the distaff side of the divide.

DOC, I can't come. This, apparently, is how young, educated women routinely accost Dr Prakash Kothari, India's best-known and most voluble sexologist. But this was not always so. When he started the Department of Sexual Medicine at KEM Hospital, Bombay about 15 years ago, he used to get about four to five patients every OPD (out patients day), none of them women. For the first five years, no female complainant turned up at the department. Today he receives 70 to 100 patients every OPD, many of whom are women. And not all of them are there because of orgasmic deficiency. Many have moved up the ladder, and are now in search of greater thrills and excitement. "They walk in and declare," says Kothari, "we are fed up with the monotony, doc, teach us some new methods." 

Clearly, if the sexual revolution is taking place in India, its guerrillas are the women. Kakar concurs with this, asserting that in his clinical experience of the last few decades, he has seen a major change in women's sexuality, among the more overt pointers being an increasing candour and openness. He attributes this change largely to media information and a new generation of parents who are high on tolerance. The very exercise of carrying out a survey can often yield as many valuable insights as the survey itself. Ranabir Sen, MODE's field director for the Outlook survey, was very impressed by the lack of reluctance on the part of women to answer the highly detailed and intimate questionnaire. The only city he faced some problems in was Cochin, where too the women did not refuse to answer the questionnaire but simply chose to do so in the fastness of their own homes.

This is doubly impressive and revealing when we take into account the fact that most of these women belong not to the rapidly emancipating upper-upper middle class, but to the middle middle-class, which the survey coordinators described as the scooter-to-Maruti 800 slice of society. If the change that our statistics reveal is so considerable in this segment, it can be safely assumed that it is far more sweeping as we move up the social ladder.

There are other indicators that the bastions of repression are under serious assault mainly from women. For example, the last few years have seen a burgeoning of middle-class women writers—from unlikely mofussil towns like Bhopal—whose books attempt to boldly describe sex. Curiously, no similar male writers have emerged. In a book commissioned by Penguin India recording the personal sexual histories of upper middle-class urban working women, due out next year, the respondents have spoken candidly and graphically about every aspect of their sexuality from masturbation to extra-marital affairs to wild fantasies to oral and anal sex. Some years ago, it would have been a rare woman who would have agreed to speak drawbridge on any of these subjects for a book.

The Outlook survey bears out all these indicators. It will reinforce some stereo- types, dispel many myths, and inevitably originate new ones. A generation ago most telling. The middle-class couples did not even meet each other before marriage, now a large percentage are indulging themselves in somewhere physical contact before wedlock, and a not negligible number are actually ending up having pre-marital sex. The greatest change of course has to do with women. Contrary to the long-held stereotype, of the sati savitri, helpless victim to her husband's whims, the Indian woman is no longer passive (assuming she ever was). In fact, she is an equal partner in foreplay, in actual intercourse, and in post-coital activities.

Of course, we all know that Indians do not have oral sex. It is unhygienic, taboo and base. Wrong. The survey shows that a majority of the respondents deemed it a normal activity, and a fairly large segment declared that it actually indulged in joint oral sex, the quaintly if accurately termed 69. Well, oral sex is one thing, but we all do know that the middle class is the truly frustrated segment of society, and everyone is lusting for more of more. Wrong, again. The overwhelming majority appears to be quite satisfied with their sex lives, at least the frequency of it. And yes the numbers are not dismal: 17 times a month for couples below 30, and 12 times a month for couples over 30: frequency that does not compare unfavourably with the rest of the world. But no, people are not having feverish sex all times of the day. Late night is still the favoured hour.

And the favoured position is nothing exotic from the Kamasutra , nor is it a power statement posture as "women on top" was in the West in the '70s and '80s. The conventional missionary position, man on woman, is still the overwhelming favourite. And when it comes to sexual arousal for males, breasts are the unsurprising front-runners while, surprisingly, hair feature a poor eighth out of nine. For females it is muscular physique that's most arousing followed closely by eyes and height. Buttocks, which used to figure in a lot of western surveys as top drawer attractions, find the least favour with Indian women.

And yes, the orgasm exists for the Indian woman as does masturbation. Other oddball nuggets of information surface: a large percentage of men fantasise about watching others have sex. Then there are the grey areas that emerge, the unexpected, confusing findings that pay a tribute to the wonderful complexity of sex. For example, it's not Bombay and Delhi that figure always as the hot, happening cities. In frequency of intercourse, Cochin is the clear leader followed by Lucknow. As for pre-marital sex, conservative Madras leads the pack by miles, followed once again by Lucknow. The general impression we hold of cities is completely overturned as we discover Lucknow is by far the most active in the experience of both multi-partner sex and homosexuality.

Dr Kothari says that in the last few years he has been getting an increasing number of transvestites and homosexuals, and is surprised at their frankness in acknowledging and addressing their deviations. His experience is borne out by the survey, with an impressive number of people casting a benign eye on homosexuality and a small percentage, about 12, asserting that they are turned on by masochism. It shows that western liberal and libertine ideas have begun to trickle into the Indian middle class. But does that mean the drawbridge is breached and the revolution is on?

There's no sure way of telling. The truth perhaps lies proverbially somewhere in between. Neither Gandhi nor the Kamasutra . In our sexuality, we are certainly no longer the repressed society of the '70s and the '80s. The media explosion has freed us, driven away some of the demons that thrived on our ignorance. Masturbation no longer makes our youth quail in bloodless fright. Homosexuality does not always need to conceal itself under the macintosh of heterosexual marriage. But the media has also trapped us, made us hapless victims of its grandiose images. So, we are there: somewhere in between.

In a quaint way, popular agony aunts—of whom there has been a proliferation in recent times—can prove to be a good barometer of sexual trends. In India, these aunts tend to allay stupid, irrational fears but always balance it with a healthy dose of moralising. Yes, there's absolutely nothing wrong with masturbating but don't do it more than twice a day otherwise you'll neglect your studies. Memorably, in Annie Hall , Woody Allen says sex was the most fun he ever had without laughing. The good news from the field, courtesy the Outlook survey, is that a lot of middle-class India agrees with that.

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