INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.

INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.
This Far, No Further

Despite the new-found sexual freedom, when it comes to lovemaking, Indian women continue to be surprisingly bashful, only occasionally revealing their wild side

In one of his classes, the high priest of sex surveys, Alfred Kinsey, was teaching a course in marriage when he asked a female student to name the body part that can enlarge a hundred times. "You have no right to ask me such a question in a mixed class," she replied. Kinsey responded: "I was referring to the pupil of the eye, and you, young lady, are in for a terrible disappointment."

If he were asking the question now to a group of young Indian women, he may well have got the pupil answer. For all their newfound sexual confidence, young, urban Indian women are remarkably ignorant about their own bodies. Clearly sex is still a new experience for them, which is why mechanical knowledge of it has not kept pace with its intellectual or emotional understanding. Or perhaps when it comes to such a secret part of themselves, single women are still bashful, a bit like Satyajit Ray's enigmatic Charulata looking at the world outside through her beloved pair of opera glasses-she can see and be seen but no one can see what she is thinking.

Unlike Charulata, though, there are many pointers in the survey that urban single women have sex lives that are as happy as they are healthy. If women want any improvement it is to increase the frequency of sex rather than its variety-the latter is the answer most men have given in an accompanying survey of 18- to 30-year-old unmarried males. There seems a high degree of consensus over consensual sex: both women and men want a long foreplay before the act and women still prefer the classic man on top position, as do men. There is remarkable harmony even in responses to what happens after the sex is over. Over 30 per cent of both men and women say they hug.

Yes, even now, women may seem silent partners rather than active initiators. They may also seem less willing to go beyond the boundaries: while two-thirds of the women confided that they have or had a boyfriend, only 10 per cent confessed to relationships with married men, and another 14 per cent said they tried swapping boyfriends. But as reports from the sexual frontiers of the world have suggested, for men, attracting women has become less a sexual game and more a survival instinct. So while almost half the men polled in our accompanying male survey have suggested that a man's sex appeal lies in his physique-which may explain the emphasis on working out-the women have their own view. Given the highly visual tradition of the movies they have grown up with, most women find a man's eyes sexiest-whereas 75 per cent of the men conform to tired stereotypes and go for the breasts.

For young Indian singletons, the confidence in bed mirrors the greater control over their physicality. According to a Pathfinders study of married Indian women in 38 cities/towns between 1993 and 2003, there has been a 10 per cent rise in the female presence in the workforce which has translated into a two-year jump in the age at which the first child is born. It is also reflected in a rise in spending on personal care products. There is little doubt that single women have absorbed much of this change. It is evident in their almost business-like air even about sexual intimacy. Like 30-year-old Rohini Kanthan, a practising lawyer in Bangalore, who is single because she has no time at the moment to invest in a relationship. She considers herself quite straight and old-fashioned when it comes to sex but was quite willing to participate in her former boyfriend's play-acting. "No S&M, just maybe blindfolding me and tying me up," she says.

What comes through in the survey and in the conversations with single women is their hardheaded pragmatism even in this most intimate of acts. Listen to 26-year-old Mumbai fashion designer Shruti Shrivastava, who had an intimate relationship when she was 18. She has had erotic conversations with her boyfriend on the phone, read pornographic literature and even watched a blue film, but she draws the line at allowing her boyfriend to film her while having sex. No, not because she is embarrassed but because as she puts it, "You don't know about the future. The relationship might not work out and the person may misuse the material or the pictures he has."

Even many women seem to welcome pornography as a source of education in a world where sex is still a hush-hush, psst-psst word. There is great trepidation about using the technical terms for sex and like the notion of purity and pollution it is carried by Indian women in their DNA, even when they have lived abroad. As the narrator in a series of monologues, The Secret Life of My Vagina, performed by a clutch of South Asian students at Brown University in the US says, while discussing how she discovered masturbation through phone sex with a white boy: "I felt cheap. I felt trashy. I felt ashamed. But I also felt confident and bold. I wanted to feel that way again. I thought about the first orgasm and how weightless and wonderful it made me feel. These things couldn't be bad." It is a sentiment that Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal found echoed among audiences when they saw the original inspiration, Vagina Monologues, in India: the initial shock at hearing the v-word gave way to a joyous embrace.

As the French-born erotic writer Anais Nin put it, perhaps the woman no longer wants to remain a tourist in a world of images she cannot share. Perhaps, she wants to step out of the dream world. Already, there are signs. Women are learning to free themselves of the fear of being seen with the other. Like 24-year-old Bangalore software engineer Asha Ravi, who steals time for her boyfriend over the weekend and has no qualms being openly demonstrative with him at pubs and restaurants, as long as her parents don't know. Explains counsellor Jairam Krishnan, "Ten years ago if I asked an 18-year-old if she was sexually active, she would cringe and behave like I had wounded her. Today when I ask the same question, no one bats an eyelid. And, about 60 per cent answer in the affirmative." As women discover a new arrogance about their remade bodies (the result of rigorous dieting and regimented exercise), the old inhibitions are giving way. Much of what goes on when the lights go out finds itself in the new voice of the underground woman: the confessional blogger who, proud of her new-found contrasexual frankness, likes a bit of anonymous fun, even if only to shock the uptight Internet male. Clearly, the days when women wouldn't kiss and tell are gone-or at least are on their way out.

There is a flip side to all this. One that Mumbai clinical psychologist Srilatha Srikanth sounds an alert to: "It is common to see girls as young as 14 and 15 getting into relationships, when there is a rather large amount of physical intimacy. These girls do not even know what their rights are in a relationship and the thrill of having a boyfriend often makes them compromise on their self respect."

The more they know, the better it will be for the women. In an age where having sex can seem as routine as a medical check-up, is there much point in letting the libido remain in the forbidden zone? When it awakens, the men better get ready to remake their beds.

-with Nirmala Ravindran and Aditi Pai


Would you marry a man who admits to having had sex with another woman?
Yes 18
No 81
With an equal number of women saying both men and women should remain virgins till marriage, hypocritical notions are fast dying out.

With whom did you have your first sexual relationship?
Boyfriend 63
Classmate 12
Colleague 9
Married man 6
Potential match suggested by parents 5
Figures are percentages of those who have admitted to having sex  

Do you know what an orgasm is?
Yes 27
No 55

Have you had an orgasm?
Yes 47
No 35
All figures in per cent  

How often do you have sex?
Once a month or two 64
Once a week 20
More than once a week 14
Daily 2

Are you happy with your sex life?
Very happy 47
Reasonably happy 28
Just about
Not at all
Two years ago, the percentage of women saying they hated their sex life was double the present figure and only 29 per cent had said they were happy with the way things were. Still it doesn't stop women from asking for more. In Ahmedabad, Jaipur and Delhi, women stand out for demanding greater variety in the sex act to improve their love life.

What would you rather do to improve your sex life?
Have more and frequent sex with my boyfriend 39
Have more variety in the sexual act 29
Nothing 12
Have sex with different men 3
Buy sex toys 2
Young Indian women seem to have progressed so far and no further on the road less travelled. Call it a fear of flying but in a world where they have inherited exaggerated notions of honour, they know losing individual control can have social repurcussions.

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INDIA TODAY - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia.
SEPTEMBER 26, 2005

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