Reading an India Today sex survey is like being trapped on an amusement park ride with a bipolar patient with a penchant for speaking in tongues. One minute we’re on a Martin Luther King-meets-Shere Hite high — ‘Free at last, libido almighty, free at last!’ — only to turn the page and tumble into a dark abyss of self-loathing and repression.
This year, the trademark schizophrenia is emblazoned right on the cover: ‘Bold & Bored.’ (You can and should read the survey results in their full, mindboggling glory on the IT website.) As the sub-hed, however, makes it clear – “Men fantasise about other women, wives say sex doesn’t matter” — we are, more accurately, just plain boring.
The overarching problem with media-peddled sex surveys is an editorial agenda hamstrung by two opposing, and seemingly exclusive goals. One is to scold the great unwashed masses for their unseemly and outdated sexual timidity. Hence, all the handwringing about boring, bored Indians. The other is to sell the sexy idea of a nation poised on the brink of erotic abandon against all odds, including the facts.
Compared to previous years, the 2011 edition is mostly a downer, its pages filled with recalcitrant spouses nursing chronic headaches “in the boredroom” (48 percent of women and a third of the men). The gals are the big party-poopers here, with a mere 28 percent endorsing sex as a “very important part of their life” — as opposed to 43 percent of the boys.
Yet despite the downward trending levels of sexual satisfaction — at an 8-year low of 27 percent — “deep ‘satisfaction with life’ is at an all-time high, zooming from 25 percent last year to 36 percent now. Job satisfaction has gone up from 33 to 42 percent. On health, finances, family, emotional or social life, Indians strike a happy note. It’s just sex that’s the big pitfall.”
Oh my god, we’re not just repressed, but happily repressed! How can this be?
As an equal opportunity hater, the magazine promptly does a 180 and blames it all on men and their — gasp! — “lifestyle of sexual deviance and transgression.” Quite suddenly, we’re in the territory of “fantasies about women other than their wives, voyeuristic and paid sex, extramarital affairs, addiction to pornography, wife swapping, incest to child abuse. Boredom in men seems to be cascading up the dangerous trajectory of detached sex.”
All this ‘cascading’ seems to primarily entail — shock, horror! — fantasising about film stars (56 percent). The numbers for actual deviance are sadly underwhelming: “If in 2004, 7 per cent men owned up to wife-swapping, this year more than double have expressed their willingness to try it out...[emphasis added] ”
Never mind that the 2009 “Sexual Fantasy” report by the very same magazine berated people who fantasise about having sex with their partner in the bedroom — i e the vast majority of men and women surveyed — as sad, dysfunctional creatures who need to be rescued from their lack of imagination.
The other result of the sexy/repressed messaging is the often psychotic disconnect between claim and content. The libidinal images, for example, exist not to illustrate but titillate. A photo of a half-naked man with two underwear-clad models is accompanied by the modest number of men — 10 percent — who’ve actually had a threesome. So tired are the tropes that the magazine recycles images used in previous surveys, such as the hot chick in high heels standing on a conference table, looking down on her suited-booted paramour.
Worse is a gratuitous article titled Young and Kinky whose tagline declares: “Wife-swapping, one-night stands, threesomes. Young India likes its sex life spicy and is not coy about it.” Yet the writer herself admits that the survey looks “at an older generation. A majority of the survey’s respondents are above 25, married for over 20 years (mostly arranged marriages) and have children. In that sense, this survey throws light on sexual notions of the “settled” Indian, the regular family person.”
Not so young then, but now inexplicably kinky. Gone are the sex-averse wives that graced previous pages, now replaced by women “who fantasise about different sexual positions” (70 percent) and watch porn (34 percent). And that derided male “lifestyle of deviance” is recast as a good thing, like the 50 percent of men “open to sexual games with strangers.”
Yet the article itself concludes: “If anything, we know that in spite of the media and proliferation of information, the average middle class Indian is still cautious and wary.”
Up and down the editorial rollercoaster we go.
The end result is an old-fashioned mind-fuck. There’s the schizophrenia, yes, but also the tendency to obscure the few facts on hand. Neither the print or the online edition offer the actual data culled from the surveys. What we get instead are odd and uninformative pairings designed to addle the reader. Example: “27 percent of women believe child abuse should not be reported while 74 percent men are in favour of reporting.” Read that quickly and you’d assume a significant gender gap, except we’re never told how many women favour reporting child abuse. The survey highlights responses by men, women, and couples, but rarely to the same question, leaving us to compare staid apples with juicy mangoes.
What’s more criminal is that the valuable information in the survey — about parents, children, sex education (or lack thereof), incest and sexual abuse — is buried in this avalanche of glitzy gibberish. Peddle back to the bit about abuse, where 25 percent will not report child abuse in their family. That number is as high as 52 percent in Ahmedabad and 41 percent in Bangalore. That number gets even scarier when you connect it to a 2007 study on child abuse cited by child psychologist Shelja Sen that found 53.2 percent of kids are sexually abused. Now add to that the 78 percent of parents who refuse to talk to their children about sex.
Or how about this? What does it say about our knowledge and use of contraception that 77 percent of single women “often use morning after pills”? These are the numbers worth paying close attention to as opposed to the tiny minority that’s “open to” group sex.
So what did I learn from this year’s India Today survey? Our sex lives may be a bit dull, but our imaginations are not. And we’re mostly okay with that, much to the despair of news editors everywhere. More alarmingly, for all our florid fantasies, we remain woefully silent and passive about sexual behaviour when it matters most.
Also this: no good can come of this media addiction to sex as a sales gimmick. We’re creating a dysfunctional generation of Indians raised in an environment saturated with sexual content, including barely clad babes in newspapers, unreal Cosmopolitan-style reporting in magazines, porn stars on reality shows, and uber-sexualised item numbers on the big screen. All of it thrown at kids without any context, discussion or information. It’s all fun and games until we catch the 16-year old daughter watching online porn because she’s curious about Sunny Leone. But then again, we’ll just pretend it never happened.