In 2014, India is in the throes of a major sexual revolution.
Scantily-clad women eating popsicles in an ice cream ad. Sex scenes in Bollywood films. Indians ranked number six in the world for online porn views. Five-star hotels being used as modern day harems. Sexual encounters, gay or straight, just a click away. Resurgent syphilis.
She might have added one more sign of our so-called sexual revolution – the sex survey complete with headless women, silhouetted couple, and risqué artwork in magazines. Like Outlook.
No matter that the surveys get increasingly ludicrous and based on suspect samples, blithely ordaining say, a Lucknow as the oral sex capital of India or decreeing that a town like Asansol is a hot bed for wife-swapping. They remain an annual ritual.
The sexual revolution in India keeps coming. And coming. And coming.
Unlike the fly-by-night surveys, Trivedi is writing a book - India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st century. That means she is traveling the country, doing interviews, collecting data and anecdotes. The essay is a curtain raiser to the book, a preview of what she finds.
Much of what she shares is not earth-shattering news. Premarital sex is on the rise. Divorce rates are up. An International Institute of Population Sciences survey finds that 77 percent of unmarried women and 59 percent of unmarried men say women should be able to choose their own husbands. And the cell phone and the internet are the game-changers now and, writes Trivedi, have “propelled a new sexual openness.”
But these are just the symptoms and the means, not sexual revolution itself. We use the word revolution promiscuously these days. This essay alone uses it 16 times. But to be truly “revolutionary” it has to mark a change in a central belief – about the way we view our right to our bodies. About privacy. Extramarital sex is not new. If the internet or the cellphone has made it easier to have affairs that’s not revolutionary, it’s just more doable. Issues Trivedi brings up such as decades of urbanization and the fact that there are 37 million more men than women are much more significant in understanding any kind of sexual revolution.
In his book, The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution, Faramerz Dabhoiwala writes that between 1600 and 1800 something truly revolutionary happened in the way England viewed sex.
In 1612, Susan Perry and Robert Watson, an unmarried man and woman were brought to Westminster and tried for having sex outside of marriage and producing a child. They were ordered to be stripped naked from the waist upwards and taken to prison tied to the cart’s tail, whipped along the way and then banished from the city. There is no record of what happened to the child. Dabhoiwala writes that “Nobody seriously disagreed with this, even if men and women regularly gave way to temptation and had to be flogged, imprisoned, fined and shamed, in order to remind them.” Sex surveys often focus on sexual acts because they have the greatest titillation value. But acts are not as revolutionary as the attitudes underpinning them.
That gay men have sex despite Section 377 is not revolutionary. Nor is the fact that they use the internet as a giant cruising arena whereas once cruising areas meant public parks and railway toilets. What actually felt revolutionary until the Supreme Court ruling was that we appeared to be heading towards a social and political consensus that the state had no business meddling in the sexual acts, homo or hetero, between consenting adults in private.
As Dabhoiwala shows those acts happen whether or not there are laws against them. What’s revolutionary is that now, if we are not brainwashed by the Taliban, the idea of what happened to Perry and Watson feels completely repugnant to us.
In England before the Western enlightenment, says Dabhoiwala in an interview at the Jaipur Literature Festival, there was an “essentially religiously fundamentalist outlook” where people believed that “the Bible was God’s word and you should just follow it in ordering society.” Thus adultery was expressly forbidden and punishable. What changed was not that people started having more extramarital sex but the outlook. “People started to think that what’s right and wrong should be determined by reason,” says Dabhoiwala. “And by individuals deciding for themselves the limits of correct behaviour.”
That came about he says because of a greater sense of religious plurality and diversity. The Toleration Act in 1689 legalized nonconformist worship. “Religious freedom led to greater sexual freedom,” he says. “Once it had been established that people can be sincere Christians and yet differ fundamentally on how to interpret the Bible that led people to the belief that conscience was the better guide to right from wrong and how people were to get to heaven."
It was an idea resisted at first by even the proponents of religious freedom. John Locke tried to make the case that spiritual beliefs were a private matter and did not threaten social well-being but unbounded “adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness” were “not lawful in the ordinary course of life, nor in any private house; and therefore neither are they so in the worship of God, or in any religious meeting.” But that balancing act proved tricky to sustain writes Dabhoiwala because it became harder to argue that way to the bedroom was not as much a matter of personal choice and conscience as the way to heaven.
It was not the end of religion. “People in the 18th century and 19th century are equally religious,” says Dabhoiwala. But now there was more room for religious plurality and diversity. “It involves allowing for greater sense of privacy and greater sense of personal conscience in determining what people should do. It’s partly about allowing individuals more freedom and the community less power in deciding how they should behave.”
In our terms it would mean the khap panchayat would have less leverage when it came to determining someone’s right over her own body, that there would be a realization that the rights are endowed to us as individuals as opposed to as members of a community.
That would be a real sexual revolution. It’s immaterial whether it comes with or without the trappings of a lingerie store in the mall.