The Diplomat’s Justin McDonnell speaks with Ira Trivedi, novelist and author of the recent non-fiction book India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century, about sexual politics in India.
Is a sexual revolution currently underway in India?
Yes, there is definitely a sexual revolution in this country.
The dramatic shift in traditional values related to sex and sexuality is visible everywhere you look. Premarital sex in urban areas is skyrocketing: an estimated 75 per cent in the eighteen to twenty-four age bracket. Sex is rampant in urban high schools, and it is no longer unthinkable for thirteen-year-olds to be dating, and for sixteen-year-old high school students to be having sex. Sex is finally out of the closet and on to the streets. On a short drive through urban India one is bombarded with titillating sexual images – of scantily-clad women sucking on popsicles in an ice-cream ad, an actress spread-eagled 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 even a decade ago censored French kisses. Women are gyrating in the most sexual of ways in G-rated movies, and Indian designers now include the stringiest of bikinis in their annual offerings. Pornography is widely available, with a recent Google survey declaring that Indians are ranked number six in the world for online porn views. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 2009 for the first time in a hundred years, although a controversial Supreme Court ruling a few years later reversed that, only to have it roundly condemned in most sections of society, and there is a flagrant gay party scene in the bars and bathhouses of metro cities. For gay men, sexual encounters are a click of a button away. Sex for sale, for both men and women, is easily available, including 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.
Where do the age-old caste system and religion fit in?
To answer this question, I want to lay out a few out a few parameters.
I focused my studies on the urban, middle class. There was a reason for this. When I set out to write India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century, what I was really interested in were the groups who were driving the changing attitudes to sex and sexuality in modern times, and these were primarily young, urban and middle class. I travelled to all of India’s metros and a dozen other cities to collect information and form impressions of the changes that are taking place. I became convinced that I needed to probe deeply into middle-class attitudes towards my subject, because what the middle class thinks and feels today will become the norm tomorrow, especially given the way the world is evolving. In India, today, the middle-class population stands at 420 million out of a total population of 1.2 billion. It is estimated that 90 per cent of the Indian population will be middle class by 2039 and that by 2027, India will have the biggest middle-class population in the world. In other words, in roughly a quarter of a century, or in the course of another generation, India will have added one billion people to the middle class—almost double the current population.
It is also this middle class that will finally break through the age-old caste system of India. The similarities amongst India’s middle class across the country are greater and perhaps more binding than the traditional forces of caste and religion that have shaped the country for millennia. While change has been slow to happen until now, there are signs that economic growth and education are helping to bring down age-old social barriers.
Right now the religious barriers are pretty strong, but these too will eventually break down, the way that caste already is.
How is technology, particularly Internet dating and pornography, shaping the Indian perspective on love and relationships?
Technology has played a large role in the sex revolution. Cable television, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, chat rooms, online porn and the like have teased the imagination of a young India, expanding her horizons and aspirations with the click of a button. India already has the third largest Internet user base, 100 million people strong, just behind China and the USA. In the next three years the number of Internet users is expected to be in excess of 300 million.
The Internet has allowed access to those people (and there are many) who have physical boundaries, family restrictions, etc, and has allowed access to the other sex. This is an important point, as access is still very restricted. As I have stated above, the number of people who watch porn online in India is astonishing, but not surprising. There is still very little access to sex, and porn, especially online porn, allows for fast and easy titillation in a restrictive society.
Sex-selective practices, infanticide, and sexual violence are deeply rooted problems that a modernizing India still faces. How might the country address the underlying causes of these crises?
As I have understood it, this is all part of the dark side of the sexual revolution. Some of the things that India is holding on to are incompatible with its newfound pleasure principle. With all the liberties and exploration the sexual revolution has brought and will continue to bring, there is be a flipside. There is a dark underbelly to India’s sexual revolution as she is caught in a quagmire of her own making. For example, baby girls and female fetuses continue to be killed and the sex ratio continues to plummet. Government documents explicitly say India does not “need” sex education. Instead, they recommend Yoga and Naturopathy. Organized spaces for young people to discuss sex and gender are few and far between.
This is essentially a backlash to the changes that are happening at cyber-speed. We need to have some major, large-scale sex education programmes, and also more gender sensitization. The government is simply not doing enough.
In December, the Supreme Court shockingly reinstated a colonial-era law banning homosexuality in the country. Then last month, the same court ruled that India’s hijra receive full legal recognition. The court appears to be confused whether or not to support the visibility and acceptance of sexual minorities.
New values are feverishly in the making, and we live in a state of molten confusion. There is a fierce backlash against the sexual excess, and there is a growing tension between the old and the new. We see this all around us, and also in India’s legal landscape. Hijras are more culturally accepted in India that the homosexual community. It was almost as if this step was some sort of an appeasement for the earlier ban. But it’s not at all, and I do think that India won’t give up till homosexuals get their rights.
India’s main opposition party, the BJP has won a landslide victory in recent elections. Although the BJP has been rather vague in its position on LGBT rights, it has made it clear that it supports the Supreme Court upholding Section 377 of the penal code. Should the BJP come to power, will we see greater setbacks towards sexuality and LGBT groups? Or are you optimistic that we will see greater changes and attitudes towards sexuality?
The BJP, and other right-wing Hindu groups have been responsible for some nasty, regressive stuff in the past, including beating up young couples, throwing women out of bars, and protesting Valentines day. The BJP does bring with it conservative ideology, but that is not what India voted for. They voted for the BJP because of the promise of economic growth and financial liberation. If the BJP does bring in conservative elements, I don’t think that India, especially young India, will accept it. Neither will India’s progressive, liberal media. Yes, there is some danger of repression, but the truth is that there is a sexual revolution underway in India, and it is too far along for anyone to try to stop it. We may face setbacks from more traditional forces (including the BJP) but the force of the revolution is so strong, that it will tide over.