I remember my family movie nights; my sister and I would be huddled together in one blanket and my parents in another, and we would all be watching a rented movie for the weekend. Everything would be all fun and jokes, until … the actors started to make out on screen!
The frantic search for the remote, the ‘cheee’ and ‘close your eyes’ from my mom, and the eventual forward of the scene.
As a kid, all I did was giggle and assume it was an adult activity that was only permitted for married couples. As an adult, I wonder … why shield kids from love and sex, but not from homophobia or sexism?
Conversations About Sex Behind Closed Doors
Indian sex education was one of the two things: abstinence, or unimportant until after marriage. Most parents still don’t mention or even utter the word at home. Teachers still skip the reproductive chapter, and kids still learn from porn or friends. If there was any talk from adults, it was more about unwanted pregnancies, how it is ‘wrong’, ‘shameful’, and why it is meant for having kids and raising a family.
We are the land of Kamasutra; the ancient Sanskrit text that speaks about desire, sex and love. Focusing on not procreation but pleasure, it speaks about how Kama is one of the four goals of life. Ancient India observed paintings, sculptures, poems and stories about desire and love, and even openly homosexual rulers.
When did it all change? What happened to this part of our culture?
Pre- and Post-Colonial India
Colonialism shaped our systems, beliefs, and traditions; no matter how much we try and ignore it. The British Empire in the 18th century developed several policies to regulate the way Indians had sex; section 377 was one of their implemented policies. So far as to run campaigns in the 19th century to ‘purify’ our poems from their eroticism. Before this act, expression of one’s sexuality, in any form, was not punishable by law and was generally approved.
In the 50s, at the peak of the freedom movement, Bollywood too was quite open regarding the way it portrayed female sexuality. Several artists and directors like Deepa Mehta, Mira Nair, Mahesh Bhatt, Shabana Azmi, Smitha Patil, etc., showcased female characters who were independent and ‘bold’ in their decisions.
Cut to the 80's, the ‘angry young man’ genre took over, and censorship rules became stricter. Filmmakers resorted to hilarious and weird displays and phrases to talk about sex or turned to rape scenes because they couldn’t technically show sex in a positive light.
Post-colonial India internalized previous beliefs. Add religion and nationalism to the mix, and the decades from there forth held on to those beliefs. This isn’t to point fingers and blame one person or community, but to understand how our history shaped our attitudes, and how we can change them.
2020 and What’s Changed.
Hearing the news may make it seem like nothing changed, but there has been progress. Indian influencers like celebrities, YouTubers, and various channels have taken it on themselves to start conversations about sex. Feminism India launched a brilliant program called ‘Comprehensive Sex Education’ to provide online education to kids and teenagers. Many urban and millennial Indian parents are also turning to gender-neutral parenting and new ways of upbringing to allow their kids to become more confident in their expression of sexuality, and more respectful in the way they treat their partners.
“All of this is great, but what can I do?”
The whole point of starting this series and this article is to normalize conversations about sex and sexuality. About porn and pleasure. About fantasies and fetishes. About consent and respect.
If you’re a parent, don’t shy from the topic if your kids are curious about it.
If you’re a teacher, address the students about safety, respect, and the false myths.
If you’re the older sibling, encourage your younger siblings to talk about their experiences.
If you’re a friend, share your insecurities and fears about it.
If you’re a partner, talk about what you want, need, and like.
Because if we cannot talk about it, we cannot remove the stigma around it. So, let’s start simple …