By Karl Singarvelan Raha
Karl is our talented young India correspondent. He is a keen student of global humanist history and democratic politics.
In this article he reflects on attitudes towards sex in India from a humanist and rationalist perspective.
Sex education might make undergraduates 'feel uncomfortable'
During my first year of undergraduate studies, I was involved with extracurricular activities such as debate competitions, elocution, writing, and much more. During one debate competition, my English teacher assigned me the task of selecting topics. She rejected the idea of discussing Sex Education, however. When I asked why, she replied, 'This topic might elicit laughter and make some people feel uncomfortable too.'
Allow me to share a positive experience as well. It occurred during my sixth grade at an all-boys school when I was twelve years old. As we were at the beginning stage of adolescence, influenced by movies, the internet, and cartoons, we started using curse words and adult terms. During a maths class we were learning algebra when two troublemakers began making jokes about the chapter's abbreviation, 'ALGE', leaving only 'BRA'. It became a source of amusement, and everyone started laughing. At that moment, our maths teacher approached those boys and explained that 'BRA' should not be treated as a joke or anything demeaning, as it is simply a garment worn by females. Looking back, I realized how admirably our teacher dealt with this sensitive topic, avoiding insult or punishment and instead fostering understanding.
I still wonder why India, whose population will soon overtake China's, and which is the birthplace of the Kama Sutra (Principles of Love) dating back to the 2nd to 3rd century BCE, rejects open discussions about sex and considers it to be the biggest taboo in public life.
History of sex in India
India has been considered a sexually-liberal country since the times of the Harappa Civilization, also known as the Indus Valley civilization, circa 3300-1300 BCE), as evidenced by artefacts found during excavations. During the Vedic Era (1500-500 BCE), sexual mores became even more progressive with the prominence of the Kama Sutra and mentions of sex in the Vedas and mythological stories. Many sculptures and paintings depicting figures in sexual positions were displayed in ancient temples and forts. From primitive times to the present day, there has been a culture of polygamy, wife swapping, and arranged marriages. However, some elites have used these practices to exploit lower castes and other vulnerable individuals.
In his book The Origin of Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), German philosopher and revolutionary socialist Friedrich Engels drew on the work of colonial-era British scholars and travellers who studied and documented aspects of Indian society, including marriage, kinship systems, and sexual practices. For example, he mentions polygamous marriages, focusing on the Indian regions of Oudh and Madras.
When Islamic rulers began invading and establishing political control over parts of India starting from the 8th century CE, there were changes in Indian sexual attitudes. The veil system was introduced and the practice of sati or suttee, in which Hindu widows were forced to self-immolate on their husband's funeral pyre, became more prevalent. Harems and eunuchs gained popularity in the courts of kings. When the East India Company entered India in the early 17th century, British administrators viewed these Indian customs as barbarous, particularly in rural and forest areas.
After gaining control over many territories, the British enacted laws against various sexual practices. These included:
Section 377 of the British Penal Code, introduced in 1861, which criminalised 'carnal intercourse against the order of nature'
The Contagious Diseases Act of 1895 which prohibited prostitution in British cantonments
The Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 which targeted specific communities and groups, resulting in increased surveillance and control over the lives of community members – these measures affected various aspects of family life, including relationships, gender roles, and sexuality
The Indian Penal Code of 1860 which played a key role in centralising all the laws related to sex and imposing stricter regulations.
Many Indian conservative right-wingers claim that the Indian sex taboo is a result of the British Victorian mindset. And yet India gained its independence in 1947, seventy-six years ago. Indians, like many Asians, tend to be socially conservative. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Indian Prime Minister, remarked on this in a comparison with China. He observed that, even though Maoists attempted to erase Chinese culture, Chinese society did not depart from its cultural roots.
Indian right-wing groups strive to protect and restore what they perceive as the glory of the past. However, in reality, rulers in the past oppressed lower and vulnerable classes in various ways. Instances of conservative groups taking actions against modern cultural practices include:
In 2009 in Mangalore, Sri Ram Sena, a Hindu extremist group vandalized a pub and assaulted women, claimed that it is a sin for women to drink and party
Bajrang Dal, another Hindu extremist group, violated the privacy of unmarried couples in parks, cafes, and other places on Valentine's Day, threatening and forcibly marrying them – they consider Valentine's Day harmful to Indian society
In 1996, the Miss World beauty pageant in Bengaluru was disrupted by protestors opposed to the event clashing with police.
As social reformer B.R. Ambedkar said on Indian Independence Day, 'By independence, we have lost the excuse of blaming the British for anything going wrong'. Henceforth, if Indians treat sex as a taboo then this is the responsibility of Indians themselves.
The sexual activity of Indians
Privately, Indians have liberal attitudes towards sex, especially in rural areas, although pre-marital sex is less common in India than in the West. According to the 2016 National Family Health Survey (NFHS), an India-wide survey conducted by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Indian men have their first experience of sexual intercourse before the age of 30, with women experiencing it at an earlier age, typically between the ages of fifteen and nineteen. Lower educational attainment is associated with early sexual encounters. One in three women is affected by spousal violence and, according to the NFHS survey conducted between 2019 and 2021, 32 percent of women have experienced forced sexual intercourse. Spousal violence accounts for 82 percent, former husbands for 13 percent, and current boyfriends for 1.6 percent of sexual violence by partners. 18 percent of women feel unable to refuse sexual intercourse with their husbands, even if they do not want it, as to do so leads to anger and assault by husbands in 20 percent of cases and a refusal of financial support by 13 percent of husbands.
Attitudes towards masturbation
Recently, many spiritual gurus and amateur podcasters have taken to recommending 'semen retention' and the 'NoFap challenge'. The word 'fap' is a slang word referring to the sound of masturbation, hence 'NoFap' is an anti-masturbation movement. Ejaculation is alleged to reduce energy, concentration, mindfulness, mental health, and physical activity but there is no scientific evidence supporting such theories of 'semen retention'. In fact, scientific evidence suggests that regular masturbation helps with stress relief, improved sexual health, improved sleep, reduced headaches or cramps, and improved blood flow to the genital area. Masturbation can, of course, be unhealthy when it becomes excessive and interferes with relationships and lifestyle. Such obsessive behaviour can be addressed with the help of psychiatrists and therapists.
Pornography has existed since the time of ancient Greek civilization in the form of stories, paintings, sculptures, and books. With the advent of films in the 1940s, and the internet in the 1990s, porn became easily accessible for individuals in developed and developing countries. From my perspective, pornography is a form of entertainment like any other. According to a blog published by Psychology Today in 2021, there is no evidence to prove that porn leads to sexual aggression. However, a paper published by the National Library of Medicine concluded that exposure to violent pornography can contribute to sexual assault. A story in The Times of India published at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic noted that the average increase in porn-watching in India was three times higher than the average rise worldwide and in 2021 indiatimes.com reported that other conservative countries such as Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia are among the top 10 consumers of porn.
Pornography becomes problematic when it is consumed in a compulsive and addictive manner, disrupting one's lifestyle, work-life, physical health, and mental health. Those who watch it should recognize that porn is fictional and not an accurate portrayal of real-life sexual encounters.
Sex education, especially for adolescents, is not widely provided in India. The Central Health Minister of India expressed opposition to sex education and proposed that yoga should be made compulsory! States like Goa, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Chhattisgarh have forcefully banned and opposed sex education. The Hindu fundamentalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has also opposed it, on the grounds that 'sex education can be exploited.'
I believe that all students, from the age of 10, should learn about sex in school and college. They should have free access to therapists, psychiatrists, physicians, and gynaecologists within their educational institutions. Lessons should cover topics such as male and female reproductive organs, the reproduction process, menstruation, pornography, ejaculation, boundaries, protective sex, and sexually transmitted diseases. When it comes to topics like masturbation and pornography, professional therapists can provide clarification and help individuals overcome addiction.
LGBTQ in India
The Kama Sutra has a chapter dedicated to erotic homosexual behaviour. The text includes a section titled 'Auparishtaka' (also known as 'Lingamayam' or 'Of Fellatio'), which discusses same-sex relationships and sexual practices. This chapter provides detailed descriptions and advice related to male-male sexual encounters. The text recognizes and discusses various sexual preferences and orientations, including same-sex attractions.
In Hindu mythology there are many LGBTQ themes, such as Ardhanarisvari, a composite deity who embodies the union of both masculine and feminine principles. Ardhanarishvara represents the synthesis of Lord Shiva, the god of destruction and asceticism, and his consort Parvati (also known as Devi or Shakti), who embodies the feminine creative energy and power in the universe.
A prominent character from the Indian epic, the Mahabharata, is called Sikhandi. Sikhandi is introduced as the child of King Drupada and is born as a female named Shikhandini. However, from an early age, Shikhandini identifies as male and feels trapped in a female body. Feeling incomplete and misunderstood, Shikhandini seeks to become male.
According to Hindu mythology, Ayyappa, a Hindu deity primarily worshipped in the state of Kerala, was born out of a 'same-sex union' between Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu, who took the form of the enchantress Mohini.
Aravan is another character from the Indian epic, the Mahabharata. Aravan is known for his bravery and martial skills. He willingly offers to be sacrificed to the goddess Kali to ensure the Pandavas' victory in the Kurukshetra War. In return for his sacrifice, Aravan requests that he be allowed to experience married life before his death. However, finding a willing bride for Aravan proves to be a challenge, given the circumstances of his impending sacrifice. To fulfil his wish, Lord Krishna, who is revered as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, assumes the form of Mohini (the enchantress) and marries Aravan in a grand ceremony. An annual festival in Tamil Nadu, known as the Draupadi festival at Koovagam, attracts thousands of transgender and cross-dressing individuals to celebrate Aravan's sacrifice and his symbolic marriage with Lord Krishna in the form of Mohini. The festival is marked by various cultural events, performances, and rituals that celebrate love, sacrifice, and acceptance. The Draupadi festival is a powerful example of how mythology can shape cultural practices, and provide a space for marginalized communities to express their identities and find acceptance within the context of Hindu traditions.
Homosexuality was criminalized in Portuguese Goa in the 1500s and, during the reign of the sixth emperor of the Mughal Empire, Aurangzeb (1658-1707), Sharia Law was imposed with severe punishments for homosexuality. During the Victorian period, homosexuals and transwomen were considered to be criminal, although homosexuality was decriminalized in the colonial possessions of France in the Indian subcontinent.
At present in India, homophobia and the stereotyping of gay people is prevalent in the majority of films and opera. LGBTQ people are often ridiculed. Nevertheless, homosexuality has been decriminalized, many Indian cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kochi are LGBTQ-friendly, and the film industry is beginning to portray LGBTQ people in a normal way.
Co-education is prevalent in India, but many schools still segregate boys and girls in separate rows and prohibit them from sitting together. Some schools impose fines and install cameras to prevent interaction between the sexes. India should normalize friendships between boys and girls. Schools should encourage them to sit together, promote team activities, foster better understanding, break gender biases, and challenge stereotypes. This approach can lead to increased confidence and the development of healthier relationships.
India must remove the stigma around sex and embrace it as a natural part of life. Sex is a beautiful experience that can bring pleasure and create new life. Activities related to sex, such as self-ejaculation, pornography, and the use of toys, are not inherently unethical or morally wrong, as long as they are consensual and do not disrupt the lives of others. It is important to maintain a healthy balance and avoid excessive or disorderly behaviour. As a writer, I acknowledge that I may not have all the answers regarding sex education, but I commit to learning and increasing my knowledge to provide support to adolescents if needed. In conclusion, I would say, 'Sex is as normal as breathing'.