Yoga, the Kama Sutra and Bollywood are three of the sexiest products of Indian culture; actresses in the film industry thrive off their internationally recognised sex appeal and ancient Hindus had penned a guide to maximising sexual experiences long before many other civilisations had discovered the written word. In theory therefore, Indians should be as sexually liberal as their culture portrays them to be. Yet earlier this year the Indian Health Minister, Dr Harsh Vardhan, suggested a new values-based approach to sex education which removes sex (or the more ‘culturally acceptable’ s**) from the picture almost entirely. Not only does his vision repudiate the emotional and social importance of sex but it brushes over basic scientific principles, virtually closeting the topic altogether.
Thankfully his proposal was almost immediately dubbed as ridiculous and young professionals across the country formed a strong opposition. Parodies of ‘government approved’ initiatives appeared online and newspapers openly mocked his Victorian mentality. What many failed to acknowledge however was how poor the current level of sex education is. Here in England, children aged ten or eleven years of age are taught about the reproductive system and more information is disclosed each academic year regarding sex and relationships, based on what the Department of Education has deemed age appropriate. Although this in itself is controversial, this scheme was introduced in response to alarming (and now well known) statistics which showed that the UK has one of the highest teen pregnancy and teen abortion rates in Europe, thereby warranting a drastic intervention. It was justified to conservatives with the argument that if teenagers cannot be trusted to abstain from sexual activity, it is surely more sensible to prepare them for a healthy sex life by equipping them with trusted knowledge on contraception and answering their questions in a safe environment.
In India, this permissive approach couldn’t be further from reality. There are clear discrepancies in the delivery of sex education across schools in India; whilst some schools have followed the World Heath Organisation’s advice that sex education should be taught to children from the age of twelve in order to prevent increasing HIV transmission by promoting safe sex, very few engage in the same level of teaching that has been adopted in the western world. A common theme, which unifies the various Indian sub-cultures and traditions, is the importance of chastity before marriage. This underlying value helps sustain the rationalisation that sex education is wrong, as it may spur the youth to believe pre-marital sexual relations are morally acceptable.
This leaves the future of Indian society in a precarious position. It would be unreasonable to suggest that all of India’s current issues result from an aversion to discuss sex openly but it is interesting to consider just how many problems it might explain. Would the population grow as rapidly if women knew how, where and why to access contraception? Would women be seen as inferior to men?
Adolescence is as awkward a time in India as it is in Europe, however the difference in India is that there is a severe shortage of responsible adults willing to explain the changes your body undergoes. I presume it is still uncomfortable for parents and teachers here in England but there is at least an understanding that by holding these positions of power, you are morally obliged to prepare children for what will be an incredibly vulnerable time, both physically and psychologically. This does of course include that favourite talk about ‘the birds and the bees’ that every parent and secondary school teacher thinks of with fondness.
Pornography, unlike reliable counsel on sex and relationships, is easily accessible and downloadable; and therefore the only source of information for many young Indians. It usually shows a woman (or women) following the whims of their partner and submitting herself to his every need, which can be crass, aggressive and undignified. Feminists would not object so heavily to porn if it depicted both the male and female parties as having equal power as they engage in whatever sexual activities that take their fancy. What porn actually does is add fire to the pre-existing gender stereotypes that tarnish social mentality.
Pornography does not demonstrate real life but as we are often told here in the west, it provides an escape. It is by its nature a chance to live out fantasies. In a country where sex and the reality of relationships are not openly discussed however, should crude fantasies be the only way sex is portrayed? Women are exhibited as submissive sex objects, so young men are deluded into believing that women should embrace that role. Young women are not told anything different and are therefore deceived into embracing it. Porn is made by men, for men, and the lack of assertive females in the industry is painfully apparent. Even in mainstream Bollywood, Emran Hashmi – an actor with an infamous reputation for producing smutty films for the general audience – will star in film after film and engage in risqué scenes with a different C-list actress, who is taking her first shot at the big screen. Each actress eventually withers away following a torrent of controversy but Hashmi continues to pave his career, relatively unscathed from the negative PR that shrouds his films.
Pornography does not only entrap young women but it also fails to liberate young men, who spend more time alone in front of a screen than interacting with other human beings in a sensate dynamic. Both genders are allocated unhealthy roles in relationships and because there is little alternative guidance available in India, they may unknowingly adopt the example pornography gives. We often speak of the advances made during the digital age. It is possible however that instead of shifting towards gender equality, a fundamental lack of sex and relationship education is further engraining archaic gender clichés into today’s youth and consequently delaying social progression.