Nilanjana digs into her bag to pay the cab driver. It is 10.30 in the morning, and the Calcutta college girl is late for her first class of the day. Her fingers touch a familiar rectangular pack inside her bag, and Nilanjana freezes. She remembers she hadn’t taken a pill after a night out with her boyfriend a couple of days ago. Hurriedly paying off the driver, Nilanjana sprints towards Pramod’s canteen at the back of the building for a glass of water.
The 20-year-old student in one of the city’s oldest colleges knows all about unprotected sex. So her Emergency Contraceptive Pill (ECP) — popularly known as the morning-after pill — is her constant companion. Dutifully, a day or two after every act of sex, she downs a pill with water. The pill, she knows, is effective if taken within 72 hours.
“I no longer hesitate to celebrate my freedom and enjoy my body. The tension we used to go through after having sex just no longer exists,” she says.
Seven years after the government allowed the ECP to be sold over the counter, it’s being used in metros across the country by young women as a convenient form of contraception — and for trouble-free sex. Though doctors and even makers of ECPs such as i-pill and Unwanted 72 stress that they are meant as emergency contraception, for a great number of young women, it translates into easy sex.
“The morning-after pill has led to a sexual revolution, such as in the West, where more youngsters are using it for pleasure regularly,” says Dr Aruna Broota, a Delhi-based clinical psychologist. “It has led to a significant increase in casual sex among teens and young people.”
Recently, Broota counselled a 13-year-old girl whose mother discovered a pack of i-pills in her bag. “The girl said she uses the pill regularly to avoid stress.”
The benefits for the young are evident. Unlike oral contraceptive pills which have to be taken regularly and therefore have to be stored, these modestly-priced pills can be bought and taken as and when required. “My mother has no inkling,” grins Nilanjana. And her boyfriend is happy because sex no longer entails the use of condoms.
“Condoms just dampen the pleasure,” holds Ajay Dasgupta, a 27-year-old software engineer who is married but has multiple partners. He carries packs of the i-pill — without the cover — in his travel kit and ensures his partners take it in front of him after sex.
The pill crops up as a regular topic of conversation in schools and colleges today. Nilanjana maintains that most of her college friends know about it — and use it when required. “We all enjoy uninhibited sex at this age. And if a pill sets us free, then what can be better,” she argues.
Clearly, one of the reasons the young seem to have happily embraced the pill is the fact that is it facilitates unplanned sex. Students at a wild party do not have to worry about the consequences of unprotected sex the next morning when they know that all that they have to do is take a pill to avoid conception. “It’s hassle free,” exults Ajanta, a 20-year-old engineering college student.
The Calcutta girl got to know about the pill when she saw a television advertisement in which a young woman, nervously looking for an abortion clinic, is told by her friend that the ECP is a safer alternative. Ajanta first took the pill after a one-night stand with a college senior. And now that she is going steady with a classmate, she has been taking it regularly.
Indeed, the pill seems to have pepped up the sex life of young women. “It empowers women to take charge of their body. It gives them the right to take a considered opinion on when they want to get pregnant. This is very liberating for a woman because it reflects that she also has a say in a relationship,” says Ranjana Kumari, director, Centre for Social Research, Delhi.
Piramal, the makers, of i-pill stress that it has not “revolutionised sexual habits of Indian youth” but empowered them. “It has given them more control over how to avoid getting pregnant in the event of contraception failure,” says Pallavi Patil, manager, brand building.
The pill is being marketed in an age when sexologists have already been noticing changes in women’s sexual habits. Mumbai-based Prakash Kothari believes women enjoy greater sexual freedom today, and are more vocal about their sexual needs.
“More and more women are into pre-marital relationships because they want to experiment with sex before tying the knot,” Kothari says. “They also want to have sexual pleasure in a relationship.”
He could be talking about Riddhima, a 16-year-old Calcutta schoolgirl who finds the pill “cool”. She was prompted to take the pill by her boyfriend after unprotected sex one night. “We had not taken any precautions and were very scared. So he insisted that I try this out and bought it for me,” she says. “Now I take it whenever we have sex.”
Chemists in the metros point out that the demand for ECPs is on the rise, and comes mostly from young students. Prabhat Shankar, who runs a medical store in Bangalore, says he sells about eight to 10 boxes of i-pills every week. “There’s a spurt in sales on Saturdays and Sundays,” he says.
Sociologist G.K. Karanth points out that the growing use of ECP indicates that sex is no longer a planned activity among urban Indians. “Sex is not a nocturnal act that happens in expected, familiar surroundings. Now young people are having sex on a whim. Growing promiscuity and a trend of premarital sex are fuelling the increasing use of emergency contraceptives,” he says.
“Earlier people used to pay a lot of importance to virginity but over the years this has got eroded,” reasons Rima Mukherjee, consultant psychiatrist and director, Crystal Group of Clinics, Calcutta. “Now high school children and college students go in for impulse sex and then pop an ECP. It has become a trend.”
Indeed, in some of Delhi’s top co-educational schools, sex among young teenagers in drunken parties is no longer rare. A 17-year-old boy’s grandmother was recently taken aback when, at his birthday party being held in her house, she found his classmates indulging in sex in the garden. “Bachhey, why don’t you go to a bedroom,” she recalls saying — not as a suggestion, but as a mild reprimand. “But the boy and girl nodded and started following me into the house.”
Clearly, some radical changes are occurring in the metros. The sale of contraceptives is an indication. Once kept discreetly in counters by chemists and bought secretively by men, today pills are being picked up by young women — many of them school and college students. “They’re quite casual about it,” says an area sales manager of Mankind Pharma, the company that makes Unwanted 72. “These pills sell really fast. We sell at least five packs a day,” adds Ashutosh Mullick, a Calcutta chemist who says his clients, mostly boys, are in the 16-21 age group.
Sexologist Deepak Arora, who runs an online sexual health clinic, finds that many of his young, urban patients have replaced condoms with the ECP. Most of them are in the 15-23 age group, adds Arora, who believes that the pill is one reason why premarital sex is on the rise among the young.
Of course, the pills have their downside, but the young are not overly worried about it. “Girls are popping these pills like candies,” says Dr Abhijit Ghosh, a gynaecologist at the Bhagirathi Neotia Women and Child Care Centre, Calcutta. “They are not aware that multiple use of the pill in a menstrual cycle can lead to contraception failure which is quite difficult to diagnose. Frequent use can affect fertility in the long run,” he says.
Misuse of such pills, doctors warn, can interfere with menstrual patterns if taken more than once in a cycle, and lead to heavy bleeding. Long-term overuse can cause irregular menstrual cycles. Also, unlike condoms which can prevent sexually-transmitted diseases, the pills are no protection against disease.
“Common side effects include nausea, vomiting, headache, abdominal bloating, mood disturbances, irregular menses and intermenstrual bleeding. Long-term effects on the ovaries are still being studied,” says Dr Kamini Rao, infertility specialist and medical director, BACC Health Care Pvt. Ltd, Bangalore.
But these warnings don’t trouble youngsters like Riddhima. “When my boyfriend’s breath gets heavy and fast, the only dampener is the thought of getting pregnant. Once that fear is gone, it is fun all the way,” she says.
Is it any surprise that Honey Singh — a rapper in the news for his explicit lyrics — is such a rage in India today? In Love, Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana, a 2012 film, this is what he sings:
Skill azama le baby, kalli kahin tu mujhko mil/Agar ho koi anhoni to tu khaliyo pill/ Arrey kuch nahin hota/ …Baby suraksha hi, sawdhaani hai. “Meet me alone (he sings); and in case of an unforeseen event, pop a pill. Nothing to worry about; Baby, precaution is safety.”
Some names have been changed on request.
Additional reporting by Sharmistha Das, Hemchhaya De and Moumita Chakrabarti in Calcutta; Varuna Verma in Bangalore; Kavitha Shanmugam in Chennai; and Smitha Verma and Sonia Sarkar in New Delhi