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Revolution in the bedroom

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TT Bureau   |     |   Published 25.10.09, 12:00 AM

A chance encounter with a woman who sat next to her on a plane set Shaifali Sandhya out on a journey of looking at Indian marriages. Ambika was a beautiful young woman travelling from Chicago to Delhi. When she heard that Sandhya was a clinical psychologist and was considering a paper on Indian marriages, she said,” My life is a perfect case for you then.” Through the journey she talked about her life — and how, six years after she was married she realised that her husband had another family in London.

The story led Sandhya to conduct 400 interviews of Indian husbands and wives between 1996 and 2009. They were between 20 and 55 years, and married from 1 year to 36 years. They belonged to different classes and lived in the National Capital Region or abroad. She interviewed both the husband and the wife, one at a time.

‘Every man is having an affair,’ said Aman, a forty-nine-year-old eligible bachelor. ‘If anyone tells you otherwise, don’t believe it.’ With a beautiful model with grey eyes and scarlet nails draped on his shoulder, Aman, once married, has held off a second marriage for many years. I was introduced to him by a colleague at a social gathering in Delhi. Successful, driven, connected and ambitious, he flitted from one sexual relationship to another. I found myself coming back to Aman’s opinion, as I was to confront the sexual revolution, and underneath it, the hedonistic underpinnings of modern-day society…

Indeed, a sexual revolution is occurring in India today, signalling a change in the sexual practices of Indian men and women: increasing their access to sexual partners, introducing them to a greater variety of sexual practices and redefining the meaning and purpose of sex in marriage. Today, a greater number of Indians are reporting sexual encounters before marriage; both husbands and wives are reporting sex with partners other than their marriage partners; married individuals state that they practise oral sex in addition to intercourse and find themselves thinking sexually of others even while they are married to someone else. One fourth of husbands and wives reported that they think about having sex with someone other than their partners… However, only 16 per cent of wives report orgasms on multiple occasions, the biological signal of female satisfaction.

Sexual pleasure is a powerful barometer of how good a marriage is. Whether sex is fulfilling for both husbands and wives, and how sexually satisfied they are, is a way of measuring the quality of a marriage. Sex without pleasure might be one of the reasons for ailing marriages in India… Despite the sexual revolution, all doesn’t appear well in the Indian bedroom, and dissatisfaction seems to be brewing in more ways than one. For many husbands and wives, sexual pleasure is missing in marriages. Consequently, couples either retreat from sex or find pleasure with others than their spouses…

Sex has become important in marriage today. Of the husbands and wives interviewed, 64 per cent said sex was either ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ important to their marriage. About 29 per cent said sex was ‘moderately’ important to their marriage and about 7 per cent, most of them wives, said sex was marginally or not at all important to their marriage. Thus, two thirds of the sample thought sex was important for their marriages. Out of this 21 per cent of respondents were quite enthusiastic about sex and thought it was extremely important for their marriage. One third of the couples seemed disinclined towards sex…

Ideas around sex are changing, too. Changing attitudes have spring-boarded the sexual revolution through a variety of factors: the introduction of the pill ‘Saheli’ in the 1990s which allowed Indian women some measure of control on the timing of pregnancy; a surging number of men and women marrying at later ages, resulting in increased opportunities for sexual experimentation and interaction; more access to education, money and social capital; and relatively more knowledge of sex and sexual freedom, affording immense freedom…

What is the tenor of female sexuality today? When I met the free-spirited Sheetal, I found she was not only forthcoming about having sexual desires but also direct about soliciting her relationships. In fact, she broke off an engagement because it would have stopped her from enjoying the casual spontaneity of her love life.

I used to have three rules in life: never sleep with someone else’s boyfriend; never sleep with a married man; and never to have unprotected sex. Never say ‘never’, for I proceeded to break all three!

I was having a rollicking time. I met a lot of people and was not looking for a husband. I had just secured admission to the School of Planning and Architecture. I had had a steady relationship for five years that I broke off as I did not want any commitment…

There is nothing that I have not done. I experimented a lot before I got married, there was no stopping me; there were no boundaries, there was no morality…

Sheetal, 40 years old, now married to Ashish, is the sexually emancipated Indian woman who exhibits an exuberance for sex even if sometimes her desire for excitement outweighs the appeal of her partner… Gender and class have always restricted women from the sexual realm — but now some women like Sheetal are reaching out to grab sexual experiences, and take control of their lives…

When it comes to sexual matters, most husbands provided factual details while wives talked candidly about their sexual lives with me. I found that many are excluded from experiencing their own bodies. There are women like Sheetal, but there are many more like Sunanda…

‘Have you had an orgasm,’ I ask Sunanda, 39 years old, a homemaker, married to Roshan… With the door firmly shut, we sat on her checkered bedspread affording us a quiet hub in her bustling home. She sat demurely, one foot resting underneath her and the other on the ground, in a sequined kolhapuri. The teak-wood dresser contained her modest array of nail polishes and lipsticks. I noticed Sunanda’s immaculate manicure and pedicure. She wore a pink cotton salwar kameez. The large steel almirahs on the side of the room contained her saris and purses. Sweet fragrance from the incense sticks wafted in the air-conditioned breeze…

‘Yes!’ said Sunanda, excitedly, responding to my question of her orgasm. I put a check on the required box and was going to move on to a new question when I stopped as an afterthought. I asked, hesitantly, ‘Do you know what an orgasm is?’ Excitedly, she replied back, ‘Yes, we just purchased it last week.’

Sensing something amiss, Sunanda’s hand moved to her mouth as she realised it was the ‘wrong answer.’ She sheepishly stared back, and I moved to the next question…

In contrast to Sheetal’s experience, what does Sunanda’s orgasm tell us about the sexual life of Indians?

Sunanda’s ‘wrong answer’ suggests that people differ in their understanding of sex. Both these incidents occur at the same time in society to women who are of the same age. One is a career professional, the other a homemaker. Sheetal has considerable expertise of her body, and knowledge of sex. Sunanda is a far cry from her. Her hand-on-her-mouth moment speaks volumes about the sexual habits and ways of thinking and experiencing sex for a large majority of Indian women. Sunanda’s lack of an orgasm is in fact the norm. Only 50 per cent of wives report an orgasm. Of all wives, only 16 per cent of them report an orgasm on multiple occasions, suggesting that it may not be part of the normal sexual fabric of marriage for many.

Sex in India vacillates between these two paradigms of naivety and experience: the untaught Sunanda and, on the other, the sexual Sheetal…

From Sheetal’s story we know that her sexuality impacted her marital satisfaction. What if we ask the question in reverse: how might marriage affect sexuality?

I ask Ruchira, 47 years old, in the foreign services, who is currently having an affair. What was missing, I wondered aloud. What I discovered was that Ruchira grew to suppress her own responses as her marriage progressed. Even though she had an active sex life with her husband Pratik, it was not exciting, and Ruchira eloquently refers to the breakdown of her expectations in the bedroom.

I grew shy as a person. If I tried anything different I could feel him cringing and curling up. He was in a hurry to do it. Like all men. They need it and they want it. Then it’s over…

So that’s the kind of life I had, but I accepted it. I didn’t look for anything more. I have many male friends who … would say incredulously, ‘And what do you expect? A perpetual honeymoon?’ Frankly, I do.

Twenty-four per cent reported they did think about having sex with someone other than their partner. …Three times as many husbands compared to their wives reported that they often thought of having sex with someone else…No wonder then, according to a news report, while Venezuelans look up ‘David Beckham,’ Canadians look up ‘marijuana,’ the most looked up word in Google in India is ‘sex.’

Sex and Indian marriages

64% of husbands and wives interviewed said sex was either ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ important to their marriage

◘ About 29% said sex was ‘moderately’ important to their marriage

◘ About 7%, most of them wives, said sex was marginally or not at all important to their marriage

 

 

 

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