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Busting the myth of the Great Indian Sexual Revolution

By Mirra Savara

Recent surveys in the national media suggest that urban Indian women are shaking off years of conservatism and asserting their sexuality: they are having sex, paying for sex and indulging in forbidden sex. Is this picture accurate? And what are the consequences of this portrayal by the mass media?

 Over the last few months several magazines have bombarded us with surveys and opinions on what Indian women are doing with their sex lives. The picture that is being drawn is of Indian women entering the globalised, liberalised sphere of sexuality “free of the burden of her barren sexual history,” as India Today puts it. “She is looking fearlessly into a future teeming with sensual possibility.” India Today also tells us that India’s smaller-town women are sexually proficient: “In Patna, a majority of single women claim to have had an orgasm”; Ahmedabad tops in terms of frequency of sex, with 33% claiming they had sex more than once a week, while the nationwide average was only 14%; in Hyderabad, 49% approved of live-in relationships.

Is this a true picture? Obviously not. Anyone with a little bit of common sense knows that it isn’t. But as the mass media knows only too well, sex sells: raising these questions is often enough to get the articles read.
The tough part is that these magazine surveys make it seem that this is what is happening generally in Indian society. “Nationwide survey,” you are told. Percentages scream at you in larger-than-life figures on the page. But what do these percentages mean? Who are these surveys actually talking about? And how are the surveys being conducted?

One of the main questions in research is the sample -- how it was drawn and how representative it is. In the case of India Today, imagine a young unmarried woman walking down a street. She is approached by someone at the corner. Most women would likely tell the person to get lost. If she did listen to what this person had to say, she would be invited to a “central location” to fill out a questionnaire. Would she agree? Some 2,035 women in 11 cities in India actually did go… and answered a questionnaire. Since they don’t give the details, we can presume that that’s about 180 women per city. How many women refused to go to the central location after being approached on a street corner, we don’t know. But there must be something special and different about those young women who did go to the central location and then actually sat down and answered questions. Questions like: What do you prefer -- long foreplay or quick sex? What is your preference in foreplay? What do you do after sex? Do you share sexual fantasies with your boyfriend? Have you masturbated in front of your partner?

After these and a host of other questions, the women walked out of the central location with a little gift in their hands, perhaps.

These women were in the age-group 18-30, we are told. Sixty two per cent were graduates, 54% students, and 33% working women. All belonged to the upper-income group.

Of these women, 24% said they have had sexual intercourse. That’s a royal sum of 488 women, and across 11 cities. This means that when the magazine reports how women in Ahmedabad are so forward-looking, or that more Patna women are having orgasms we are probably talking about 20-40 women. Is this a sufficient enough sample to conclude that “women have started experimenting with their bodies”?

A smaller survey of men was also conducted: 517 men from the same cities were surveyed on the street corner itself. Imagine answering the question “Have you ever peeped through keyholes or stealthily watched other people having sex?” on a street corner as people saunter by (20% answered ‘Yes’).

While the cover of India Today promises to give you the scoop on ‘Sex and the Single Woman’, Outlook’s cover screams ‘Women Buy Men for Sex’ and offers a ‘Nationwide Survey on Forbidden Sex’.

If you read the fine print you find that these articles claim to reveal the sexual attitudes and behaviour of urban middle class men and women in metropolitan cities, in certain age categories (and in India Today, only singles), but the text gives the impression that they are talking about all urban women and, in some cases, all Indian women. Because of the convenience sampling method and the likelihood that women willing to go to a central location to fill out a questionnaire would be unrepresentative (over half of the India Today respondents were students), the findings cannot be reliably generalised to urban metropolitan women or to Indian women in general.

Another reason why these findings seem unreliable is that they are so different from a recent survey carried out by BBC World Service Trust, New Delhi. As part of a knowledge, attitude and practices study on HIV/AIDS, a survey was carried out in 17 states, covering 169 towns and 570 villages in June-July 2005, with respondents chosen randomly by interviewing individuals in every fifth household. The BBC World Service Trust covered all the socio-cultural regions (SCRs) in 17 states (57 SCRs in all). In each SCR, three towns (with populations less than 5 lakh) and 10 villages were chosen by systematic random sampling using 2001 census figures. A total of 200 respondents were chosen in each SCR, half rural, half urban; half male, half female, from the age-group 15-49.

Although the population studied is different (smaller urban areas and rural areas), the picture of the behaviour and attitudes of young adults in India shows that it is far from the picture drawn by the media studies.

The few comparable questions yield extremely different answers. While 24% of India Today’s unmarried female respondents claimed to have had sex, this was the case for only 8% of men and 0.59% of women aged 15-29, in the BBC study.

According to India Today, among urban women in the 18-30 age-group, 65% believe men and 66% believe that women should be virgins before marriage. In contrast, in the BBC study, 96% of women in this age-group believe that both men and women should be virgins at the time of marriage. There was no difference between rural and urban areas, or between men and women.

Some may dismiss the India Today and Outlook articles as harmless fluff, but there are consequences to such kinds of mass media portrayals. It is only when you read the fine print that you realise that this is not a portrayal of Indian women. The surveys on sex and the single Indian woman, and the nationwide survey on forbidden sex, appear to be drawing a picture of Indian women. But this is simply not the case.

Who is it that these surveys are reporting about? Those urban men and women who would want to participate in a sexual study of this kind. It does not even represent the young educated urban woman. The fact that individuals were stopped at street corners, or given questionnaires that they mailed in two days later, itself creates a bias.

So what difference does it make, you may wonder. People do read these articles and they do form a picture about what “young single women” in their cities are about. If they are having sex, paying for sex, having forbidden sex, then these women are (or should be) available for me (men) too.

Young women, in colleges or working, have been reporting that there is increased peer pressure from men to get into sex. And if women say no, they are branded as prudish, traditional, not with-it, not cool. Surveys like this contribute towards creating an image of the young urban woman.

Agreed, there are changes taking place in the lives of women and men as the economy moves forward. Many youth (not all) are getting independent sources of income, and living out of their homes. It is important that we support these women who are entering new ways of living. However, does creating a false picture of what is occurring in their lives help? Not all of these women are engaged in the drugs, disco, dancing, drinking lives that Page 3 journalism celebrates. And by creating such a picture the media is certainly doing damage. These articles could contribute to promoting sexual aggression among men. They could be reducing women to the position of sexual consumers, putting a globalised gloss on women as sexual objects. The mass media is attempting to link the globalisation and openness of the market economy with a growing “globalisation of the mind and body”. But they might be stretching the point, and the truth.

(Dr Mirra Savara is currently head of the Research and Learning Group of the BBC WST India. She conducted the first-ever sexual survey in India and has researched sexual behaviour)

InfoChange News & Features February 2006