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Sex books and the mediation of masculinities

By Suparna Bhattacharya

A Bangalore study reveals that popular printed material on sex continues to be the first and principal source of sexual information for young men. These books reinforce gender stereotypes and the Madonna/Whore dichotomy, encourage violence in male sexual activity and portray women as either passive receptacles or dangerous partners who need to be "controlled" by their men

Reading popular printed material on sex, known as “sex books”, seems to be an important initiation into “manhood”. A study in Bangalore on 60 college-going young men revealed that nearly all of them used these books as their first exposure to sex and their main source of information on it.

One of the key themes of this qualitative research study was young men’s participation in sexual activities, their range and type, with whom and in what context they were negotiated. The study was conducted to understand young men’s peer groups and friendship relations and their influence on risk-taking behaviour. The participants were all male, predominantly Kannada-speaking, studying first- and second-year BCom, from low-income communities within Bangalore and the surrounding peri-urban and rural areas.

The contents of 11 different Kannada sex books were reviewed, and the quality of information and key messages in them assessed. The 25-60-page booklets cost between Rs 10 and Rs 50 each. The quality of paper was poor, the photographs and printing smudged. Except for the covers, they were in black-and-white. They carried no information about the publishers.

The staple fare in all the books was sexually explicit photographs, mostly copied from Western magazines. There were also stories, not linked to the photographs. Each book had around 40 photographs: two-thirds had only women involved in different heterosexual or masturbatory activities, and three-fourths of them were Western women. It was interesting to note that there were no pictures of homosexual activity or of male masturbation. There were several pictures depicting group sex, and there were some of only male and female genitals.

We reviewed the stories in these books for language and key messages. The language was graphic and crude. Male genitals were described as “weapons” while female genitals were referred to as “passive receptacles”. Violent verbs such as stuffing, shoving, kicking were used to describe sexual acts and sexual pleasure. Stories typically described “illicit” sexual relations -- a young man/woman with an older neighbour or relative; co-passengers on a train; a hostel warden with a student; a spouse’s friend and so on. Most of the stories seemed to suggest that women were intrinsically dangerous and needed a man’s control to keep them in check. The women at the centre of most stories were single women -- unmarried, widowed, those in sex work or those whose sexual “appetites were not ‘satisfied’ by their husbands”. Conversely, a “real man” was one who could “control” his wife by sexually satisfying her and therefore he needed to know more about sex than the woman. Otherwise there was always the danger that his wife would cheat on him. Further, a “real” man was one who could hold his liquor, have sex several times within a short span of time and with several partners.

We found interesting parallels in what young men reported in the interviews. One set of participants, calling themselves bad boys, put a premium on sexual experience as a marker of masculinity, where the size of one’s genitals, one’s ability to engage in sex for a long time without ejaculating, and one’s experience with different types of partners and positions were key criteria for being a “man”. Such young men believed that “watching and reading” was passé and one had to move on from merely “watching” to “doing”. Nearly half the men who subscribed to this view had engaged in penetrative sex with multiple partners.

“This is the age to do things practically and not read. Reading is only up to SSLC and PU (pre- university/college).

They nevertheless did engage in ‘reading and watching’, but it had to be spiced up with several other activities to make it more interesting and challenging. So these young men tried different strategies -- they read stories from the sex books in groups and enacted them:

“One of us reads the sex book and there are volunteers who act it out. If somebody asks what we were doing, we say, ‘We were reading the Bhagvad Gita and had organised a bhajan group for that’.”

Others organised a masturbation competition at these events:

“One of the guys blows the whistle and says, ‘Get, set, go’, and then we start. Whoever gets ‘out’ (ejaculates) last is the winner. From our room I am the only participant.”

Checking on the hardness of the erection was also part of the competition.

Alcohol was a “must” at these events.

“We get a lot of maja (enjoyment) after drinking. But we are not completely out (drunk) but just for zoom (equivalent of “high”).” ;

Stripping, masturbating and passing crude comments added to these young men’s enjoyment.

Sex books/movies were also used to harass men who the bad boys consider Gandhis (the equivalent of a nerd). Gandhis were at the opposite end of the spectrum of masculinity and believed that at their age they had to study and not “lose their head” over sex and women. They did not deny their sexual needs but felt they had to be “controlled” or fulfilled in a safe and acceptable manner. And reading sex books, watching sex movies and masturbating, if done discreetly, were safe ways to release their sexual energy:

“Such things (sex books, movies and masturbation) are needed or else boys will go crazy.”

“My experience with these books is that they are important to help young boys control their desires and focus on their studies. When I have such desires I cannot concentrate on my studies. At such times, if I read the book and do jataka (masturbation), I feel fresh. But I don’t like what X and others do -- doing it openly and talking about it.”

While sex books/movies were a necessary evil, it could also be a double-edged sword. If one was not cautious, instead of getting liberated from sexual thoughts, one could end up getting addicted to them:
 
“They (sex books) can be dangerous in some ways. One can get addicted to them. Then we will start thinking only about girls and spoil our heads.”

None of the Gandhis reported any sexual experience and said they wanted to remain virgins until marriage, as a way of demonstrating their love for their partner and also because it was more exciting:

“I want to be pure till my marriage. I don’t want to have sex with anybody other than my girlfriend who is going to be my life partner.”

“I want to be fresh till I get married. I am not interested in it now. There is thrill to do it after marriage.”

The difference in the way Gandhis and bad boys perceived and used pornographic material seemed to be closely linked to the difference in their notions of masculinity. However, the point of convergence for these two kinds of masculinities and messages from sex books was in their attitude towards girls and women. Both Gandhis and bad boys seemed to subscribe to the classic Madonna/Whore dichotomy, which the sex books also seemed to reinforce. They believed that a girl/woman was either “good” or “bad”. Good girls/women were those who were like “sisters”, who did not wear revealing clothes, were “innocent” and did not overtly interact with men. Bad girls/women, on the other hand, tried to attract men by wearing revealing clothes and being “free” with men, and they were cunning and scheming. Those from rural areas were more likely to be “good”, while those from the “city” were more likely to be “bad”. While “good” girls/women deserved one’s respect and “protection”, “bad” girls had to be taught a lesson.  

Young men’s peer and social environment provided no space for sexual diversity or gender-equitable relations. This was further aggravated by their constant exposure to sex books with their misogynist slant and reductionist notions of masculinity. Therefore, it was not surprising that seemingly “safe” (as in the prevention of STI/HIV) notions of masculinity, which the Gandhis subscribed to, also had hidden prejudices running deep and threatening gender-equitable interactions and relations. Those working with young people are recognising the role of gender norms and notions of masculinity/femininity in increasing young people’s vulnerability to violence and disease. One realises that information campaigns and interventions with young people need to comprehensively address their information needs, not through sterile ‘scientific information’ but through material that connects to their context and realities and
provokes and sustains their interest. 

Note:  The study was conducted by the Foundation for Research in Health Systems (FRHS) with funding support from the NIMHANS Small Grants Programme on Sexuality and Sexual Behaviour, Department of Health Education, NIMHANS, Bangalore

(Akhila Vasan works with the Foundation for Research in Health Systems, Bangalore, and is currently a Health and Population Innovation Fellow supported by the Population Council, New Delhi. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

InfoChange News & Features February 2006