What do youngsters in urban India think about sex? Where do they learn about it? What do they think of porn and how do they consume it? What about masturbation? And do they understand consent?
In an attempt to answer these questions, Vitamin Stree, a video content platform geared towards urban, millennial women, conducted an online survey on sex and sexuality in October 2018.
Answered by a staggering 2,500 people between the ages of 18 and 35, the survey attempted to decode how young Indians viewed sex and sexuality, where they get information on these topics from, and how they navigate communication and pleasure. It was an attempt to deep dive into the existing conversations about sex, and the topics India should discuss more openly.
The survey resulted in Vitamin Stree’s latest video series—Censex.
But first, the findings.
A majority of those surveyed—65%—identified as female. Moreover, a majority identified as heterosexual, close to 10% identified as bisexual, and almost 3% are homosexual.
The survey covered five major areas: an overview on sex, porn and masturbation, good sex versus bad sex, sexual health, and consent and pleasure.
How do we learn about sex?
Interestingly, the survey found that 30% of men learn about sex before the age of 13 from their peers. The second-most popular educator on sex is pornography. Unsurprisingly, only 9.96% of respondents first learnt about sex in sex education classes.
Vitamin Stree says, “That translates to misinformation followed by misrepresentation.”
This starts to feel like an urgent problem when you learn that 50% of the respondents said they started having sex between the ages of 14 and 18- in line with global trends.
Like any other kind of media, pornography is built for commercial consumption and therefore is a reflection of several problematic phenomenon in society.
For example, people of colour are either largely absent from most pornography videos or hyper-sexualised. Other intersections of difference- race, religion, ethnicity or gender- are treated in a similar manner and severely lack representation.
Unequal and insensitive representation in the media- including in pornography- can influence our unconscious biases and impact our interactions.
Porn also, unfortunately, caters to the male gaze. This means that women’s pleasure is erased or positively correlated to male pleasure.
Vitamin Stree’s findings concur. “When it comes to pleasure, the threshold still remains extremely low for women”, they said.
In terms of age representation, pornography has an abundance of footage depicting unequal power dynamics- like between a boss and employee- as desirable, sensual, and appropriate.
However, in reality, these situations can materialise in the real world with powerful individuals exploiting or intimidating those lower in the hierarchy.
Vitamine Stree notes that the same people who got their information on sex from pronography, “could not clearly explain consent.” Respondents explained consent in a variety of ways- from enthusiastic affirmation to non-verbal body language.
But, the lines bordering consent are blurred.
The survey revealed that 1 in 8 respondents lost their virginity without their consent. Others said they were coerced into intimacy and felt pressured to go along with the act.
The #MeToo movement is evidence of the vast scale of sexual harassment, abuse, and misconduct that is rooted in a number of issues- including a sheer misunderstanding or misinformation on consent.
The National Council of Educational Research And Training (NCERT) is considering adding sex education classes for children between grades one and 10.
“While this is a much needed and a big step, there has been no significant progress to explain sex as a natural process and definitely no effort to explain equally important aspects of respect, pleasure and consent”, says Vitamin Stree.
The survey found that 78% of respondents had unprotected sex, risking sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), pregnancy, overuse of emergency contraceptives, and mental stress.
A majority of men and women said that despite having a sexual health concern, they did not visit a doctor because they could not afford it or feared judgment from the doctor and family members if they found out.
Simply instituting sex education programmes isn’t a holistic policy- the government must include intersectional and inclusive information on contraception, sexual health, intimacy between same-sex partners, navigating communication, and more.
How Indians view porn and masturbation
According to Pornhub, Indians are the third largest consumer of porn in the world. Vitamin Stree also found that 91% of men watch porn, 50% of whom watch it several times a week.
Although narratives on sex have traditionally excluded female agency, women are increasingly watching porn, as well. 65% of female respondents said that they watch porn.
“Women can easily access porn, on their phones, watch in the privacy of their homes, without anyone getting to know about it,” says Vitamin Stree. Beyond accessibility, many online sex and body positive activists and platforms have sprung recently on social media.
These initiatives encourage women to shed some of the shame and stigma attached to masturbation and porn. The survey found that 82% of women say they have masturbated at least once in their lifetime.
Is it revolutionary to think women should enjoy sex?
Porn is not currently made for female consumption. If it is, it is made to stand out as “other”. For example, porn sites like Pornhub now have a categories titled “Popular with women”.
While this may seem like a step forward, it unintentionally clues viewers into thinking that porn is and should be produced for men, by default, while women’s tastes and preferences are allotted a smaller sub-category.
Vitamin Stree found that women used negative words like “violent”, “dirty”, and “disgusting” to describe current pornogrpahic content. Men, on the other hand, used words like “hot”, “erotic”, and wonderful.
Additionally, women not only reported bad sex at a higher rate than men did, but also defined it differently.
Among those surveyed, 52.48% of women equate bad sex with pain and 32.39% with no orgasm. Infact, a majority of women report not having orgasms during sexual intercourse at all.
A third of female respondents even reported to faking orgasms almost half the times they have sex because they feel too awkward to tell their partners that they haven’t finished or did not want to discourage their partner.
At the core of this issue lies a discomfort with direct communication about what makes one’s sexual experience most enjoyable. The survey found that 20% of women struggle with communicating their sexual fantasies.
“Every time a woman fakes an orgasm, she is training her partner to normalise exactly what doesn’t work for her”, says Vitamin Stree.
Contrastingly, men said that bad sex means no foreplay or that the session finishes too quickly.
That women’s idea of bad sex is physical pain and the absence of pleasure while men’s is that the act is too short makes society’s patriarchal attitudes towards sex painfully transparent.
Sex has traditionally be synonymous with marriage between a man and a woman. Moreover, women considered sex as a performance of duty because it was a precursor to childbirth. Men continue to view sex as another avenue of power, one of many mentalities that must change.
Indian society has a long way to go before accepting that young people can and should have sex, if they choose to do so consensually. However, the Supreme Court’s recent scrapping of Section 377, upholding the right to privacy, and declaring that live-in relationships are legal will contribute to progressiveness.
While mindsets do not change overnight, if these rights are enshrined in the law, Indian citizens have a legal basis to agitate for their freedoms, including those related to sex.
Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius
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