What Lies Beneath

How not to go about a sex survey of small-town India

If the latest magazine sex survey is to be believed, small town India is filled with sexually experimental and supremely satisfied men and women. DANIEL BEREHULAK / GETTY IMAGES
01 January, 2013

"AMDAVAD SEXY CHHE?” This was 70-year-old Kantaben’s response to an India Today reporter who told her the magazine’s 2004 sex survey had declared her city India’s “most erotic”. But it was an expression of pride, not surprise: she told the reporter with a chuckle that when she, at 20, had married into a large joint family, she had “an insatiable appetite for sex”.

Meant to assess the sexual decadence of India’s biggest cities, the magazine’sannual survey—whose first edition in 2003 shook up the Indian English media and its readership—found in its first year that women in Ahmedabad, among the five Tier 1 cities on the list, rated the importance of sex at 4 on a scale of 5, against a national average of 3.5. In its second outing, it determined that 69 percent of men in the city were very happy with their sex lives—and 72 percent of those men believed women were as enthusiastic about sex as they were.

The magazine presented this and similar data as radical discoveries. This claim of novelty was based on what appeared to be two correlated assumptions that are common across high-profile sex surveys: first, traditional societies aren’t big on sex, and second, the trappings of modernity lead directly to individual sexual freedoms. (The survey of single Indian women the next year asked participants if working women were more likely to be sexually promiscuous.)

The fact that both Kantaben and her granddaughter (who told the magazine that “sex sustains everything else in life”)—women as different in age as in milieu—were equally concerned with sex, thus challenging both assumptions, prompted no rethink on the part of the magazine, or the writer in question, who kept on expressing pre-packaged awe: “Curiously, the Gujaratis, one of the most orthodox communities, known more for their bandhini saris, dhoklasdandiya raas and bustling joint families, seem peculiarly vulnerable to the power of Eros.” It may be unclear to many of us why bandhini sarees, dhoklas or joint families are incompatible with sexual desire.

What Tier 1 cities were to Indian advertising in 2003, Tier 2 cities are now. So after an eventful decade of exploring and re-exploring urban sex, the India Today–Nielsen survey decided to go “Between the sheets of small-town India”, as the cover of the magazine’s 10 December issue proclaims. “Bharat surprises India with its sexy secrets” was the headline for the lead feature, which touted “the hinterland” as a place where “true connoisseurs of pleasure thrive”. It might as well have been called “What India thinks of Bharat”: an exercise in upgrading from one set of inaccurate cliches to another. “Govindpur is changing,” one article declares. “It is evident in the Bajaj Chetak scooters and Maruti Alto cars that have started appearing on the roads.” This is a strange definition of “changing”: a relic of the 1980s, the last Chetak rolled off the assembly line in 2009.

Before the nation was falsely partitioned into “Bharat” and “India” by insecure metro-dwelling writers, no one judged a place’s sexual potential using developmental parameters. In fact, racy Hindi magazines are packed, cover to cover, with juicy half-true narratives of illicit sex from small towns—in which social restrictions inspire mad passion, and women often take the lead. This was true well before anyone in India tried to make sex surveys fashionable, and it’s still true today.

Sex is a big part of life and public discourse in small towns. Anyone who has read a regional newspaper knows that they are incomplete without reports of sexual escapades from obscure blocks and subdivisions. And public sex scandals of the magnitude that can cost a politician his job in Delhi only elicit tired sighs in Patna.

So why, precisely, are sex surveys being unleashed on small-town India? Consider the history of such surveys. They were launched in 2003 by Kamasutra condoms, and then lapped up by India Today and Outlook in partnership with condom brands like Durex. Durex, of course, conducts sex surveys in potential markets across the world. It’s awfully important for brands to repackage mundane things—eating, having sex—as having great, historical importance when they are done after paying a little more money first. And thus small towns have to become proper centres of consumption, proper sites for a society aspiring to the promised Utopia of consumer modernity, before they are allowed to have real sex, the sort that needs surveying.

India’s small towns, buying Mercedes cars and Louis Vuitton bags, are being hailed as its new concentrations of super consumers—and should surely aspire to global norms in intimacy, too. The ultimate aim is the creation of a unified global Indian, who can compete with anyone, anywhere. In Kamasutra’s 2003 survey, Hyderabad was proudly declared to bemore sexually active (17.1 times a month) than France, “the nation of lovers” (13.1).

Ironically though, as Patricia Uberoi points out in her essay ‘The Sexual Character of the Indian Middle Class’, which was based on the 2007 India Today sex survey of married couples, several aspects of the liberalised sexual mores now attributed to the Indian upper middle class have longbeen associated with lower classes, tribals, and other marginal groups in Indian society—-whose lifestyles have not generally been regarded worthy of ‘competitive emulation’.

What do we learn from the latest exercise? Kolhapur leads in frequency of orgasm (44 percent always achieve one); Jamnagar in sex toys (27 percent); Aizawl, multiple partners (11 percent); Ratlam, threesomes (11 percent); Kottayam, extramarital affairs (41 percent say it is acceptable); Guntur, one-night stands (48 percent think they are OK); Asansol, wife swapping (6 percent); and, startlingly, 63 per cent of Kota has anal sex.

Why, you could ask, is Kottayam more into extramarital affairs than comparably liberal Asansol? Why are sex toys only popular in Jamnagar? With the exception of Aizawl in Mizoram, whose numbers for live-in relationships and multiple sexual partners are explained in terms of the region’s youth culture, more equal gender relations and traditional customs, you’re on your own if you want to understand what about the history, geography, trade structure or religious or caste composition of other towns might have to do with the baffling statistics.

“It is not important whether or not the change that is being talked about has taken place or not or whether it has been accurately comprehended,” the social anthropologist Kriti Kapila wrote in a 2011 essay on sex surveys. “What these surveys do is feed into the rhetoric of change [‘India is changing’, ‘Indian society is changing’, ‘Indian values are changing’] that is a part of the larger discourse of modernity.” Uberoi puts it wonderfully: “it is as though India’s 7–8 per cent economic growth might be matched by a comparable growth in sexual voracity.”

In any case, the baseline against which this change is said to be taking place isn’t apparent, beyond a vague idea of “old India” that each young writer evokes from his or her growing-up years. Yes, many of us grew up in an India where wearing jeans was a big deal for girls and Harold Robbins novelshad to be read furtively with their covers concealed, but did that make us care any less about sex than those growing up in the New India?

The efficacy of results is also dampened by statistical asymmetries, especially along the gender line. It is difficult to believe that “60 percent of women in small towns have an equal say in sexual matters” if “70 percent of the men insist on marrying virgins”. Is it because of under-age marriages that “21 percent [of small-town women] have had sex for the first time in their pre-teens and teens, compared to 13 per cent in the metros”—given that the same survey reports“most men experience their first sexual encounter on their wedding night.” And how could 40 percent of small-town women have dated more than one man, if “by 19, most men have fallen in love and want to marry that person”?

Uncertain results aren’t exclusive to this survey; since 2003, there have been a spate of media sex surveys, none of which has been able to establish with any authority if Indian sexual behavior is indeed changing. Aside from the factors that hamper all behavioural surveys, such as self-selection or a low response rate, Indian sex surveys miss the target because of an ill-advised determination to circumscribe marital sexuality. If we documented the shifts in how men and women were negotiating sexual terms inside marriage, rather than projecting sex as suddenly being free of marriage, we would have had a more realistic picture of Indian sexuality.

The surveys present a fascinating anthropological problem, Kapila writes, because “we cannot evaluate from a social science perspective exactly what the nature of the change is”. It’s not because tabulation of sexual behavior is new in India—state-sponsored family and sexual health surveys follow the same process—but because its market-driven version isn’t rooted in social examination. To see the difference, read the sociologist GS Ghurye’s survey of the ‘Sex Habits of a Sample of Middle Class People of Bombay’ from 1938, which sought similar information from 2000 Hindu men in that city, but far more deeply. The professor dwelt on matters such as the time between being married and having sex, since girls married young; or a possible rise in sexual passion prompted by wives’ yearly visits to their parents (“do you find any change in the frequency of your sex-intercourse after reunion?”); or whether Hindu scriptures’ complex diktats governing sex during menstruation were being followed.

As Uberoi explains, Ghurye, a Sanskrit scholar and keen observer of the Hindu way of life, saw the act of sex more as a function of male self-restraint, considered a prized Hindu trait, than self-expression or passion. Judging by the extent of new knowledge generated by this colonial-era undertaking, the current survey across “citadels of orthodox India” seems only to have skirted the boundary walls.The gaze that urban India directs at the places it calls “Bharat” is, in fact, almost foreign. A correspondent dispatched to interview people in Salem—a mid-sized city in Tamil Nadu of which the residents are among those identified posting online ads in search of sex—returns with the news, “There is an outward innocence about the people, still too shy to talk about dating, let alone sex.”  Who cares, of course, if neither looking for sex online nor being uncomfortable discussing one’s sex life with strangers is really a Salem thang?