CHENNAI, India — As sexual freedom sweeps across India, women are increasingly finding that the price they have to pay in this euphoric atmosphere is very heavy.
Much as their Western counterparts learned during the 1960s’ sexual liberation facilitated by the “pill,” Indian women are realizing that free sex is potentially lethal, basically because of the different expectations of men and women. While men tend to offer love for sex, women submit to sex to attain a sense of emotional fulfillment.
It was, therefore, not surprising when a 15-year-old girl in the western Indian city of Pune recently agreed to meet her boyfriend on Friendship Day. She must have felt the first flush of love that leaves one dreamy and desired. But the boy brought three of his friends along, and they took turns raping her — just for fun.
The next day the shattered girl hanged herself. She had wanted love, and he, sex. This is one of hundreds of incidents in which boys and girls play dating games with diametrically opposite rules. And perhaps values.
Young Indian girls exposed to bold television programs from the West and daring reading material — now in most middle-class homes — are eager to befriend boys and experience the thrill of being in a relationship. The hormones of a young girl play up as much as a boy’s, and sex is an important part of this union. But girls, especially those from smaller cities who have led rather sheltered lives, are unprepared for the exigencies that may arise from such bonding. They fall prey to the first predator who comes along.
Boys have filmed girls undressing or making love, and sent the clips to friends for vicarious pleasure. Sometimes the clips are used to blackmail a girl into not leaving the boy. Occasionally a rejected lover stalks the girl.
Things can turn sadistic when frustration runs high: Acid may be thrown on a girl’s face, marring her for life. There are even cases of girls being kidnapped and imprisoned. Often such girls had little clue about the boys they decided to trust, unprepared in a society that had practiced sexual segregation for decades.
India’s sexual liberation has happened too quickly — in just about 10 years. With parents and teachers still wary about imparting sex education, girls walk blindfolded into boys’ arms. An awful lot of misunderstanding arises as a result.
When a girl gives a boy so much as a smile, he tends to misread it. He often does not understand that a girl may be drunk or skimpily attired or behave suggestively, and still say “no” to sex.
Old familiar rules have vanished. A girl has the right to refuse today, and in a stiflingly patriarchal society like India’s, men are uncomfortable with this. They have never been taught to respect a woman’s right to choose. Obviously, the transition from being segregated to mingling has been too fast.
Many Western girls are well-equipped to handle boys. They develop a keen sixth sense after healthy discussions on sex with mothers and sisters. More information comes from television, classroom debates and magazines; they are often able to detect the slightest danger in a relationship.
Indian society affords little room for this kind of deliberation and openness. And the feminist movement has had a much stronger impact in the West than in India. The ideas of Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedman percolated into Western popular consciousness.
As one writer has quipped, Indian girls have darted from Jane Austen to Paris Hilton. Armed with Austen’s sense and sensibility, the girls now find Hilton’s shoes too hot for comfort or comprehension.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai, India-based journalist.
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