Sex and the City
It’s not the first time the state has decided to punish those who engage in pre-marital sex, which it perceives to be an immoral, value- devoid, hedonistic, large-scale- social –disintegration- of –Bharat- Mata- inducing- inferno. Before marriage, the state, as well as a vast section of the Indian populace believes that sex is about as horrific an offence as can be. Being the victim of rape might still be condoned in present times, but positively consenting to sex before you are married? Surely that must be a crime!
Well, it’s not. If you’re both above eighteen, and if you are both consenting to any form of sexual activity, the law does not criminalize it (with the exception of prostitution and homosexual sexual activity, which are currently illegal in India). Engaging in pre-marital sex is perfectly within the four corners of the law, as has been repeatedly upheld by the Indian judiciary. But our self-righteous police authorities take up the mantle themselves, flanked by multiple self-proclaimed ‘Senas’ , to disallow, ridicule, humiliate, assault and harass couples who dare to do something which is perfectly legal: have sex before they are married.
A popular, and fairly pathetic excuse for such behavior, is to bust prostitution rings. However, all standard hotels mandate production of a valid, government issued proof of age, identity and permanent address/institutional affiliation, in order to prevent the use of their rooms for prostitution. So long as guests are able to produce these documents, the excuse of combating prostitution is highly tenuous and deeply offensive. But more importantly, even with the lack of such proof, the fact that the police can force you to open your door, arrest you and drag you to the police station at their whim, with no whiff of a warrant or any other procedural backing is horrifying. In the recent incident in Mumbai, the police dragged unmarried couples out of their rooms in certain hotels, arrested them and imposed fines on them. Needless to say, all of this was done without a warrant for search or arrest, and the imposition of fines was directly in contravention to the Bombay Police Act, which only allows imposition of fines after conviction. The audacity of the state to drag you out of a room, without any adherence to the procedural law of the land, simply because you are doing something they disapprove of, demolishes any sense of security, liberty and privacy accorded to you as a citizen of India.
Now let me make it worse by telling you that it doesn’t have to be the police, even rogue ‘Gundas’ or unemployed youth swollen with an overdose of the state-spun Sanskriti can do this too, and Mr. Modi will beam and say to you – well, nothing. Because as a part of the youth wave that swept him to power, he can’t afford to alienate you by telling you that in the eyes of the state and most of the feverishly conservative Indian populace, pre-marital sex and prostitution are not very different, beta. Maybe you should read the Mahabharat (oh wait, read the Ramayan instead. Sita is cool, Kunti is not).
But I think the most pertinent question still remains, why are the state, the police and self-appointed moral policing squads able to get away with this? Why are individuals who engage in pre-marital sex so vulnerable, even if the law protects them? And there is a simple, yet distressing answer. Because it is not only the police which occasionally polices couples. Almost everyone in our society morally polices them, from the inquisitive neighbours who prey on their lives and broadcast this information to all and sundry to the doctors at hospitals who stop trying to treat them once they know that these individuals are unmarried and sexually active.
Pre-marital sex is, for some unfathomable reason, absolutely taboo in India. Most of us in our twenties cannot imagine going up to our parents and admitting to engaging in pre-marital sex. As a student your parents might probably micromanage your allowance and ground you, if your righteous institution doesn’t already do so at 6 pm every evening. As an individual who has a job and is ripe for the marriage market, you might be giving anxiety attacks to your parents with any such admissions. Any discussions pertaining to boyfriends/girlfriends are considered distasteful in many Indian homes even today, regardless of their social and economic class. It’s probably the most uniting opinion of the country, cutting across religions, caste, economic and social strata: pre-marital sex is unpardonable, especially if you are a woman. As a male, you’re probably just ‘having some fun’, but that’s still disapproved of by most of populace.
Thus, if you were to threaten these twenty year olds to call home and tell their parents they’ve been having sex in a room they paid for, they’re effectively doomed. They have grown up hearing their elders talk with disgust about pre-marital sex and those who have indulged in the same, they’ve been shamed about having a boyfriend/girlfriend, and they have often been threatened with dire consequences if they venture into any form of ‘relations’ with the opposite sex before marriage (relations with the same sex would led to you being disinherited instantaneously I suppose).
So when unmarried couples attempt to book a room, they are exposed to dangers from every level of the social chain. The police could barge in and arrest them (again, for doing something which is perfectly legal), the hotel manager/ staff may harass them or there may be hidden cameras in their room, the contents of which may be used to blackmail them later.
There is a need, and in light of the recent raids, an urgency to change this. Why? Because pre-marital sex is real. For those of you who still think it’s a rare occurrence, which your kid/sibling will never engage in – well, too bad. Put on your invisibility cloaks and hang around a mildly liberal college campus, and you will know that I’m not fibbing. An unprecedented percentage of late teen/ early twenties today have engaged in pre-marital sex. The average age of initiating sexual activity has been estimated by various surveys to be between 17 to 22 years in India. No survey will accurately provide such information. It’s too dangerous to admit to engaging in pre-marital sex, even to strangers (they may tell your mummy-papa/amma-appa, or be an undercover agent of ‘let’s- pick -on –vulnerable- blameless- individuals- Sena’). But there you have it, pre-marital sex is not an outlandish phenomenon, it is increasingly acceptable among younger generations, and there is nothing wrong with it.
Thus, we have an elephant in the room. As parents/responsible citizen who are terrified of the plague of pre-marital sex, ponder over this. If your child was seriously unwell, or harassed at university, you would rush to their side at the first call. But what sort of a society would you constitute, if you refused to protect your child/loved one against such unwarranted, unnecessary and extremely dangerous harassment? And where do you think a society which governs its citizens based on its social judgement rather than the letter of the law is headed? Thirty years on, a majority of those of us in our twenties today will sign up our children for sex education, tell them all about consent and contraceptives, and battle any authority which harasses and judges our children. But until then, for the next few years, how our own families will support and tackle such issues will impact our lives and liberty greatly. Relationships, sexual activity and this incessant vulnerability are a significant part of our lives. The support we receive from our families, as in all other significant things, will count.