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Tuesday, 11 August 2009

India surprise: Sex and the City

‘I am a virgin, help me! Virginity is not dignity; it’s just a lack of opportunity.’

Young men are strutting about with T-shirts like these — and it’s Lucknow, for God’s sake.

The city of tehzeeb (culture) and coyness, the city of Charbagh railway station, nawab-era minarets, kite contests and qawwalis.

But it is also the fast-changing city where young boys and girls hold hands at swank malls or, without concern, sport apparel that gestures towards possibilities and imaginations that, until recently, were taboo.

Look beyond Lucknow: That T-shirt is a slice of not just a changing city, but a nation going through social churn.

A national survey conducted by Hindustan Times and CNN-IBN on changing social mores points to a society coming to terms with its own coming of age.

Some 63 per cent of respondents — two out of every three people interviewed — felt that evidence of virginity in a bride-to-be was not a big issue any more. One in three — about 33 per cent — felt pre-marital sex was not taboo.

Gynaecologist Dr Renu Makkar sees evidence of this at her Lucknow clinic every day.

She estimates that almost 80 per cent of the unmarried women she examines are sexually active, which marks a significant change from about 10 years ago.

“Earlier, young women took offence when asked if they were sexually active,” she says, “But now they are far more open, aware of the contraceptives available, and regular when it comes to checkups and consultations.”

Makkar also says she is no longer asked to conduct virginity tests.

No one should even dare ask Ankita Sharma, a 24 year-old who helps out with the family business.

“I would ask a prospective groom or his parents to get lost if anyone ever even mentioned a virginity test,” she says, lounging with her friends in the food court of a Lucknow mall. “I would not marry anyone to whom virginity is an issue.”

For some, like IT professional Shekhar Pant (28), virginity is not even a mark of morality any more. “Besides, what is the point of marrying a girl who is a virgin but not suitable?” he says. “I would rather look for a suitable girl.”

Lucknow is changing, but so is the rest of the country.

“The definition of morality has changed in the present context,” says Amit Mishra, a 35-year-old senior manager with Reliance Retail, hundreds of kilometres to the east, in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand.

Young couples are also increasingly drawing distinctions between emotional and physical intimacy.

“Sex before marriage is acceptable if it is out of love, and not merely for fun,” says Nidhi Tiwary (22), a public relations manager with a legal firm.

For Lucknow social workers Aarti (30) and Vishwajeet Kumar (36), the past was never an issue. “For us, emotional intimacy is more important. We think that emotional intimacy should precede physical intimacy,” says Aarti. “We have never bothered to talk about virginity, even after marriage.”

However, the transition from a conservative, morality-obsessed society to one that acknowledges the gaps between theory and practice is neither smooth, nor is it complete.

“Virginity is still a concern,” says Dr S.K. Jain, a sexologist who divides his time between clinics in Delhi and Ranchi.

Jain says he often counsels men who, after their wedding night, are concerned about their wives’ sexual past. “We counsel the men that the hymen may be ruptured for reasons other than sex.”

Sujay Bannerjee of Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, believes in a more pragmatic ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ approach.

After a torrid, two-year affair with a woman in Kolkata, the soft-spoken 32-year-old is looking for someone he can spend the rest of his life with.

“I’m not going to ask her if she is a virgin,” he says, with only a trace of irony.

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