We asked over 500 college women how much sex they’re having.
Feminism: regardless of your feelings on the subject (although we like to believe they’re mostly positive), there’s no denying that we’re currently deep in the midst of its third wave.
If its recent achievements aren’t enough to convince you, look at its influence on current pop culture: Beyonce has practically built her empire on preaching its values and the media at large has decided that Gloria Steinem is relevant again. Emma Watson has been using her status as U.N. Goodwill Ambassador to bring even more attention to the movement (and has recently started a feminist book club). There’s a new brand-sponsored video about the importance of gender equality that goes viral every other week, while French fashion brand Céline recently made celebrated feminist writer Joan Didion the star of its last advertising campaign.
But how relevant is the conversation to Indian women, particularly to those between 18 and 22 and currently in college? Does it affect the way they view their social roles and, more pertinently, their sexual ones?
We were curious about the latter; and frankly, it’s hard not to be. Between the often puritanical measures put in place by colleges in a bid to keep things as non-sexual as possible and sensationalist media decrying the rise of ‘hookup culture’ and casual sex, we’ve often wondered whether the truth lies between the two.
In a bid to find out, we interviewed over 500 women at 11 colleges in Bangalore across business, fashion, engineering, medical and arts degrees. We were curious to see both if they were having sex at all, and what their attitudes were about hooking up in general – two very different things in a culture where female virginity is a traditionally prized prerequisite to finding a ‘good husband’ – or finding one at all.
(Editor’s note: Walking into a college and asking its students to talk about sex is a lot tougher than it sounds – we’ve now been effectively banned from a couple of universities in the city for allegedly corrupting their students’ minds. Oh well.)
To dive right into it, only about 34% of the women we spoke to, all unmarried, claimed to have had sex, but 75% of all women polled said that they were sexually active, counting kissing, heavy petting, oral sex and even role play and light BDSM as qualifiers – in short, everything but penetrative sex.
Here’s what’s interesting – despite their openness to sexual experimentation, a little over 50% of the women we met told us that they weren’t open to sex before marriage.
For some, like Shalini*, 21, from RV College of Engineering, who has been in a relationship with her partner for six years, they’re waiting until they’re ‘ready’, which equates to being married. Shalini has explored everything from heavy petting to oral sex with her partner; “But,” she says, “I’m still a virgin. That’s for after marriage.”
We also met several women for whom the fear of seeming ‘disrespectable’ to families and future husbands was a strong motivator to do ‘everything but.’ “If I sleep with someone before I’m married and my future husband finds out, he might not be OK with it,” says Tanshu, 18, who has been in a relationship with her boyfriend for a year and a half. “I do want to marry my boyfriend, but what if I have sex with him and it doesn’t work out? If my father found out, it would ruin him.”
Meanwhile Iris, 19, has explored role play, oral sex and BDSM with her partner of a year and three months, says that she hasn’t had sex with him because she thinks it’s immoral. “We’re both from strict Catholic families, and we both think that sex before marriage is a sin,” she says.
“Boys want to date anyone they like but they want to marry virgins only,” says Meghna, 20, from Mount Carmel College. “It makes no sense to me, but that’s just how things are.”
Among the women who are open to sex before they’re married but haven’t had it yet, we found that when faced with casual sex or none at all, women are increasingly choosing the latter with the idea of holding out until they find someone who seems ‘worth it.’
“Guys talk to you but they’re looking at your boobs most of the time,” says Akanksha, 18, from National Institute of Fashion Technology. “How do you expect me to want to take my clothes off for you when you can’t even look me in the eye while having a conversation?”
Vinitha, 19, from Jyoti Nivas College agrees. “For most guys, it’s just about sex. I don’t want to be looked at as just a ball of flesh, because I feel like I have a lot more to offer.”
"When a girl has sex she’s a slut, but when a guy does it he’s a stud,” says Ibtesam, 18, from Bishop Cotton Girls' College. “I’m not giving it up for some guy who wants to sleep with me just so he can say he did.”
Body image has a lot to do with it, too. “I’m really scared of sex, says 21-year-old Christina from St. Joseph’s Arts and Science College. “The idea of stripping in front of someone makes me feel so weird. I would die if they looked at me and went, “Oh my god, you’re a girl? Where are your boobs?””
For the folks who are getting it on vis-à-vis penetrative sex, college is overwhelmingly a time of sexual awakening; 60% of the women we spoke to who have had sex lost their virginity between the ages of 18-22, with 20% entering college already having had sex at 17. 13% of the students polled lost their virginity at 16, with the remaining 7% losing theirs between the ages of 11 and 14.
Personal networks are still the best way to meet people, with 73% of the students claiming to have met their partners either at college or through friends made at college or school.There seems to be a high awareness about protection, too; among the non-virgins we polled, 82% claimed to use protection or were clued in to its importance; sex without a condom wasn’t an option most women were OK with, even when we presented them with hypothetical situations like running out of condoms at the last minute or pressure from their partners to go without ‘just this once’.
That still leaves a worrying 17.5% of women who either weren’t aware of the importance of using protection or undermined it completely like Grishma, 19, from NIFT, who says that she dislikes using protection because her boyfriend “knows how to control himself and knows exactly when to pull out.”
Maya, 20, from Jyoti Nivas College is currently not in a serious relationship but does have multiple partners, none of whom she uses protection with. “I don’t need protection because I know all the guys I sleep with, and I know they’re all hygienic,” she says.
While it’s clear that the global feminist wave hasn’t filtered en masse through to Indian colleges, we did still meet plenty of curious, open minded women who expressed a desire for sexual equality regardless of where they fell on the virginity scale.
We found an increasing interest in exploring new sexual avenues – at Christ College, a 19-year-old student told us of her newfound interest in BDSM and bemoaned the age limit at some of Bangalore’s underground S&M parties, while several students were open to the idea of non-monogamous relationships or casual sex with more than one partner – as long as no hearts are broken, a sentiment summed up perfectly by Nidhi, 21, at Jain College: “I’m totally fine with the dating equation in today’s world; there’s so much more openness and communication than with our parents’ generation. I think you should be allowed to explore anything you want, with whomever you want, as long as no one involved is getting hurt, or no one feels like they’re being imposed upon.”
Or, to put it succinctly, like 19-year-old Karuna from Mount Carmel College: “Being horny isn’t just a guy thing. Women want variety, too.”
And for now, 1 in 2 women seem fine with exploring that variety – as long as they can tell their husbands they’re virgins on their wedding night.
With contributions from Chandni Doulatramani and Leah Anna Joseph.
*All names have been changed upon request.