My mother cannot say the word sex.
How is it that the culture that brought us the Kama Sutra has evolved into one that stigmatizes sex to the point where people don’t even want to say the word?
Growing up as a first generation Indian American woman, my parents did the most to keep me sheltered from knowing anything about sex, whether that was fast-forwarding or covering my eyes through sex scenes in movies or just avoiding the topic altogether.
While that may not seem like extreme parenting, the real issue is that even to this day, as a 21-year-old, my parents still can’t talk to me about sex and still cover my eyes during movies. My mom didn’t attempt to give me the sex talk until I was about to leave for college. Once she mustered up the courage to bring it up, our “talk” didn’t include the word sex and was just a lecture about being careful and not doing anything stupid.
I’m very close with my mom, but I’ve never been able to talk to her about relationships and dating. I even hid a yearlong relationship from my parents when I was in high school. In hindsight, I think they would’ve accepted it eventually, but I was so afraid of the conversation that I just chose to keep it a secret. I think not having these conversations about relationships and sex can be harmful, as kids can feel the need to rebel against their strict rules and possibly find themselves in unsafe situations with nowhere to turn. In my own experience, I found myself clueless as to how I should be treated and ashamed of my own sexual desires.
Not having these conversations about relationships and sex can be harmful, as kids can feel the need to rebel against their strict rules and possibly find themselves in unsafe situations with nowhere to turn.
I felt like I was constantly fighting and training my parents to adopt more progressive ideals about sex and relationships, usually just by giving them no choice. Although the general rule was “no talking to, looking at or being around boys,” when my guy friends started coming over and interacting with my parents, it forced them to be open to the idea that boys and girls can be friends without any connotation of sex.
My next battle was birth control. I knew being on birth control was the safest and most responsible decision for myself, but I was terrified to ask my mom about it until I was finally prescribed it by a dermatologist. This, of course, didn’t happen without a fight by my mother, who, even though I was 17, felt I was way too young to be around anything that had to do with sex.
Now, every time I visit home, I like to bring up topics about sex and culture that push their boundaries and make them slightly uncomfortable.
Looking back, I understand that it’s important to recognize why my parents thought that way. They both grew up in India in the ’70s and ’80s, and while the U.S. was getting progressively more open about sex, India was not at the same pace.
Even today, in India, there is so much shame and guilt surrounding the topic of sexuality. It’s something to be ashamed of; it’s dirty, private and largely taboo, especially for women. I didn’t realize how ingrained these feelings were, even in the younger generations. When I visited India last in 2018, I was spending time and talking to my cousin’s friends, all of whom were around the ages of 20-24. In typical young adult fashion, the conversation shifted to dating. I was asked about my body count, which they defined as “anyone that you have held hands with or kissed.” As the youngest in the group, I was a little shocked by how even just with friends in a normal situation, talking about or even saying the word sex was uncomfortable for them.
But India was not always like this. In many ancient texts and art, erotic sculptures and iconography highlight how people at the time believed sex was a central and natural component of life.
It wasn’t until the end of the Medieval period in India and Europe, when the British era of direct rule over India began, that views on sexuality became more conservative. The harsh Victorian values stigmatized Hinduism’s fluid concept of sexuality and used sexuality as a way to deem Indians as barbaric and prove the East’s inferiority.
Sexual repression was a tool of colonizers. In their view, Eastern values about sex needed to be tamed, and this therefore justified the spreading of Christianity. This is why many developing or previously colonized countries feel the need to fit into Anglo-Saxon morals of chastity in order to gain respect.
The post-colonial attitudes about sexual repression have caused many issues in Indian culture today. As of 2016, there have been over 130,000 sexual violence cases awaiting trial, with very few convictions. Even though there are over 100 reported cases in a day, these numbers are extremely low; one government survey found that 99.9% of cases go unreported.
Rape culture in India is also heavily perpetuated by the notion that a family or community’s honor is tied to a woman’s sexual “purity.” This ideal condemns the victim and not the rapist, resulting in many women not seeking justice out of shame or fear of bringing dishonor to their family or community.
Being open about sex is crucial to reducing the harmful stigma surrounding it for women.
Once I had a better understanding of the history of sexuality and the conversations surrounding it, I wanted to try to make my mom think more critically and go deeper into why sex makes her so uncomfortable, but at the end of the day, it’s embedded so strongly through generations of ideals that I simply would not understand.
Coming from a first-generation Indian American point of view, I grew up with a completely different set of ideals. I feel being open about sex is crucial to reducing the harmful stigma surrounding it for women. Having these discussions can empower women to accept and speak up about their sexuality, and creates a healthy environment in which more people become knowledgeable about sexual health and therefore safer from STDs and unwanted pregnancies.
While we can’t change Indian culture, I do believe that as first-generation kids in America, we can work together to change the conversation around sex within our own circles.