(This column was published in DNA edition dated March 3, 2010.)
I don’t normally consider letters I receive in response to my fortnightly editorial exertions here as a barometer of anything other than the momentary agitated state of mind of the respondent. In most cases, these responses disagree vehemently with an argument I may have made, and employ some uncommon term of endearment to articulate that disagreement. One recent writer, for instance, cheerily referred to me as “Macaulay’s monkey”: just for that compliment, I want to swing by and make chattering noises outside his window.
I rather suspect, however, that the tide of popular opinion may be turning. In recent weeks and months, there’s been – as statisticians who want to play with numbers would say – a significant upsurge in the volume of adulatory e-mails I receive. Curiously, many of them don’t relate in even the most fleeting manner to anything I might have written. Almost all of them are personalised, open solicitations to “discreet relationships”, written ostensibly by college girls in small-town India, who make up for what they lack in English language proficiency with an abundance of endearing earnestness and a wholesale lack of sexual inhibition. Even given the admittedly small sample size, and even through their tentative prose, the frisson of sexual energy from small-town Young India cruising for unconventional relationships is unmistakable.
And now, as if to validate those subjective observations, along come the findings of a study conducted by the International Institute of Population Sciences and released by the Union Health Ministry, which establishes that youngsters from rural India are rather more sexually active before marriage than city-slickers. The actual proportion of young rural Indians who are giving in to their premarital sexual urges is still statistically small, but according to sociologists and economists, these numbers may be considerably understating the underlying reality owing to a “cultural lag” effect.
That theory holds that popular cultural takes time to catch up with technological innovations – including, in this case, contraceptive technology. And societies’ keenness to instill sexual mores in their young adults is rendered less strident by the gradual destigmatisation of premarital sex.
Economists at the University of Pennsylvania and at Barcelona have even framed an economic model to account for rising incidence of premarital sex and its destigmatisation, which triggered a sexual revolution of sorts in the US in the 20th century. Indicatively, in 1900, only 6% of women in the US had had premarital sex by age 19; now that number is close to 75%. And, in keeping with the ‘cultural lag’ theory, public acceptance of premarital sex has lagged reality: in 1968, only 15% of women had a permissive attitude towards premarital sex, whereas about 40% of women had experienced it. Likewise, by 1983, although the number with permissive attitude to premarital sex had increased to 45%, it still lagged the actual number (73%) of under-19 women who had had premarital sex.
Even given the vast cultural differences between the US in the 20th century and India-that-is-Bharat of today, it’s easy to see that a similar storm of raging hormones is giving rise to a premarital sexual revolution in India. Some of that may have been facilitated by a destigmatisation of sex, including premarital sex, in popular culture. In Bollywood movies, for instance, we’ve come to the point, for instance, where once we had interlocking flowers to depict the Grand Passion, we now have juicy liplocks – and even honest depictions of live-in relationships. And if it happens in Bollywood, can Bastar or Bilaspur be far behind?
Of course, all this premarital bonking would have appalled at least one other eminent economist, Thomas Malthus, not least because he was also a clergyman. Malthus, who prounded the population theory, emphasised sexual abstinence until marriage, and even the postponement of marriage until people could support a family. But as is becoming evident even in rural India, the gush of raging hormones among young adults has probably long drowned out the voice of moral authority.