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Home / Opinion / Blogs /  UNDERSTATEMENT: No country for sex surveys

About ten years back, as an India Today journalist, when I anchored the magazine’s sex survey (and two others thereafter), enthusiastically working on questionnaires, inviting articles on sexuality and writing a few myself, the illusion that this was a progressive way to challenge repression gave me a (faux) sense of journalist propriety. Hey, weren’t we ‘modren’, ‘maudern’, modern? Why shouldn’t sex be reported like any other subject? Orgasms, multiple partners, same sex encounters or intimidating issues like virginity, sexual adultery, marital rape made sense to 21st Century’s broader understanding of an evolving society.

Nobody envied my once in a year “sex beat", many mocked me even, but I stayed with it, genuinely interested in how respondents reacted to different survey methods, which columnist wrote what, or, as one of my favourite stories went: Why “Kantaben was hot" (an article on why Gujaratis usually scored high in sexual openness in such surveys). My unenviable interest continued when I joined the Outlook Group as editor of Marie Claire India. I was invited to guest edit Outlook newsmagazine’s annual sex issue. Ridiculous it may sound--I had become an established sex journalist.

Sex surveys generally multiplied everywhere in mainstream media. Their time had come. These issues sold way too well compared to others (oh, but naturally, many sniggered), attracted condom companies to sponsor the special pages and offered genuine if mocking relief from boring crime and political stuff.

Today, in the context of the many debates around uncensored and freely available pornographic material inciting some sexual crimes against women and the judgmental noise that seems to attack every sexual engagement, whether through writing, thought, action or intent (or filmi item numbers), it is time to argue otherwise. Sex surveys have no place in India Now, not this year certainly, they should be completely rethought and if there is no culturally correct way to find agencies that will invest time and effort in more relatable, appropriate questionnaires, they could easily be suspended.

No prudish sense stemming from a new morality prods me to write this but the fact that sex surveys, which must anyway be taken with a bag of salt and in principle must discount that respondents tick answers based on a bizarre mix of cultural expectations, body and self image, gender and morality (usually the version spoon fed in growing up years), will now be even more deceptive than ever before. They will give an idea of the India that does not exist. They not only appear odd in the context of the disrespect and anger that sexual crimes have created in our society, but as social movements have evolved, it has indeed become inappropriate to ask if men “prefer virgin brides" or “have you ever slept with your boss/ subordinate for professional gain?"

The point is not whether these questions are right or wrong, moral or immoral, important or unimportant. But, they constitute a private world which can get damagingly invaded if misread turning an ordinary sexually keen person into a “could be rapist" or a sex loving normal woman into our favourite flogging horse--the “asking for it type".

To the question: “Do you watch pornography?" what do you think will the response be? Earlier, quite predictably, most men--expressed in funny percentages in sex surveys--would say yes and most women would say no. Now even men are unlikely to say yes because the reality--moral police or not—is indeed convoluted. The horrible fact is that the prime accused in the rape of the 5 year old girl in Delhi had watched porn clips on his mobile before committing the crime. That’s only prima facie, never mind that depravity may have little to do with what people watch on moving screens. But chances are that a young man living alone in a city flat will be viewed suspiciously if he says yes to whether he watches pornography.

We are a sexually repressed society, let’s not add ambiguity-spiked sex surveys to repressing our sexual thoughts further, by saying things we don’t mean or believe in. Sex is a private pursuit and business, a clinical study on sexual behaviour is one thing, a media blitzkrieg another.

We seem to have good enough current reasons to differentiate between the two.

This fortnightly series is a comment on popular culture statements made through actions or words.

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