Home / Politics / News /  The startling thing about Indian men’s sex lives

The median Indian man has his first experience of sex at nearly age 25, the last among men from 67 countries for which comparable data is available, the National Family Health Survey released last month shows.

The NFHS, and similar surveys conducted around the developing world through the Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) system, help shine a light on the nature of sexual activity in India. The NFHS data shows that the median Indian woman has sex for the first time at age 18.9 years and the median Indian man at age 24.8 years.

Moreover, nearly two in three young men (age 15-24) had never had sex by the time of the survey, the NFHS data showed, a number that was surpassed by just six other countries, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. One in three Indian men in their late twenties had not yet had sex. In contrast, just one in 10 women in her late twenties had not yet had sex.

In the United States, in comparison, the mean age of first sexual intercourse is 17 years, and 70% of teenagers have had sex, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The age at which men and women in India report first having had sex is closely tied to the age of getting married, the NFHS observes. As a result, urban men and women first have sex years later than their rural counterparts; those who have more schooling and higher incomes also have sex later.

Median age at first intercourse for men
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Median age at first intercourse for men

Longer virginity

With the first sexual experience being closely tied to marriage, the age of first sex has counter-intuitively been increasing, rather than the commonly held belief that youngsters are having sex earlier than ever. The median Indian man today has sex more than two years later than he did 15 years ago. This is because Indians are getting married later—the median age now is 19 for women and 25 for men. Those in cities, with more schooling and with greater wealth get married—and hence have sex—later.

With the marriage-sex link come questions around women’s agency. Back in 2006-07, a survey of young people by the International Institute for Population Sciences (IIPS) had found that just 15% men had had premarital sex. The same survey found that one in four young women reported that their first sexual experience within marriage was forced. The link is unlikely to have diminished since the age of first sex has only risen since then.

Conservative notions

The numbers also point to tight control over mingling between young people before they are married. Contrary to commonly held notions about how and where young people now live, data from a 2017 study of young people conducted by the Lokniti programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Institute shows that for the vast majority of young Indians, home means one of two things: their parents’ home and then their marital home. Just 4% of surveyed young people lived by themselves or with friends or in a hostel. Just two in five young people reported having a close friend of the opposite gender. Attitudes to romantic relationships before marriage were conservative among the young people themselves. Over half of those interviewed said they disapproved of men and women meeting or dating before marriage, and two out of three were opposed to unmarried men and women living together.

Getting it right

But what about interviewees being reluctant to talk about sensitive topics? While NFHS surveyors don’t rule it out, they point to the extensive training that enumerators undergo. “I think it is a misnomer that Indians will not open up about sensitive issues during surveys. When we conducted a survey, youth in the villages would follow our teams, wanting to speak to them, including on issues around sexual activity," Usha Ram, a professor at IIPS, said.

While romantic relationships may be more common than discussed, other sources suggest the NFHS’ findings on premarital sex are largely right. In 2016-17, the Population Council of India conducted youth surveys in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, using multiple measures to enable the reporting of sensitive information, including ‘secret ballots’. The rates of premarital sex for older teens compared with the NFHS’s findings; even within the minority who had premarital relationships, intimacy was largely restricted to hugging.

(Rukmini S. is a Chennai-based journalist.)


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