The sexual slowdown
MANY YEARS AGO IN SCHOOL, A hapless student was reading out portions from a chapter, while the rest of us lay slumped over our books half-asleep. It was a tedious afternoon class in sociology and very few were paying attention. Suddenly, there was a pause, a hesitation and his face turned red. He had encountered something in the book.
“Go on, go on,” the teacher encouraged the reader. “Nothing wrong with that.”
The line read that frequent power cuts led to more sex, and subsequently more births (it was a chapter on the reasons for large populations). It fell upon the poor teacher to offer an explanation.
As he put it, when there were power cuts at night, it meant there was no TV or any of the addictive soap operas that were popular back then. With nothing else to entertain themselves with and sleep still some time away, he said, spouses turned to each other.
Many years later, in 2009, India’s then Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad stood at a lectern in Delhi on World Population Day, delivering a lecture not very different from our teacher’s. “Don’t think I am saying this in a lighter vein. I am serious,” he said, “TV will have a great impact. It’s a great medium to tackle the problem… 80 per cent of population growth can be reduced through TV.”
The idea of television curtailing the sexual proclivities of people seems absurd. But is it? Earlier this year, a study by two economists— Adrienne Lucas from the University of Delaware and Nicholas Wilson from Reed College—found direct evidence to suggest a link between TV ownership and a decline in sex. The researchers used data from national household surveys in 80 developing countries (most of them conducted in 2010), taking into account factors ranging from age, marital status, education and household wealth to knowledge about sexual health. They found that whenever there was a TV set in the house, there was a 6 per cent reduction in the likelihood of respondents having had sex the previous week.
Considering the large sample size of the study (nearly 4 million individuals in 80 countries), that finding can’t be dismissed as a statistical quirk. ‘The results suggest that while television may not kill your sex life, it is associated with some sex life morbidity,’ they write.
Imagine now—not 2010, when the surveys were conducted, but 2018— when streaming services like Netflix have given us another diversion. Dozens of addictive TV shows available at will, and imagine, more importantly, the tiny but far more ubiquitous little screens that we carry with us in our pockets everywhere.
It is a peculiar era: a time of unprecedented sexual freedom, an abundance of hookup apps and dating websites, more access to condoms and birth-control pills. And yet countries appear to be going through a collective loss of libido. The most curious case is that of Japan. A 2017 survey conducted by the family planning association there found that 47 per cent of all married couples had not had sex for more than a month. Another recent survey in Japan found 42 per cent of unmarried men and 44 per cent of unmarried women were virgins even up to the age of 35. According to The Economist, sex is seen by many young Japanese as ‘mendokusai’ or tiresome. Instead, there is a mushrooming of ‘quasi-sex’ services for such men—they have been labelled ‘soushoku danshi’ or ‘herbivore men’— from websites that offer live chats with naked girls and shops where clients can masturbate while ‘women in frilly aprons blow on customers’ food before spooning it into their mouths’.
Western countries aren’t faring any better. In the US, according to a 2017 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, the average American adult today has sex nine fewer times per year than 15 years ago. The drop in frequency is even steeper for married couples who live together. They have sex 16 fewer times a year. In Britain, on an average, men now have sex 4.9 times a month and women 4.8 times. This study by Britain’s National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles was conducted between 2010 and 2012 on people between the ages of 16 and 44. A decade before, the rates were much higher: 6.2 times for men and 6.3 times for women. Other European countries aren’t faring any better. Several reports and articles have described this phenomenon, with a recent one in The Atlantic even coining the term ‘sex recession’.
Most of these countries are technologically advanced. But what about India—which really is a bit of all worlds, with its poverty and wealth? There is a high-speed internet-linked device in almost every hand. There are rapidly changing mores around sexuality and relationships. There is Tinder, Netflix and everything else that the modern world has to offer.
The standard joke many comedians offer—usually when someone brings up India’s sanskaari values—is to point to the sexual depictions at Khajuraho or the large population of the country to say, ‘Everybody is doing it, you know?’
But are they? Sex for pleasure and a large population are not necessarily interlinked.
“How are you going to find out [if sexual frequency has declined]?” asks the 90-something sexologist Dr Mahinder Watsa somewhat wryly. “Hide under the bed with a notebook and pen?”
He is correct. There is really no way of finding out if Indians are having less sex. There are no studies or surveys. I have come to Dr Watsa as my first resort. He is arguably the country’s best known sexologist. He has a solid background (one of the earliest sexologists in India who helped set up sex-counselling centres across the country), a legion of sexually embarrassed and confused fans, and an exceptionally popular daily Q&A column in Mumbai Mirror, ‘Ask The Sexpert’, which even led to a book.
Most couples claim that they are very happy in their relationships despite the infrequent sex. A few admit to consuming porn in ‘healthy doses’, although they do not see it as a reason for any change in their sex lives
“Yes, that’s true,” he says. “People do seem to be having sex less.” According to him, there are many complex factors, from the long hours people now put in at work and ailments arising from sedentary lifestyles to a vast array of modern distractions. “It’s not like they don’t want to do it. Sometimes they just don’t have the opportunity. I get patients here who say ‘We only get one day off’ and they are too tired to try it that day,” he says.
Many couples who see Dr Watsa, both young and old, will not have had sex for over six or eight months. Sometimes there are couples who have gone for years without it. When he asks them, some tell him they have lost all desire. Arriving at the root cause of such cases is tough, he says, and one has to go step by step, eliminating what could be leading to such a loss of libido, from their health to the type of lives they lead.
The chief reason, though, Dr Watsa says, is probably porn. I ask if people could be finding masturbation more pleasurable than sex. This is probably so, he thinks, because most people now come to sex after having spent considerable time in their adolescence and adult lives satiating their sexual urges by consuming digital pornography. “I had a couple here contemplating divorce. On their first night, there was foreplay between the two. But then the guy gets up and walks off to the toilet,” Dr Watsa says. The husband had left his wife on their conjugal bed to masturbate alone.
Probing people about their sex lives is, of course, difficult. There is the question of indelicacy; and then the constant exaggerations and hiding of facts. Even during informal conversations among friends, sexual encounters are almost always both embellished and lacking in detail at the same time. They are designed to convey an impression of sophistication and experience, while giving away little. Yet, I go around asking a few friends in their 20s and 30s to tell me about their experiences with their hands on their hearts. Some are married with children, others in committed relationships, and a few single and presumably sexually active. This is not a representative sample of Indians—most of them are based in cities—but what they say probably reflects a modicum of truth.
Apart from one couple in a long-term relationship, who claim to have sex every few nights, and another in a long- term relationship who say they don’t keep track but probably average sex at least once a week, most say they don’t have sex for several months at a stretch.
Several reasons are cited. Most say they are too tired after work and their long commutes. Most couples say they are very happy in their relationships despite the infrequent sex. Two married couples say the arrival of a baby invariably makes it harder to find the time for intimacy. A few admit to consuming porn in ‘healthy doses’, although they do not see it as causing a drop in sex.
One woman in a long-term relationship is quite candid: “We would probably do it a lot more. But then we get home and start scrolling through our phones.”
Two single women in their late twenties and early thirties tell me the sex-and- dating landscape isn’t as “happening” as people make it out to be. “People say, ‘Oh there is Tinder now.’ Yeah sure, but the men are still the same,” says the woman in her early thirties. The absence of husbands or partners, the two say, doesn’t rankle as it might have in previous generations. “Many of us are preoccupied with other equally interesting things: our own careers, our interests, our yoga and dancing classes,” she says.
One person who has no qualms about anonymity is Pragati Singh, a doctor in Delhi. She identifies herself as an ‘asexual’— that is, a member of a group of people who believe their sexual orientation is such that they experience no attraction at all. Asexuality, they argue, is a wide spectrum, from those who are completely repulsed by the idea of sex to those like Singh who considers herself ‘demisexual’ within the asexual spectrum. Demisexuals say they can experience sexual attraction only for people with whom they share a strong emotional bond.
The standard joke whenever someone brings up India’s sanskaari values is to point to the sexual depictions at Khajuraho or the large population of the country to say ‘Everybody is doing it, you know?’ But are they?
Singh runs a Facebook page for Indian asexuals called ‘Indian Aces’, apart from conducting workshops on sexuality and asexuality. She also runs a speed-dating event called Platonicity. She hopes to eventually make it into an app. Most matchmaking apps and websites from Tinder to Shaadi.com, she says, come prefixed with the idea of sex. This makes it difficult for an asexual like her, she says. According to her, “Most people think relationships mean friendship plus sex plus romance. If you take out romance and sex, then you are left with friendship. Even I used to think so. But it is not like that.” According to her, asexuals would like to get into committed relationships but where sex and romance are not prefigured. Several asexuals have come into contact with each other through her Platonicity events.
Most researchers, however, are wary of terming it a sexual orientation. Academic studies examining it have been few and far between. Dr Watsa, for instance, says several factors that cause sexual individuals to become less interested in sex will need to be eliminated before one can qualify it as an orientation of its own.
In comparison with single and unmarried couples, married friends appear cagier while discussing their sex lives. That is understandable. The absence of sex in marriages is, after all, a cliché.
To answer this question, I turn to American journalist Elizabeth Flock. Earlier this year, Flock published a widely appreciated book, Love and Marriage in Mumbai, where she offers a deep and intimate look at marriages in Mumbai. Flock does this by following three married couples (a Marwari couple who have a love marriage, a Muslim couple whose marriage is arranged and a Tamil- Brahmin couple who meet through a matrimonial website). She hides their identities. But what we see in the book isn’t particularly flattering.
When Flock first began to consider writing such a book, she chose these three couples, she writes in the book, because they were ‘romantics and rule breakers’ who seemed ‘impatient with the old middle-class morals’. She returned to the US for some years. When she came back to India in 2014, Mumbai looked much the same. But the marriages of those couples did not. ‘They were calling old lovers. They were contemplating affairs and divorce,’ she writes.
Flock touches upon the unhappy sexual lives of these couples in her book.
She tells Open: “In all three couples, sex declined after the initial years of marriage. This is a common cliché… that sex declines over time because of fatigue of the other person. But I think there were unique factors at play with these couples in Mumbai. One couple had stopped having sex because they could not have a child, and because their conservative Muslim community wouldn’t allow them to adopt… Another struggled to have passion because their marriage was largely arranged… And in the third couple, the wife grew unhappy over time after her husband failed for years to give her the companionship she desired and so she sought that companionship elsewhere. Certainly, some of them went more than a year without sex, maybe longer. There were many pressures on these couples that led them to forgo sex with each other—and many of those unique to India, and to Mumbai.”
Flock got interested in the subject of love and marriage in India because she was drawn to the spectacle and drama of the Indian love story, where people practise a showy kind of love characterised by devotion—even obsession. In the beginning this seemed more honest and vulnerable, although through the course of writing this book, she realised this wasn’t necessarily true.
But what about sexuality, I ask Flock, the other chief ingredient of love and marriage? “I’ve learnt that people’s sexual satisfaction depends on so, so many factors,” she says. “And any time there are stressors on a marriage that can affect the couple’s sex life as well. In fact, I think it’s the first thing affected. India is changing so much right now and at such a breakneck speed that it is placing a huge amount of pressure on marriages, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was derailing couple’s sex lives as well.”
ANECDOTES AND studies claim people were more sexual in the past. Sex therapists and women’s glossies often tell us we should be having a lot more sex to be healthy individuals. The media sells a vision of a hypersexual society, and sitcoms and romcoms show young attractive people sleeping with each other all the time.
Sex is so deeply ingrained in our psyches that it has become the barometer of success in our relationships. Everyone seems to be doing it, yet quietly we admonish ourselves for not doing it enough.
How far all this is true, no one can tell. A woman in her thirties, quoted above, says that having less sex doesn’t make her feel inadequate in any way. “I don’t have too much sex. I actually don’t know what is ‘just enough sex’,” she says. “I just don’t think it is as important as people make it out to be.”