Thursday, 31 May 2007

Sex on The Streets

If anything is confusing to the long-term visitor in Mumbai, it’s the question of sex.

Within weeks of my arriving here, it became clear that, in public, Mumbaikers generally like to behave modestly. Women wear pants, very rarely skirts; they wear sleeved blouses, rarely showing bare shoulders; very few couples hold hands or kiss when out strolling (though men-friends do hold hands – but that’s another story).
What’s more, those who break these norms get stared at quite hard.

In this atmosphere, it seemed almost predictable when a newspaper reported that one young actress had turned down a film role because she would have had to do a kissing scene (yes, not a lovemaking scene, or semi-nude scene, but a kissing scene...). Indeed, the Bollywood movies I have seen are almost brilliantly imaginative in the way they manage to be about love and love affairs, and remain virtually sexless!

My impression is that in India generally, sex seems only to be appropriate in private. (Let’s not get into the ancient-erotic-temple-sculptures discussion. The Indians I speak to seem faintly embarrassed by their forebears’ enthusiasm for erotica, and by foreigners' rather obvious and salacious interest in such).

And yet… here in Mumbai, India’s most modern city, things seem to be different – at least somewhat. A different kind of attitude to Sex (or the temptation of it) seems openly omnipresent in this city.

The most obvious example is that Mumbai’s red-light area, in the Falkland Road & Kamathipura districts, slap bang in the centre of the city, is (I’m told) the largest in Asia. From their doorways, the girls are even more blatant in their gaze than those in Amsterdam.

It’s also true that western attitudes toward sex are inexorably finding their own comfort zones in this, India’s most cosmopolitan city.
Inside the walls of expensive nightclubs and luxury hotels, starlets and fashionistas will flash arms, shoulders, legs and cleavage. (The local newspapers are often on hand to make sure their flesh gets extra exposure, in their party pages).
Quite a few brave young students will even experiment out of doors - with tight jeans and bare-shoulder halter-tops.

As for the media, well, the promise of glamorous, if less accessible sex, is given lots of space in, oddly, the leading liberal newspapers.
These papers contrive to get a dozen or so pictures of pretty girls (a good percentage of them being American film stars in bikinis or other revealing clothes), into their “Entertainment Sections” every day.

Incidentally, it strikes me as very odd indeed that it is the liberal newspapers (which in this country are the heavyweight English-language dailies) that are the ones to be peddling girlie pix of the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears in pouting poses. It’s as though the British Guardian had a special section called “Half-Naked Girls!”; and it’s just one of the contradictions in this city that the thoughtful papers should want to display their liberal attitudes in this way…
What’s more ‘The Doctor Says’ sex-advice pages in these papers are almost as blush-makingly frank as anything in European women’s mags.

Meanwhile, in the city’s main art gallery, the Jehangir, sexual images are quite openly part of nearly every show (though there was one arrest a few months ago when one objector thought things had Gone Too Far).

Well? You say. So what? Not so different to Manchester!
Well, not quite.
You see, it’s that the contrast between what happens in public life and what happens in private life that is so wide here. Sex is everywhere, but under constraint.

Magazine stall in Mumbai
One instance should serve to illustrate this contradiction. Openly sold on the newsstands (see pic above), there are lots of magazines with misleadingly inviting young women (wearing just bra and pants) on their covers. However these fleshy and raunchy covers are just teases: the images in their inside pages are as innocent as spring lambs.
(… more on girlie magazines below.)

For in fact there is great sexual conservatism here in what is said and done publicly.

For example…
For the most part even very educated young men and women are disturbingly giggly about sex; it is clear that many have little experience of close relationships before they are married or the significance of sex in life.
The kinds of adverts and posters we are used to in say London or Rome, which use alluring women as objects to sell products, are much fewer here. (One of the few exceptions to this rule is the kind of poster used for Bollywood B-movies, which uses the same kind of kitsch sex appeal as did the Hollywood posters in the fifties. No one seems to object to those though!)
Bars and clubs and resto-bars hardly ever employ the pretty women that they would do if they were in Britain. Most waiters and bar-staff are men. “Dance-bars”, which were banned from the city last year, did have women dancers – but they were modestly clad in full dress. (These bars were only banned because men were spending too much money in them).
Public art, which in Europe would feature lots of nakedness, is stylistically much more monumental here. I can only think of two public statue groups featuring nudity, and they are over a century old, and from the British Victorian “classical” tradition.

Yet, in contrast, as I’ve said, a very vocal combination of the intelligentsia and the “filmy”/arty classes is calling for more openness, and seems to be challenging those conventions, though also while paying a degree of lip-service to them at the same time.
Mumbai leads London in the size of this kind of gap between fantasy and reality.
The oddest thing of all is that when a model in next-to-nothing is used in magazines and papers here, she is, nine times out of ten… a blonde European. How schizophrenic is that?

Incidentally, before you ask, I have never, except once, seen a nude-girls magazine on sale here, even on the street-stalls.
The one exception occurred when I glimpsed the edge of what looked like a film magazine at a newsstand. I was quite surprised to realize it was an effort at pornography, albeit fairly tame and confused, with its combination of juvenile smutty jokes, topless European models gazing out of windows (not fully nude of course) and, strangely, health advice.
What was clear right away was that, in England, it would have barely raised a few snickers even among fourteen-year-old boys. Yet, as the newsvendor embarrassedly took it from my hand (and offered me The Economist instead!), I realised that it was quite a risqué magazine for Mumbai.
I never saw poor pathetic ‘Temptation’ (I noticed that that issue was Volume 1, Number 1) ever again.

Meanwhile, in the expensive bookshops in the city, where the middle-class men go, there is a new trend in trying to supply this thirst for soft-porn.
First, bizarrely, is the number of glossy, up-market lingerie magazines! This presumably is a supposedly “legitimate” way to sell images of half-dressed women.
Secondly, I’m afraid I do have to report that imported Brit "men's mags" such as FHM, which are now on sale in these expensive bookshops, are supplying the adolescent male’s desire for provocative women. The panting teenager will have to pay the price though – at a hefty Rs 450, these Brit mags cost ten times what the ordinary Indian mag costs – so this recourse is only open to the very well-off.

(Yes, yes, I’m sure there must be lots of under-the-counter pornography that I have not come across. Apparently internet porn is very popular here too. But I’m only reporting what I can see on the public surface of Mumbai society).

**

Where there are people testing the boundaries, there must be a conflict and then resolution, right?

A certain tension certainly seems present in Mumbai, though quite how serious the city’s “moral guardians” are in forcing their point across is actually now open to doubt.

(In the rest of the country, the moral guardians seem to be able to raise quite a lot of heat whenever they see matters that they regard as offensive to Indian standards.
In fact, recently the government turned against the idea of sex education for 10-12 year-olds in school and has banned it. And, although cable TV recently expanded hugely, there is already a crackdown on channels that concentrate on broadcasting shows with models in skimpy clothes – one such has even been banned.)

But, in Mumbai, generally, no one (as far as I can tell) is getting too upset. Even the leading political party in the city, the Shiv Sena, once a byword for strict standards, appears (for now) to be making a kind of peace with the liberal pacesetters here. It would be interesting to try to figure out why.
Perhaps the way in which young people have such a stake in this city – with their thriving music and clubbing scenes, their involvement in Bollywood and in the financial markets, their vigorous artistic life, as well as their openness to the idea of sex (if not always the practice of sex) – is holding the balance? Perhaps.
The city’s future too, with its yearning for riches, glossy status symbols and internationalism in its dealings, appears to mean a drive toward liberalism is likely – at least for now.

It’s odd how this city does so often remind one of Victorian London. Not just in the contrast of rich and poor, and between great beauty and terrible ugliness, but also in this ambivalent relationship with sex.
How will Mumbai move on this issue? It will be interesting to watch how the game goes.

++

ADDENDUM (Later)
Some people have said they don't get what my standpoint on sex in this article is. They try to make me strike an attitude. Do I approve of the fact that sex is only appropriate in private in Mumbai? Do I think women in the West are exploited - but respected in India? Do I think girlie mags are a Bad Thing? Am I a liberal or a conservative? Do I support or want to discourage sex before marriage?
Well, I'm quite pleased people should be confused.
The idea of the blog is to report (hopefully without prejudice or favour) what I see, and try ot make some thoughtful guesses (it's up to you to say if I have plumped for the right answers). Then, try to compare what I see with my own culture back home so that my target readers (both European and Indian people who travel) can understand what I'm trying to describe.

So, the answer is: I hope I have no standpoint but that of the interested observer.


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70 comments:

Eman Kazmi said...

^Excellent point!

It is ironic. Bollywood in fact, at least the new wave, is definitely more open to sex and kissing. Considerable films have kissing and sex. Yet there is always debate and disgust over the scene.

I think the most prime example of this difference is that Murder was one of the biggest hits of 2004. It was also the most sexually explicit of main stream Indian films. It was also panned by critics and people often refer to the film in digust, yet it was still one of the biggest hits of 2004.

I think it's a case of reality versus societal taboo. There's a lot of interest in sex but it is considered 'unacceptable' to feel that way. Hence the contradiction.

Anonymous said...

Great read. What is it with guys holding hands? I see it all over the place.

Kumar said...

Who was the actress who turned down the kissing scene?

++

MARK replies:

The actress who reportedly turned down the film role because there was a kissing scene in it was Ayesha Takia. It was reported in November 2006.

Anat said...

@above comment: guys holding hands are stared at in foreign countries, and the place where I stay in Hyderabad, if an couple (girl-guy) holds hands and takes an after dinner stroll - they are publically shouted at for spoiling the minds of the children living in the colony (humare bachhon ki toh socho..)

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I'm not sure if you've travelled elsewhere in India, but Mumbai is one of our most westernised and liberal cities.

The reason the liberal newspapers and arty, left-wing crowd are comfortable with such issues is that they associate sexual openness with Western ideas of freedom. They are perhaps a little too eager for India to gain western acceptance.

As regards youth, close relationships and sex, again there is much going on beneath the surface. Of course, the number of partners one would have had is fewer than in the West.

You obviously haven't seen too many Bollywood movies yet or heard about how our censor board works. That is yet another dimension.

P2C2U said...

Bombay is Freedom City, when compared to the rest of India. I went to college in Delhi and I couldn't wear shoulder and arms - baring clothes without feeling like I'm on display.

I agree Bombay still has some way to go before before it can get comfortable with sex, but at least its halfway there.

And I love that you haven't really taken a stand :)

Shantanu said...

It's interesting how I never notice these things. I love your blog; it's so much more interesting (and fun!) seeing our country with your eyes. You observe everything and write very well!

Prashant said...

We blame you Brits with your Victorian era morality concepts and of course the islamic invaders before you for taking a very advanced society with very enlightened views on sexuality and turning us in prudes !! So there :P

At least we have managed to hold on to our acceptance of homosexuality and guys can hold hands, put arms over the shoulders and sit on each others laps in parks and other public places.

Porn is cheap and easily accessible. Most of the vendors have porn hidden under the tamer stuff on top.

I dont think couples holding hands and taking a stroll are yelled at, let alone be stared. Of course if you are wearing revealing outfits then there might be some staring involved. I am talking about Bombay here.

++

MARK replies...

Thanks for your thoughts!

I have heard this theory about the 19th century British introducing their repressed attitude to sex to India, which changed Indians from their normal openness. There seems to be (from my reading anyway) a degree of truth to the theory, even if it's not the whole answer. But, with the Brits having been gone for 60 years now, why haven't Indians gone back to their "natural" openness?

Hmm, your opinion of how free gay people are in Mumbai to express their sexuality is not something I have observed. Are you sure you meant that?

I guess you are right about the porn stuff. I will keep an eye out at news-stalls, but I didn't see any hard-porn, only the soft stuff I mentioned. As I say, I don't know what goes on "under the counter".

As for people yelling at couples who walk hand in hand - you're right, I've never observed that either. But then, I can't remember the last time I saw a boy-girl couple holding hands...

Prashant said...

Hey Mark, my comment was in jest. Tongue firmly in cheek. I guess I should have added few more smileys and LOLs to indicate that :-)

I am talking out of my ass here and have no clue as to when and how we were transformed from Kamasutra and Khajuraho to current 'moral policing' shiv sena goons.


Also I am little surprised that you havent seen couples walking holding hands. Its not uncommon to find couples at places like Marine Drive, Bandstand, college campuses etc. I agree that certain sections of the city could be more conservative.

Unheimlich said...

hi...you covered a lot of ground with your observations...but I think the general issue you are circling around is the seemingly bipolar attitudes towards sex in India...erotic temple sculptures and sexy heroines but then general moral conservatism...but lets not get confused about the importance of "appearances" in India.

It is most likely that even the most sexually active teenagers in India would be unlikely to reveal their habits to many people...and it is quite common for people to leave dual lives in public and in private. Take for example chandigarh, which is known as one of the best cities in India to retire with a family...it is supposed to be clean and wholesome...but it is also known and whispered behind closed doors (never in public) that there are wife swapping parties, that it has become a centre for the use of expensive drugs like cocaine and that husbands in chandigarh regularly take trips to hong kong to visit "massage parlours" and often initiate their sons into "manhood" on such trips. Then there are some things I have heard which I would be embarrassed to write about. As for porn in the public sphere...you have to know a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy...there are definitely places to get all manner of things but they would not be available in public view...and people would not be "open and cool" about discussing it...when purchasing such a thing it is sort of like purchasing condoms- you carry it out of the shop in a nondescript brown paper bag...and the internet is a HUGE fasciliator for these interests....

I think in talking about sex it might be useful to discuss two different reactions to talking/doing it that are generally speaking different in India than in the West. In the west...guilt is an emotion more commonly experienced (I really shouldn't be doing this...oh but I will even though I shouldn't-) which puts a good deal of emphasis on individual morality in relation to sex....how "I" define my sexual practices as good or bad....but in India shame is really more of a common emotion...(if my family were to get to know...if I should be found out)....in other words your anxiety in relation to sex is more oriented towards communal practices...and less to the fact of your own self knowledge.... so people will endure entire life times of aesphixiating sexless marriages to save face...and some people will make it possible to get through them by having copious ammounts of illicit sex with mistresses and masseurs...while others will repress it if not totally crushing their libido entirely and settling into a comfortable plutonic marriage. Anyway I look forward to more of your observations

remainsofthedesi said...

I agree with Unheimlich. Indian sexuality is so much to do with the balance of appearance and practice. I also agree with Mark in that India is TREMENDOUSLY like Victorian England. In fact I would go to say that it has, for people who grew up in more pre-modern times...there is a total sense of arrested development where elder generations think that their kids need to be moulded, schooled, taught good posture, and nicely placed into respectable jobs and relationships.....makes me think of that song by Peete Seeger (little boxes on the hillside...) and there is a tremendous amount of pressure and prudery and gossip and a general will to prevent people from being too easy or relaxed or original...and so a general tactic I've become aware of is that smart kids learn to nod their head and say "yes of course ok" and then secretly do as they please whenever not prevented.

anonymouse said...

WRT the Victorian issue, 60 years isn't quite enough for that large a cultural change (most of the political leaders till recently were from that era, and their kids were educated in similar conditions). Another ten years or so should help, twenty will see a lot of change. Victorian attitudes took a few years (and a couple of wars) to change, we are doing it without the wars.

Remember, half out criminal and civil code still dates from the days of the Victorian era, and we still have laws about moral offenses.

Kishore said...

Thissul make yer laff. As you didn't say, sex toys, "marital aids", passion products etc, are BANNED in this dear country. The govt likes sex in the natural state, which I supoze means THE FIELDS.

So when the healthy sex people want to make condoms popular ((whihc they ARE NOT) here, they put a little battery vibrator on it. Good idea I thought, I'll have one (or TWO). but our god people don't like the little Crezendo as it's called. o dear!
see BBC World page -- http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/6221540.stm

Tool smith said...

Many dance bars in Mumbai are still operating with live orchestra; and waitresses are

there to serve the food and drinks. Apart from these waitresses there are few more girls can bee seen standing or talking to

customers, these girls are the actual bar-girls who used to perform dance before the ban on dance bars.

Many of the girls are now entered into flesh-trade; there are several bars in

Mumbai where there are hotel rooms/lodges exactly

above the bar.
Here I have found a snap of such bar, click

here.
.

Trafficking is the major issue originated by such kind of

joints.
Girls are trafficked from Bangladesh, kolkata, and from some parts of Delhi, and Rajasthan. Girls from poor family and easily accept the offer to work

in Mumbai and finally land up into the hands of these bars. Most of the times there is a middle-man; who eats almost all the money

earned by the girls in the beginning.


All this can be stopped if the Govt. can

remove ban on dance-bars and allow the dance performance.
This should be accompanied with some strict rules about the

time-limit, code of conduct, and some security to the bar-girls. All the girls working in such bars should undergo scanning to find

out all the possible causes of trafficking and the people responsible for it.

GeoArticleDude said...

At least I know where to go now if I need a room in Mumbai! ;-)
Canadian article directory

P. Navalkar (Mumbai) said...

I am surprised at how misinformed this author is. Especially regarding pornography. There are a few dozen respectable soft porn magazines comparable to Penthouse / Hustler / Playboy which have been in print for decades. Hard porn is not allowed, but imported hard porn is easily available to anyone. Just ask the newstand guys for it.

Dance bars and equivalents are still very much active. Infact Mumbai still remains one of the easiest cities in the world to find sex, and also the cheapest.
http://mumbai-red-light.blogspot.com/search?updated-min=2009-01-01T00%3A00%3A00-08%3A00&updated-max=2010-01-01T00%3A00%3A00-08%3A00&max-results=12

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