One of my female friends recently confessed that she had undergone an abortion for the second time. It was an unplanned pregnancy again. “My husband never uses protection. He says it spoils all the fun and he can’t feel a thing. I’m usually on the pill. I have been on it since the day we got hitched, eight years ago. But it plays havoc with my hormones and I ended up gaining weight, especially when our first child was born four years ago. We usually try pulling out in time. Somehow it doesn’t work. This is the last time… I just don’t want a second child. And I can’t keep aborting,” she said.
Birth control in India is hardly a woman’s prerogative. Given the low levels of literacy amongst my gender, the pressure to marry and become a mother at the earliest is nothing but an indirect validation of a man’s sexual prowess. This is also backed by patriarchy, which exercises this domination over our bodies and sexual choices through ancient religious belief systems and covert family pressures, among other reasons.
In 2009, 48.4 per cent of married women were estimated to use a contraceptive method, meaning, more than half of all married women did not, and approximately three-fourths of these were going the female sterilisation route that till date remains the mainstay of India’s family planning modus operandi. Condoms, at a dismal three per cent were the next most prevalent method. No wonder then that we add up to 10,00,000 people to our population count every 20 days.
And yet, as women, even those like us – urban, elite and professionally successful – wonder what it will be like to actually carry a condom on us, a brave new Durex condom advertisement aspires to shatter the stereotypes associated with men and condoms, with a group of free-spirited women listening to a bunch of men talking about how they would find a woman carrying rubber in her purse a secret turn-on, a sign of self-confidence and a fact that she cares about her body, just as much as she seeks sexual fulfilment.
No prizes for guessing, this is a foreign ad!
Because let’s face it: in a lust-ridden, morally perverse, jerking off on “Sheila Ki Jawani” India, where a woman is raped every 20 minutes, and kissing in public is taboo, where marital rape may never be criminalised for the sake of salvaging the crumbling edifice of marriage, where a woman dies every hour owing to a dowry-related reason, where even a four-year-old child isn’t spared from being brutally gang-raped, even a simple commercial is perceived as a terrible cultural threat. That scares the likes of former Delhi Commission for Women chief, Barkha Shukla Singh, who in September this year went on to urge the government to ban the “anti-moral and anti-women” advertisement of condoms featuring Sunny Leone.
“There should be condom ads, but there shouldn’t be provocation of sex. That’s what we are objecting (to). While watching TV, such ads make the family uncomfortable and they should be pulled down,” she added patronisingly.
Is protection another way to assert patriarchy? And if condoms are cool then why does a woman carrying one make her a promiscuous, cheap slut? Why are eyebrows raised if a woman saunters into a medical store and asks for a pack of ribbed, strawberry-flavored condoms, instead of the Ipill? Or keeps them in her bathroom closet, or in her bedside drawer? Does that make her fast? Too fast? Not the sati-savitri material? Single? Available? An easy lay? And why do men dislike slipping on the condom so much? It’s not like we love it either. I mean, penetration, after all is a two-way game.
In 2006, the BBC reported on a survey carried out by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) that concluded that condoms made according to international sizes were too large for a majority of Indian men. The two-year study was performed on over 1,200 volunteers from all over India who had their sexual organs precisely measured. The study claimed that more than half of the men measured had sexual organs that were shorter than international standards for condoms. This led to a call for condoms of mixed sizes to be made more widely available in India.
The issue assumes serious proportions since, on an average, one in every five times a condom is used here, it either falls off or tears, which is an extremely high failure rate. Also, India has one of the highest number of HIV-infected people in the world. Why can’t there be a consensus on using the condom? Why can a woman not take the lead, if Indian men are shaky and squeamish or stubborn about safe sex? Maybe, it’s time to treat sexual gratification as an equal rights movement; to claim the condom as our own, and to reclaim our sexual health.
The writer is an ex lifestyle editor and PR vice president, and now a full-time novelist based in Delhi.