By Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan Aug. 03, 2016
If sperm is poured into a vagina from a bottle could it result in a child? In a country that's largely silent on sex, our “home truth” columns say a lot.
We were never taught about sex in school. Sure, we had a chapter in our biology textbooks when we were about 12, which involved the human reproductive system. It was the smallest chapter — a segment that our very distinctly uncomfortable teacher spent only two hurried days on, compared to the couple of weeks every other section got. In the end, we had a quick test and that was the end of that. Yet, for some reason the technical term for the fertilised egg stuck with me.
It was forever at the top of my brain, right up there with when I should use an em dash or what my passwords are. Zygote. A weird little word for what eventually becomes you, and with almost no bearing on the sex I came to know as an adult. Which is good, because when you’re having intercourse, or fucking, or having sex, or making love, or whatever your choice of words is, you don’t spend much time thinking about the science of it: At least, I hope you don’t, but the science of it fills you with a healthy curiosity when you’re young.
I was barely eight when I asked my parents where babies came from, and their answer was always to shower me with books. I got the old “the man plants the seed” story and I had no follow-up questions. The Man probably carried around a packet of seeds for this purpose, I decided for myself, and where else would he put it, but that ready and mysterious receptacle, the belly button? It all made perfect sense to me, any seed, when placed by The Man, into the Woman’s navel would grow inward and then outward, explaining pregnant bellies. Later, I got an even more descriptive book which introduced me to the very real world of the penis and the vagina, but after years of believing my own magical realism story, the truth was a tad disappointing.
“My parents and teachers might have been no good at enlightening me on sex but there was someone in my teenage years who took the whole conversation to another level: Pearl Padamsee.”
My parents and teachers might have been no good at enlightening me on sex but there was someone in my teenage years who took the whole conversation to another level: Pearl Padamsee. Every two weeks Femina carried a “Home Truths” column and I, like thousands of hoppingly curious girls around the country, pored over each glorious little entry with glee. The magazine didn’t come home, but there were always plenty of back issues in the beauty parlour near my house. The Home Truths section played a critical role in teaching girls and women about sex in a safe, non-threatening and more importantly, non-awkward setting. Some of the questions were deliciously raunchy but on the whole, I learned a lot about the Indian woman and her insecurities inside those feverishly thumbed pages.
A lot of the questions — and I do mean a lot — were about breasts, what to do with them, how to make them bigger or smaller, how to make someone pay attention to them, and so on and so forth. An article in Outlook magazine in 1995 quoted from the column: “I live with my two younger brothers aged 17 and 19. I regularly allow them to fondle my breasts, as I don’t want them to grow up breast hungry like so many Indians. In fact, every Saturday we all sleep together (we never have intercourse) and on Sunday we go about the house without any clothes. I feel this gives us a chance to see each other and feel each other… I feel this is a healthy practice as it satisfies the baser instincts in the boys.” Riveting stuff.
I came upon “Ask The Sexpert” much later and by contrast, it was all about the penis. “Will I get my girlfriend pregnant?” This was the constant query in Mumbai sexpert Dr Mahinder Watsa’s weekly column. From the person who wanted to know about whether wiping his penis and his girlfriend’s vagina with the same washcloth would get her pregnant, to the person who wanted to know if sperm stored in a plastic bottle poured into a vagina could result in a child, to even the person who swallowed the emergency contraceptive pill he had bought for his girlfriend, all of them were consumed with the question of procreation. They got so bizarre that you sometimes wondered if the askers were having a laugh at Dr Watsa’s expense. I suspect they were wholly serious.
It is precisely because of these staggering levels of confusion around the subject of sex that an open, non-sniggering dialogue is required. Enter, Agents of Ishq. A hipster, half sex guru, half myth-busting website that is changing conversations. The features are put together with the help of teachers, activists, and youth groups; some are crowd-sourced, and all material is free for download and distribution. It addresses sex questions with honesty and really pretty illustrations that make you wonder why nobody thought of this when we were growing up.
We are a country that desperately needs more Agents of Ishq because, let’s face it, Indians love sex (they must because we’re filled to the brim with people) but they don’t want to love sex and they certainly don’t want to talk about it. That’s why there’s always a job for an intelligent, well-informed sex columnist who will encourage healthy questions around intercourse.
But still, an occasional “My wife put a poker chip in her vagina, will she get pregnant?” never hurt anyone.
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan is the author of five books, most recently Before, And Then After and Split. She is a full-time writer and novelist.