Can oral sex lead to pregnancy? Will daily masturbation make me go bald? If my elbow brushes against a woman’s breasts on a bus, will I be at risk from HIV?
These are not questions being asked by innocent pre-teens in a middle-school playground. Rather, they are being posed – and answered – in India’s most widely circulated English-language newspaper. The “Ask the Sexpert” column runs in a daily supplement of the Times of India, with spinoff columns beginning to appear in other major Indian periodicals.
It essentially features sex-related questions from across India, followed by small nuggets of advice. The queries range from the serious to the clueless, from the sympathy-evoking to the unintentionally entertaining. (Some choice, if rather explicit, examples can be seen here, here and here.
To a first-time reader, particularly one with a functional understanding of the birds and the bees, many questions will seem unbelievably basic. How can a society, especially one with a strong cultural emphasis on education, be so ignorant of elementary biology? To put it bluntly, why are so many Indian adults confused about where babies come from?
First-time readers will be further surprised to learn that author, Dr Mahinder Watsa, is an 85-year-old gynaecologist and sex counsellor. Unlike many Indian octogenarians, however, Watsa does not spend his time decrying the decline of family values. Rather, he appears to have largely accepted – and arguably immersed himself in – the concerns and realities of today’s youth.
Ask the Sexpert is far from prudish. Though occasionally antiquated, Watsa’s advice is – for the most part – factual, terse, and at times even sardonic. He regularly calls men “old-fashioned” for seeking brides with intact hymens, and often tells size-obsessed men to simply “learn the art of love-making”. Homosexuality seems to be Watsa’s only taboo topic; all else is fair game.
His column provides a sharp contrast to candy-coated Bollywood cinema, and to Indian society overall. It unabashedly discusses topics that are otherwise brushed under carpets, and boldly uses phrases that are usually only whispered in shy giggles. Most importantly, it does what Indian sex education has clearly failed to do. Indian schools are, by a long stretch, less open about sex than Watsa’s column. While Ask the Sexpert discusses premature ejaculation and G-spots at length, the Indian educational system offers students unsubstantial lessons on human anatomy.
This is, in part, because of a parliamentary ruling that rejected the introduction of proper sex education in schools. Sex education has no place in India’s “social and cultural ethos”, the committee argued, and school children should simply be taught that “sex before marriage … is immoral, unethical and unhealthy”.
Some observers believe that committee members are afraid of sex education leading to “people having sex on every corner”. Never mind that scientific studies around the world have found sex education to both delay the onset of sexual behaviour and to increase likelihood of safe sex. Until the Indian education system recognises its shortcomings, the Indian public will have few options but to continue to “ask the sexpert”.