"I’ve had condoms in my jeans that my mum has washed"
Sex sells from romantic kisses in Hollywood to steamy sex. In Bollywood, the 2013 Shraddha Kapoor kiss in Ek Villain (2014) is memorable.
With the presence of sharaam (shame) South Asians often feel they can’t talk about sex.
Societies are modernising and are starting to accept women in education and work. What does modernity mean for discussing sex? White Brits may not bat an eyelid, but many British South Asians can’t talk about sex.
In 2015, Studyweb found that porn is 4.4% of desktop visits. In 2018, the second-most visitors of Pornhub were UK-based. The largest Desi country, India, was third and 30% of Indian visitors were female.
Pakistan and other Desi countries in the region were also in top porn-watching countries.
Interestingly, all Desi countries have banned porn. South Asians can’t talk about sex, but they are definitely watching it.
Actress Radhika Apte said of sex:
“…it’s a taboo also, so it has an odd place in our country.”
Indians wrote sex scenes over 2,000 years ago in the Kamasutra – Teachings on Desire. Indians expressed their sexuality, which the British colonial authorities struggled to understand. The British reserved sex for marriage.
Devadasis, (female artists serving temples all their lives) had casual sex with high-status men. Casual sex was unethical for the colonial British power and it soon became criminalised.
This reserved attitude to sex continues to persist in India. In 2015, India blocked 857 porn sites. In a country that coined Kamasutra, a simple mention of sex is considered taboo.
However, sex is everywhere from YouTube ads to billboards and Bollywood movies. There is no escaping sex, whether in South Asia or the UK.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, sex discussions have become rampant in the UK. This includes how to pleasure oneself to increases in sales of contraception, Brits have not shied away.
Despite this progression and openness, many British South Asians can’t talk about sex.
Research by Testa and Coleman showed British South Asians “almost never” discussed sex at home.
South Asian men and women are far less likely to experience sex than their peers. This is something South Asian parents rejoice!
However, once South Asians, particularly, women left home, sex goes up. In fact, this includes unmarried sex. For South Asian women, their first sexual experiences are often with non-South Asian men.
South Asians may have underreported their sexual experiences due to cultural expectations. The reality is many South Asians aren’t virgins before marriage yet can’t openly discuss it.
In homes where sex is often taboo, hiding can become common. DESIblitz has a look at 10 reasons South Asians can’t talk about sex.
Sex Before Marriage
South Asians can’t talk about sex particularly before marriage. There is an expectation for Desi people to stay virgins until marriage.
Marriage is symbolically the start of adult life which means sex and children.
Despite enjoying porn, Desi communities maintain conservative values. Statista reported in 2014 that 94% of Pakistanis viewed premarital sex as unacceptable.
The statistic was nearly 70% for Indians and only 13% in the UK.
British South Asians can’t talk about sex since many families still maintain conservative values.
If parents suspect their unmarried children, even adults, are engaging in premarital sex, things can turn sour.
“I asked my mum what age she was when she had her first kiss and she flipped,” Maria explains.
“What do you mean ‘what age?’” Maria’s mum had shouted. “I was married when I had my first kiss. What are you doing? Do you have a boyfriend?”
Maria’s mum watched from her window as Maria came and went from home for weeks.
Lakshmi speaks of her experience:
“My mum’s friend’s daughter was getting married and her mum found lingerie. My mum told me not to get ideas into my head.”
Lakshmi was 25-years-old and couldn’t help but laugh. “My mum was years too late.”
Fearing they’ll arouse suspicion, South Asians can’t talk about sex. If Desi aunties find out, the word will be out and marriage prospects can dwindle.
Relationships Do Happen … Undercover
South Asians can’t talk about sex, but that doesn’t mean they do not have it. From steamy phone sessions to fogging up car windows, South Asians are at it.
Whether South Asians are having sex or not, they fear engaging in sexual discussions. Talking about sex is considered improper and discussing it with friends can be worrying.
“When I first had sex, I didn’t know who to turn to,” Krishma explains. “I didn’t want it getting out.”
Krishma couldn’t speak with her parents and she was unsure which friends she could trust. She knew the complications of having sex before marriage could cause for her future. She said:
“No one would want to marry me if they found out.”
Though many South Asians are having sex, it is still taboo to talk about. Rumours circulate quickly and they can damage an individual and their family’s reputation.
It’s an unspoken rule that Amina should be a virgin before marriage. Her mother has discussed other people’s daughters and their ‘bad’ behaviour. Amina has to make sure no one finds out, friends included.
“One time my friend asked me if I had ever kissed anyone. I said no even though I’ve done far worse.”
Amina’s best friend doesn’t know Amina has a boyfriend. Amina has disguised his number under a girl’s name on her phone. However, this means Amina doesn’t have anyone to turn to for help.
“I didn’t know who to ask for advice … sexually. Neither of us knew what we were doing, so we just had to figure it out.”
Amina didn’t know anything about sex other than what she learnt at school. Both she and her boyfriend grew up knowing South Asians can’t talk about sex.
Amina and her boyfriend couldn’t confide in anyone as the word couldn’t get out. It would be more damaging for Amina as a woman to openly talk about sex.
It can be Worse for Women
Women are seen as the honour of Desi families and need protection. Many South Asian families aim to keep their daughters pure and marry them into good families.
A woman caught out for engaging in premarital sex can have her future ruined. Family reputations can be in tatters if the daughter is considered a deviant.
South Asians can’t talk about sex, but they can definitely gossip about so-and-so’s daughter.
Sophia had been learning about sex at school when she was a teenager. Later, she remembers asking her mother about sex:
“I asked my mum if it was painful and she was so angry. She asked who I’d done it with and when.”
Sophia was adamant she was still a virgin, but her mother remained dubious. Her mother continued to eye her with suspicion, but Sophia steered clear of any discussion.
Sophia learned never to bring up sex with her mother again.
South Asians can’t talk about sex but adopt the attitude of ‘boys will be boys’. Parents do not hold their sons to the same standards as their daughters.
Would they like their sons to be virgins?
Would it matter if they weren’t?
Amina discusses her family dynamics:
“My parents aren’t stupid. They know my brother isn’t some sort of angel, but they just ignore it. If it was me, it would be a completely different story.”
South Asians can’t talk about sex, but they can accept their sons are sexually active.
Handholding in front of parents doesn’t happen and kissing is beyond imagination.
In turn, grandparents didn’t discuss sex with parents, and this transcended generations. Changing the channel when kissing scenes appear is also a tradition in Desi households.
Sex and sexual discussions are taboo in South Asian cultures. Parents, especially those raised back home, were expected to have marital sex.
Sex is an intimate act between a married couple for many South Asians.
Even holding hands in public in Desi countries is considered obscene. Sex and everything surrounding sex was considered top secrets for parents. This heirloom passed onto many British South Asians.
South Asian parents race to flip the channel if something steamy crops up on TV. With shy parents, no wonder British South Asians can’t talk about sex.
Sara shares her experience:
“My mum wouldn’t know where to look if I brought up sex.”
In her late-20s, Sara has never discussed sex with her parents. Her mother would be embarrassed, but discussing it with her father would be unthinkable.
“I can’t imagine ever talking about sex with my dad. He’s a man… he’s my dad… there’s just no way.”
Sharaam is still prominent in Desi families. Sex is considered a shameful topic and discussing it with the opposite sex simply isn’t done.
South Asians can’t talk about sex even amongst other women, but discussions with men are unfathomable.
Karina’s mum once tried to speak about sex but was soon red-faced.
“I’m 30 and unmarried. My mum was trying to hint something at me, but I had no idea what.”
Karina’s mother asked her if she was ‘satisfied’. Her mother stormed out of the room when Karina started laughing, unsure what her mother meant.
If South Asians can’t talk about sex openly, misunderstandings can happen!
South Asians can’t talk about sex out of fear that listeners will assume promiscuity.
From having too much knowledge to being excessively crude, onlookers could become suspicious. The idea is to wait until marriage, remember?
Kiara remembers speaking about sex with a Desi friend:
“I brought up blowjobs with my friend and was stunned. Her immediate reaction was ‘how do you know?’ She thought I’d been around.”
Kiara laughed and learned South Asians can’t talk about sex even with some friends.
South Asians can’t talk about sex, but Priya pushed the boundaries:
“I asked my mum how she’d react if she found out I wasn’t a virgin and she got panicked. She thought I’d been around the whole city.”
There can be lots of uncertainty when inexperienced South Asians can’t talk about sex. From sex positions to contraception, problems arise when South Asians can’t talk about sex.
Sex in Desi communities, traditionally, is reserved for marriage and procreation. Shame and fear of being caught can cause South Asians to engage in risky behaviour.
In Testa and Coleman’s study, condom use was poor in South Asian males. Possible reasons for this were traditions, family and community expectations.
Imagine being caught with a box of condoms in-hand by an auntie.
The fear of being caught can cause South Asians to practice unsafe sex. Condoms act as proof of sex. The same can be said for women and collecting the morning after pill.
Morning after pill provider, Ellaone, found 46% of women had unprotected sex, but only 26% took Ellaone. The findings showed that British women still feel shame in regards to unprotected sex.
When South Asians can’t talk about sex, this problem can be far worse. A girl caught going to the pharmacy for Ellaone would be the talk-of-the-town … and other towns.
“I put on a hoodie and went to collect the morning after pill and kept my head down. I couldn’t get caught.”
Imaan would have been embarrassed about picking up the emergency contraceptive. It was proof she had gone against her traditional values and had engaged in sex.
She kept her head down while she waited for the pharmacist. “I was embarrassed at the situation I’d gotten myself into. Plus, my mum would kill me if she ever found out.”
Men also have their share of embarrassing experiences. When South Asians can’t talk about sex, they can go to extremes.
Raj speaks about his experiences:
“I use the pull-out method instead of getting caught buying contraceptives. It has worked so far.”
Although the pull-out method is only 70% effective, Raj continues to take the risk.
Not going to the GP or Pharmacy
In the 1980s, 16% of the UK’s GPs were South Asian immigrants from abroad. They were from conservative Desi countries where South Asians can’t talk about sex.
The percentage of Desi doctors in the UK has increased to nearly 30%. In parts of South Wales, over 70% of GPs are South Asian.
When South Asians can’t talk about sex, this can extend to their doctors. Legally there is doctor-patient confidentiality, but some South Asians may feel embarrassed.
However, South Asians can’t talk about sex even with their doctors. Aysha shares her experience:
“I didn’t go to my GP to put me on the pill. My doctor is an Asian so I just take the morning after pill when I need it.”
Aysha doesn’t believe her Asian doctor will keep her confidentiality. The doctor mentioning her case to his colleague or wife could spread through the community.
“My doctor would probably think I get around.”
Aysha doesn’t want her doctor to think badly of her. The feeling of embarrassment and saving her reputation has taken precedent over her sexual health.
Nearly 30% of pharmacists are from a South Asian background in the UK. Ridhi discusses the lengths she went to collect the morning after pill:
“I went to get the morning after pill and the lady at the till was Indian. I waited until someone else could serve me and whispered to them that I was after the pill.
“After waiting twenty minutes to speak with the pharmacist, she turned out to be Indian too. I walked away and drove to another pharmacy.”
When South Asians can’t talk about sex, they can go to great lengths. South Asians can’t talk about sex with other South Asians … including medical professionals.
Sex, whether for the married or unmarried, is a private act for Desi people. Many South Asians can’t talk about sex for this reason and don’t want to.
In discussions of sex, pregnant women aren’t excused. Pregnancy is a symbol of sex for South Asians and women may keep their pregnancy private.
Sharing her views, Aliyah says: “Sex is between me and my husband. Why would I need to speak about it with anyone else?’
“No one I know speaks about it. We just get on with it, really. There’s lots of stuff online if anyone is that stuck.”
Aliyah has her queries answered online instead of discussing her sex life.
Hassan also keeps his sex life private. He explains:
“My parents know I’m not a virgin; it’s obvious. I’ve been in relationships … I’ve had condoms in my jeans that my mum has washed, but I’m not going to go into details with her.”
South Asians can’t talk about sex even when there’s proof. There’s a don’t ask-don’t-tell situation with Hassan’s family and he’s happy with it.
Still a Child
Parents expect obedience from their Desi children into adulthood. South Asians can’t talk about sex with their parents when they’re still considered a bacha (child).
In the hierarchy of the parent-child relationship, it can be very awkward discussing sex.
“I would be so embarrassed. My parents still act like I’m ten-years-old,” 22-year-old Amirah said.
“You’re not considered an adult until you’re married with kids. I don’t know how they think I’ll have kids without sex.”
Sex is Okay… for Humour
South Asians can’t talk about sex unless they’re joking. Though South Asian cultures are conservative, that doesn’t mean jokes are.
Some of the crudest jokes can be South Asian. Sophia overheard her mum’s conversation:
“My mum was joking about dicks in Punjabi to her friends. The same woman who has never ever spoken about sex to me.”
Men and women make sex jokes but only amongst the same gender. “My dad will have a laugh at work with his mates about sex, but he’d never seriously talk about it with me and definitely not at home,” Harry said.
That’s what it’s like when South Asians can’t talk about sex. The mention of anything sexual arouses suspicion from doctors and family!
Though South Asians can’t talk about sex, they are still sexually active. Older generations were more conservative, but generations born in the UK are loosening up.
British South Asians hide their relationships from friends and relatives but what about future generations?
From sexual education to relationships, it seems like a transition is taking place. So, with ancestors from the land of the Kamasutra, are British South Asians returning to their sexual roots? Only time will tell.