"I couldn’t cope in such a toxic environment"
Pre-marital sex is a topic deeply entrenched in stigma within the Desi community.
Perhaps due to Western influence, ‘modern’ South Asians are certainly more open to the idea. Nevertheless, it remains a controversial topic.
Ironically, there is hypocrisy in the South Asian perception of sex.
It is considered awkward and taboo amongst the very community from which the ultimate sex manual (the Kama Sutra) hails.
It is an unspeakable act pre-maritally but becomes somewhat sacred once you are married.
This article explores these juxtapositions and other factors that impact the Desi view of pre-marital sex.
Much of the stigma attached to pre-marital sex comes from the ‘But what will people think?’ notion – one all too common in the Desi community.
It is linked to the concept of virginity and dignity being intertwined.
The narrative of girls being clean and pure as virgins remains very much in-tact. The implications of this can be dangerous – not only mentally but physically.
Risky restoration procedures like ‘rehymenation’ are popular in South Asian countries. These are pursued by girls desperate to convey themselves as untouched and ‘pure’ for when marriage arrives.
At this point, we must not be ignorant of gender discrimination.
In South Asian culture, wives have historically been viewed as assets of their husbands. They must maintain his unblemished reputation by displaying a tame and obedient nature.
In more orthodox circles, pre-marital sex reflects the very opposite. It shows the girl to be too wild, free-willed, bold in her actions. Whilst the stance may not be so exaggerated amongst diaspora, it persists nonetheless.
“My mum once said she would disown me if she found out I had sex before marriage. I know it was only a joke but it frustrated me.
“My brother is younger than me and my mum knows he is sexually-active, yet she wouldn’t say anything like that to him.”
This illustrates the gendered societal norms in South Asian culture. Put bluntly, it seems to be that the boys can and the girls cannot.
Perhaps girls also face backlash as they are at the centre of the life-changing consequence of pre-marital sex – pregnancy.
Whilst pregnancy is auspicious for married couples, it can be deemed quite the contrary outside of marriage.
Even those in long-term relationships can be ostracised for having a child whilst unmarried.
Varinder was 18 when she met her now-husband. They got married when she was 25 but she actually fell pregnant with their first child at 22. She said:
“My parents knew Avi was my boyfriend and they loved him.
“However, it all changed when I fell pregnant. We were 4 years into our relationship, not yet married. I remember the moment I told my dad so vividly.
“He told me I had brought so much shame to the family. He actually said, ‘I didn’t raise you to be like this.’
“There was no support from my parents. I was either to marry Avi immediately or abort my child. I couldn’t cope in such a toxic environment so I chose to leave home.”
Fortunately, Varinder has been able to re-establish a relationship with her parents.
Not all are so lucky. Families can be indefinitely torn apart due to pre-marital pregnancy.
Young women in this position can find themselves under immense pressure. Many are forced into immediate marriage to disguise the pre-marital nature of the pregnancy.
Others are kicked out of the family home, sometimes even disowned.
It is shameful that this all happens in an attempt to save face in the community. Roshan raises an important point:
“Our whole culture is oriented around reputation. We have to be secretive about so many things – relationships, social lives, our independence.
“I think we need to focus on being more open about these things with our families before we try and tackle something like sex.”
It also highlights how sex is viewed differently inter-generationally. Talisha says:
“I feel like older South Asians see sex as practical rather than a display of love and affection. In their eyes, it exists to produce children, to keep the lineage going.”
However, many Desi’s now equate sex to more than just offspring.
They recognise it for purposes of enjoyment and fulfilment and want to enjoy it before committing to marriage. It is this that the elder generation may struggle to accept.
Decline in Marriage
The institution of marriage has always been held in high-esteem. It is often deemed the logical next step of long-term relationships, indicating stability and life-long commitment.
This is especially true in South Asian culture. Marriage comes first, then sex. This was essentially cultural law and continues to be maintained by much of the Desi community.
This can be a very ambiguous perspective though. Consider some arranged marriages.
A few generations ago, a couple’s initial meeting would likely be a few weeks prior to the wedding – if that. Many of your grandparents may have even met for the first time on their actual wedding day!
It then seems tedious that tradition permits sex between these essential strangers – but not between long-term unmarried lovers.
Jagdeep and his wife had an arranged marriage in 1995.
“My wife and I had an arranged marriage. On our wedding day, we were basically strangers. Yet, just days later, people in the family were asking us, ‘So when are you going to have kids?’
“It put so much pressure on us. We barely knew anything about each other but all these people wanted us to start a family already. We decided to take our time – get to know each other properly before getting so intimate.
“Much to our family’s frustration, it was 4 years before we had our first baby. I have no regrets though – we went at our own pace.”
More seriously, this stance can pressure newly-weds into sex before they are ready. Stipulating marriage as the gateway to sex has incredibly harmful implications.
In fact, under the Indian Penal Code, a man forcing his wife into sex does not constitute as rape. Bluntly, marital rape is not classed as rape. This caveat enables the sexual manipulation of so many women.
Sexual intimacy can take time to build. It is not something that is immediately born once a ring is on the finger. The past few decades have seen the marriage rate plummet globally.
More so in Asian culture, women were traditionally raised with marriage as the ultimate goal.
Mariya is a 32-year-old investment banker. What frustrates her is how her career successes are overshadowed by her marital status.
“Auntiya to this day will come up to me like, ‘Don’t you think you need to get married soon?’ or ‘Why haven’t you found anyone yet?’.
“It’s infuriating – I have spent this time building a career for myself, not desperately hunting a suitor. I feel like I’ve achieved so much but it’s obviously all irrelevant whilst I remain unmarried.”
Apprehension to marry does not mean romantic or sexual relationships have to be written off.
“I don’t need to commit to marriage to enjoy sex. I completely respect those who want to wait, but I think it is very backwards to enforce it on others.
“My sexual choices are no one’s but my own.”
The decline in marriage is also due to many couples remaining unmarried permanently. This can be for various reasons – lacking the financial stability for a wedding, fear of losing self-identity or simply not wanting to marry.
Cohabiting has also surfaced as a trend – living together in a romantic relationship but remaining unmarried.
As one may expect, cohabitation is extremely frowned upon amongst more rural and conservative South Asian populations.
There are even stories of landlords in India forbidding unmarried couples to rent their properties. Many hotel rooms are signposted as ‘for married couples only’ too.
It is a different story amongst diaspora though. More and more are choosing to cohabit – increasingly with the support of families.
Kay is from Leicester and met her boyfriend Kash there. After both relocating to London to progress their careers, they decided to move in together.
“Me and Kash have been together for 4 years now. Obviously, we both wanted to live together in London but we were really nervous about how our families would react.
“Surprisingly, both sides were so supportive. It has made me really happy because it shows that they value our relationship, even if we are not married.”
With the acceptance of these relationships comes acceptance of – though no-one saying it aloud- non-marital sex. It is an indication of perhaps some progression in the Desi society.
Compared to parents and grandparents, the youth of today have an array of opportunities at their disposable. Some go off to live at university, others travel the world, others delve straight into high-flying city jobs.
One common theme is the tendency to live away from home. Being in your own space brings the freedom that not every South Asian youth is afforded at home.
For many, this offers the opportunity for sexual exploration.
Away from home, snooping aunties will struggle to keep their nose in your business (although they will definitely try their hardest). There is no longer a need to sneak around or maintain secrecy.
However, intensely strict home environments can have further implications.
The restrictive nature of the Desi community is more harmful than anything.
Firstly, parents are not renowned for their ability to talk to their children about sex. Ironic, when many South Asians boast hoards of offspring and huge extended families.
There is danger in brushing aside imperative topics like sexual health, taking precautions and general education. Many Desi youths are left to learn from unreliable and biased sources, like peers or the media.
“When your parents don’t have the relevant conversations with you, you are completely left to your own devices. Imagine, a lot of boys especially, learn what they know about sex through porn.”
Kavan raises a really important point. Pornography sets absurdly unrealistic expectations – from what girls should look like to how they should be performing. It can desensitise the whole sexual experience.
Then, bombarded by new lifestyles after leaving home, extreme rebellion is common too. Many are eager to delve into activities they would not dream of at home. Highly excitable and naive, this can spiral out of control.
Avani believes destroying the taboo surrounding sex is key in preventing this.
“I had a very sheltered upbringing, barely allowed to go out with friends and boys were a definite no-no. Sex was never even mentioned in my house.
“So uni was a total culture shock for me. Everyone around me was drinking, smoking, going on nights out – all the things I had never been exposed to at home.
“I met my first boyfriend at uni. Looking back now, it’s clear he pressured me into sex. I wasn’t ready – I didn’t know the first thing about protection or STD’s or anything. But I was naïve and keen to impress him so I went ahead.”
Avani actually fell pregnant and had to abort her baby, out of fear of shaming her family with her pre-marital exploits.
This just shows how important it is to eradicate this vicious cycle. Conversations on sex are avoided due to the stigma attached to the topic.
Yet, this stigma is only furthered by avoiding discussion.
So, South Asians are having sex before marriage. This is not a controversial statement, simply a fact.
Many will share this lifestyle choice, others will have a different mindset. Regardless, this should be irrelevant in how society treats an individual.
Sexual choices are to be made independently, uninfluenced by the opinions of others. The sooner this is accepted in the Desi community, the better.