Reshma (name changed), an assistant professor of English at a Pune college, plans to move in with her boyfriend shortly. “I don’t know about marriage. Frankly, I am petrified about it. You see my parents were never happy…though my boyfriend is coaxing me to be positive about family life,” says the 26-year-old, who moved to Pune from Bhusaval in Vidarbha in 2015.
In contrast, for Simran (name changed), relationships are about “trying and testing”. “I am a bisexual and have been in two relationships — one with a girl and now with a boy. From the societal point of view, perhaps, it is better to eventually be with a guy. At least, one would not have to face the heartbreak of leaving a partner. I cannot say,” she muses. The 21-year-old graduate from Pune has just enrolled for a postgraduate course in social work in Mumbai. She believes her “wild days” of sexual experimentation are behind her. “I am going to focus on my career now,” she says.
The young women were a part of a project that examined the life journeys of 1,240 unmarried young people, from childhood to adulthood (10-29 years). The study, called “Youth in Transition”, was designed by Prayas Health Group, a Pune-based charitable trust that has been working on sexual and reproductive health and rights for more than 25 years. It involved detailed interviews with 655 boys and 585 girls over the last two years. Of them, 236 lived in rural areas; 709 were Pune residents and 295 were from other cities. While the study was done in Pune, its findings could be representative of any city or urban area. Dr Ritu Parchure, one of the lead researchers of the study, pointed out that the choices of the post-millenial generation broke out of the pattern — become a graduate by 21, abstain from sex before marriage and get married by 24 or 25 and have children. “Most studies aim at getting a snapshot of how many have sex before marriage. Our study aims at understanding sexual health needs of the youngsters,” says Dr Parchure.
Listening to their narratives, researchers found that childhood experiences of sexual abuse and parents’ divorce significantly influenced their choices. Some chose not to get into a relationship, others preferred commitment, some chose to engage in penetrative sex while others did not. The study found that labelling young people’s choices as being influenced by Western culture, porn or internet would be shutting eyes to the complex sociocultural realities in which they are growing up.
Young people who faced sexual abuse in childhood are less likely to engage in sexual relationships in adulthood, out of fear or disgust. Such experiences were reported by 17 per cent girls and 16 per cent boys. “Not all of them would be able to consciously point out (how) …but our statistical analysis shows that a significant link exists,” says senior researcher Dr Shirish Dharak.
Simran, for example, remembers how, as a 10-year-old, she had clammed up when her friend’s father touched her inappropriately. “I had gone for a sleepover and my friend’s father started this game — you tickle me and I tickle you. I did not understand what was happening but I didn’t like it. I realised it was child abuse much later, when I froze during intercourse with my partner. It was even more painful with my lesbian partner,” she recalls. “I didn’t realise I was tightening myself and it took my partners to bring me out of that phase,” she adds.
The research interviews provided participants an opportunity to talk about themselves, their desires, experiences and insecurities. Mayur (name changed) hails from a district in Marathwada and moved to Pune in pursuit of a job at the age of 22. Back in his hometown, he had his first serious relationship but both families were opposed due to caste differences (he belonged to a “lower caste”). He got drawn into smoking and drinking. While he did not sink into addiction, he has preferred to stay away from serious emotional commitment.
The study also showed a high level of emotional abuse within relationships. A 22-year-old from Bhopal recalled how her current boyfriend panicked when she told him about a previous relationship. “He started doubting me and checking my social media posts. He used to accompany me wherever I went and even used to drop and pick me from college,” she recalled. More than 70 per cent of the girls and boys said that it is difficult to talk to their family if they have problems in their relationship. And, almost all youngsters knew about the risks of unprotected sex (pregnancy, HIV and other STDs) but 25-35 per cent do not use condoms during sex. “Though the taboo about pre-marital sex is less strong, we remain reluctant to talk about consent, or sexual health,” says Anuj Deshpande, 26, who writes for theatre and took part in the study.
The sexual health concerns of youth require sensitive, non-judgmental and pragmatic responses, say researchers. “There is a great need to initiate a healthy discourse on sexuality and strengthen the support system,” Parchure says.
In a Nutshell
*Almost half of the participants reported at least one episode of depression. Of these, 47 per cent episodes were completely related to break-ups and relationship stress. Only one-third took professional help.
*41 per cent reported experiences of emotional abuse (such as putting restrictions on the partner, being suspicious, cheating partner), 4 per cent reported physical abuse (hitting partner, slapping, threaten to hit, becoming aggressive), and 17 per cent reported sexual abuse.
*Among those who were sexually active, a quarter had sexual debut before 18 and almost half had more than one sexual partner.
*Only 13 per cent of boys and 31 per cent of girls ever had any conversation with their parents about sexuality when they were growing up (from 10-18 years).
*A large subsection of youngsters (25-35%) do not use condoms. However, almost all knew about risks associated with unprotected sex (pregnancy, HIV and other STDs.
This article appeared in print with the headline ‘It’s Complicated’