The Sexual Revolution was not Global

In my travels through the developing world, one thing that consistently struck me was the way that men stereotype women sexually. Countries such as Morocco, Ethiopia, Oman and India are still very socially conservative by Western standards. Typically, there is a double standard, where men are allowed or expected to be sexual and women are not.

I had a long conversation with a young man on the train from Chennai to Calcutta. He’s a college student, studying for his BCom like so many others, so that he can start a business. We, two young men with 40 hours to kill, got to talking about women. He told me with a lopsided grin that he’d had a number of girlfriends. But he wouldn’t marry any of them. They weren’t the marrying type. His wife would be a virgin.

To this man, and many others I spoke to, women basically fell into two categories: sexual and reputable. It’s the old dichotomy: Madonna/whore, wife/slut, good girl, bad girl. Of course, the bad girls are more sexually desirable. And I’ve just discovered some careful research that confirms my perception of their perceptions.

First, researchers reviewed the “sex books” available for sale in Bangalore:

A study in Bangalore on 60 college-going young men revealed that nearly all of them used these books as their first exposure to sex and their main source of information on it … The contents of 11 different Kannada sex books were reviewed, and the quality of information and key messages in them assessed. The 25-60-page booklets cost between Rs 10 and Rs 50 each. The quality of paper was poor, the photographs and printing smudged. Except for the covers, they were in black-and-white. They carried no information about the publishers. … The staple fare in all the books was sexually explicit photographs, mostly copied from Western magazines. There were also stories, not linked to the photographs. … Most of the stories seemed to suggest that women were intrinsically dangerous and needed a man’s control to keep them in check.

Then they interviewed the students themselves, who had presumably learned about sex through this material, and found that

[the students] seemed to subscribe to the classic Madonna/Whore dichotomy, which the sex books also seemed to reinforce. They believed that a girl/woman was either “good” or “bad”. Good girls/women were those who were like “sisters”, who did not wear revealing clothes, were “innocent” and did not overtly interact with men. Bad girls/women, on the other hand, tried to attract men by wearing revealing clothes and being “free” with men, and they were cunning and scheming. Those from rural areas were more likely to be “good”, while those from the “city” were more likely to be “bad”. While “good” girls/women deserved one’s respect and “protection”, “bad” girls had to be taught a lesson.

It’s hard for me not to see this as sort of sick, not to mention a lot less fun than having a girlfriend who is both empowered and sexual. But then, these are cultures where it’s difficult to talk about sex openly. In a word, if sex is bad, how could a sexual woman be good?

In light of my experiences overseas, the Western World seems to me like an awfully sexually liberated place. At least among my peers – all the way from high school up to the present moment – it was just expected that women would have, and want, sex. And that was fine, and my male friends and I all hoped that we would marry extremely hot women a have lots and lots of post-marital sex with them. Although we all sniggered at the idea of sleeping with a virgin, no one I knew seemed to think that she would make a better wife.

Granted, these attitudes are not universal; in America, the Christian Right comes to mind. Still, it’s worth remembering a fundamental point: the American sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s simply never happened in most of the world.

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