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Kerala’s sexual fantasies see a lot of couple ‘swapping’. But one case shows what it really is

Couples interested in 'swap' just turn to Messenger, Telegram, and Twitter DMs to find sexual partners. But in Kerala, it has reached a whole new level.

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A recent police complaint filed in a small town in Kerala’s Kottayam district has thrown open a sex racket that involves “couple swapping”.

Interested Indian couples don’t need to look further than Messenger, Telegram, and Twitter DMs to find sexual partners. A simple Facebook search or a quick glance through the “Casual Encounters” section of classified ads yields plenty of results — indicating that the practice has found a place in Indian society, alongside open marriages and polyamory.

But group sex can quickly spiral into danger. Couple-swapping could also involve forcing a spouse or partner to sleep with others against their will, as seen in the case from Kerala, which has shed new light on sex-related crimes in the state.

On 9 January, a 27-year-old woman in Karukachal town filed an FIR against her husband for forcing her to have sex with multiple men in an act of ‘wife-swap’. She said that couples posing as family friends would visit their house for sex, and that her husband accepted payment from single men who would sleep with her. The FIR was registered against her husband and eight other men for gang-rape, unnatural intercourse, bribery, criminal intimidation, and aiding and abetting.

Couple-swapping in Kerala might sound modern and scandalous, but cases like the one in Karukachal town aren’t new, says human rights lawyer Sandhya Raju — it’s just that this particular one became public.

Also read: No domestic violence when brothers share ‘wife’ — book dwells on ‘Draupadi pratha’ bliss

YouTube, threats, betrayal — the case diary

What started out as a love marriage turned into a living nightmare when the 32-year-old husband’s sexual curiosity became sexual coercion.

The complainant and her husband were in love for five years before they married in 2012. He worked in Dubai as an electrician for a few years before the family returned to Kerala in 2018. The complainant, a house manager, says her husband began to talk about ‘wife-swapping’ soon after their return, and has been forcing her to indulge in it for at least two years. Her brother says that the husband threatened violence against himself and their two children if she didn’t have sex with the people he brought home.

But before going to the police, the complainant turned to YouTube. She called vlogger RJ Althwaf, who runs a talk show where his viewers can call in and share anything. Althwaf told ThePrint that he knew she was having marital problems before they started recording the call, but was shocked to learn of its extent. The woman had a frank conversation about her situation with Althwaf, the video of which now has over 140,000 views. She tells him that lots of people are involved in couple-swapping, and that she overheard men asking her husband how he got her to agree to it.

“I told [my husband] I don’t want all this and I want to stop,” she says on the phone, her voice quivering while the camera is focused on Althwaf’s shocked face. “But he says it makes him happy to see me lie with others… I told him he has a mental problem.”

“My dear sister, can I tell you something? File a police case!” Althwaf responds. He uploaded her call on YouTube the next day on 7 January. Two days later, the woman, accompanied by her brothers, filed the FIR at the local police station in Karukachal.

“This is not a couple-swapping case,” Shilpa Dyavaiah, district police chief of Kottayam, clearly told ThePrint. “It’s a rape case.”

So far, the police have arrested six men and are tracking three others — one of whom has fled to Saudi Arabia. The police are also tracking 14 groups linked to the case on Facebook, Instagram, and Telegram, with names like “Meet Up Kerala” and “Couple Meet Kerala”.

“The complainant is mentally depressed and needs counselling,” said R. Sreekumar, Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) of Changanassery. “We have connected her with the women’s cell for counselling, and her brothers are taking care of her.”

Despite her frame of mind, Sreekumar says she’s “stubborn” and determined to see this case through.

Also read: Supreme Court recognises sexual right of all women. So how is marital rape still legal?

Dedicated swingers have a vetting process

Kerala’s community of swingers doesn’t seem to be fazed by the case. One couple, who spoke to ThePrint over classified ads service Locanto, said it was unfortunate that a woman was being forced into it, but added that the case doesn’t scare them to stop engaging in swap themselves. This was the first time they were trying to place a local ad; usually, they use Messenger.

Over a Messenger call, Thomas (name changed) told ThePrint he and his wife have been swinging for a year. They first heard about it from a friend, and then looked it up online. The Kochi-based couple — both businesspeople in their thirties — use Facebook to find partners and have a vetting process. They like to meet and spend time with other couples in a public place before deciding to proceed further.

“We don’t do it for money or anything, it’s just for fun and relaxation. It’s become part of our lifestyle,” he said.

Class dynamics play a role in the selection process. “We only meet genuine people who are also equal in standing to our family. We avoid local people,” said Thomas, adding that they tend to either stay in Kochi or travel to other cities to swing. His biggest concern is getting financially exploited or blackmailed.

Another Facebook user, who is single but open to sexual encounters with people looking to couple-swap, said Kerala society is experiencing such a trend because of ‘foreign influence’. According to him, those who live abroad become exposed to various sexual practices that they carry with them here. About himself, he says he also offers sexual massages as a paid service, usually to men. No punitive action can be taken against those indulging in massages with a happy ending — unless they are caught in the act, or later if it can be established they indulged in a sexual act.

Contrary to his claims, sexual undercurrents have been present in Kerala for decades. The state both produces and consumes high amounts of pornography.

Pornographic Malayali magazines like Bharathadhawani and Stunt were all the rage in the 1980s, and filmmakers like I.V. Sasi, Sankaran Nair, and Antony Eastmen became known for tackling sexual themes and depicting sex on screen. The 1970s and ’80s saw films like Rasaleela and actors such as Silk Smitha (whose life inspired the Bollywood film The Dirty Picture) entering the mainstream. By 2001, over 70 per cent of Malayalam films were soft-porn – many of them starring actress-turned-politician C. Shakeela. Compulsory sex education was only introduced into the state curriculum in 2010, following a rise in sexual crimes and misconceptions over sex.

Kerala isn’t a stranger to sex scandals either: some high-profile cases include an ice cream parlour doubling as a secret brothel, and politicians like P.J. Kurien being allegedly involved in the kidnap and rape of a teenage girl. In January 2022, a prominent actor broke her silence over a sexual assault case involving Malayali actor Dileep, and a bishop was controversially acquitted in a rape case.

“In Kerala, you can never say. It’s such a sexually messed up society,” said J. Devika, an activist and professor at the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram. “We are not a progressive society. We are just educated.”

Also read: Art, life and Bollywood’s role in violence against women

Not the first case of forced couple-swap

While the Changanassery police maintain that they have not seen a case of forced couple-swapping before, lawyer Sandhya Raju says it’s much more common than one would like to think.

Sandhya represented a 19-year-old client in 2016 who experienced something similar: her husband, who was violent towards her, would often suggest that they move out of their ancestral home and live in Kakkanad, Kochi. She wouldn’t have to do anything except “satisfy the people who visited.” This became the last straw for her mother who encouraged her to file a domestic violence case against her husband and seek a protection order.

“These cases are taken as a husband-wife issue or as a domestic violence issue. It’s looked at in such a myopic manner that the larger issue of marital rape or sexual assault is lost,” the lawyer said.

In 2013, the wife of a naval officer also filed a complaint at the Kochi police station, detailing instances of forced wife-swapping practice in the Indian Navy. Senior naval officers would reportedly order their subordinates to swap wives with them.

But the Karukachal case, and the media attention it has garnered, can potentially bring some change. Lawyer Sandhya and Shilpa Dyavaiah (Kottayam police chief) underlined the importance of framing this case as one of violence against women. It would be a crucial aspect because the case was stamped as salacious from the get-go: Althwaf’s video is titled “The Husband Who Made His Wife Visible to Many, a Startling Secret.” Media headlines branded the case a “wife-swapping scandal” almost immediately. “Will husbands share their wives? Can all this actually be happening in Kerala?” asks a report, diving into the psychology of swinging.

“There’s a wrong message being shared on social media that this is a couple-swapping case,” said officer Dyavaiah. “We are not here to do moral policing. Couple-swapping is between consenting adults, here the complainant was forced.”

Also read: Inconsistent statements, church rivalry — why Kerala court acquitted ex-Bishop Franco Mulakkal

Sex and freedom in today’s Kerala

But society is more than willing to moral police, even if the police force decides to refrain itself. Women who express their sexuality or speak up about abuse often face gruelling backlash.

Prof Devika pointed to the binary that society constructs between women who exercise their sexual agency and those who don’t. The latter are often framed as “good girls,” and receive more public sympathy compared to women in the former ‘group’.

She gave the example of Anupama Chandran, a Malayali woman whose out-of-wedlock baby was forcibly given up for adoption by her father. She was reunited with her child after a year-long ordeal, replete with public condemnation. “Her parents did what any parent would do,” said sitting Kerala minister Saji Cheriyan. Anupama and her partner filed a defamation case against him.

Other examples include the defamation of Malayali model and activist Reshmi Nair, who helped organise the 2014 “Kiss of Love” protests against moral policing with her husband Rahul Pasupalan. The couple is out on bail after being accused of trafficking in 2017, which they say is a fabricated charge. Another Malayali activist, Rehana Fathima, was arrested after she uploaded a Facebook video of her children painting on her semi-naked body with a statement on destigmatising women’s sexuality.

“Kerala society punishes people for experiencing sexual pleasure. It also punishes people for leaving traditional marriage structures,” said Prof Devika.

Also read: No accused-victim compromise, more women judges — AG advises top court on sexual offence cases

Support for survivors

While crimes of sexual assault and violence against women continue to take place in Kerala, the state has been improving its efforts to protect survivors of sexual violence.

“We have noticed a shift in mindsets, especially in terms of victim protection and understanding victims better; more so in terms of the effects of trauma they undergo. It may not be at a massive scale yet, but changes are definitely happening in Kerala,” said a volunteer from Bodhini, a Kochi-based NGO working towards online and child safety, and helping facilitate healing from sexual violence. Bodhini works in creating awareness in these spaces, and steps in when survivors approach them for help.

The Kerala government has set up helplines like Mitra, which women can use to report domestic violence, and Aparajitha is Online, a platform to report cyber-crimes against women. Divorce petitions filed by women at family courts often include “kinky” or unnatural sex as grounds for divorce — in August 2021, the Kerala High Court said that marital rape is grounds for divorce.

The Kerala Women’s Commission has ordered an additional inquiry under the Director General of Police into the Karukachal case. The chairperson of the committee, P. Sathee Devi, said that there are “trends in Kerala that disrupted social order.”

“I hope this case is dealt with in a proper frame, in which we look at the woman and her choice,” said Raju, who also founded the Centre for Constitutional Rights Research and Advocacy in Ernakulam. “These are the complexities that law enforcement needs to understand and cater to.”

Raju hopes the case will be appealed, and set the right legal precedent for the future.

Towards the end of the complainant’s call to Althwaf, he urges her to file a case, contact her local MLA, and take whatever possible action — if not for herself, then for other women in similar situations.

“There are other women. I told you, it’s not just one or two,” she says immediately, with certainty, before pausing to take a quick breath. “Thousands of others are caught up in the same situation.”

“Thousands of others,” she repeats.

(Edited by Prashant)

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