I met Dushyant at a party thrown by a mutual friend. Affable and charming, he and I struck up a conversation, flirting and laughing while enjoying the music. Later, my friend told me she thinks he’s ‘scatter-brained’. Over the next few months, I would run into Dushyant several times. Each time, he’d have company. Each time, a different woman. One evening, as a few of us — me, Dushyant and our mutual friends — huddled around a table at a bar, a young woman walked over and introduced herself to us. ‘Hi, I’m Dushyant’s girlfriend’s best friend,’ she declared. Dushyant smirked at us and told us her name. And then, to her, ‘We’re just hanging out.’
Dushyant isn’t the only man in his twenties who wants to be a king with a ‘harem’ of concubines. He tells us that he’s not ready to be monogamous yet. That he loves his girlfriend and wants to marry her one day, but for now, he wants to ‘have fun and explore’. But he also wants to be the only man in these women’s lives. So fun and exploration for him alone, not for the women.
I wonder if this fantasy of having a ‘harem’ is a disastrous byproduct of men’s conditioning to acquire things, and social structures that treat women as ‘things’. Men are collectors. They buy gadgets they don’t really need, adorn watches that cost more than the monthly income of the majority of the country’s population, and treat their cars as status symbols. As we have seen, men across all ages tend to treat women (girlfriends, wives, escorts or a harem) as trophies that elevate their status in some way. To many men, women continue to be possessions, even if these men may not be controlling or possessive or otherwise abusive.
A man who is popular among women is usually admired by his male companions. The worst onslaught he receives is being labelled a ‘lady’s man’, ‘stud’ or ‘player’…nothing as damaging as a woman who might be labelled a ‘whore’, ‘slut’, ‘characterless’ or shunned away as ‘not marriage material’. While for a young man, it is almost a matter of pride to have had many lovers, for a young woman it is a matter of shame. Indeed, a woman’s character is demonstrated by her loyalty to ‘the one’, even if she may not have come across him yet, while a man’s character is demonstrated by how many women he can sway.
So if the charming, witty, well-spoken, well-dressed and successful Dushyant isn’t a modern, urban version of this, then what is his harem fantasy about?
This attitude of treating women as objects of fun, exploration and experimentation, is also reinforced by our culture. Let’s consider how we view male and female virginity. Whereas a woman’s virginity is an eligibility criterion in marriage, for a young man, losing his virginity is a rite of passage into manhood. The very fact that we have female sex workers who cater to virgin boys and no equivalent of this for women, is another example of how our society encourages sexual proclivity among men, not women. Male virginity is neither a symbol of character nor a badge of honour. Contrary to young girls whose sexuality is systematically curtailed, young boys openly flirt with girls and try to woo them. They are encouraged to have many girlfriends as a display of their budding manhood. Not much is made of an adolescent boy or a young adult man with multiple flings or relationships.
None of us at the table knew Dushyant had a girlfriend. We’d always seen him bring a different date to every party, every evening out and had assumed he was casually dating or hooking up. As soon as his girlfriend’s best friend was out of earshot, we jumped at him. ‘She’s in the UK,’ he told us. We asked him about the women he brought to our evenings out. Were they in an open relationship? Did she know about his dalliances? After trying to deflect the questions with jokes a few times, he finally said, ‘I want a harem. But I want to be the only guy in a woman’s life.’ He then laughed, trying to pass off the statement as another joke. Like his watches and leather shoes, Dushyant wanted a collection of women.
For some of the young men I spoke to, virginity is no longer a matter of morality. Many men in urban India seem to have broken out of that conditioning, as have the women. Those in their twenties and thirties today don’t see sex only as a tool of procreation reserved for after marriage. We have broken out of that paradigm and see sex as a necessary part of a relationship.
But a partner’s sexual and romantic past continues to be a source of discomfort and a trigger for insecurities. When one is jealous of a partner’s ex, it is called ‘retroactive jealousy’. Research shows that retroactive jealousy is exacerbated by social media — those pictures that weren’t deleted or the way social media makes it easy to keep tabs on a partner’s ex.
Chandra tells me that how a man responds to his partner’s past largely depends on how she speaks about it. ‘If she draws comparisons between her ex and her current partner, he is bound to feel insecure. And this isn’t true only for sex. This is equally true for how he looks, his financial status and so on.’
A woman’s virginity has been a long-standing obsession in our country. But today, India is at a cusp. The youth today are caught between patriarchal family structures and a sexual revolution. This conflict makes itself apparent in the values we attach to sex. According to a survey published in Hindustan Times, 61 per cent of the country’s youth no longer frown upon premarital sex. But the same survey also reveals that 63 per cent want to marry a virgin! On the one hand, many of us are discarding old value systems and exploring our sexualities but when it comes to life-term commitment, we still rely on the ‘wisdom’ of the generations before us who are orthodox in their opinions on sexuality and love. Modern India is more progressive in their thought, but it seems mostly only at a thought level. We haven’t yet reached that stage in this cultural transformation where these thoughts are freely manifested.
A 2016 survey of over 6,000 individuals between the ages fifteen and thirty-four revealed that 50 per cent of the respondents would prefer arranged marriage. Those who preferred love marriage comprised only 12 per cent of the people in this survey!3
One of the criteria for an adarsh bahu (ideal daughter-in-law) is that she should not have had too many lovers and our preference for this system reflects that at some level we trust it.Virginity, then, is not just sexual. There is also what I call ‘love virginity’. A woman who has had only one partner all her life is believed to have a sense of stability and maturity. A woman who has had multiple lovers is quick to be judged and her character slammed. On rare occasions, a man may be considered unfit for marriage or a relationship, but seldom is he put through the kind of shaming and scrutiny like a woman with a past.
Patriarchy puts a premium on the sexual prowess of men. If so many men believe that women are ‘achievements’ then it only makes sense that she must not be hand-medown. Just like a second-hand car, a woman who’s been previously loved seems to have less value. Her honour, character and worth are tied to her love life and saved for the man who weds her.
Casual sex is no longer frowned upon. The advent of dating apps has given birth to ‘hook up’ culture wherein it is becoming acceptable for a woman, or a man, to say they’re in it for the sex. Yet the ripple effects of attaching moral value to both sexual and ‘love virginity’ are seen in modern relationships. Often, young men who openly talk about their past get uncomfortable when the woman talks about hers. They put on blinders.
Twenty-seven-year-old Manav married the second woman he was ever involved with, barring a few drunken make-out sessions here and there. ‘My wife has had an interesting sex life. She had a threesome in college with her friend and her boyfriend. She told me when we were dating. It was weird for me to listen to that. So I told her I didn’t want to know. Otherwise, we have a good sex life. I sometimes wonder if she compares me with her exes. But I don’t want to know.’ This is a common sentiment among many men today: They are okay with a partner’s sexual history as long as it’s not more colourful than their own, and as long as they don’t know the details.’
Ours is perhaps the first generation in India that is embracing casual dating, and while this is breaking apart some of the social structures that elevated virginity and excess baggage life-term relationships to a superior status, it is also bringing with it a host of new problems.
With so many young men and women caught between the old philosophy of ‘the one’ and the new of ‘anyone’ who’s available, we are learning to turn a blind eye to the others. Men, when confronted with a partner’s ex-boyfriend or former FWB or fling or anything in between simply don’t want to know.
This excerpt from ‘Dear Men: Masculinity and Modern Love in #MeToo India’ by Prachi Gangwai has been published with permission from Bloomsbury India