Sex. It's everywhere. All you have to do is turn on the TV or flip through a magazine – and you'll see a glamorous, packaged version of sex waiting to shove the latest products down your throat. The sex on our screens will have you salivating over the freshest, sexiest bodies out there, probably dancing away provocatively to the latest 'item song' while giving some very strange messages on body positivity along the way.
And while so many families around the country, and the entire subcontinent, seem perfectly open to Bollywood and 'bideshis' teaching their children about sex, they are completely and totally against talking about sex or anything remotely related to sex – not the glitzy version of it in mass media, but the regular, everyday, average things that happen to a person's body as a result of real, biological processes.
Sex education in our schools is still unthinkable, but even a basic conversation about sex and sexuality in an informal setting is considered to be promoting “oshleelota”. We have now mastered the ostrich complex in our increasingly conservative societies – we must all pretend that sex and everything related to it does not exist, whether it is problems faced by teens going through puberty, sexual assault and issues surrounding consent in a patriarchal society, or simply questions surrounding a natural process that is still shrouded by shame and mystery for most people in Bangladesh.
Not even a basic idea
However, there are a small but growing number of people working to dispel myths and boot the taboos that surround a wide range of issues, including the stigma on talking about sex. One of these initiatives is Maya Apa, a virtual platform that anyone can access anonymously and ask questions on issues that affect our daily lives, including health, psychosocial and legal matters.
A cursory glance at some of the questions received in the app provide us with an idea of just how little people in Bangladesh know on sexual matters, including sexual health. Ranging from ludicrous to downright alarming, this article contains only a sampling of a few of the most talked about issues.
• I want to have children but I don't know how many times you have to try, or how much sperm has to come out for it to happen. Can you help me?
• Does masturbating cause physical harm? Can it stop me from gaining weight or growing taller?
• If I don't cum after masturbating for a bit, can that cum stay in my body and poison me?
• Sex is extremely painful for me. My husband thinks it is because I do not have a big enough opening. How do I solve this?
These may seem like the most basic questions about sex to many, but the truth of the matter is, too many people in the country just do not know. The stigma around talking about sex means they are not even able to talk to their doctors or families about it, meaning people suffer from sexual health problems all the time, with no recourse to any kind of solution. Meanwhile, the taboo around sexual needs and the shame that is so intrinsically attached to it mean that there people who, in this day and age, think their bodily fluids can actually poison them.
Practising safe sex
Looking into questions asked through Maya Apa also prove one thing – there are plenty of people out there having sex, unmarried or not, with little to no idea on how to prevent pregnancies, and save themselves from sexually transmitted diseases. In fact, the shame surrounding sexual activity means young people out there end up using emergency pills on a regular basis instead of using proper methods of contraception, which can have negative impacts on your body, such as fatigue, nausea, irregular bleeding, and in the case of some of the more dodgy pills, maybe even infertility.
• How do I use a condom?
• I am 25 years old, and my period is very irregular. If my period doesn't happen within 28 days, can I have unprotected sex and not get pregnant?
• I want to have sex the natural way, without any protection. When can I do this to make sure there is no pregnancy?
• Over the last month, I have had sex 5-6 times, and have had the morning after pill every time, but I still haven't had my period. Does that mean I am pregnant?
• We only touched each other and didn't have full penetration, but I came a little. Can my girlfriend still get pregnant?
Crossing a line
Once you delve deeper into the censored world of sex in Bangladesh, you also realise there are grave issues at hand that are not being addressed at all. While the first question here is only one example, there are plenty of such cases that prove that people are having under-age sex. This constitutes as rape and is a criminal offence – something that a large portion of the population are not aware of, and even if they are, do not take seriously at all.
1. I am 18 years old. My family fixed a girl for me to marry when I was a child. We like each other, but I want us to live together first. She is 14 years old. Is there anything wrong with that? Please tell me.
2. I am an unmarried man and I am addicted to porn. How can I get myself out of this?
3. My wife did not bleed when we first had sex. Does that mean she is not a virgin?
But it is not only sex with minors that comes up on the Maya Apa platform, but other grave issues, such as porn and drug addiction, that people are unable to talk about without being ostracised.
And the final question displays everything that is wrong with the silence surrounding such issues. Women in our country are forced to wear their virginities like a badge of honour and questions such as these only show the proliferation of a culture that values modesty over consent. You may consider such things to be too 'modern' and 'indecent', but the truth of the matter is – people will have sex, whether you like it or not. It is not Western values, too much freedom, Bollywood or whatever you want to blame it on – it is one of the most basic urges that is hard-wired into our biology as a result of our need to propagate our species.
Once you subtract your notions of what counts as socially acceptable or not, all we are left with are people who have very little to no ideas on how to practice safe sex, how to deal with problems regarding their sexual health and in the more serious cases, how to speak up about their sexual abuse, or know when they are committing a crime, such as having sex with a minor.
And until we are able to have open and honest conversations, this culture of shame and silence will only continue to make matters worse. Everyone has sex – so why can't we just talk about it?
Artwork: Liza Hasan