There are a few traits and behaviours that are unapologetically, unabashedly Indian. Whether it’s our tendency to try and bargain our way through every situation (an acquired art we like to call “jugaad”), or our annoyingly loud and obnoxious behaviour while travelling abroad, or the ingrained obligation to turn every old T-shirt into a mop, we are – as we often say – “like that only.”
But since our culture seeps into the way we eat, work and haggle, it should probably come as no surprise that it also heavily influences the way we fantasise or have sex.
Sex, especially for pleasure over procreation, remains a taboo subject in India even today – one relegated to secretive whispers and subjected to hardcore judgement even in the world’s second-most populous country. We live in a country that continues to censor on-screen sex and prohibit porn, yet is one of the biggest global consumers of porn. Erotic content is everywhere, from our temples to our televisions. But at the same time, accessing everything from sex education to sex toys comes with myriad hurdles, especially when you move away from bigger cities and into the hinterlands. This means that we’ve become inventive with what we have at hand, be it old Nokia phones or vibrator apps.
The naked truth is that regressive attitudes held by many parts of Indian society have, in turn, sparked a bizarre dichotomy.
“We largely have a culture of silence around sex and intimacy,” Pompi Banerjee, a kink affirmative psychologist, told VICE. “Sex is regarded as something very private or something that only should be talked about when someone, usually a cis man, is dissatisfied with it.”
According to Banerjee, the lack of safe spaces to have these conversations tends to turn sexual practices considered taboo into the ultimate fantasies.
“The most common fantasies in India that I’ve come across are foot fetishes and adult breastfeeding,” she pointed out. In fact, Google data from 2017 showed that the number of searches on how to breastfeed a baby was almost equal to the number of searches on how to breastfeed an adult man. Banerjee speculated that while there is no substantive data on the cultural determinants around a foot fetish, its most likely association could be that touching feet is seen as a sign of respect and worship in India.
“Sex is regarded as something very private or something that only should be talked about when someone, usually a cis man, is dissatisfied with it.”
“While there are no proper studies conducted to understand these sexual desires in India, they could stem from a need to connect deeply and develop an intimacy with their partner, which is something many Indians still don’t have the privilege to do, especially when they live in large families or shared houses,” said Banerjee.
In fact, given that millions in India continue to live in joint families or share personal spaces with friends and family, the lack of privacy to play out a fantasy can end up becoming the fantasy itself.
“We see many Indians get into exhibitionism, which becomes even more exciting because it is considered taboo,” said Aruna Chawla, a consumer psychologist and co-founder of homegrown condom company Salad.
The absence of privacy doesn’t just characterise Indians’ fantasies on the streets. It also guides their moves in the sheets.
“Indians are more likely to have quick and quiet sex because of this,” added Pallavi Barnwal, an intimacy expert. Barnwal pointed out that adapting to shared settings even determines the way we have sex, even when couples have shortcomings.
“Moaning loudly then becomes a fantasy just because of how elusive it is, even when it’s commonly seen in porn,” added Chawla.
“Moaning loudly is a fantasy just because of how elusive it is in India, even when it’s commonly seen in porn.”
The experts concurred that in a nation where porn often serves as sex education, many try to mimic the motions and movements depicted onscreen.
“Most people largely want to emulate what they see on the screen without understanding the underlying consent and discovery that should accompany sexual exploration,” said Sachee Malhotra, the founder of sexual wellness and condom company That Sassy Thing. “A lot of fantasies that people are willing to talk about hence revolve around spanking, choking, ejaculating on a woman’s face and public sex, as porn has largely promoted this, especially in the case of men’s fantasies.”
While taking a page from porn is one of the oldest tricks in the book, specific tropes emerge in India that tend to channel the emotions and insecurities of growing up out here.
“We see many Indian men have a ‘bhabhi’ or sister-in-law fantasy,” said Chawla, who has been conducting research on India’s sexual desires. “This probably comes from the idea that we grow up sharing everything, and even read books like Mahabharata where you have a character like Draupadi [who married the five Pandava brothers].”
At the same time, she added, the overpowering influence of Bollywood, especially screen heartthrobs like Shah Rukh Khan, tend to colour the way many women view sex.
“This makes many women in India fantasise about wanting to be taken care of and have slow, [romantic] sex,” she hypothesised, citing insights from a newly released book titled Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh, which studied how women across classes perceived the megastar.
“We see many Indian men have a ‘bhabhi’ or sister-in-law fantasy. This probably comes from the idea that we grow up sharing everything, and even read books like Mahabharata where you have a character like Draupadi [who married the five Pandava brothers].”
On the other hand, though, Bollywood has a history of objectifying its women – one that fans can subconsciously or consciously mimic in real life, too.
“The lack of nuance and vibrancy added to female characters continues to paint women as an extension to male desire,” said Malhotra. “They serve men and are stripped of their own agency to explore their own characters.” This, she said, then powers male fantasies that expect sex to be more about “doing things to women” instead of acknowledging them as equal partners in their fantasies.
Though porn and lack of privacy play major roles in determining our sexual fantasies, patriarchal structures in India perhaps have the deepest impact on our kinks and fetishes.
“I have noticed that a lot of Indian cisgender heterosexual men have an interest in being submissive to women, and in being made to feel emasculated,” said Banerjee, who has advised dozens of heteronormative couples on how to go about this. “A deeper analysis of this desire points to the possibility that it stems from the stereotypical burden placed on men to behave [a certain way in society] to provide, protect and control women, such that the act of surrendering to a woman then helps a man feel relaxed by letting go of these social expectations. When the power is being taken away from them, consensually in a non-judgmental environment, the burden of performing toxic masculinity fades away as well.”
She added that since her clients were largely straight couples, she did not have enough data to comment on the queer community’s preferences. However, she stressed that fantasies also operated on a spectrum.
“A hetero couple might consider anal sex a fantasy, but that’s totally normal for a gay couple who might instead consider the missionary position a fantasy,” she said.
Experts also added that due to our patriarchal conditioning, sex is often viewed as simply peno-vaginal intercourse, thus largely excluding the LGBTQ community or women who deal with issues like vaginismus. In some cases, the patriarchy’s objectifying view of women could also lead to more disturbing influences.
“A lot of Indian cisgender heterosexual men have an interest in being submissive to women, and in being made to feel emasculated.”
“The impact of violence that the patriarchy emboldens and legitimises in women’s daily existence can be witnessed in the number of searches for terms like, ‘fantasy date-rape,’ ‘kidnapped sex,’ and ‘forced sex,’” said Malhotra. In one of the world’s most unsafe countries for women, the tragic reality then slips into the realm of fantasy, with an alarming number of real-life rape videos on porn sites getting millions of hits overnight.
At the same time, we see large communities of women in India exploring the ravishment fantasy, where they seek the act of being forced, but in a safe space with a partner they consent with. “In this case, the fantasy is more about the dominance aspect, and not the mental and physical trauma of it,” stressed Barnwal.
The intimacy expert also pointed towards a “purity culture” that was largely influenced by religion and spirituality. “I remember, a guy once said that he could not have sex because it was Rakshabandhan (a Hindu festival that celebrates the bond between siblings), or there are people who believe they have sinned if they have sex on a day considered holy,” said Barnwal.
At other times, the immense and often irrational pride desis feel towards their heritage could seep into their fantasies – such as their use of the Kamasutra as a kind of sex guide, copying positions depicted in it.
“It takes us very little to draw a cultural attachment to things that originate in India,” Artika Singh, a sexual health educator and anthropologist who runs a sex education foundation called Taarini, told VICE.
“I remember a guy once said that he could not have sex because it was Rakshabandhan, or there are people who believe they have sinned if they have sex on a day considered holy.”
In India, a culture rooted in historical tradition continues to power the realm of fantasy for many. But experts also believe that as we have more conversations around sex and intimacy, Indians are opening themselves up to kinks and fetishes that fly in the face of traditional stereotypes and inequities in the endemic culture surrounding sex.
“Now, more private conversations about cuckolding, group sex, fetishes, domination and submission are starting to make their way into adult relationships,” said Malhotra. “It’s a privilege to bear witness to the evolution of self-discovery for all genders.”