A very wise woman once conspiratorially told me that most men aren't capable of handling their partners' past, and that honesty is not always the best policy. With all the arrogance of youth — I was 22 then, and loaded to the gills with lofty ideas about relationships and love — I decided to promptly ignore her advice. "No way!" I rolled my eyes in private, eyebrows raised stratospherically high in indignation. "I'm never going to hide a thing from my partner. Not. A. Damn. Thing."
Many men, as most Indian women have come to wearily accept, are not quite as unperturbed by their girlfriends and wives' sexual pasts as they'd like to believe.
The woman was a famous therapist I'd been asked to interview. Eight years on, I'm willing to admit this: I was utterly, grotesquely, unequivocally wrong. If I had a rupee for every time I've been wrong about this, I'd have a house in Lutyens', Delhi. Just kidding. Of course I wouldn't, because let me reassure you that I know #NotAllMen are that way, before the outrage starts (and takes a painfully long time to subside).
Many men, as most Indian women have come to wearily accept, are not quite as unperturbed by their girlfriends and wives' sexual pasts as they'd like to believe. Or have us ladies believe. Beneath the veneer of education and open-mindedness, far too often lurk the remnants of a conditioning that merrily upholds men and women to different standards of "morality".
The "need" to count the notches on their lady friends' bedpost cuts across class and education barriers.
Men will be men, but women will be uss type ki aurats. You know, the kind who will not clutch her virginity to her chest, to be preserved carefully until it is time to take it along to the husband's home like some kind of prized offering.
As Exhibit A, I present to you Rhea Alva*, a baffled friend from Mumbai who recently revealed to me that the current marital drama unfolding in her household was her husband's sudden doubts about her "character". The reasoning? She slept with him before they were married. Ingenious. Someone remind this gentleman that there were two people exchanging body fluids pre-marriage and one of them was him.
One would like to believe this affliction is restricted to the resolutely small-minded among us, but gather a bunch of women from any number of walks of life and you'll see the myth evaporate faster than an open bottle of nail polish remover. Turns out, this "need" to count the notches on their lady friends' bedpost cuts across class and education barriers. Who could have thought that 'What's your number?' would be the question that unifies young male India? Apple or android, Mumbai or Delhi, beef lover or cow saver, (almost) everyone wants to know: kitne aadmi the?
What differs, significantly, is the style of the inquisition. While some are keenly aware of how petty and regressive, not to mention intrusive, this line of questioning will make them sound, there are those that couldn't care less about how they come across.
The date went well and we were making out when he suddenly giggles at me, "I hope you don't do this with many guys".
Nitya Desai*, a writer from Delhi, tells me, "I met this guy on Tinder. The date went well and we were making out when he suddenly giggles at me, "I hope you don't do this with many guys". When I gave him the death stare, he soothingly says, "No, no, I know you're not that kind of girl." Ugh."
Grossness on Tinder is relatively low stakes and easy to brush off. But developing a thick skin is devilishly harder when the chauvinism wrapped in patriarchy comes with your own family's seal of approval. "This guy that my parents tried to set me up with for marriage told me, on our second date, that he hoped his future wife would be a virgin. This, after boasting about his live-in relationship with his girlfriend in the US," recounts Vidhita Roy*, a marketing professional from Bangalore.
He called me a slut for having casual sex
And the worst, by far, is when your own partner suddenly decides to sit in judgement. The number of women who admitted to boyfriends and husbands having suddenly done the volte-face is alarming.
"I was pretty upfront about my past before we got married. I don't know what happened after. Suddenly, he was constantly jealous and asking me really cheap questions and details. It made me sick," says 28-year-old a Mumbai-based doctor, now divorced. "Our marriage lasted less than two years."
"You're a girl" seemed to be an acceptable refrain in men's minds.
"He called me a slut for having casual sex," 22-year-old Shikha Damani*, an MBA student, told me about her last boyfriend. "He called me easy," says her friend, also of her boyfriend. These name-calling specimens of the male species had no comment to make about their own promiscuity, when quizzed by their angry girlfriends before, thankfully, dumping them. "You're a girl" seemed to be an acceptable refrain in their minds.
Kolkata-based Nayantara Bose* recalls what can only be called a horror story. "We started dating in college. I was the first girl he ever kissed, so he was obsessed with being my first. He would ask me if I'd done this or that with my previous boyfriends and if I said yes, he got mad. It would upset him so much that he asked me to lie to him when he asked me these questions. Don't ask me why, but I stayed with him for six years. And yet, I could never get myself to have sex with him."
I don't really care, but I wouldn't want my buddies to think I was dating an easy chick.
Most of the men I spoke to swore they weren't affected by their partners' past, but scratch the surface a little and uncomfortable truths come tumbling out.
"I don't judge them for their past, but it would make me feel weird if my girlfriend had slept with too many people," one admitted. But there's no definite answer for how many people is too many people. "More than me, I guess," was the eventual sheepish answer.
"I don't really care, but I wouldn't want my buddies to think I was dating an easy chick," another told me.
What kind of woman gets into bed with anyone just like that?
A Hong Kong-based Indian banker particularly stands out. "I don't have a problem as long as she had sex within a relationship. What kind of woman gets into bed with anyone just like that?" he wondered over the phone. The kind who is an adult, and capable of exercising her agency. When I discussed his opinion with my friend, his current girlfriend, she rolled her eyes so hard, I feared for her eyeballs. "He's one to talk," she said wryly. "When he moved out of his parents' home three years ago, he went on a rampage. He'd sleep with anything in a skirt. Even now, he tells me that if we break up, he wants to sleep with one woman from each country in the world."
It's not ideal, but I've learned to ignore the sexual chauvinism. Most guys are way worse.
And yet, despite the glaring, glorious hypocrisy, my friend continues to be with him. "It's not ideal, but I've learned to ignore the sexual chauvinism. Most guys are way worse," is my friend's explanation.
"Not as bad as the others," is the bar that many women seem to have unwittingly succumbed to when it comes to sexual hypocrisy in the men they date and marry. So in a world where a woman's moral fiber and worth as a human being are inextricably linked to her vagina, what do we do? Push back? Toe the line? "Lie," is my friend's pragmatic answer. "Never reveal your number. What they don't know can't hurt them. And more importantly, it can't be used against you later. And 90 percent of the time, there will be a later. "
"My husband thinks he was my first," another friend admitted. "Why take the chance of him suddenly becoming weird about it later?"
If anyone asks me how many men I've dated or slept with, I will not answer. It's none of their business.
Even the women who aren't willing to "adjust" to their partners' hypocritical ways recognise that no matter how carefully they screen the men they go out with, judgemental creeps will manage to seep through. So most will tread on the side of caution. "It's important for me to know that he won't judge me for having a past," says Neha Kapoor, a Mumbai-based media professional. "So I mention love and heartbreak on the first date itself to gauge his reaction. But if anyone asks me how many men I've dated or slept with, I will not answer. It's none of their business."
It isn't. And yet, unfortunately, an overwhelming number of them insist on making it their business.