Indian society has a paradoxical relationship with sex. On the one hand, you have the enchanting legacy of erotic art and the Kamasutra. On the other, you have Cherry* (23). A bisexual woman, the journalist is almost paranoiacally afraid that her parents will find out she’s on Tinder. “My parents are conservative Christians. They would flip if they found out I was dating, let alone having casual sex,” she says. After five years of looking for relationships on dating apps, she began using them only for hook-ups a year ago. For a week, her bio read, ‘Looking for someone to go to protests with and maybe fuck after’.
“I put that in my bio as a joke,” she says. “But then I quickly changed it, because I don’t know who’s out there to screenshot it and send it to my parents.” Her Tinder bio now reads ‘Not here to be your friend’. The hint is so broad, it’s almost funny.
Yet, Cherry, like many sexually liberated women on dating apps, is reluctant to engage confidently with the very hook-up culture these apps are supposed to enable.
‘Don’t want to be hounded by randos’
“Just the fact that I’m on a dating app is enough for my DMs to be flooded with dick pics and derogatory messages,” says Anamika*, 21, a Kolkata-based fashion-communications student. “If I have to put [an interest in hook-ups] in my Tinder bio, I have to phrase it in a way that doesn’t make me look easy. Otherwise guys get cocky. They believe that just because you’re interested in casual sex, you’re going to be interested in them so they don’t put in the effort.” So she doesn’t mention it in her Tinder bio. On Bumble, she selects the ‘Don’t know yet’ option for the section asking users what they want on their dates.
“Tinder used to be good, but over the years, the quality of people you meet has dropped,” says Cherry. She acknowledges that there is some classism inherent in that statement and declines to elaborate much further, but adds that people on Bumble tend to be “a lot more progressive, and a little subtler. Usually, they’ve studied abroad, travelled a bit, had a little more exposure”.
“It’s hard to draw boundaries when men feel free to stalk and approach women on their other social media handles even after they’ve been rejected on a dating app. It’s not just uncomfortable, it’s also dangerous.”
Nonetheless, most popular matchmaking apps are designed based on the context that cis-het white people tend to occupy, which is removed from Indian settings and their idiosyncrasies. It’s hard to draw boundaries when men feel free to stalk and approach women on their other social media handles even after they’ve been rejected on a dating app. It’s not just uncomfortable, it’s also dangerous. India, with its “Draupadi-like” gender ratio, is notoriously unsafe for women, and dating apps have not figured out how to keep women safe on them. According to a 2016 US-based survey, as many as 57% of women respondents said they felt sexually harassed on dating apps. And while there is not much data available on the subject, women in India have reported that they were sexually assaulted or had their consent violated on Tinder dates. Many keep their experiences a secret because they know that they will be blamed for ‘putting themselves in that position’.
Poor bedside manner
Tinder says India is its “chattiest” market in the world, with people using the in-app messaging feature more than any other country. Almost all the women HuffPost India spoke to said they preferred to talk to their matches for a few days before setting up dates, or even opening up about what they were looking for.
“I’ve never started off conversations with this, but if it came up, I said I didn’t see any problem with casual sex or having friends with benefits or a fuck buddy,” says Tanvi*, a Dubai-based communications professional. “How men react to that conversation says a lot about their character. The last time I had that conversation, two days after we moved to WhatsApp—and mind, at this point we’ve not gone past small talk—he sent me unsolicited shirtless pictures. Out of nowhere. In the middle of a workday!”
Archana*, 25, a Mumbai-based copywriter, had a similar experience a few years ago. She was in an open relationship at the time, and frank about what she was looking for on her bio. A few minutes into her date with a match, he immediately asked her how many men she’d slept with, and proceeded to give her his ‘count’. “Men feel like they don’t need to show a modicum of respect when a woman is upfront about looking only for hook-ups,” she says.
“Almost all the women HuffPost India spoke to said they preferred to talk to their matches for a few days before setting up dates, or even opening up about what they were looking for.”
From accounts like these, it becomes clear that misogyny, sexism and a deep discomfort with female sexuality are at the core of cis-het Indian men’s behaviour both online and offline.
Disinhibition by design
Paul Anthony, a design researcher based in Bengaluru, posits that apart from the skewed gender ratio of their user base (only 26% of users in India are women), the design of apps themselves could play a big role. “The user interface and behaviours within matchmaking apps are designed for gamified participation, rather than care, in their framework,” he says over email. “Coupled together, these might be reasons for creepy and/or ambivalent behaviour to originate, perpetuate and normalise.”
As is true for much of the online world, dating or matchmaking apps (Anthony prefers to call them the latter) have become grey, private-public spaces that young people of all genders and sexual orientations are using to curate themselves to be in ways they cannot in offline life. “Online spaces also encourage men (and women) to operate with disinhibition and civil inattention,” he says. This is why men find it permissible to be ‘creepy’ or violate consent when granted relative anonymity, and women feel they have more agency on dating apps than they do in physical spaces.
Yet, it is hard for most women to extricate themselves from the conditioning and constrictions of their lived realities.
The shame game
Women have to withstand a tremendous amount of disrespect in India, whether it is on the streets or in the sheets, on a daily basis. That alone is enough to deter them from enjoying being in public, leave alone celebrating their sexuality.
“When men are open about looking only for casual sex, I feel relieved but also a bit wary,” says Archana, who spent a few minutes looking for space out of her mother’s earshot to tell me this on the phone. “And even though I know better, it still feels wrong to be on the app, and I also feel worried.”
Neha Bhat, a trauma-informed art therapist, artist and counsellor who runs the Instagram account indiansextherapist, breaks down why women like Archana might be feeling this way. “Indian women, in general, are conditioned to be indirect about their personal needs. Speaking for others, speaking as a family, putting the role of a wife, a daughter or a sister first are more comfortable social behaviour norms,” she says.
Her typical clients are middle-class, highly educated women in their mid to late 30s who live alone in Indian metropolises. While the topic of sex and sexuality generally seen as taboo, Bhat feels every person of every gender stands to benefit from some sort of personal exploration of what their sexuality means to them.
“A large aspect of a healthy sexuality is being able to connect to one’s sense of agency, which includes not only knowing what good touch feels like, but experimenting with different types of sexual pleasure, and being comfortable advocating for them. Indian women’s fears around being open about their sexual preferences is not a personal failing but a systemic one. We punish women for stepping out of the roles we have designated for them. As a society, we don’t have many support systems for women to put themselves and their sense of pleasure first,” she says.
At this confluence of multitudinous anxieties, ‘casual’ sex is often bereft of the breezy nonchalance that the term implies, even though it is just a swipe away.
*Names changed to protect privacy