A commenter, an NRI in her early 20s, wrote in sharing her frustration with her parents’ attitude to her dating. Much of what she described seemed common to most, in varying degrees, Indian parents’ response to the idea of their daughters dating. In my mind at the root of it all lie two fears:
1. Is she going to marry this person? But which religion is he, what kind of job/job prospects does he have, what is his family like? Oh no! How will they get along with us? And (this generally comes after the ‘get along with us’ question) how will she adjust to them? No no, he seems unsuitable, must have a chat with her, see if she wants to study abroad (this is a problem if she’s already abroad haha)… yada yada. Basically, their imagination goes wild conjuring up all kinds of nightmare scenarios of your future unwedded bless and the attendant social discomforts for associated with you, which means your entire extended family.
Assuring them that you have no plans to marry does no good because then, what are you in a relationship for? What is the point of being in a relationship if the ultimate aim is not marriage?
Does this mean you are okay with moving on to someone else and kissing them and then moving onto someone else and then kissing them and then… chee! Which leads me to …
2. (and this is really the crux of it all) Relationships inevitably get physical. You start with kissing but won’t end with it. The logical end of a lot of kissing is at the base of all fears. And what if the daughters do end up having sex?
a. Noone will marry them, including the person who had sex with them
b. They could get pregnant
Both are legitimate fears actually.
a. is easily countered. There indeed people who will marry women who have already had sex with someone else and these are indeed the people you would want your child to marry because it indicates they have the right values and are not obsessed with outdated controlling concepts like virginity.
As for b., we live in a world where preventing our children from having relationships is not possible, if it ever was. I am constantly amazed by how even in extremely repressive cultures, young people still manage to fall in love and find dark corners, if need be, in which to express that love. Moreover, we are fortunate enough to live in a world where contraception would help unwanted pregnancy to a great degree and should a girl get pregnant despite all the precautions that needn’t be the end of the world either.
I’m always surprised to discover that NRI parents tend as much to the above attitudes to dating as their Indian counterparts. Sometimes, they seem even more conservative possibly because first generation Indian emigrants are caught in this time warp from when they left India, maybe feel some pressure to ensure that their girls are as virtuous as those back home, and also are slightly afraid that their girls will turn out like the foren ones.
Some parents, like mine, are liberal… up to a point. This can be frustrating and slightly shocking, when you discover the inner conservative in your liberal-sounding parent. But at least parents who try to be and seem liberal give their children some breathing room, which is more than many many girls in India have.
However, I’d wager that MOST parents, not just Indian ones, are not entirely comfortable with their children’s sex lives or the thought that their children might be having a sex life at all. Some thoughts:
- Let me start with my own experience. My parents are liberal but yeah, sex-before-marriage was their limit. I could see that my mum, who always tried to be a friend and know about our lives, was torn between wanting to know and just not wanting to know. My dad would swing between acting cool and being angry because his mind couldn’t keep up with his emotional response to the possibility of his daughters having sex (for example, he sort of abruptly told my sis to use a condom when she was in grad school in the US). My policy with regard to my parents which I set when I was about in my early 20s was to avoid getting into the sex discussion with them because it made them uncomfortable. I also developed the policy of not bringing home boys I was not serious about. Very few Indian parents, on being introduced to a guy their daughter is dating, are able to process that this is not necessarily long-term so they don’t need to agonise about it in marriage terms. So it’s best to just keep it on the down-low and not worry their heads about it. Yes, this involves lying to them but I considered it my favour to them as an adult, sparing them from truths they were not grown up enough to handle. I was fortunate that when I did choose to introduce someone I was serious about, they were civilised about it. Well, my dad did go off on a mild rant about “what are his goals and aspirations” when I mentioned I would like to marry my then boyfriend-now husband but I was clear that I was not giving them a choice in the matter.
- Now, I am also a parent though my children are still babies. I have to think about what will my attitude to my kids having sex be? I accept that they will have sex though I hope it is later rather than sooner when they would be better equipped to deal with a pregnancy should it occur. I realise this is both hypocritical (I first had sex when I was 17 and my game-plan for pregnancy were it to occur was to hide in my cousin’s house in Hyderabad till it was born, kind of ridiculous considering how conservative Hyderabad is) and optimistic (I’ll be lucky if my kids aren’t having sex when they are 13). Then, my attitude was okay, they are going to have sex anyway, I’ll talk to them about being safe, but draw the line at having sex under my nose (i.e. in my own house). However V pointed out how dangerous pushing teenager’s sex lives underground can be when they don’t have space for it (like cars in shady bylanes in India) so wouldn’t it be better if they just did it at home? I guess, but honestly, I’d be kind of uncomfortable. And then, I can envisage giving that freedom in the later teens but what about at 13-14? Something yet to be decided. I also once mentioned to V that I was uncomfortable with our child being gay because I’m a little eeked out by gay boy sex. And he pointed out that most parents are more than a little eeked out by any kind of sexual activity of their kids and so why sit picturing it? Which is true, so I only need to censor my own imagination. My point is that sometimes parents need to be in denial to let their kids do their thing.
- I remember reading an article comparing American parents with Dutch parents. Apparently American parents are –shock!- not comfortable with their kids sex life. Their kids generally go about it clandestinely. On the other hand, Dutch parents are okay with such things as their kids bringing their boyfriends home and having sex and this has been found to be healthier for both kids and adults. If I can dig up the article, I’ll post it but basically just wanted to say its not just Indian parents who are like this. American parents aren’t that liberal in this matter either. So even for them dating is okay, but acknowledging their children’s sex lives is not.
- If you have tried to be open about your sex life with your parents and they don’t want to hear about it, leave it. Carry on as you are, without mentioning sex. As adults we steer clear of many topics in our adult engagements, this can be just one of them. In this case, they are in the wrong but as long as you can live your life (and have your relationship) without their knowing the details, let it go.
This reminds me a bit of the struggle of gay people to get their parents to acknowledge their relationships. (And I may be very wrong about this, so gay readers of this blog please enlighten me if you have other thoughts). On the one hand, the particular way in which you have sex shouldn’t be so important to anyone except yourself so why do others need to know? But with gay people, it’s not so much about getting people to acknowledge their sex lives as it is getting people to acknowledge their relationship and I think those are two different things. I think at some point parents ideally should acknowledge the people their children are in serious relationships with. So if your parents are refusing to acknowledge your American boyfriend, then that would be a more serious infraction to me than them refusing to acknowledge that you are having sex with said boyfriend.
- If you are getting no support from your parents in this matter, make sure that you are up-to-date as far as contraception and sexual health is concerned. Frankly, parents can be quite outdated in their information on these matters (the pill, for example, has improved vastly since their day) so I’d find a more reliable source for this information.
- Always make sure you are having sex because you want to and also in the way you want to (I hear that anal is the new oral and I feel young girls should not have to have anal sex because everyone is doing it or have oral sex only because that doesn’t count as real sex and they can still be virgins). It is okay to have sex as an adult but it is also okay not to. Let that call be totally yours…
Now, it turned out the commenter’s question was more about how to deal with parents who cannot deal with the idea of their daughter having sex (which I went on about above) but with their daughter dating at all because it might lead to sex. This is tricky.
First, a personal example. My sister had her first boyfriend at 14. My dad was clearly not ready for this and did a huge drama when he found out. To counter-balance his theatrics, my mum said my sister could continue to date the boyfriend but must be open and bring him home. This provided the template for how boyfriends were to be dealt with thereafter. My parents never really liked us having boyfriends but they were always polite to them (to their face, when they were not around my dad only referred to them by the initial of their names “A”, “M”, “R” etc) and we were to keep our parents in the loop about our shenanigans. This allowed our parents some modicum of control, so, for example, if my sis brought her boyfriend over and they sat in the room, the door had to be open. And this only worked to some extent because I just found ways to get it on with my boyfriend in other places.
Now it’s been more than 15 years since then and I can only assume dating has become more mainstream since then so I think all Indian parents, especially those in urban areas, must prepare for their children to start dating in their teens, and this means there is going to be varying degrees of physical intimacy. If you don’t want to know about it, rest assured it’s going to be happening anyway. It’s in your own interest, as parents, to ensure that it happens in a safe way and the only reason you have half a chance of doing this is if you acknowledge your child is has a boy/girlfriend. As Foucault said, knowledge is power.
For those that balk at the idea of their children having sex in their teens because they are not emotionally and mentally mature enough, consider this: in the past and in some presents too, women were married and had children at that age. (What makes this horrifying is not that women were having sex at 14 but that they had no choice in the matter). If our children are not mentally and emotionally ready, maybe we should be preparing them instead of burying our heads in the sand. This is not to say we should be urging them to have sex but prepare them to be able to make responsible choices for themselves.
So back to the commenter. First, clearly evaluate if your parents have any good points. Is there something about your boyfriend, apart from the fact that he exists and is a threat to your virginity, or that he is American, that they object to? In fighting to keep your boyfriend, be very sure it’s him you want or are you simply fighting for principles. Principles are good to fight for but be clear in your head which one it is – don’t feel obliged to keep the boyfriend, just because you fought for him. Also, if you’re not serious about him, don’t fight this battle now.
However, you are serious about him, what are your options?
- Try to convince her parents that dating is ok and allay their fears about how physically intimate she is with her boyfriend (aka, lie. Which honestly was standard operating procedure for me and my ilk).
- Try to convince her parents that there’s nothing wrong with having sex (though frankly, I don’t see that working here).
- Lie about having a boyfriend at all and go about the entire thing clandestinely.
I’m thinking option 1. might be the best fit here. Your thoughts, dear readers?