Many Indian Women Have More Sexual Partners Than Men, Govt Data Shows
Women’s healthcare thus needs to include safe sexual practices instead of focusing solely on family planning.
Statistics is, perhaps, the most foolproof method when it comes to dismissing stereotypes. The fifth edition of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) does just that through its data from several Indian cities to that show the prevalence of sexual activity among women doesn’t correspond to society’s notion that women are chaste, and men have multiple sexual partners by virtue of their inability to control physical urges. Turns out, that women aren’t lagging too far behind men in terms of their “body count,” as it’s referred to often in popular culture.
Conducted between 2019 and 2021, the data from NFHS-5 included responses from more than a lakh of men and women, each. Their assessment suggests that in urban areas, on average, men had 1.7 sexual partners in their lifetime, closely followed by women with 1.5 partners. With 1.8 partners, rural women, interestingly, even outdid their urban counterparts. Meanwhile, in many states and union territories — like Assam, Haryana, Jammu and Kashmir, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Tamil Nadu — women actually had more sexual partners than men.
Survey respondents of the two genders also admitted to having engaged in intercourse with individuals who were neither their spouses nor live-in partners — hinting that there may have been a decline in the stigma against sex outside of marriage. But without data on the exact nature of the dynamics shared by sexual partners — and, more importantly, on consent — that analysis could be premature. Further, it’s also pertinent to bear in mind that the data reflects the sex lives only of the individuals surveyed; the actual estimate could vary — to what extent, one can’t be completely sure.
Nonetheless, the results are remarkable. The fact that women have nearly as many — if not more — sexual partners than men isn’t nearly as surprising as their willingness to admit it in a society that doesn’t hesitate to slut-shame women for far lesser. Interestingly, though, this could also mean that not all women surveyed were honest about their “body count,” which could completely skew the aforementioned stereotype on its head — but that’s merely a possibility with nothing to attest to it, at the moment.
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As journalist Rema Nagarajan opined, though, “While it is difficult to imagine all respondents being entirely frank about their sexual liaisons, just the fact that so many, especially women, were willing to speak about sexual partners, including sex outside marriage, is telling… [T]here could be underreporting among women, in the case of men there could also be a touch of wishful exaggeration in some cases.”
But cultural interpretations aside, the data is instructive in other ways, too — especially in terms of reshaping how public health perceives women’s sexuality. Women are not only engaging in sexual intercourse with their spouses. This challenges the current framework of women’s health that prioritizes family planning over their sexuality. But with women exploring desire beyond the scope of their family, there is a need to raise awareness about other key aspects — sexually transmitted infections (or, STIs) is one of them, of course.
A report from 2017 that even in Kerala, which has the highest literacy rate in the country, women’s awareness of STIs remains low. Moreover, even if women want to get tested, cultural barriers in the form of potential judgment and ostracization by families, communities, and even medical professionals make them hesitate — at times, to fatal consequences.
“In December, I thought I should get tested for HIV; I last had it in 2014… I went to this hospital in Nashik, and it was a National AIDS Control Organization (NACO) center. The doctors tried to dig and ask what I wanted to get tested for; I explained that it was a random test and that they should be okay with it. They did not agree to it,” P. told The Swaddle’s Rohitha Naraharisetty in April.
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“Only premarital counseling or marital counseling usually involves these conversations [about sex and STIs] because these are spaces where patients feel comfortable talking about their sexual history… STI testing should become a part of preventive screenings. But again, it’s such a sensitive issue that it needs to be introduced gradually,” Dr. Renuka Dangare noted, adding, “In Western culture, it’s assumed that you are sexually active — unless you mention otherwise. It’s exactly the opposite side in India… Unless we remove the taboo around sex in this country, it will be tough to address the public health problem [of low STI testing].”
Overlooking women’s sexual activity beyond their culturally-sanctioned roles as “wife” and “mother,” then, could become life-threatening to them. And when cultural beliefs get in the way of healthcare, it’s high time society learns to grow out of them.
And so, it may be time for public healthcare to devote significant energy toward sensitizing women about regular screenings for STIs — besides educating them about them being vaccinated against infections like HPV (or the human papillomavirus), which can not only damage cardiovascular health, but also cause cervical cancer.
In the meantime, the collation of data has also thrown up a jarring possibility: we’re simply not looking at data outside the gender binary and heterosexual encounters. This ignores a significant part of the population, and subsequently deprices public healthcare of valuable data to similarly customize healthcare policies to their needs. In doing so, society’s reluctance to grant basic personhood to marginalized groups may be denying them adequate healthcare too — in the long run, at least, if not immediately.
Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, a painter by shaukh, and autistic by birth. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.