A few months into my year-long cultural exchange program in Mexico, my younger sister called me up to tell me that she’d gotten a boyfriend. She was 17, he was her first boyfriend, and it felt like a huge deal. I hated that I wasn't back home, helping her navigate previously uncharted territory.
Distressed, I told my new Hungarian friend. Her response was unexpected: “She's 17 and has a boyfriend? She must've had sex, then.”
I was taken aback. On the surface, it looked like protectiveness for my sister, or denial that she was growing older. But it was more than just that: the mere idea of sex was inconceivable; it felt distant, and I realized it wasn't something I even associated with dating in India, where innocent, romantic displays of affection are looked down upon. Sex in India is neither the logical next step nor an experience that most young people have.
When I speak to people about India, it feels like I’m talking about several little worlds within one. In villages, or my grandparents' India, dating is still an alien concept. Romance isn’t for real people; it’s reserved only for stories. Most people in my family have had arranged marriages, and eventually, so will some of my friends. Even in the city where I live, I have seen way too many people my age meet their partners in hidden spots—and delete the text messages detailing said meet-ups—because they fear their relationship being found out.
The burden of this stigma visibly and inevitably falls on women. In a society that has been patriarchal for centuries, it is women that are villainized for dating who they want and wearing what they want. In public trials and criminal cases, using the words “boyfriend,” “alcohol,” and “party” in reference to a woman are the easiest way to turn everyone against her. Purity in young girls is celebrated, but the tradition of suhaag raat dictates that a woman loses her virginity on the very first night of marriage.
This traditional, sometimes brutal India frequently contradicts the other version of India in which I grew up. For my friends who, like me, grew up on Taylor Swift, Titanic, and Disney, dating is entirely normal. Thanks to Westernization, more of the urban youth is open to dating; and for once, the endgame isn’t marriage or finding a partner for life. Dating for the sake of experimentation, casual relationships, hookups, and dating apps is gaining popularity.
However, these experiences are limited to certain classes, and will likely remain this way for a long time. The reason for this is that other than exposure to Western media, pastimes typically associated with hooking up—such as clubbing and partying—are also restricted to the upper and middle classes; most clubs charge a high entry fee, after all. And no matter where you live, going out at night is still unsafe, particularly for women. Clothes need to be double-checked, pepper spray needs to be hidden in bags, and even then, things might take a turn for the worse. It's always preferable to book a cab home or use a private vehicle to stay safe. These are luxuries only available to the upper and middle classes.
Regardless of who they affect, though, changes in India are taking place, and the center of this change is the urban, English-speaking youth. Casual dating is almost a generational movement; never before in India has it been as common as it is today. Unfortunately, this also means there’s more pressure to date than ever before.
At 19, I’ve never had a partner or so much as kissed anyone. In a conversation with my therapist, I told her how inadequate I feel because of this, and she reminded me that we aren’t, in fact, living in the Western world. While dating is now more common, the old and new India still clash enough to make things tough.
Young people in India have significantly less freedom than those in the West: in every family, teens need to be granted permission each time plans are made. Teachers, neighbors, and extended family are all involved in children's lives, and romance is seen as a distraction from studying, as if the two things are mutually exclusive. Matrimonial apps, my therapist reminded me, are more common than dating ones.
Despite these reminders, it was impossible to not feel excluded as my friends slowly began to explore the realm of sex. Learning of their stories was bittersweet: it felt like I was missing out on a whole world, stuck in a limbo of confusion and progressively decreasing confidence. The concepts of romance and sex are constantly thrust in our faces, after all; the Hollywood movies I’ve spent countless hours watching make romance seem like a prerequisite to growing up. So where’s my coming-of age-story? India has taught me that dating is too daunting a step to take, and the West has taught me that I’m incomplete so long as I’ve never dated someone.
My exchange program in Mexico was supposed to be my escape from this continuous cycle. I endlessly fantasized about my dreamy love story, about the house parties I would go to and the virginity I would lose. The reality, of course, was different: when the time came to do all of this, I found myself shutting down entirely. If someone attractive flirted with me, I sidestepped their advances. I nervously laughed away any mentions or implications of sex. Standing too close to male friends, my mind would spiral: do people think we're more than just friends?
I soon realized—no matter how supportive my support system had been growing up, the grasp of tradition was inescapable. My parents were always progressive and supportive of my wild fantasies of love, only requesting that I never hide my relationships from them. My grandparents had a love marriage sixty years ago, when it was almost unheard of. I had a bubble of friends that made me feel safe and understood, all of whom have casually dated people. Yet in the end, it was tradition that got me. All the teachers' comments about how lip balm is only a way to attract men, the newspaper headlines about girls being “too into boys and partying,” the politicians' declarations that girls shouldn't leave their house at night—everything I had scoffed at, dismissed as backward—caught up to me. I was left feeling lonely and stuck between two worlds, aching for more while simultaneously feeling old-fashioned and prudish.
It took months for the tiniest of changes to take place. Four months into my time in Mexico, I didn’t care whether I wore a bra underneath my t-shirt. Six months in, I could go out at night fairly frequently. Nine months in, I could wear dresses that had low necklines and ended a few inches above my knees.
But throughout my year in Mexico, I could never bring myself to date anyone, or even explain why it was so hard. On the inside, I felt like I had become a part of the same Indian society I had loathed all my life.
Despite this internal struggle, I came back home more confident, happy that a world of possibilities existed outside of where I was. I knew that home meant retreating into my shell and relearning everything I’d unlearned in Mexico, but there was now an abstract future to look forward to, and the knowledge that things could change.
At a lunch date with my friend a few months after my return home, they brought up my year abroad.
“How many people did you hook up with?” they asked eagerly.
I shrunk into myself, replying with a quiet “zero.”
Jokingly, they remarked, “I'm sorry to say that your exchange was a waste, then.”
The words stung more than I could ever admit. It was a catch-22: hooking up meant disappointing the world in which I’d grown up, and not hooking up meant disappointing the world into which I was growing.
Progress, I’ve learned, is slow. Breaking out of Indian norms may take months or even years. But I’ve learned to accept that words like dating and sex aren't as enormous and terrifying as they sound. And when I choose to take these steps, it should be because I want to, not because I feel like I have to. (As my therapist says, everything doesn't have to be a competition.)
Speaking of progress, last week I installed a dating app on my phone. For the first time ever, I didn’t end up deleting it hours later.