High Rates of Gay Sex Among Young Indian Men—But Where Are the Condoms?

By Walter Armstrong

Almost 40 percent of young single urban Indian men have had at least one homosexual experience, according to a survey conducted by India Today. The popular lifestyle magazine that bills itself as "the most widely read newsweekly in South Asia" published the poll last week in an issue whose steamy cover read "Secret Desires." The survey asked 2,560 unmarried men, ages 16 to 25, in 11 Indian cities about their sexual acts and attitudes. Some highlights:

  • Thirty-four percent said they would have sex "anytime, anywhere"
  • Forty-six percent said they had had premarital sex
  • Sixty-three percent said they expected their future wives to be virgins
  • Sixty-two percent said they watched porn with friends
The magazine described the young men as "in a muddle: often hypocritical, sexually smug, quietly homoerotic." But for all the peek-a-boo coverage, the stats only hint at the frustrations and dangers faced by testosterone-fueled young men in a traditional male-dominated culture.

Notably absent from any reporting was the mention of HIV. With a population of 1.1 billion, India has 5.8 million people with HIV, more than any other nation in the world. And experts say that even that figure is probably a vastly underestimated due to the pervasive stigma about sex, drugs and, above all, homosexuality. The government's positions on HIV prevention for gay men in particular are a scandal, and officials have refused even to recognize "men who have sex with men" in tracking infection and other public-health measures.

The west coast city of Bombay has paved the way in both gay rights and HIV advocacy. It is the home of both Bombay Dost, the nation's oldest gay magazine, and the Naz Foundation, the nation's oldest PWA organization. But last summer a survey of men who have sex with men found that 20 percent were infected with HIV.

In September, a long list of distinguished Indian writers, artists, lawyers, academics, and advocates signed an open letter to the government demanding that Section 377, the infamous law prohibiting homosexuality, be overturned. "It has been used to systematically persecute, blackmail, arrest and terrorize...tens of millions of gay and bisexual men and women," the letter read. "It is especially disgraceful that...on several recent occasions the law has been used by homophobic officials to suppress the legitimate work of HIV-prevention groups." The colonial-era law, when strictly enforced, makes even distributing condoms to gay men a crime punishable by prison.

The India Today survey's revelation that 36 percent of single men under 25 have had homosexual experiences suggests that the young generation may be closer to becoming free of this legacy of homophobia. The tragedy is that without public awareness of HIV risk, access to condoms, and honest talk about sex, many may never get a chance to live out their more enlightened potential for the benefit of their nation. What they are likely to get instead is HIV—and then pass it on to the virgins they marry.

How did the civilization that gave us the erotic science of the Kama Sutra come to this?