I have been having some interesting discussions with various Indian friends recently about sex before marriage. There are several aspects to this conversation. Paraphrasing friends I have spoken with:
“Most Indians are virgins at the time of marriage.”
“Sex isn’t as important as it is in the west. You get used to not having it.”
“Most Indian women are virgins at the time of marriage.”
“In love marriages [as opposed to arranged marriages], the couple may or may not have had sex before marriage, but it is not socially accepted and should never be admitted as it brings shame.”
There are a ton of circumstances that make sex before marriage (and even after in some cases) very difficult.
Most people live with their families before marriage. They may or may not have their own rooms, but they certainly don’t have the freedom to come and go without the family knowing. They would never, could never, bring someone back to their place for a tryst. Interestingly, among my gay friends here one of the most valued attributes one can list in an online profile is having “place”. In the cities where more people might be in an apartment with non family members, I imagine the same attribute is valued in straight dating (although probably never talked about). For the most part, young singles just don’t have the opportunity and privacy to have sex.
There is (as in the west, although much more marked here) a double standard that applies to women getting married. With a “wink, wink” it is accepted and even slightly admired if a man has had sex as a bachelor (but for god’s sake never admit it to the parents or in polite company). The woman, however must be a virgin at the time of marriage, and her reputation is sullied if this should not be the case. There have been many cases of Indian men seeking annulment soon after a wedding, claiming their new wife not a virgin.
Although attitudes are changing a little, a brief survey among my progressive Indian friends still finds great discomfort where the parents are concerned. I ask if, as progressive parents, they would not rather imagine that their children about to be married to their longtime boyfriend or girlfriend had known each other intimately or not. Mostly, they are slightly bothered to think their children (especially girls) would have had sexual relations. I think that in the west people would be rather concerned if a couple about to be married had not had sex, as this would figure as an important part of their compatibility with each other.
As an aside: I spoke with a guy a few months ago who runs a marriage website here in India. When I referred to it as a “dating” site, he corrected me: “It is a marriage site, not a dating site.” I asked what the difference was. He told me that here the goal is always marriage, as opposed to many of the sites in the States, where that may not be the end goal. Here, it is always the desired outcome and so people from the very beginning pick potential spouses and are much more selective before the first encounter, because they see so much more riding on it. In addition, the family is often involved in setting up the profile and selecting mates for their children.