'Only sex workers carry condoms': How Indian women are judged for using contraception

Written by : Geetika Mantri

Rohini*, a 22-year-old writer and journalist, remembers a friendly conversation with her sister-in-law that took a baffling turn – all because she said she had used contraception.

About a year ago, Rohini met her newlywed 25-year-old sister-in-law and the two started bonding. 

“There wasn’t much age difference between us, so it was easy to speak to her. She was telling me about the romantic things my brother would do for her… and then the conversation turned to sex,” Rohini recounts.

Rohini’s sister-in-law said she was worried about her irregular menstrual cycle. She also mentioned that she had taken the 'morning after' pill (emergency contraceptive) on two occasions in the month before.

“I’ve generally read about these things, so I reassured her that her periods weren’t irregular because she was more sexually active, but because she had taken the emergency contraceptive. And because we were talking about sex, I told her that even my period had been delayed by 10 days when I had had to take an i-pill once,” Rohini says.

The easy, comfortable atmosphere in the room changed dramatically. Rohini’s sister-in-law seemed visibly rattled and the conversation ended there. Rohini did not think much about it until she received a call a few days later from her elder cousin.

“Turns out, my bhabhi (sister-in-law) had called my sister (cousin) and said things like I was “straying from the right path” and that I shouldn’t know these things, I’m just a ‘child’. She basically asked my sister to intervene so I wouldn’t be as slutty,” Rohini narrates.

She never confronted her sister-in-law about it and luckily, her cousin defused the situation before her sister-in-law could take it any further, to other relatives.

“But I was shocked! She brought up the topic and when I tried to reassure her, she got offended and ‘worried’ that I should know so much despite being younger than her!” Rohini exclaims with indignation.

Like Rohini, a number of women in India face flak just because they use contraceptives. And while it should be a good thing that women are taking charge of their sexual and reproductive health, it is not uncommon for them to face prejudice.

In fact, 20% Indian men between 15 and 54 years of age believe that if a woman is using contraception, she may become promiscuous, according to National Family Health Survey-4 figures. And the number is considerably higher in the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka - 47, 44 and 40 percent respectively.

‘Carrying condoms is a man’s job’

Casual sexism finds ways of wiggling in everywhere – even when it comes to who should be carrying condoms.

Vaishnavi, a freelance photographer in Bengaluru, was at a party with her college friends in June 2016 when she was ‘casually’ slut shamed for carrying a condom

In a committed relationship at the time, Vaishnavi would carry a condom in her wallet. But when a guy she had never spoken to before saw the condom, he seemed quite surprised.

“He asked me if the guys I slept with didn’t carry condoms of their own. He didn’t think I could be in a relationship, he just jumped the gun. And when I told him that I carry one just in case, he scoffed and said that I must be sleeping with 'sissy' men. And that this (carrying condoms) is something that only sex workers do,” Vaishnavi says.

She walked away at the time, but the incident angers her even now. “I felt like he was one of those ‘woke dudebros’ who are all for women being equal to men, unless they can prove they are sluts, which clearly doesn’t take a lot,” the 21-year-old remarks.

Married women aren’t immune either

Chennai-based Soundarya’s* aunt was not slut shamed or deemed promiscuous because she used contraception. However, what happened with her was no less absurd.

“She had used birth control pills to delay her period so that she could attend a pooja. But when my uncle found out, he gave her hell for it. He told her that she was trying to tamper with a god-given gift and making something natural, unnatural,” Soundarya shares.

But the absurdity of the situation – delaying her period to comply with the age-old myth of menstruating women not performing acts of worship being deemed ‘unnatural’ – was clearly lost on the aunt. Surprisingly, she agreed that she was at fault.

It begins at the chemist's

Being judged for using contraception from family and those you know is unpleasant. But for women, the shame and trauma begins right at the chemist shop when they want to buy contraception.

Vaishnavi and Rohini both identify themselves as outspoken feminists. However, they agree that the idea of buying condoms or an i-pill is extremely stressful. They both pick the stores based on the number of people there – the least the better.

“Either the chemist would not meet your eyes, or they would just give you a look which says, “oh she’s having SEX.” As if it’s such a bad thing,” Vaishnavi says.

“There have been times where I have consciously dressed more adult – put on a full suit with dupatta and worn a bindi – so that the chemist doesn’t look at me so judgmentally,” Rohini confesses.

The perplexing irony

The NFHS-4 also reveals that a total of 37.3% Indian men, aged between 15 and 54, think contraception is a woman’s business and that they should not have to worry about it. The numbers are quite high in the south as well – 45.9% Andhra men, 42.2% men from Karnataka, 46.9% men in Telangana and 48.9% men in Puducherry think so too.

It should be a matter of pride for the country that condom use has risen among unmarried, sexually active women by six times in the past decade. And yet, a woman who is opting for safe sex is deemed immoral, or promiscuous, especially if she is unmarried.

Sharanya Manivannan, a Chennai-based author who writes on women and sexuality, says she is baffled by these findings. “What they indicate, most of all, is how little men seem to think about reproductive and sexual health, which includes protection from STDs, just as much as it does avoiding unwanted pregnancies,” she argues.

“The double standard of seeing contraception as "women's responsibility" while also negatively judging those who take this responsibility must come from a mental distinction between legally-sanctioned (ie marital) sexuality and non-marital sexuality. So it's acceptable when it's "family planning" within the confines of the institution of family, but not when it has to do with pleasure and desire outside of patriarchal bounds,” she observes.

*Names changed to protect privacy

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