"Every Shivratri, women worship the Shiv ling and pray for a husband like Shiva. They worship a phallic symbol but they can't talk about sex," says 40-year-old Kolkata-based public relations profession Somini Sen Dua, talking of the taboos surrounding sex.
Sen Dua, who has one child, remembers an incident that happened during her post graduation. "I was in a brand building class. We were shown some taglines and asked to match it with the brand that we associated it with. For one of the taglines I said Kohinoor (a brand of condoms). Later, some of my classmates, who knew I had a boyfriend, asked me whether I used ribbed or plain. They wouldn't have asked me whether I preferred masala or chicken if I had said Maggi, would they?" she asks. "That was 20 years ago, but I think nothing has changed since."
The demarcation is clear: good girl vs bad girl, and the minute someone is vocal about sex or about her desires, for most, she crosses over into bad girl territory.
"I went to college in Bhopal. Forget mentioning sex, if a girl so much as said that she found a certain man hot or attractive, another would say, 'Kitni besharam ladki hai (What a shameless girl)," recalls 30-year-old Arti (name changed on request) from Dehradun.
Sex was not a word that she heard at home either. "My parents were cool about me having a boy friend but they would always tell me 'Zyada aage mat badh jana' (Don't cross your limits.) It was up to me to interpret what they meant," she laughs.
In a society that shies away from even the merest mention of sex, it is easy to imagine the travails of a women buying contraceptives for herself or, in the pre-Internet era, when porn videos weren't a click away, approaching a shop owner to rent one.
"I haven't had to buy contraceptives for myself, but I can do it if I need to. However, I do realise that even if I am comfortable with it, others will not be. People will look twice at a woman buying contraceptives," says Somini.
Arti enjoys watching porn, but does it alone. "I haven't even told my husband about it," she says. Apparently, 'good' women frown upon boyfriends/husbands who watch porn; 'bad' women watch it themselves.
While Indian men would appreciate a responsive partner, most women believe there is only so much a man can take. "I am not sure how many women would call their partners to say, 'Come home; I'm in the mood for sex," says Somini.
The discomfort with discussing sex can spell doom for a relationship. "It is important for a couple to be sure that they are sexually compatible before they enter a bigger commitment, especially today, when divorce has become so common. But in a society where talking about sex continues to be taboo, often partners have no experience of sex before marriage or are not open about their likes and dislikes" says 29-year-old Sujata.
The media professional says people are often shocked when she admits to the number of partners she has had. This reticence can have serious repurcussions. "Because of our discomfort with talking about sex, most people don't even undergo an HIV detection test before they get married," says Somini.
While watching porn and buying contraception make it to the general list of things that make most Indian women uncomfortable, most have their own personal taboos too. Somini will never have sex with multiple partners, while Arti cringes at the thought of anal sex.