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     Volume 4 62 | September 9, 2005 |

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Cover Story

The Price of Passion

Kajalie Shehreen Islam And Srabonti Narmeen Ali

We are surrounded by sex. Movies on HBO, raunchy music videos on B4U, hidden sexual messages in advertisements. Gone are the days when parents can monitor what magazines we bring home and what TV shows we are allowed to watch. Now, with computers and the internet, teenagers gain access to pornography and can watch it in the privacy of their own rooms. As exposure to sex is inevitable, so is the curiosity that most of the youth in our society face regarding it. In fact sex before marriage is becoming increasingly common for the young people of today.

“The physical aspect of a relationship is very important," says Himel, a 23-year-old university student, "If you love someone and get physically involved with them, it's fine. It's different if you do it just because of the physical factor, however." According to Himel, every couple he knows today is physically involved. "Some take it to the final level, i.e. sex," he says, "but everyone is 'innocently' physically involved, as in kissing and hugging." Himel, who has been sexually active since the age of 15, believes sex is a natural part of a romantic relationship.

Zarif, also 23, however, does not give sex as much importance. "It would be better if you can avoid taking it to the final level," he says. He does not have a problem with other people doing it, but he himself would probably not go all the way before marriage, he says. Zarif, however, does not have any reservations about his partner having any previous sexual encounters. "I would just like to know about it," he says.

Sex before marriage, however, is still taboo for most young people in our society. Although many do not have a problem with others doing it, they would not do it themselves. Most would also prefer their partners to be virgins. The furthest some couples, especially women, would go would be to hold hands; others might allow kissing.

Another common belief is that once a couple has sex, the relationship deteriorates and will probably not lead to marriage. "If you have sex before marriage, the caring and commitment cannot be sustained in the relationship," says 24-year-old Shahed.

Many men and women opposed to the idea of premarital sex base their disapproval on religion. Others claim that if you have sex before marriage, then there is "nothing left" for after you are married.

Indeed, there are couples today who have sex but do not end up getting married. Many have no problems if the partners have a good understanding. Often, however, it works as a psychological pressure on at least one partner, sometimes even leading to blackmail of the other. In other cases, even if there is no trouble between the partners, there is possibility of trouble later on.

The social expectations and norms attached to each gender also serve as an influence when it comes to views on premarital sex. For boys or men, although sex is not "allowed" or viewed upon with favour, it is still accepted. According to the book Romance and Pleasure: Understanding the Sexual Conduct of Young People in Dhaka in the Era of HIV and AIDS, by Lazeena Muna, society tends to turn a blind eye towards men's sexual activities.

"Bangladeshi men are not pressured to be sexually active," says Muna in her book. "They are expected to respect the virginity of young women and have a permanent sexual partner through marriage. However, society silently condones young men's sexual liaisons, as they understand the difficulty of not being sexually active for an unrealistic long period until they marry."

Women, however, are not so lucky. Not only are their sexual experiences viewed in a negative light but they are also subjected to public humiliation and isolation if their so-called secret gets out. In this sense men have complete power -- they are able to make or break a woman's reputation. It is under these circumstances that women or young girls have stronger psychological repercussions after premarital sex than men do.

Rima was sexually involved with her boyfriend and, after getting pregnant, had to get an abortion. Things ultimately did not work out and she broke up with her boyfriend. But later when she got married to someone else, her husband found out about the matter, leading to a strain in the marriage.

Many men, though, exploit women, some honestly, others with false promises. Men more than women indulge in sex simply for pleasure and often move on, while most women usually have expectations of such an intense relationship actually going somewhere. They can say no, but sometimes they do not, whether for fear of losing their loved one or because they foster false hopes of the romance actually leading to marriage at some point.

"Women are usually the victims, even in consensual sex," says Layla, who recently graduated from a private university. "They simply take it for granted that if they sleep with a man, he will want to take the relationship further." Often, however, the opposite happens.

Ali, a first year university student, admits that he would not marry a girl he himself had had sex with, if that were to happen. "I wouldn't be able to trust a girl who would have sex with me before marriage," he says. "I might be bad for having done it myself, but I wouldn't marry someone who was also bad."

"Society doesn't think it's wrong when men are sexually active," says Dr. Mehtab Khanam, Professor of Psychology at Dhaka University and Health Counselor for North South University. "We point our fingers at women and girls more. For this reason, many girls suffer from self-blame, guilt and anger at themselves. Girls are under the impression that it is all right for men to be sexually active but they should control themselves enough to resist. Girls also tend to talk about sex more with other girlfriends because discussing it makes them feel secure and that they are not the only people who are engaging in sexual activities. This insecurity has been internalised in them from an early age and affects their mental well-being when they are involved in a sexual relationship. Most girls regard sex more emotionally than boys do in some ways."

Sometimes this can have tragic consequences. Keya who had had sex with her boyfriend only once but could never forget the experience. Over a year later, when she was being pressurised by her family to marry someone else, she tried to persuade her boyfriend to marry her, saying she could not love or live with anyone else. When he refused to marry her because he was not yet established, Keya hung herself the morning of her wedding.

Because of this insecurity, women are generally at a disadvantage. According to Khanam, "although women usually do not discuss previous sexual partners with their current partners, even after marriage, men tend to compare their wives to their previous partners, saying things like the other woman was much better or more pleasurable. A woman's self-esteem becomes low because of this and they often end up hating themselves."

However, the perception of sex differs from man to man. Rajiv, 24, was physically involved with his college-going girlfriend. When things did not work out with her, he became more careful to avoid casual sex himself. Shaheen, on the other hand, after being ditched by his girlfriend with whom he had not had physical relations, has resolved to get physical in future relationships so that the girl could not and would not leave him. Thus some people also regard sex as providing some sort of guarantee in relationships.

Tahmeed, a final year student of a private university, believes it may have been sex which made him over-dependent on his girlfriend and turned his world upside down at the thought of losing her. "Sex is not only about physical pleasure but also an emotional release of the frustrations and ups and downs of daily life," he says.

To have or not to have sex is really a matter of personal choice. Many young people today, however, believe that it should be a choice they are able to make more freely.

"Sex has become much more accepted in our society today. Even many parents accept it as inevitable." Up until some years ago, says Zarif, it was more or less all right for men to have sex before marriage. "It was even seen as a rite of passage," Zarif points out, "but it was never acceptable for women to do the same. Today, it is more accepted."

"It should be made open," says Himel. "That would solve a lot of problems." What kind of a society makes marriage legal for women at age 18 but prostitution at 14? questions Himel.

Saima, a final year university student, agrees that sex should be made open in society. "That will put the choice and a sense of responsibility upon the individual," says Saima. "They will be free to do as they like, but they will not be desperate and get into trouble." If a couple is seriously involved and the matter is accepted by their families, it might even help them to be steadier as a couple, thinks Saima.

Professor A I Mahbub Uddin Ahmed, of the department of sociology at Dhaka University, says that things will take their natural course, and we cannot really do anything about making sex more open or acceptable in society.

"Seen from a popular perspective," says Prof Ahmed, "the tendency to engage in physical relationships has increased. But," he says, "historically speaking, it is something that is culturally inbuilt in this region." He refers to a number of examples in Hindu mythology and even Muslim literature which show the acceptability and even institutionalisation of premarital and extra-marital sexual relations. "In those times, sex was a cosmic union," says the professor, "not a physical one, and it was not regarded as wrong, dirty or despicable as it is today." The latter has occurred due to social and legal restrictions and are not based in religious history.

But the phenomenon is still very present in our society today, says Prof Ahmed. He refers to a scale of intensity in physical relationships, which range from "petting" and "fondling" to "genital touch" and intercourse. Studies show that 100 percent of couples engage in petting, 80 percent in fondling, and about 30 percent go for sexual intercourse.

Even in rural areas, where people are supposedly more conservative, premarital sex is predominant, says Ahmed. According to the sociologist, 90 percent of all abortions that take place in Bangladesh are because of pregnancy outside of wedlock.

The trend is more common in the upper classes of society, for relatively well-off youth can have sex in their own apartments when their families are out, for example. It is, however, most common among the poorer classes, for they have both social and religious approval to engage in premarital sex and can have it anywhere. Garment workers are known to engage in something called "security sex", says Prof Ahmed. This is where a woman garment worker has a boyfriend for the sake of protection from harassment by other men. "But this boyfriend has many other girlfriends and they all engage in sex," says Ahmed.

Premarital sex is most unacceptable to the middle class who have the most social inhibitions, says Prof Ahmed. This is where we see youth engaging in inappropriate physical relations or at least in inappropriate places, like behind the bushes, on rickshaws, in the rain and so on. The middle class, in Ahmed's opinion, are affected by puritanical values, a legacy of British colonial Protestant ethics.

Prof Ahmed believes removal of the legal loopholes would solve or at least reduce many problems, such as the rise in pornography, sexual harassment and rape. The legal age for marriage, for example -- 18 and 21 for women and men respectively does not make complete sense. "There is a gap between this age and the age of biological maturity," points out Ahmed. What do people do in between? There can also be provisions as in the West for something like common law marriages, which give partners living together but not officially married, certain legal rights. This would stop couples from engaging in inhibited, unhealthy sexual behaviour. Double standards are also applied, says Ahmed, by which it is usually all right for men to have sex before marriage but not women.

"Sex is not a bad thing," concludes Prof Ahmed. "It is if you do it lustfully and without any love. But done out of love, it can be beautiful and is not a sin. It may be 'un-moral', but it is not immoral." Sex is a biological necessity, and even fulfils emotional needs. If done properly and safely, with social and legal problems sorted out, sex would actually lessen social discontent, believes Ahmed.

It is fine for sex to be made acceptable in society, but before that happens, it is important to know just how aware people are about sex and its consequences. "Sexual Health for Rural Bangladeshi Youth", a study by ICDDRB and BRAC, shows that 50 percent of Bangladeshi men engage in premarital sex. Another study titled "Premarital Sex and Urban Adolescents in Bangladesh" cites 44 percent of village youth and 90 percent of urban youth as having had premarital sexual relations. Among them, 47 percent of women in urban areas and 5 percent of women in rural areas admitted to having premarital sex. Media today, as well as friends who learn from the media, make sex seem not only natural but also a "cool" thing to do.

According to Dr. Mehtab Khanam, peer pressure is a huge factor. "It's almost like a prestige issue," she says. "Young people see that other people are involved in romantic relationships and that they are 'advancing' in the physical and sexual sense, and they feel as if they will be left out if they too do not engage in these activities."

But just how aware are young people of the possible negative effects of sex?

According to Lazeena Muna, "middle class, unmarried college students in Bangladesh demonstrate a strikingly low level of knowledge and low use of modern contraceptive methods."

On the topic of contraception and safe sex she says, "…sexually active people practice a combination of methods. A preference for the so-called traditional methods was observed. Withdrawal (ajol in Bangla) and the rhythm method (known as 'safe period') -- were the most popular and widely practiced…Some respondents, especially those whose sexual experience came in their early teens, had no knowledge of safer sex practice."

In her study, Muna interviewed 19-year-old Areefa who became sexually active at the age of 15 with her 22-year-old boyfriend. At the time, Areefa believed that it was marriage and not sex that made one pregnant and therefore, unconsciously and unknowingly engaged in the rhythm method form of contraception.

Twenty-two-year-old Joya and her boyfriend have been together for around two years. They started out, and remain in the agreement that they will probably never marry each other due to family objections. They have been having sex -- unprotected -- for about one and a half years. The reason: protection makes the act less enjoyable. Though Joya did try a few times to convince her 27-year-old boyfriend to use a condom, he refused. About a year ago, Joya got pregnant. It took her a while to realise what had happened, and, after he found out about it, her boyfriend did offer to marry her. But Joya backed out at the last moment and, with the help of her boyfriend, she got an abortion. The mental pressure of the experience, along with a number of other factors, forced Joya to rethink her relationship and finally decide to break it off. But the day she went to tell her boyfriend about her decision, they had sex again "one last time". A month later, and six months into her abortion, Joya again found herself pregnant. More experienced this time and without a boyfriend, she got the child aborted. This time, however, Joya fell seriously ill after the abortion. The bleeding would not stop. She could not eat and threw up whatever she did. She had fever and had contracted urinary tract infection. It took her months to recover. Today, Joya and her boyfriend are back together and they continue to have unprotected sex.

"What happens once a girl is pregnant and has an abortion is that there is some attachment to the unborn child," says Khanam. "The girl usually goes through severe trauma and depression and a lot of them become suicidal. They have a strong feeling of emptiness, both physically and mentally, and of grief. They blame themselves usually, thinking that they permitted such a thing to happen."

Apart from pregnancy, the risk of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as HIV/AIDS is also an important reason for sex education. Although many people know what AIDS is, there are many misconceptions surrounding it.

Muna says, "Unprotected sexual intercourse and sharing of unclean syringes were the two modes of HIV transmission that were most cited by respondents. While general knowledge regarding the transmission of and protection from HIV was accurate, important cognitive deficiencies were discovered on deeper analysis, particularly misconceptions on STI [sexually transmitted infections] and HIV transmission and protective measures. Many respondents did not clearly understand the concept of safer sex or transmission of infection. For example, one female respondent reported that 'perverted sex' -- that is, having sex with more than one person on the same occasion -- as opposed to unprotected sex led to HIV infection."

"Many people in our country are HIV positive," says Mili, a first year university student, "but we don't know about it. Because it is supposed to be a bad, embarrassing thing, people obviously do not go around talking about it." But this secrecy, and often ignorance, is what causes the spread of such diseases.

"Protection is a must," believes 23-year-old Saima. "You can't trust anyone because you can't monitor your partners, and neither can you take them for granted."

"The mark of a modern man is a thick wallet full of money with a condom in it," claims Himel. This James Bond philosophy allows men to be prepared for sex no matter what the circumstances.

Some young people think contraception has actually increased premarital sexual activity.

"Before the use of condoms and other methods of contraception were known," says 19-year-old Jalal, "people used to fear pregnancy and disease. Now they are so aggressively marketed and easily available that sex itself has become easier." In Jalal's opinion, true love does not have a physical dimension at all, it should come from the mind.

Then there are others who are highly sexually active but refuse to use protection. University student Reshad has had sexual relations with a number of women but he never uses protection, saying that "Protected sex is no sex". He claims he is selective about his partners so as not to contract STDs and that there are "many other ways" to prevent pregnancy. Tahmeed, though he is usually protected during sex, has also had it without. "It was a completely different and mind-blowing experience," he says.

Many men who are sexually active frequent brothels or pay for hotel-based and street-based sex workers. Often, however, they do not use protection, therefore not only putting themselves at risk but their wives or girlfriends. They do not understand that the concept of protection is very different from the concept of being clean. One such respondent in Muna's study attributed safe sex to good hygiene and cleanliness claiming that he took a bath "with much soap" after visiting a brothel.

Statistics on STDs are hard to come by mainly because most people do not recognise the symptoms and therefore ignore the problem. Some people -- especially unmarried sexually active people -- may understand that they have a problem but are too scared to take any action for fear of what parents and other people, including the doctors, might say.

Twenty-five-year-old Sharif has been visiting brothels for about eight years. He had his first sexual encounter at the age of 18 and since then he has been a regular. Although Sharif has a girlfriend, he still continues to pay for sex because the sex workers "are more adventurous and will never say no when I want to try out new and exciting things." When asked if he ever used protection, Sharif says, "It feels better without protection. What is the point of paying for something if you still have to be careful about pregnancy? That should be their problem." STDs, he said, were not a concern at the time.

About a year ago, Sharif noticed that something was wrong. His penis burned every time he urinated and he started noticing sores around and on his genitals. Green pus and discharge would come out from his penis. He was scared to tell his parents because he knew that he would be in trouble. He never went to the doctor and is still living with his physical discomfort.

"I knew something was wrong, and I knew it was from my time at the brothels," says Sharif. "At first I thought it was because they [sex workers] were dirty and unclean so it was an infection. Later on, when I told a friend of mine he mentioned that I might have an STD. After that I was too scared to see a doctor because I just hoped it would go away."

What Sharif did not realise at the time was that he would transfer the disease to his girlfriend, Shoma. At the age of 19, Shoma had only had one sexual partner. When she started experiencing symptoms she mentioned it to Sharif, who then broke down and told her the truth.

Shoma, also too scared to tell her parents or anyone else, is still praying that the disease will "just go away on its own".

Unfortunately, not all STDs are preventable by using a condom. Sometimes, only abstinence is the way to protect yourself.

About three years ago, 23-year-old Zainab found herself with an STD with her boyfriend of four years. Though she had been careful to use protection during sex and both of them had only had one partner each, she contracted a disease of the skin that could not be prevented by a condom. The infection is something that she will always carry within her, and, if not diagnosed early, could have affected her reproductive cycle. It is also one that she will pass on to whoever she engages in sexual relations with, even if they use protection.

"When I first learnt that I had it," says Zainab, "I just felt very dirty. I felt like God was punishing me for what I had done."

Zainab has, after the unfortunate experience, begun to view sex as dangerous. "It is scary because you never know what could happen, and what kind of deal you are going to get."

A lot of women in Zainab's position stay in bad marriages and relationships because they are too scared to be with someone new because they will have to tell them about their disease.

The fact that sex has become very common among young people today is undeniable. "The trend is inevitable," says 24-year-old Zubair. "Young people, even those as young as 14 or 15, will increasingly be interested in sex. The only thing you can do about it is educate them so that they are aware of the safety issues and how to protect themselves."

In fact, the knowledge of the possible consequences of becoming sexually active may be incentive to teenagers and young adults to abstain or at least refrain from having multiple partners.

"I won't want my kids to go around having sex," says Layla, "but I will educate them about it. I think it's very important that parents today are open with their children on these matters. It's a good thing that we as a society are more open about it today, because this is how we have learnt about HIV/AIDS and other problems related to sex."

Sex is not all about pleasure, says Layla. "Your five minutes of pleasure can kill you," she says. "If you don't know how to have sex, then don't have it!"

Responsibility is the name of the game. The fact is that although nobody wants to admit it or talk about it, there are more and more cases of premarital sex every day. Denying it will only lead to severe psychological and physical repercussions for the people in question. It is a taboo subject because talking about it openly means acknowledging that such an "issue" exists. As a society, we are more accustomed to shutting our eyes and ears to the problems rather than facing them. Pretending that young people are not sexually active or experienced is not only naïve, but also harmful in the long run. Unless we inform and educate our youngsters about the perils of unsafe sex and the psychological consequences sex can have on one's mental well-being, we could possibly be cheating them out of happy and healthy lives.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2005