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Meet me behind the bushes

green leafed trees during daytime in a park.

Amongst many other things, the collective experience of the pandemic was a bold reiteration of how class remains one of the primary facilitators of access. As the rich debated the pros and cons of a lockdown, the poor were left to fend for themselves as the means to their wages, daily or monthly, within the unorganised sector remained severely affected by the restrictions on movement and in-person work. The very meaning of physical distancing or quarantine depended on the size of your house. Those who could afford the space and resources could adhere to recommendations and regulations of national and global health advisors on how to practise physical distancing or even quarantine if required. For those who couldn’t, distancing and quarantines were implemented in a myriad of versions, none which could afford to take into consideration these recommendations. I don’t have to look far to find such examples: I think of my maternal family in Manipur, about twenty family members living in nine rooms sharing one washroom and toilet even when a few of them tested positive for the virus.

So, as I think of sexuality in the context of the pandemic, I am reminded of how access to private spaces, or even to spaces which allow a certain level of public display of intimacy, form the very basis of who has the right and freedom to express their desires in the form of physical and sexual intimacy.

Renowned economist Abhijit Banerjee wrote about the inequality of access to sex in India in a 2012 article in the Hindustan Times. He says “if you are poor in urban India or even middle class and 25, you have to be very lucky to have a room of your own in the family home, let alone a separate apartment that you can call your own.” He goes on to narrate how, many years ago, an acquaintance told him that he waits to go home after everyone else in his family has eaten dinner because there is no place to sit or lie down till they have gone to bed and the dining area is vacated for him to sleep in. Banerjee wonders “…clearly there was no way he could afford to get married — where would they sit together, where would they sleep?” Such issues don’t just affect the poor but rather permeate into the lower and mid middle classes of India too where despite a certain level of income, rooms are often shared and privacy only a thing of the imagination.

So, due to the lack of access to private spaces, consenting couples are often forced to carve out hidden nooks and niches within public spaces. Think about parks, monuments and any other such area which may offer partially hidden corners, allowing for quick, stolen moments of love and intimacy in an otherwise conservative society.

As children, I don’t think we fully understood why couples were ‘choosing’ to engage in such a manner in public spaces. Having grown up in ‘respectable’ colonies with ample children’s parks to play in, the infrequent visits to public ones such as Lodhi Garden, Nehru Park, etc. in Delhi were mostly part of school picnics where we found immense joy and laughter in going and troubling canoodling couples hidden behind large rocks and bushes. It’s only when I read Ira Trivedi’s book India in Love: Marriage and Sexuality in the 21st Century (2014), that I realised the politics and complex socio-economic factors behind the once seemingly strange acts of these couples. I started to understand how as an individual from an urban, upper class background, even if you find yourself in a temporary situation of no access to private spaces (for example living in a hostel while in college), having a certain level of social capital would still give you access to opportunities to engage intimately with your chosen partner(s) in a relatively safe environment. For example, being able to go over to a friend’s place who either has their own house or a private section or room in their parents’ house; being invited to house parties or being able to afford attending concerts and going to clubs where a certain degree of openness with respect to public intimacy is allowed; and being able to afford to pay for overnight stays within the city through services such as OYO, Airbnb, etc.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, spaces for intimacy dwindled even more. In the thick of things, everyone was asked to limit themselves to their houses and not venture into public spaces. Even when these restrictions on movement loosened, public spaces remained heavily monitored and people were expected to maintain physical distancing regulations and wear a mask at all times. Whilst I understand why such restrictions were needed, I cannot help but wonder what happened to those couples who once depended on those hidden corners of public spaces to express their basic right to love and be loved.

What was interesting to see was how the pandemic in its early stages almost acted as an equaliser across classes in regards to access to sex. Suddenly no one was allowed into each other’s houses, and concepts of personal space and boundaries got ever more codified into our social fabric, especially for the privileged. With access to private spaces taken away on account of the pandemic, suddenly couples from liberal and affluent backgrounds found themselves in the same position as couples from less privileged backgrounds – desperately looking for pockets of privacy. In my so-called ‘liberal’ college, which otherwise allowed for cross access between girls’ and boys’ hostels, it was fascinating to observe how the sports area and the under-construction library building became sexual hotspots for students during the pandemic in response to the tightening of hostel access regulations.

Having spent the first 10 years of my life in a two-bedroom house with seven members, which soon increased to eight with the birth of my sister, I can’t help but wonder, much like Banerjee, how married couples in crowded homes find moments and spaces of privacy. I imagine how the few odd instances of finding themselves alone in the house – maybe the grandparents have taken the children to the park; maybe a cousin is in town so the children decide it would be fun to sleep together in the living area instead of with their parents – would be delicious windows of opportunity to get close to one another. The pandemic would have limited these moments, reintroducing class as a factor in access to sex even for couples who had social sanction to be intimate with each other and live together.

As soon as the lockdowns lifted, married and unmarried couples, who have the previously mentioned social capital to either have an allocated bedroom within their family house, or be able to afford renting their own apartments or booking overnight stays within the city, found themselves in a familiar position of advantage, highlighting the plight and longing of millions of Indians who do not have the privilege of being able to shut the bedroom door behind them at night – pandemic or not.

Cover Image: Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash