Yet sex remains a taboo topic for most Indians. A powerful conservative morality limits acknowledgement to innuendo and suggestive word pictures created by Hindi film songs. A 2011 poll by India Today, the country's leading newsmagazine, found a quarter of respondents offering no objection to sex before marriage, so long as it was not happening in their family.
This makes for a debilitating sexual repressiveness, which women's organizations believe accounts for the high rate of sexual violence. A 2011 survey of gender equality by the Washington-headquartered International Centre for Research on Women revealed that one in four Indian men have committed sexual violence at some point in their lives and one in five has forced his partner to have sex with him, far higher rates than the five other countries surveyed. More than 65 percent of Indian men surveyed believe that women sometimes deserved to be beaten, and that to keep the family together, women should tolerate violence. "In India, the age-old code of conduct has been to keep men and women separate. So women are only viewed as sex objects," Vibhuti Patel, a women's rights activist, told the Times of India.
This has obvious implications for rape. According to India's National Crime Records Bureau, registered rape cases increased by almost 900 percent over the last 40 years, to 24,206 incidents in 2011 (just over a quarter of the cases resulted in convictions). In comparison, murder cases increased by just 250 percent over six decades.
The Indians who argue that they elected a woman as head of government back in the 1960s (something the United States has yet to do), and that modern Indian women are free to work, need to accept they live in an intensely patriarchal society. This reflexive conservatism runs deep, despite the changes wrought by the Internet, mobile telephony, and the commercial forces of the 21st century. Just listen to India's elected politicians: In October, a rash of nearly 20 rapes in the small north Indian state of Haryana led the female chief minister of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, to blame the increasing interaction between men and women. "It's like an open market with open options," she complained. Another Haryana politician suggested, along the lines of the Republican Party's Todd "legitimate rape" Akin, that he didn't know what the fuss was about because 90 percent of rapes are consensual. Meanwhile, a council of village elders advocated lowering the marriageable age for women from 18 to 15 or 16 to decrease rape. It was left to four U.N. agencies to respond with a letter to government officials stating that "child marriage is not a solution to protecting girls from sexual crimes including rape" and that 40 percent of the world's child marriages already happen in India.
Against such long odds, Delhi's protests of the moment may do little to make it safer to be a woman in India. That would require a sexual revolution. And that may be a long time coming.