Vedika Rao, a marketing executive with a major FMCG brand, lives by herself in Mumbai and self-admittedly has used dating apps ever since she moved here. “My parents are in Bangalore. I knew of the dating apps there but was living with ultra-conservative (no-garlic-no onion vegetarian) parents so I curbed the urge to use them. Especially since my mom's given to ever-so-casually go through my phone even in my presence,” shrugs this 30-year-old Bangalorean who turned Mumbaikar three years ago following a promotion. “I was ecstatic about finally living independently, wearing and eating what I want. Its been so liberating in Mumbai where people are relatively less nosey and commuting on public transport is safer for women,” she adds.
A whole nine years younger than her only sibling Avantika who lives in Boston with her husband and kids, this “rebel-without-a-pause” says, “I love my parents, but their relentless pressure to marry and 'settle down like Avantika as a homemaker-mom' is quite stifling. That I'm economically independent. There is more to life than marriage and kids. But it is beyond my parents. They want me dressed in salwar-kurta-dupatta or sari all the time follow rituals, keep fasts and will probably have simultaneous heart attacks to know how much I love non-vegetarian food. The big drama they created over an all-girls trip with colleagues to Cambodia at the end of 2016 made me resolve to move out.”
It still took her two months to get on to the dating app Bumble after moving to Mumbai mid-2017. “My friends recommended it because it has a relatively decent crowd. Not people who want to hit the sack right away like other apps,” she says but is quick to add, “If safe and consensual, casual sex isn't such a bad thing.” She says she has got “lucky” couple of times. “In the first instance the guy was engaged to another girl in Chandigarh and the next, I realised he was becoming too familiar in tone and behaviour (he thought nothing of breaking wind loudly without so much as a sorry, though I was right there) soon after sex.”
That was in the first week of February. She hasn't dated anyone since. It is not the stench of 'over-familiar experience' but the Coronavirus which has kept her away. She has been stuck at home during the Covid-19 related lockdown from March onwards. “It is like my love life has reduced to a big zero since we are all scared of getting infected. I have been forced to go back to living like a nun.”
If you thought this is a problem only cis-women are stuck with, think again. David Kariketa who was part of the corporate communications with a Mumbai construction major was retrenched just before Diwali. “Through my network, I heard of this opening in Panjim, Goa and jumped at it despite a nearly 10% cut in pay. It wasn't like offers were pouring in given the terrible job market and the idea of tanned bodies, the beach and the sea just made me grab the offer,” says this openly gay 31-year-old. The Cuttack native estranged from his family after they reacted unpleasantly when he came out says it took him a while to find his feet at the new job since it is a completely different sector. “So I lay low. Just when I began to go back to Grindr (a gay hookup/dating app) to find hook-ups the Corona pandemic began making headlines.” After he was told he could work from home, he headed back to Mumbai where he feels “the gay scene is more happening.”
Among the lucky few who crossed state borders by road just before PM Narendra Modi announced the lockdown, he says his love-life has come to a standstill even in Mumbai. “The risk of getting infected is really bad and real. I know so many who have contracted the disease because of throwing caution to the wind. Also, most housing societies are not allowing outsiders yet. Even when they do they want all your details and that can be scary if you don't want to keep it quiet and not draw attention.”
Equal rights activist and one of the prominent voices of the gay community Harish Iyer laments how the lack of safe private places has hit the LGTBQIA+ community the worst due to the pandemic and the resultant lockdown and fears of infection. “Already we face jeers and discrimination and Covid 19 means we have gone back to the era of no place to do it. The pandemic has hit us hard,” he says and adds, “The pre-mobile open spaces the community had owned to cruise (like Maheshwari Udyan in Matunga or The Wall along the Apollo Bunder promenade in Mumbai) are now a thing of the past. Covid-19 restrictions on movement and congregation mean that one can't go back to using these public places to cruise.” He draws parallels with the community's protracted 71-year-long (since Independence) battle for reading down of Sec 377 which criminalised non-penile-vaginal sexual activity even among consenting adults. “One of the major contentions was that criminalisation pushes people further into the closet and the indulgence in high risk behaviour goes up. This was directly translating into the rise in sexually trasmitted diseases including HIV infection.”
According to Iyer, Covid-19 is creating a parallel situation. “While most want to stay safe, some members in the gay community are tired of this enforced abstention and desperately want to have sex. Such quickies often have safety low down on priority,” he says and adds, “With housing societies either not allowing entry to outsiders or being high on surveillance many seek places without assessing risks. The number of cases where a hook-up ends up as robbery (people are beaten up and taken to ATMs to withdraw money) or even gang-rape,” he points out and adds, “I have myself found people on Grindr asking me to come to some dark maidan for sex. Though I know not to fall for such traps, unfortunately, some do.”
Vedika and David are not alone. There are many (especially of a certain vintage) caught in the same boat as one of humanity's biggest health challenge has also ended up shutting several doors that technology had opened up admit experts like Professor Lakshmi Lingam who heads the School of Media and Culture Studies at TISS. This leading Indian Gender Studies voice led a 2018 study with UNICEF India, to understand the psychosocial and socio-cultural impact of cell phones on adolescents, particularly the girl child. The study provides insights even as a debate ensues in the area of adolescents and young people in the digital space - looks at safety, surveillance, sexual and gender identity assertion, cyber patriarchy and the moral panic components of this impact. Professor Lingam should know. “While it is true there are concerns about the loss of agency the mobile phones and internet access had brought in its wake with many, especially youngsters exploring both the dating and hook-up space for casual sex if you compare this with the situation abroad things are still pretty conservative in India. While it is true that both young women and men wan to explore this space, when if push comes to shove they still want to back to the traditional paradigm of an arranged socially accepted marriage,” she says and explains, “The youth themselves are aware of this and often experience a certain trust deficit about each other when they meet through these dating apps and interact.”
She does admit that this sets the clock back for women in a largely patriarchal society. “In our study two years ago we had found that the reach of women to information and communications is changing. Coupled with information technologies, mobile phone technologies are likely to revolutionise social relations and interactions. Youth and particularly young women who were denied equal access to the outside world, who are one of the largest users form the group that with potential to redefine social norms, practices and beliefs and have a far-reaching impact on social structure. It is not for nothing that owning a mobile phone brings a sense of identity, personhood, privacy and freedom to women,” she says.
She further underlines how the same mobile revolution heralded by the markets and projected as hip, happening and sexy, the sexual revolution it brings in its wake has generally been viewed through moral anxieties and health implications. “This is important given that Indians (54% under 25 and over 70% under 35 years) form the 2nd largest mobile phone users in the world. The study said (in 2018) of the 371 million Indian smartphone users total about 50% of smartphone users are under age 25,” she explains and adds, “With the arrival of Covid-19 many of these moral anxieties and health implications become more accentuated. And no surprises that women are more often at the receiving end of the resultant censorship, considering their limited scope to explore this space even otherwise.”
What about the apps themselves? How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted the traffic on them? This writer reached out to the dating app Bumble which felt this has led to the dating scene transcending from the hook-up to something more meaningful. “The pandemic has changed the perception around online dating. Now with limited chances of meeting in real life, we have seen our Bumble community navigate these challenging times by continuing to seek more thoughtful conversations and meaningful connections,” said the communique from the app which added, “Our recent survey shows almost 70% of our Bumble community in India claims there is a change in their behaviour and attitude towards dating as compared to before the pandemic. 81% claim they are more open to taking their time getting to know someone. 78% of single Indians feel the need to trust their match before meeting them in real life—so, people are talking for longer periods of time, and having better quality chats, using our Voice Call and Video Chat features in the app. In fact, people in India are spending an average of 20 minutes on a video chat or voice call on Bumble.”
The communique also spoke of the team at Bumble being excited that women in India have now made the first move on Bumble over 15 million times and are sending twice the number of messages on Bumble compared to women in the rest of the world. It, however, cautioned all user of the app to look to medical experts and local authorities for guidance on meeting people in public during this time.
While attempts to get a formal response from the Grindr team which runs the popular gay social media dating website for gay men drew a blank, sources close to the team admitted concerns over reduced traffic. “While other apps may look at working on selling the meaningful longer interaction, let's admit that most users come to Grindr, looking for someone to have sex. And long periods of mere interaction does not help,” said a senior executive in Grindr's India team who admits “The reduced traffic has directly impacted our ad revenue.”
He reminds this writer of how despite the massive show of support for Narendra Modi in the run-up to the 2014 election, the same BJP - which had opposed any move to nullify Supreme Court's order re-criminalizing consensual sex among consenting adults, dealing a huge setback to any move to scrap or dilute Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) - thought nothing of placing a party ad on Grindr with the party's lotus symbol and their prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi's photograph asking for votes to stop price rise. “While we know what happened to that promise on inflation, it underlined how even a homophobic party like that took us seriously given our traffic numbers.”
He also lamented how the website is still to arrive at strategy on a post-Corona world. “Our resources still talk about STDs, HIV, PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis and even poppers but there is no word on Covid-19. And this virus is not going anywhere in a hurry. Given the characteristic of our community, it is a huge challenge to work around it. I hope this is addressed soon.”
(Vedika's name has been changed on request)