So, President Bill Clinton of the United States in all likelihood did invite Paula Jones to come into his office and in all likelihood did demand oral sex from her. She claims so, and the mainline American media, which earlier pooh-poohed the idea as a right-wing plot against a liberal president, is now coming around to take a second look at the evidence, which is apparently convincing. The law will take its course, as P.V. Narasimha Rao was fond of saying, in the United States, as elsewhere. Sex scandals are a regular feature of the media-eat-politician scenario that is developing the world over. What is different is that, earlier, news of peccadillos either never got printed by knowing newsmen (as with Kennedy and Marilyn or Nehru and Edwina), or even if it got out, the readership or viewership (in the case of television) was limited to a society which was already at ease with the kind of revelation a muckraking journalist comes up with—trysts with film stars, prostitutes, and Mata Haris.
What is different with Mr Clinton and Ms Jones is, firstly, the explicitness of the charge made on a sitting president, including the ability to identify bodily specifics. Secondly, it is the willingness of the media to carry the charges in all their barebone details. Thirdly, and this is what concerns us, is the ability and willingness of globalising and homogenising media (print, radio and television) to transfer this news to the far corners.
Let no one claim that South Asians are prudes. Diversionary (as in the case of oral sex), alternative (as in homosexuality), deviant (as in S&M) and criminal (as in paedophilia) sexual behaviour is without doubt prevalent here as well. But it would be safe to say that, overall, the mass of South Asian society is sexually conservative, and there are certain aspects of sexuality that are less common here as yet.
Even if elective sexual behaviour is widely prevalent in South Asian society, a social purdah keeps certain subjects out of general discourse. Many American schools, for example, regularly hold discussions on sexuality, sometimes among children not yet in their double-digit years. Whereas in South Asia´s more traditional peasantry and middle-class urban masses, a sizeable proportion of grooms and brides enter marriage without knowledge of the mechanics of the sex act.
So, the no-holds-barred discussion of gayhood, of paedophilia, of alleged sexual adventures of President Clinton, has hit South Asia like a muted thunderclap (muted, because there is not enough sociological discussion of the phenomenon). Newspapers in Hindi, Nepali, Bengali and other ´regional´ languages have had to search the far reaches of the lexicon to come up with terms like mukh maithun for oral sex, samalingi for homosexuality, and bal youn soshan, which is an unsatisfactory rendering for something as heinous as paedophilia.
All this talk is, of course, inevitable, and the open discussion on natural and unnatural human sexual leanings can only be for the better, whatever the catharsis of the moment. However, social scientists must begin to study the impact global media (first and foremost satellite television) is having upon village society when they are hit with the information that someone demanded oral sex of someone else.
The subject is not cultural imperialism, but cultural confusion. The mechanisms are not in place to put things in context and to explain to a newspaper-reading 13-year-old what it was that Bill Clinton allegedly asked Ms Jones to do. The usual arguments forwarded in such circumstances—that such sexual behaviour probably exists in Southern societies as well, or that we all have to learn some time—do not carry weight because this kind of discovery can be wrenching, with no counselling in sight.
Howsoever adaptable the human mind may be to new mores and methods, traditional societies are not equipped to take such change without something slipping, somewhere. Unfortunately, in South Asia as a whole, there is too little psycho-social preparation for the kind of information that the no-holds-barred information society makes available. With instant media, and a Westernised media elite in South Asia acting as the carriers of the message over to the larger mass, the time is just not there for preparation.
There is a time lag of decades between societies that are generating most of the news for international consumption and our millions who are presently receiving that news. There is no saying, therefore, where all this will lead, and we are loathe to propose any solutions. In South Asia, the audience as well as the media elite are united in their passive response to new media.
What all this means, also, is that South Asia´s diverse communities will become more and more superficially Westernised and increasingly like one another. With the advent, first, of the Archies teeny-bopper gift chain and then FM radio, Indian urban society has gone in with a rush for Valentine´s Day, which has now far outpaced Raksha Bandhan as an ´event´. This year, Kathmandu too, with its own FM radio, woke up to Valentine´s Day, and suddenly boyfriends seemed to have found girlfriends.
It all goes back to our subcontinent´s surprising inability to react collectively to the media challenge of the marketable West. One reason that the public´s challenge is muted might be that the commercial overseas channels have a monopoly over the airwaves targeting the whole region whereas we, the audience, are too fractured by region, linguistic ghettos and political boundaries to mount a potent protest against the way things are going.
As that is the case, why stop at Valentine´s Day? Since South Asia wants willy nilly to emulate the American new society, let´s celebrate Ground Hog Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving as well. By all means, let´s do Columbus Day to mark Christopher´s landing, even if he was not where he thought he was. Let the boyfriends, too, make girlfriends, as long as they know how to pace themselves.