Setting the mood for safe sex

SUN JOURNAL

AIDS: An Indian doctor is teaching prostitutes the Kama Sutra on the theory that better seduction puts them at less risk.

January 26, 2004|By Paul Watson | Paul Watson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CALCUTTA, India -- On a recent visit to one of this city's 20,000 prostitutes, the doctor offered a few pointers on escaping India's raging AIDS epidemic, beginning with the boudoir's most essential equipment.

For one, her bed was 6 inches too high, he said. He sat against the edge of the mattress, feet flat on the floor, to demonstrate the optimum height. And the walls were the wrong shade of pink. Too hot.

He liked the placement of the television, high in a corner overlooking the bed, and the radio on the windowsill, blaring Hindi film music.

"Audiovisual aids are helpful," said Dr. Sachchidananda Sarkar, 49, who heads the government's efforts to control AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in India's West Bengal state.

While most physicians would regard such details as matters of personal preference, Sarkar thinks they may be key to preventing the spread of AIDS.

Sarkar takes his inspiration from ancient Indian texts, particularly the Kama Sutra, tweaking the guide to erotic pleasures according to his extensive fieldwork and research in Calcutta's red-light districts.

For some 1,600 years, couples have turned to the Kama Sutra as a guide to sexual satisfaction. With 5 million Indians infected with HIV, Sarkar hopes the Sanskrit text holds the secret to making prostitution safer.

According to the doctor's theory, prostitutes can put customers in the right mood with dancing, singing and yoga, perhaps resulting in shorter and more protected intercourse. Sarkar thinks shorter sex reduces the risk of injuries to the skin that can spread the HIV virus.

A client seduced with traditional entertainment, herbal oil massages and perhaps a little poetry is at least less likely to resist when a sex worker tells him to put on a condom, Sarkar said.

"If the irritation is not there, and they are being satisfied by the other techniques, then they will do it," he said. "That is my objective. How far I'll be successful, I don't know, but ultimately that is my idea."

Sarkar and a team of assistants, including a model, a beautician, a social worker and a madam, began spreading the virtues of Kama Sutra sex in Calcutta in mid-August.

About 20 prostitutes have joined Sarkar's free six-month course, he said. They meet for two classes a week and receive instruction in the brothels, sometimes with the help of volunteer clients.

"This project makes us safe, and clients happy, so it has a dual purpose," said Rakhi Biswas, 39, a prostitute and madam supervising a few other prostitutes. She is also helping Sarkar teach other sex workers and study the results.

Sex and AIDS are sensitive topics, but Biswas said prostitutes and their clients pay attention when they hear "Kama Sutra," because it comes from their culture.

Although prostitution is illegal in India, it is widely tolerated, and Calcutta claims the country's biggest flesh trade. The city has at least 11 red-light districts. The largest, with about 9,000 prostitutes, is Sonagachhi, a teeming warren where children play in the streets while their mothers tend to clients upstairs.

Men sipping bottles of rice beer wait their turn while gambling in curbside card games or watching television sets propped on crates.

Sarkar and his team walk dark stairwells that reek of urine to offer instruction in the rat-infested brothels, in rooms that double as home and work space.

Much of the doctor's advice is better left to the imagination, but it includes yoga exercises to strengthen muscles, and the suggestion that men are better seduced from behind, with back rubs that can induce ecstasy.

On his visit to Chanda Dey, 30, Sarkar offered suggestions about her mattress height and the color of the walls. He also told her that men are powerfully aroused at the sight of a red paste called alta smeared around the soft, pale edges of a woman's foot. Dey nodded enthusiastically.

Any benefits of Sarkar's efforts are so far small. At least 300,000 Indians were infected with HIV in the past year -- about 6 percent of the estimated number of new infections globally, the United Nations reported late last year. Only South Africa has more people suffering from the disease.

Dr. Kenneth Wind-Andersen, a Dane who heads the India program of UNAIDS, said that experts think AIDS prevention methods should be adapted to local customs and that Sarkar may have found an effective way to reach Indian prostitutes.

Though the United Nations wants to see more evidence that Sarkar's techniques get results before directly supporting them, Wind-Andersen said they are worth a try -- and a thorough assessment. "HIV/AIDS is so threatening that we should probably look at as many ways as we can, and not wait to get everything validated," he said from New Delhi.

Sarkar has been doing AIDS prevention work for more than seven years. As West Bengal state's condom program officer, he is a proud innovator.

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