In the 2015 Indian movie Masaan, a young couple in Varanasi, a small town in northern India famous for its Hindu temples, rents a room to get intimate. As is common in many parts of the country, cops raid the hotel and start to harass the lovers. The boy commits suicide immediately, while the woman’s father has to pay a hefty bribe to silence the policemen.
Scenes like this unfold in India not just on film, but in reality. Unmarried couples can be arrested for “public indecency.” Last year, Mumbai policemen arrested 40 couples from hotel rooms and called their parents.
India is still largely repressed when to comes to sex. While a survey found that a whopping 61% of Indian youths approved of premarital sex, and Tinder registered a 400% jump in downloads last year, many Indians still squirm when talking about physical pleasure. Two years back, India’s then health minister, Harshvardhan Singh, advocated banning sex education from schools. Thanks to these attitudes, sex education is generally missing from school curricula. A survey by India Today magazine showed that 91% of Indian teens don’t discuss sex with their parents. No wonder, Indians turn to porn to quench their carnal curiosities. According to Pornhub, the country is the third-largest consumer of its services, behind the U.S. and the U.K.
But, a new online platform is paving the way for a healthy discourse on this taboo topic. Helmed and created by Avani Parekh, who brings years of experience in the development sector, LoveDoctor was launched on Valentine’s Day, 2015. The service provides a panel of both paid and volunteer psychologists and counselors to field queries from users. Since LoveDoctor’s launch, it has received 47,000 queries. The questions cover a range of issues, from first-time sex to emotional attachment.
The platform attracts about 7,500 users a month, on Facebook, SMS, and Whatsapp. “Every day we’re talking to young people who are sharing their stories about heartbreak or clearing doubts about simple things like masturbation and things that have been made evil that are actually really beautiful,” says Parekh. “They feel supported and listened to.”
Parekh, who trained as a domestic violence counselor at an organization in North Carolina and later worked with microfinance startup Kiva, was inspired to start LoveDoctor after the 2012 gang rape in New Delhi that sparked worldwide outrage. Parekh was in India at the time, working with Operation Asha, a grassroots organization that provides tuberculosis treatment to the poor. “Everyone was talking about it,” she says. “It catalyzed so many people to take to the streets.”
Given India’s rape culture–100 cases are reported every day–conversations about sex are incredibly necessary, Parekh says. “Before talking about unhealthy sex and relationships in form of rape, where’s the conversation, where is the platform to talk about what is healthy and pleasurable and good?”
After Parekh launched a Snapchat helpline for violence, LoveDoctor experts fielded a lot of questions about abusive relationships. Here’s an example: “I did the right thing by leaving. But I’m plagued by the memories. How do I move on? How long will it take?”
Parekh says her experts start by recommending professional counseling in cases like this. Apart from that, “We tell them to begin to do the things they love and make them feel happy; the things they may have stopped doing,” she says. The crux of the message is that it’s not their fault and “they took a big step and are very brave by walking out of an abusive relationship.”
“We tell them that’s how the abuser breaks you down–making you lose your sense of self as a way to control. Moving on is about trusting yourself again,” says Parekh.
In a recent survey, three out of four Indians said they prefer arranged marriage for finding a life partner. In a culture where parents play matchmaker, individuals are still learning the ropes of the dating world. “Indian culture is very shy,” Parekh says. “We are super scared of putting ourselves out there. We still use barriers like Tinder. We can’t walk up to someone in a restaurant and say, ‘You’re really charismatic.’”
No wonder they receive so many questions like: “I like this girl a lot. How do I impress her?” Here’s what LoveDoctor experts advise: There is no magic formula. Parekh says: “We tell them attraction is based on energy and you have to feel you’re a good catch and worthy. So look and feel your best, whatever that means for you. Listen, ask thoughtful questions. Talk and share stories.”
Parekh says many Indian men think they have to act macho and “show themselves to be someone they are not because of a toxic idea of masculinity.” She adds: “So, we tell them to be themselves and realize the other person may be as nervous as you.”
LoveDoctor’s chat service is free, but people can request paid Skype counseling sessions; one session costs around $30. Parekh is also beta-testing a paid dating course and exploring a partnership with an online women’s platform that would help the website become self-sustaining. Currently, she is supporting the site out of family loans and consulting work.
Parekh knew LoveDoctor was making a difference when a young man sent them a picture of himself with a woman. He had been a client, asking for advice about a woman who he was scared to approach. Now, as the picture showed, they were together. LoveDoctor’s work there was done.