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Sex and the Olympics: cardboard sentiments

The history of the modern Olympics is full of drama about sex inside the Olympic Village. Did the Japanese really intend the cardboard beds to deter intimacy?

Recyclable cardboard beds and mattresses at the Tokyo Olympic village (AFP)

Last week a young girl I know got a scolding from her friend’s mother. The mother ambushed her and accused her of being mean to the other girl. Further enquiries revealed that said mother doesn’t allow her daughter to play with boys. The only way the young girl of my acquaintance could play with her bestie was if she too avoided boys when they played in the evenings.

In case you are wondering, both parties are eight years old. First I was astonished. Is surveillance of girls this young still going on? Then I kicked myself for being astonished. And as if to confirm that we continue to live in a world obsessed with control, news about the cardboard beds at the Tokyo Olympic Village reached me.

The history of the modern Olympics is full of astonishing human endeavour—the eviction of whole cities of the poor for beautification, pyrotechnic displays of skill, strength and speed, confusing logos, racism and beauty. It is also full of drama about sex inside the Olympic Village. Namely, organisers of one of the planet’s largest gatherings to celebrate the human body (and hypernationalism) get very stressed out about humans having sex. And each Olympics produces its own zeitgeist-y response.

In the late 1980s, HIV/AIDS was a major source of anxiety and instead of pretending abstinence was a real solution, the Seoul Olympics organisers took a deep breath and handed out condoms to athletes. Since then, condoms have been an Olympics tradition. Now, in 2021, we are pretending social distancing can be managed at the Olympics.

So Japan, the host nation, has been handing out condoms to athletes and telling them not to use them. Just take them back to your country, they said. Like a return present at an eight-year-old’s birthday party. I feel bad for the Japanese, having to give “the talk” to muscular superhumans from every country. Perhaps that’s what gave the cardboard beds in the Tokyo Olympic Village the reputation of being a chastity belt. The organisers say the cardboard beds are not meant to prevent bed-sharing. They are just ecologically sound and good for health in a pandemic. The athletes, meanwhile, are lying down and doing stand-up comedy. They are making jokes about bed-wetting. They are making viral videos bouncing on it. How do you say “laissez les bon temps rouler” in Japanese?

My psychology professor in college once got an unusually thoughtful response to the standard exam question—“what is sex determination?” Instead of the expected answer about genes and chromosomes, one 18-year-old had written earnestly: “When a boy is determined to have sex and a girl is determined to have sex, they will have sex. That is determination.”

Perfectly acceptable answer, since it was not very different from what I had in my economics textbooks at the same time. Q: What are the causes of India’s rising population? I swear to you one of the textbooks listed “lack of recreation” among a few dozen other ridiculous points. A friend tells me that when her uncle was a schoolchild, he answered the exam question “how to control the population” with, “don’t do bad things”. When interrogated later on about why he had responded that way, he said, “I thought only I knew about it.” Who could blame him? Economics is where you had the sex talk. Biology is where the teacher said, “You all know about it so we will go through it running.” (Going through it running. A potential Olympic sport.)

Did the Japanese really intend the cardboard beds to deter intimacy? That approach reminds me of another college classroom, where the students, studying Wuthering Heights, speculated about Heathcliff being the father of Cathy’s baby. One young woman piped up, saying: “Ma’am, he could not have been the father. They never met at night.”

This is essentially the same approach as one Bengaluru college famous back in the day for its science courses and separate staircases. Yes, one set for boys and one for girls. We never stopped giggling about it. Was it driven by deep paranoia or deep respect for the human ability to make out wherever possible?

Authorities in charge of parks and beaches and every other public space in India dream at night of separate staircases. Authorities in charge dream of shrinking the population of their enemies by fiat. And yet people make out in parks and on beaches, on the side of the road behind motorcycles, under extra-large umbrellas that can be bought right outside the maidan, in buses and on trains. It’s a crime there are no phone booths any more but of course today you can sext as if no one is watching, not even flying horses from Israel. It’s an astonishing human endeavour. And one you don’t have to wait four years for.

Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.

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