Indian women have finally started talking about sex, pleasure and their bodies, though society still doesn’t expect it from ‘classy’ women.
Your body is not a temple,
Neither sacred nor holy
It’s a graveyard of societal conventions
Tombstones inscribed with centuries of shame
Of being told that
Being sexual is a bad thing, haha
(From Right to Pleasure by Priya Malik)
Pleasure is a simple word. For one gender, the two syllables loudly translate into satisfaction and enjoyment and for the rest, ‘pleasure’ is a hush-hush or non-existent concept. Not anymore. In a country where sexuality, for years, has been a taboo topic for women, whose body is not meant to be explored as part of ‘preserving her sacredness’ for the man she weds and beds, this is a time of revolution. More women have started breaking the taboo, discussing sexuality, prompting others to open up about their bodies, feelings, sexual preferences and every single hushed idea that has been stuffed behind the doors, away from discourses. Through art works, slam poetry, Instagram pages, Facebook posts, photography exhibitions, theatre and any available tool, women are loudly resuming conversations about their desires, rights and needs revolving their body and sexuality.
Induviduality, an Instagram page managed by Bengaluru-based Indu Harikumar, an artist and storyteller, focuses on crowdsourced art projects around sex, sexuality, body positivity and relationships. In her latest project Identitty, she collects personal stories and photos of nude or decorated bosoms from volunteers who suggest the background of the works. One such story, of a woman with enormous breasts, reads: It’s taken so much time to stop thinking adverse to my breasts, to accept them, and to love them, as a gift given to me by nature. And what helped me were my cats. They just love to cuddle up on my stomach, with their head on my breast. Like a pillow. The essence of liking my breast has become so simple and pure and innocent, that I cannot hate them anymore. (They wanted to be drawn in a field of flowers. With a calico cat.)
And Indu’s art work depicts a faceless woman, with a cat on her lap, an arm covering her nipples, taking a selfie. Indu says the intimate space of Instagram stories and the trust of her readers led her to tread paths she, otherwise, wouldn’t think of treading. She recalls, “Over the years of doing content around sex, sexuality and relationships, I have asked readers on Instagram several questions around taboo subjects; their willingness to be open has given me a lot of encouragement. The idea of Identitty started from a conversation with a reader about what it meant to be flat-chested, the name calling, feeling undesirable and even being told what-will-you-give-your-husband and what men and society thought of our bodies.”
The reception has been very positive. While women confess that they feel less alone, men have been telling her that now they have access to women’s struggles.
Kaviya Ilango’s art project #100daysofdirtylaundry is about constructed alternate identities projected through the rose-tinted glasses of social media, and it sheds light on the taboos of the generation — issues with relationships, sexuality, materialism and love-hate relationships with our bodies. The struggle to break out of social conditioning, she says, is very hard. “The narrative around sexuality has long been dominated by privileged heterosexual men and as the cliché goes, nobody knows ‘what women want’, including women themselves. Women taking control of the narrative is what’s needed in the first place, be it in mainstream media or alternate media like arts, poetry, etc. Some examples that come to mind where females owning the narrative have brought up difficult conversations around sexuality — like Zoya Akhtar, Alankrita Shrivastava, and Reema Kagti (Lipstick Under My Burqa, Lust Stories and Made in Heaven) — in mainstream. Art has always been a powerful medium to question such taboos; I personally love how @Induviduality’s projects like #Identitty or #100Indiantindertales have everyday women using social media to claim conversations around their sexuality and desires, how important Richa Kaul Padte’s book on Rethinking Pornography was to initiate difficult but necessary debates around the porn industry,” Kaviya observes.
The Indian context has always been peculiar. While the pornography industry runs on objectification of women and most of its content is meant to gratify male sexual fantasies, most women are still trained to preserve their 'sacredness' and taught against exploring their body. Kaviya says, “In India, there has always been a clear demarcation between the ‘supposed’ two types of women — the demure but classy damsel-in-distress at one end and the assertive sexually-liberated vixen at the other. The mainstream media has only gone to reiterate this stereotype innumerous times. But, what if a woman is both? Isn’t sexuality an inherent part of any human? Why does respectability and sexual-liberation have to exclusive of one another? This problematic black-and-white gaze of labelling women needs to change first. Pornography in some ways is sexually liberating for a lot of people, but in many ways the portrayals are extremely problematic. But, first women need to acknowledge that sexuality is a part of our lives. Demystification of pornography is essential to initiate conversations around the porn industry. We have a long way to go in India before we can look up for alternatives to mainstream porn that will take cognisance of the oft-ignored sections like female pleasure, trans and queer desires, body positive porn, differently-abled sexuality, etc.”
Let’s Talk Sex
Other than art and culture, there are regular discourses happening on sexuality. Like the ones hosted by Pallavi Barnwal, a sexuality expressionist, author-columnist, and founder of RedWomb, a content platform specialising in open, uninhibited talks of sexual pleasure. Her monthly meet-ups help men and women embrace their vulnerability and sexuality in a safe, compassionate space.
Pallavi, who, through her relationships, realised that never did society discuss the importance of sex is marital bliss and never considered it as something indispensable, did a research on the problems she faced, during which she came to the inference that sexual suppression is amassing a cornucopia of problems. “And that’s how I decided to become a sex educator. I conduct monthly ‘Tongue Tied’ invite-only, closed group, private gatherings where men and women talk their hearts out on their sexual and intimate problems in their relationships. There are men who have to fantasise about another women to orgasm with their regular partner and are feeling guilty about it; but fantasies are nothing to be ashamed of. Fantasies are a rich, creative imagination that asserts your individuality and open expression. Sex is a force that needs this expression to thrive, but our monogamous culture expects couples to insist on the till-death-do-us-apart notion of love that unfortunately doesn’t spice up their sex life,” she says.
Despite being one of the most populous countries in the world, India is where everyone is tight-lipped about sexual wellness. “Sexual liberation has become synonymous with sexual exploitation as young girls in their teens frequent love hotels with men in their 30s and 40s. This is happening because parents refuse to acknowledge the sexuality of their children, which makes young adults prone to sexual exploitation. As a female sexuality educator I have faced a strong assault from men who immediately presumed that a woman talking about sex would also be inclined to have sex. I have faced resistance from women whenever I tried to create a healthy debate on traditional institutions like marriage and monogamy.
Sexuality, Pallavi observes, is a natural desire which had been stifled for long under the moral code of conduct. “What we are experiencing now is a freedom of expression. Sexual energy is a creative energy; orgasm is the highest form of energy our body can experience. Every person is different in terms of their sexual choices, partner preferences, sexual behaviours, yet we all are tongue-tied about such a core and essential need. In India most small town and rural couples still do sex in missionary position because they know no other way. The varied sources of expression (art, architecture, dance, poetry, photographs, social media) to embrace one’s sexuality is only a testament of how rich, individual, and multi-layered a person’s sexuality is,” notes Pallavi.
Bare it all
Roshini Kumar, a fashion photographer, influencer and art activist, explores different creative concepts which address issues like body image, gender roles, sexual freedom, etc. Her Bare series, that revolves around body positivity and features volunteers, is a dedication to the human body in its purest form. She says, “It showcases all the flaws as they are, at the same time making people realise how they need to start embracing their ‘flawed’ bodies and become comfortable with them. The people are the ones I knew and met through mutual friends and also those who applied to be part of it. Just seeing how this series has helped many people get over their body issues frankly lets me sleep better at night.”
Roshini was barely 15 when she realised that there’s no need to please people or society and just embracing oneself is the only way to be happy. She sees the patriarchy-smashing trend among women as one of the best things ever. “India needs this. Our society has made women suppress so much that it affects our whole life. Women should have just as much say in opening up about sex as men do. We ourselves have degraded the act and made it a ‘bad’ thing resulting in so much negativity,” she feels.
Exploring our own body is a fundamental right, Roshini observes. “It’s natural and nothing unholy. When women start learning, owning up to, opening up to and talking about masturbation, porn and sex in general can a society of equal rights of expression in any form created. Expressing these taboos through different means is a movement in itself,” she adds.
Word Power made easy
Priya Malik, former Bigg Boss contestant known for her hard-hitting slam poems like Right to Pleasure and Swipe Right for Choice, storytelling and her own show on political and social issues, believes that words can change the world when used with utmost conviction and power. Glad that her art could at least in a small way bring about a change in mindset, Priya says she has always been a rebel. “I always strived to break away from societal norms, even as a child, and that translated into my adulthood as well. However, now, instead of myself, I’m in a battle with what’s not right in the world. My family, although initially reluctant, grew into supporting who I was becoming,” she recalls.
It’s time women opened up, she says. “We are taught from a very young age that our bodies are an object of shame. Even subtle things like asking us to sit with our legs closed, making us wear loose clothes during puberty and eventually pointing out if our bra straps are visible and not resorting to any such shaming to boys, screams out the need for women to be comfortable and open about their sexuality and not treat it as invisible or demeaning. We need to talk about masturbation with our children and introduce sex positive education in our school curriculum. The voices of women talking about sexuality have been there for a very long time, but in the olden days, they were suppressed, now all the voices – of all sections, women from Dalit and Adivasi communities and people from LGBTQ communities – are here to stay and exemplify.”
Padma Deva, a UK-based tantric surrogate is one of the most experienced experts on surrogacy and sexual healing worldwide. Practising the controversial sexual surrogacy by helping people who experience functional issues, sexual trauma and do not know where to turn to get effective practical knowledge and experience, Padma has worked with a number of Indian clients. On her rule-breaking profession of being a sexual surrogate, she says, “Sometimes a radical break is easier than trying to slightly change century old conditioning gradually. Through my career choice, I certainly no longer fit into the established mould of my masters-educated, affluent middle class upbringing. Whilst to some extent I had to sacrifice belonging to what was, it gave me the unique opportunity to create a completely new life that really suited me. It is a powerful and beautiful choice, but not for the faint-hearted.”
Padma compares the practice in India where women are forbidden from exploring their bodies to the Mary/Magdalene complex. “It’s a tricky situation for women. If we are pure and untouched, we are respected, but kept in a small, rigid box. If we are sexually alive and expressive we are desired but often not respected. This dilemma often asks women to choose between two essential aspects of themselves, when we need all aspects to find true fulfilment. It is the judgment of sexuality as something dirty or unclean that has created this paradoxical situation. Remembering sexuality as something sacred and beautiful is the first step to freeing both men and women to be who they are and truly meet in beauty,” she says.
Female sexuality, Padma stresses, is an incredible force, which is deeply connected to her emotions. “When a woman truly taps into her desires and embraces pleasure, sensuality and ecstasy, she becomes supremely attractive and powerful, like a goddess. This can be intimidating to a man, who has not yet found his own true center. Objectifying a woman reduces her complexity and makes her therefore more manageable. Currently porn is one of the main tools for sex education for many, even though it has very little to do with real life interactions. Most women need presence, connection, sensuality, seduction rather than visual stimulation, skills which are not taught or shown to men. Once we approach sexuality and relationship as a meditation by bringing our conscious awareness to our desires, sensations and emotions, we can truly transform poison into nectar,” Padma sums up.
Undo the taboo
The recent menstruation festival in Kerala titled Arppo Arthavam! (Hurray Menses!) was a political answer to ban on women entry in a temple for ‘impurity concerns’. The festival saw an inspiring turnout of persons from all genders, who took out a rally and celebrated the festival with songs, discussions and performances around menstruation. The venue entrance was controversially designed in the shape of a vagina, drawing more attention to the unconventional get-together.
Mini T.B., a lawyer and one of the organisers of Hurray Menses!, sees attempts like these as a huge social change, “The biggest achievement brought about by this festival is that the new generation has started contradicting their earlier generation’s misconceptions. Parents and kids have started discussing taboo topic like menstruation and sexuality. It’s high time people understand that sex has no connection with morality. It’s a biological need and natural activity.”
However, Mini begs to differ on the point that more women are opening up on their sexuality. “Honestly, I don’t think that the mindset of our people is changing. Just look at the longest-serving institution called marriage; are there healthy discussions on sexuality happening there? Love life is always a man’s requirement; does anyone care about what a woman wants? How do we expect equality to thrive in a family where partners do not even know what the other person wants,” she asks.
Toy the steamy idea
Interestingly, post the release of movies like Lust Stories and Veere Di Wedding, where female characters were seen using vibrators, the sales of sex toys have surged among Indian women. Raj Armani, co-founder of IMbesharam.com, a seven-year-old adult store, vouches, “Lust Stories and Veere Di Wedding are two great examples of society’s state of mind. On the day of the release of Lust Stories, the smart remote-controlled vibrator used in it was sold out!”
Earlier, e-commerce websites used to sell sex toys in the pretext of ‘eye massager’ and ‘neck massager’, but now, full-fledged sexual health and wellness websites cater to the needs of people who are looking for female sex toys. “The market for dildos, vibrators, massagers, masturbators and wireless and remote-controlled toys has been huge but totally unexplored and untapped for years. From $200 mn in 2013, the adult toy market is estimated at over `2,500 crore in 2016. I can confidently say the adult toys market in India is well over Rs 10,000 crore as we speak. We have had a tremendous increase of women shoppers,” Raj states.
He is quite hopeful of the gradual opening up of Indian women to embrace their body and its needs, “This is nothing but the evolution of our Indian society, or if I may call it the re-evolution. Long before the modern era, Indian women were vocal and verbal of their needs. We read these in the Kamasutra and see this in pictorial forms in our temples and caves. So I believe it’s a matter of time when Indian women will take back the narration and write their own stories.”
As the founder of an adult e-commerce website, Raj confesses to have had his share of brickbats. “Eyebrow-raising, name shaming, moral policing debates came from all quarters, but so did adulations, encouragement, patronage and support from unexpected quarters. Close family members were the ones with the highest reservations, and I wouldn’t have expected any less knowing this from a very standard middle class upbringing.”
Vineshkumar Kunhiraman, Chief Marketing Officer at ThatsPersonal.com, says that ‘how to make Indians naughtier’ keeps him busy all the time. “Millennial women are very much open-minded and also well-connected thanks to the internet. Women now know that they can meet their pleasure needs with a sex toy instead of using a vegetable. Right to Pleasure and growth of the sex toy industry will be a viral movement in the coming years and it will grow together hand-in-hand,” he says.
Explaining how they become Indian-friendly, Vinesh says, “We have discreet vibrators and masturbators for men and women — vibrators in the shape of lipstick which women can easily hide from her family members and male toys that can also be used as a pen-stand.”
He also rules out any legal hindrance in the sale of sex toys, apparels, and ancillary sexual products. “These items are not banned for import or sale in India, but concern arises only in the manner in which these products are displayed and exhibited for sale in India. If any of these items are not advertised or displayed for sale using any obscene pictures, graphics or display mechanism, there is no legal concern on the sales,” he adds.
Raj sees it the other way, “I am glad people see the irony of the marketing gimmick we introduced a few years ago. Drafted in 1947, the law prohibits the sale and distribution of anything obscene; so we introduced a line of vibrators and massagers that looked like lipstick, mascara and neck massager. And we sold out of it in 30 days! Like legal hindrances, there are solutions and ways around it. We are also working on a petition to challenge this law and get a re-validation of it to conform to the current times. Time is ripe for a sexual revolution of its kind in India, to normalise sex just like food and wine, sun and shine. Hopefully we may start that by proposing to #LegaliseToys in India!”
That more women are opening up about sexuality is more than a trend. Indu says, “They make space for other women to introspect and accept their sexuality. Women’s bodies have always been controlled by society. Sacredness or respectably, this is something that women still fight to keep because most women know that if you don’t come across as respectable there is a fear of being violated. From the conversations that I have had, younger women are taking their pleasure in their own hands. Conversation is a great way for any change to happen.”
Kaviya, too, has been receiving messages from people all over the world on how relatable and necessary her project feels. “At the same time, I struggle to explain what the intent of my art is to my close family members who grew up in a different generation. But as the saying goes, art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. I have only one intention — the more unbiased, open conversations we have about dirty taboos, the more normalised these so-called taboo topics become and the more we will be able to address the underlying aspects and issues of such taboos.”
As Padma puts it, “Pleasure, conscious relationship, love, intimacy and fulfilling sexuality are the keys to help us tip the scales towards experiencing life as a beautiful gift. Awareness is always the first step towards choice and freedom.”
Sexuality is no longer hidden in the closet; it’s out in the open with persons from all genders talking about their bodies, love life, what they have and what they need. Sanctity is a deceptive myth; body, pleasure and rights are one’s own and no one else’s!