Paromita Vohra is a filmmaker and writer associated with the much-acclaimed Khamosh Pani. She is working on Agents of Ishq, a multimedia project about love, sex and desire. She spoke with Outlook’s Siddhartha Mishra on themes of sexuality in India, the effect patriarchy has on it, why there is liberation in folks filming themselves having sex and the associations we make with commercial porn.
How do sex and sexuality play themselves out in a patriarchal society like India?
It’s not just Indian society; most societies think about sex as a concept more than an activity. Concept and activity become intertwined, they impact each other. From my experiences on Agents of Ishq and a long engagement with the themes of sex, love and desire I see parallel narratives in sexual culture. The blanket narrative—one projected by patriarchy but also certain market processes—is based on peno-vaginal intercourse. People use penetrative intercourse and sex interchangeably. The idea of the entire universe of sex, love, lust, kissing, longing, cuddling, love and affection and the many ways in which human beings interact is reduced to one act.
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This narrow definition of sex is boxed in to being something that counts or has validity only when it happens inside of marriage. Thus, every other sexual desire is invalidated, marginalised or made into a source of hesitation, doubt or shame. So you have people being shamed for having sex outside marriage. Queer people for being bisexual or gay or lesbian. Young people shamed for masturbating, shamed for having crushes. There have been instances of teachers punishing students for expressing attraction, hugging their friends and so on.
Our entire sexual selves, all sexual feelings, are under constant scrutiny and judgement by certain elements of culture. The idea is that sex only happens at the genitals reduces sex to that narrative. You may have heard people saying ‘He only wants that’, as if to say women don’t want sex. All sexual desire is centralised in the heterosexual male. Even that is only one form of desire—conquest driven, numerical—any other form of tenderness or sexual intimacy is discouraged. Women are talked about as if they don’t want it and if they do they must control themselves somehow. The world is portrayed as a sexual threat to women; they are expected to internalise this idea and protect themselves from being seen in any kind of sexual light.
This kind of idea that feelings are on a higher plane and that the body isn’t is not true. It’s tied to the idea of controlling us emotionally and at a gender, caste and class level. However, the more you try and control desire, it tends to push through boundaries, despite shame or guilt.
Why is sexuality not ‘mainstream’ despite the coming of the liberation that is the internet?
How do we decide what is the mainstream narrative? The mainstream conforms to patriarchy and capitalism, so it is pointless to continue to define that. On Agents of Ishq, once we started telling people’s stories, many others wrote in, wanting to tell their stories. And those stories point to a far more complex reality than the so-called mainstream is capable or structured to see. People wish to celebrate their bodies, their experiences, they want to find space, a world that tells them it is okay to be that way. This need is physical, emotional, intellectual, social and political. The need to share it is also strong; it is a celebration of one’s lived wisdom, a search for confirmation that they are not alone like this. I don’t think we are ever what the so-called mainstream says we are. Each journey is different and has to be respected as valid—as long as we don’t violate other people’s consent. To say that you shouldn’t have sex, or that sex the way you like it, with whom you like it is wrong, is the biggest violation of consent.
We have thus grown up confused about sex. However, I do think society is changing. When people push to have their desires acknowledged, laws change, practices change and eventually, perspectives change. What is ‘normal’ undergoes a shift. Look at the laws and the changes in the marriage acts over time. Take the example of Hadia, her fight to choose religious identity and a marriage of choice.
We tend to categorise exhibitionism as porn. Is that fair?
One person’s porn is another person’s erotica. I wrote a story in a collection of erotica once which had explicit sex in it. Some loved it and said ‘thank you for writing this, it was so pleasurable to read’, while others said it was porn, like I did a bad thing. So the definition of porn is random, and shot through with the idea that pornography is wrong.
Porn fuels technological change, even algorithms learn a lot about us through it. Many porn categories like ‘anal’, which were marginalised, are now common categories. Of course, this also impacts what we see as normal, because we are seeing it more commonly. To say that porn is bad simplifies the issues to the point that it becomes harmful. Nobody really knows the difference porn and erotica. We categorise it to feed our idea of a virtuous, higher self. Commercially produced, ‘mainstream’ porn is often misogynistic, violent and not always strong on consent.
Given the impossibility of clear definitions, we need to agree that it is not sex or type of sex we should use to determine if something is okay—it is consent. If porn depicts consensuality, is produced without exploiting its workers’ rights and does not feature those who are not in a position to give consent (for instance, children) that would be a valid critique. The fact that porn is about sex is not a critique one can take seriously, no?
What have been your observations, interacting with folks who film themselves or put themselves in front of the camera?
Patriarchy, the market, the government with its desire for UIDs and digital intervention scrutinise us against our desire and consent. When people film themselves, they find it liberating and joyful. It is so happy, sweet and tender. It is their privacy that they choose to share, to find communities like themselves. Some people will feel this should be ‘private’. What does that mean? Privacy means that part of our lives that we decide to share or not share at our will. If there are people who wish to share their intimacy, that is their private choice. The only real question even there is whether those within that sexual act are consenting to being in it and to it being shared online or in any other way.
The only sex education people get to see is Western commercial porn. People have got used to seeing unreal breasts, unreal bodies, penis sizes, the time of the sexual act and its fragmentations. While it’s fine as entertainment perhaps, it is muddling if they think that’s how sex really is. It creates a mechanistic, disconnected, fragmented relationship to sex, in the absence of any other narratives or depictions of sex in media and culture. It also creates a feeling of inadequacy.
But, people filming themselves is, in a sense, a celebration of the sexual act and of the miracle of the human body. Imagine—we are blessed with a body full of nerve endings and minds that imagine infinite desires. Here are those desires as people actually live them out—not as other people tell you they are. It may not be to your taste and that’s fine, you should choose something else that arouses you, not stigmatise those who choose this. The violent gaze of some commerical porn can only be countered through lived sexuality.