The Jain household can’t seem to wait to retire for the night after a long day and a light dinner. The hallway door is locked, the curtains drawn, the dining table cleared. Mr Jain’s old parents have taken their medicines and withdrawn to their room already—they sleep early—and now it’s light out for their grandkids too. Mr and Mrs Jain, in their mid-40s, heave a sigh of fond relief, give each other a knowing smile and finally yield to the imperceptible force that seems to be impelling them to move in a pre-ordained fashion.
The bedroom waits, already cooled by the air-conditioner. Finally, they have some time to call their own. Their own time and space…but also shared. Like those old boudoirs in Europe, from where scenes of an intimate and erotic nature were once captured by photographic lens for the delectation of a closed circle, these moments of private delight are sworn to be semi-public.
For, miles away in another home, Mr and Mrs Sen are primed for play too. They have gone about a similar winding-up routine, outwardly mundane, almost stoic. But past visions have been rolling before their mind’s eye, and they are feeling a bit warm in anticipation as they undress, lay down on their bed in the dimly lit room and wait for the smartphone to come alive.
Ping! The Jains are on the line. Also stark naked….
It’s the IMO video calling app. The couples—both married for over two decades, but well-kept—now go on air, sort of. You could call it the Jain and Sen Show. Except, they are the producers as well as sole consumers. For almost an hour, the couples live-stream their intimate moments for each other’s benefit. Finally sated, they murmur their good nights with a promise to be back for another visually shared bout of sex and drift off to sleep—exhausted but content.
What the Jains and the Sens did, or do occasionally for fun, is like the surplus voltage surge one gets at the end. Before that, underlying that, is a sudden torrent of water, gushing in, hitting everything in sight, changing everything familiar. To begin with, we are all neck-deep in a new ‘Cam Culture’. If ancient cultures left behind little grey potsherds for us to read and interpret their societies, we will leave behind millions of .JPEG and .MOV files, holding all our secrets and fantasies and Aadhaar card numbers.
And it’s changing the way we think and behave—this en masse digitalisation of our ‘selfs’, the way we now routinely record and transfer bits of ourselves into data. Our narcissism is not fulfilled by merely looking at the mirror: the mirror must click us. Each instant of our being must be rendered as a visual—and we feast on this endless collage ourselves. Selfies are shot by us, for us. The transition to video was a no-brainer. And now, the floodwaters are moving the turbines of society in even stranger ways. Sexuality too has been swallowed up by the digital hall of mirrors!
It’s nothing sinister—just that, within their safe spaces, couples are behaving like felines gone feral. The animal spirits of a ‘selfie sex’ cult have been loosed. Couples are recording themselves in the act, sometimes for a little deferred live show for themselves. Or making whoopee on live cam—conscious of its all-seeing eye and interacting with it—and live-streaming this to other couples, also in the throes of sex. Also, like them, getting off by simultaneously watching and being seen. Framed in an actor/spectator duality.
Old sexual mores were anyway dissolving in urban India—but this crosses a new rubicon. Selfie sex offers the known pleasures of plain-vanilla voyeurism, while at once trawling the deeper realms of exhibitionism. That’s the extra buzz. The old resort, pornography, had anyway spawned fatigue and boredom. Watching surgically enhanced actors faking it in endlessly mechanised—often degrading—ways had its limits. A lot of it veered towards the negative in humankind: misogyny, racism, communalism (see ‘Totem Weds Taboo). Not the ideal, authentic companion to those with an interest in pure sexuality. It’s this emptiness the new cult has come to fill.
So what happens to the old norms of intimacy? Relationships? Privacy? It’s all a little wind-blown. If Aadhaar has made the citizen fully transparent, phone cams are stripping the individual of all vestiges of introversion. All are naked in this confessional hamaam. Selfie sex is just the most advanced part of it: it’s avant-sex. Conservative norms were anyway made so as to receive periodic shocks.
How many couples have been smitten by the latest fad? It’s an impossible census to conduct. Those into it testify that their tribe is growing—indeed, your innocuous neighbour or that nerdy colleague could be a member. And what drives a couple to drop all inhibition and hold up intensely private moments to this curious half-light? Are they aware that live-streams could be recorded at the other end and may land on popular free porn sites like Xvideos and Pornhub? Most practitioners are digitally aware people, and know the perils—yet find something irresistible about the lure. Why?
The answer lies in a universal human trait: thrilling and preening to the idea of being watched, being desired. Some just happen to be more unabashed in its pursuit and are, in plain-speak, exhibitionistic.
Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan is a tad bothered by it, and says the drawing room and bedroom have merged as mental categories in India. “This is a frightening thing. Intimacy now is conspicuous consumption! And privacy is just about legal records…. The breakdown of norms would be what French sociologist Émile Durkheim would call the enemy of our society, whether it’s pornography or the everydayness of consuming the sexual act,” he says.
But there’s a significant difference between the two. Sex is the lowest common denominator in both, but their internal politics can be forged on impulses quite apart (see Paromita Vohra’s interview). Porn entered the Indian bedroom with the boxy VCR in the 1980s, migrated to the whirring CD player and laptop hard drive, and inundated the World Wide Web this century—multiple orgasms were now downloadable on a cellphone for free, bereft of novelty, banalised almost beyond repair. What the couples are giving themselves now is raw, and real.
For some couples, live-streaming sex—or camming, as it’s known—is bringing the breeze back to their swinging nights. Before they became “cammers”, the Jains and the Sens were active in Calcutta’s swinger circuit. Their weekly orgies stopped when the owners of the home where they partied sold the property and moved abroad. Finding a safe replacement wasn’t easy. That’s when they found refuge in online video calling platforms such as Skype, WhatsApp, IMO and Facebook. These social networks have revived their romps, albeit virtually. In a way, their scene is swinging again—despite the perils.
Social network Reddit has communities like IndiansGoneWild, where “Indians come out to play”. A casual scroll will lead to sub-forums: predominantly young users seeking kinky comments, asking Reddit users what they would “want to do to” them. A Google search can lead you to the American portal Chaturbate (a self-evident portmanteau word), one of the most popular camming sites along with LiveJasmin and BongaCams of Europe. Amazon’s Alexa service ranks Bongacams and Livejasmin as the 11th and 15th most-visited websites in India, above Instagram and Hotstar. Your uncle in Nagpur may pretend to be shocked, but there’s obviously a rutting elephant in the room.
Some do it for…money. Chaturbate allows users to live-stream sexual acts; viewers pay to watch. Registered users get tips. The website reportedly takes home 40 per cent of the earnings. The pay, along with the perks, is a lure. Media reports suggest an Indian couple made Rs 15 lakh a month via camming. It’s hard to verify: the transactions are a well-guarded secret.
Most are not in it for the money. It’s a pure condiment to spice up what could be a boring life. Take Mrs Kutty of Kochi—a homemaker who slips into a different role after sending her medical-student daughter to college and bureaucrat husband to office every morning. She takes risqué selfies on her cellphone, posts them on closed online forums, and gets inundated with a stream of smutty comments and upvotes that motivate her to return with more pictures. Mrs Kutty is discreet about posting pics showing her face. Her full self is offered only to a select group she feels comfortable with. The thought of these images reaching unsuspecting relatives leaves her mortified, naturally.
Exhibitionism is integral to the animal world’s mating rituals: right from the lion’s mane to the peacock’s dance. Modern humans follow strictures against public display of carnal intimacy. There have been exceptions: so-called renegades and advocates of sexual freedom, revelling in transgressive acts such as group sex and spouse-swapping. The laissez faire spirit seems to be spreading in the digital world, as many initiates testify.
“I had this bug of documenting everything. The first time I recorded myself having sex was over five years ago,” says Abhimanyu Agrawal, a 29-year-old photographer in Delhi. “My partner was fine with it, but we deleted the video later..... It makes you feel good about yourself, about your body. Even if it’s a bad video, you feel you’re looking good.”
Gaurav Shekhar, a 31-year-old data analyst from Gurgaon, and wife Shruti were apprehensive when they recorded the first time around two years ago. Shruti says it was awkward watching that footage, but the inhibitions disappear progressively. “We weren’t conscious of the camera’s presence later. We were sort of in the moment,” Shekhar chips in. “We looked like shaven boars the first time, but got used to it!”
People always remember the first recording. “My first experience was when I was 21,” recalls Priya, a 23-year-old graphic designer. “It was like you are in possession of some national secret!” For Shashank, a 27-year-old business development manager, it was a secret fantasy that got fulfilled in 2017. Harsh, 27, a marketing professional in Bangalore, did it seven years ago with his girlfriend in college. “In the middle of it you don’t care if the camera is on or off,” he proffers. Shayan, also a marketing man, shot his first video as a 25-year-old student, thinking it would be “fun to look at after the deed”. But he was camera-conscious, he confesses. He wanted “to look extra good”.
Of course, all this is illegal in India. Live-streaming of sex is a crime. The IT Act’s Section 67(A), amended in 2008, states that whoever publishes or transmits in electronic form any sexually explicit material “shall be punished on first conviction with imprisonment” of up to five years and fined up to Rs 10 lakh. Another good reason for Mrs Kutty to camouflage her face. Sexual rights campaigners spy here the nanny state’s unbearable presence, but nobody denies digital porn’s dark underside: exploitation, especially of children and vulnerable women. A new kind of “child slavery” is sweeping through several Asian nations such as the Philippines, where UNICEF has found poor families pushing their children into performing live sex online for paedophiles around the globe.
“It’s fine as long as people record for themselves with privacy checks and are discreet about the data in their possession. The moment you share it, you commit an offence,” says cybercrime investigator Anup Giridhar. That’s a bit analogous to the exemption for “personal consumption” in the case of marijuana.
But the internet’s frontiers are lawless, and it’s in the nature of data to flow. In 2015, hackers leaked data from extramarital dating app Ashley Madison, and over 1,20,000 Indians were on it, with Delhi and Mumbai registering just a shade under 70,000 users, Bangalore Mirror reported. Gleeden, a French extramarital dating app launched last year, says it already has 2,80,000 Indian users.
Look up any Indian porn site (if you must). There are dozens of videos of camming couples, whose live videos were recorded in breach of trust and uploaded on these portals. It has ruined relationships and triggered court battles, like in September 2017 when a couple’s FB Live sex video attained virality. FB Live? Really? The woman, a textile showroom employee, alleged she was not aware her partner was broadcasting live. The man was arrested. The greyness that surrounds consent in these cases recalls the MMS scandals of a decade and half ago.
Giridhar recalls a case where a couple had to migrate to Australia out of humiliation after their videos were leaked. Some cases were plain dangerous. A woman seen “exercising” live online apparently invited a professor in Manipur to repeat what she was doing and live-stream it back to her. The ransom calls didn’t take long coming. The police tracked down the women who were allegedly luring men at the behest of a gang. “They said they were hired for the job, and that their families would be in danger if they didn’t do as instructed,” the officer says.
Unlike most people Outlook spoke to, Agrawal had no hang-ups about revealing his real name, but fretted when told someone could join the dots and trace his former partner, leading to privacy issues. Agrawal insists he always seeks his partner’s consent. How frequent is a yes? “Depends from person to person, though people have become more open.” He’s extra cautious too, and always uses Bluetooth or a hard disk to transfer files. “I even keep my phone disconnected from the internet while recording,” he adds. Agrawal has had a bitter breakup going horribly wrong too. “She sent me e-mails and accused me of rape just to guilt-trip me into going back to her. The element of consent is hard to gauge in videos. You can edit the audio and make it look like something wrong. That fear is always there,” he says.
“I delete the videos after a while; the phone can be stolen every second day,” says Shashank. Ruhi , 27, and her ex-boyfriend, a colleague, take full care. “We didn’t really enjoy watching the videos, hence never kept them. In fact, it was gross and we’d judge ourselves; positions, expressions…” she says. What they are transacting with is not fantasy, but hard reality.
Filmmaker Q, who shot to fame in 2010 with the deliberately outre Gandu, was 30 when he made his first personal selfie sex video. Now 43, Q insists it’s not all narcissistic. Capturing the moment, documenting reality…“it becomes academic for me, rather than sexual” (see interview). Indeed, he used bits from that footage in Love In India (2009). Those hazy frontiers between the self and the other is what sex dissolves anyway. A filmed moment only helps that process along, for a lot of people out there.