Inside The New Website Revolutionizing Sex Talk In India
By Sukhada Tatke
Megha and Shakku do not mince their words as they deliberate consent. Comparing a woman’s sexual consent to the tangibility of money, Shakku says: “It’s not hard cash that I can put in your hand. These things have to be sensed.” During their eight-minute video, “The Amorous Adventures of Shakku and Megha in the Valley of Consent,” the two women explore the consent spectrum while performing the Maharashtrian traditional, erotic dance form of lavni.
“What if I feel neither yes, nor no, but something in between?” asks Megha. “What to say then?”
It is a conversation that India has been begging to have, particularly in the context of a rapidly-growing urban youth population juxtaposed with decidedly outdated ideas about sex and consent. This is exacerbated by social norms and legal precedents — India is a country where marital rape is legal, and where statistics reveal that 94% of rapes are committed by perpetrators known to the women.
“The Amorous Adventures of Shakku and Megha” is one of many pieces of content challenging these norms on the new multimedia website Agents of Ishq (AoI). The project — which includes content in India’s prevailing language, Hindi, as well as English — aims to “give sex a good name.” Conceptualized by filmmaker and writer Paromita Vohra, the portal is an organic extension of her longtime preoccupation with feminism, love, freedom, desire, gender, and equality. Diaphanously woven in is a strong feminist dialogue.
Vohra herself defies the coquettishness that characterizes many women involved in India’s entertainment industry. Her work, which spans over 25 years, has focused on urban life, popular culture, gender, politics, and art. Her documentary films have often served at the confluence of fiction and non-fiction, showcasing a reflective and nuanced tone. Her 2002 film, Unlimited Girls, for instance, explores how activists and academics, female cab drivers, bra-buying women, script-writing policemen, and various other characters in an imaginary chat room engage with feminism in their lives. Her 2006 film, Q2P, is an essay documentary about toilets and gender, in which Vohra compares the silence around toilets to the silence around inequality. Where’s Sandra? is a film about the sexual and ethnic stereotyping of Catholic girls in Mumbai who are often referred to as “Sandra from Bandra.”
Vohra is not new to engaging with women who tell their own stories. In Connected Hum Tum, a primetime TV series made by the creative team of Parodevi Pictures, founded by Vohra, six women who were at emotional crossroads recorded their private lives with a Handycam. At the end of the year and 65 themed episodes, the women arrived at life-altering decisions.
Like much of Vohra’s work, AoI’s foray into modern India six months ago has set the stage for a much-needed conversation about love and sex, notions of which are largely fashioned by Bollywood and porn, respectively — easily accessible at the click of a mouse. The ensuing disconnect between what is available on the internet and what could benefit people is gaping. And so, in India, which has nearly 400 million internet users — the second-largest number in the world after China — exploring sexuality online made sense to Vohra. “The internet has revolutionized sex, but we are mostly talking about it in terms of violence; it is always polarized. We never talk about sex in terms of eroticism and in a liberated way.”
AoI seeks to communicate the sexual innuendos and overtones that envelop a romantic relationship.The meaning of the hindi word ishq stands at the fine intersection of love, romance and desire. The website brings sex into the normal realm of conversations, presenting it as it is — a psychological, emotional, spiritual, even political experience that accompanies the physical act. And Vohra achieves this without being preachy, sardonic, or condescending, instead working closely with artists and sex educators to keep the tone light and playful.
After about six months of rigorous research, the AoI team developed nonjudgmental, inclusive content that plays out in a number of forms, from text stories and animated illustrations to podcasts, videos, and familiar pop-art memes. Features include delightful documentaries, a weekly playlist of sexy songs, masturbation myth busters, sexual etiquette advice, and information on contraception, safe sex, and sexually transmitted infections.
The site has surfaced as a place of diversity where people can talk openly about what are often difficult journeys in sexual self-discovery. The poem “The Princess and the O,” by 19-year-old Radhika Goyal, for instance, was written in the wake of her discovering the joys of orgasm. The poem traces the journey of a princess who cannot find satisfaction with her many suitors, until a climactic moment of epiphany: “‘God helps those who help themselves,’ said the voice. When you have fingers, why rely on boys?”
Rogue Hasina, meanwhile, relates her body-exploration journey in “The Flower of my Secret.” “The extent of my exploration has made me feel so good about myself and my body. And that’s what it means to be sexual — to realize what stimulates you mentally, see its connection with your body, and enjoy it in the most intimate way possible,” she says in an interview with The Establishment.
The relevance of the site lies in the fact that though there has been a rise in sexual freedom and casual sex in India, the act continues to be accompanied by the lingering shadow of shame. “Earlier, people were ashamed about admitting to being sexually active. But today, if you are not active sexually or haven’t tried numerous positions, you are not cool enough. Sex has become more about scoring than experiencing it for what it is,” says Vohra, who notes that this signals a cause of concern. Vohra bounces off ideas on love and sex in urban India in her popular weekly column, “How to Find Indian Love,” which appears in the newspaper Mumbai Mirror.
The timing of the portal also coincides with Indian women being ranked among the highest consumers of pornography (nearly three in 10 women), according to data released by the popular pornography network, PornHub. “Maximum knowledge about sex comes from porn, which is formatted around the conventional idea of masculine sexuality,” Vohra says.
The online space, Vohra believes, is mainly male-centric, with very little talk about how women perceive or feel about sex. This is despite the fact that, according to the 2016 sex survey carried out by the media house India Today, 80% of women said sex was very important in a relationship, a sharp increase from 66% in 2003.
“Women are still not as sexually confident, knowledgeable, or even relaxed as they should be,” Vohra says. A sobering reminder of women’s position in these sexual politics lies in the figures: In India, women buy more morning-after pills than men do condoms. “This shows that Indian women don’t have agency over their bodies yet,” Vohra says.
If AoI has tried to fill the void in a society built on a citadel of social traditions, cultural dogmas, and general taboos around sex — where couples are routinely harassed by uniformed as well as moral police — it has crystallized into a space that hosts an emerging collective of women’s voices discussing sex on their own terms, as they feel it, and not hinging on what they have been told by men.