‘Sex in India’ is an ongoing series of interviews developed by The Sound Mumbai that will cover professionals trading in the “underground” world of sex. As the series progresses, the life stories of the people who work within the taboo field of sex across India will come to these pages. Join us for part two in the series as we continue to look at the impact this discourse has on gender dynamics and generational conflicts on the continent.
Sex in India: modern expressions of sex in the subcontinent
In our second interview of the Sex in India series we speak to Paromita Vohra, a film-maker, writer and the brain behind Agents of Ishq – a multimedia project about sex, love and desire in contemporary India.
Tell us what made you kick off your new project Agents of Ishq in December 2015
Agents of Ishq (love, passion) is a multimedia project conceptualized after many years of work around feminism, desire, gender and sex. In a way, the content covered by the project has always been part of my work, but the precise idea really formed around the time when there were a lot of comic videos being made about sex education and no sex education. At this point, I felt there were issues with whatever material on sex education and sexual morality was available online. The problem I have with this material is that it is very contemptuous. It makes fun of people for not knowing things rather than helping them to know something. It is always mocking somebody or the other. I personally don’t find the videos very amusing, but I also don’t know what use it is beyond that point. It’s not really satire. It’s just mockery.
I also feel that this online content represents only a male point of view on sex. It is very male-centric. We are not really talking about what women are feeling, what transgender people are feeling. We are not really talking about everyone’s experience of sex. On these platforms, we discuss sex in either terms of violence or in terms of scoring. In between these two poles, there is a huge, real sexual life. It is emotional; it is physical of course; it is psychological. There are all kinds of hesitations, doubts, confusions and there are also all kinds of choices. While researching for this project, I found that people’s lives are a lot more complex than what you get to see on social media, or even via traditional media.
Tell us more about the type of content of content you create Agents of Ishq
Agents of Ishq is an art and media project that is working with many independent professionals. Unlike many people who make stuff online because it tickles their fancy, we’ve just done it in a more systematic way. We have gone out and talked to people who are in the field and tried to understand how we can make something beautiful that would really help people such as sex educators, parents, activists, etc.
An example of material we create to make sex education real and fun is the film ‘Main Aur Meri Body’ (My Body and I) made with the kids in Dharavi (one of the biggest slums in Mumbai). Sex educators and teachers are in tears of gratitude because they had no material of this kind until now. They felt as they had nothing to show the kids and that sex education was just another boring subject. They are so grateful that they can use a fun and easy-going film for their work.
We also have podcasts of real stories on love and desire such as ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh’(What I felt after seeing that girl), and visual and written essays expressing relationship fantasies like ‘If Rani Mukerji Were Your Girlfriend: A Fantasy’. On the site, you can find short documentaries on what love means to young people, India kiss maps, dating guides and masturbation myth busters. We get many people writing to us in the SexEtt section of the Agents of Ishq website, where we post dating etiquette questions, while many others approach us for advice. We are not qualified to answer questions about various problems, so we normally refer them to professionals: sex educators, counselors, health practitioners, etc.
One of the important things for us was to make beautiful material because it’s important to see sex in an environment that is beautiful, warm, creative and energetic – a positive, friendly space which welcomes all and judges no one. So you will see that we have experimented with a number of forms – a text story with animated illustrations, a greeting card style fantasy as well as more familiar pop art memes.
Who writes to Agents of Ishq and why?
Mixed ranges of people get in touch with us because the site is both in Hindi and English. They probably write to us because there is still a sense of shame around the topic, and sources of information do not address issues in a respectful way. We’re getting letters and emails from people living in smaller cities such as Jodhpur, Ahmedabad, Howrah as well as metros like Mumbai and Delhi. Many articulate women who want to talk about different things get in touch with us and so do men who are not necessarily so alpha or mainstream cool. Ever since the site has gone up, it’s amazing the kind of people who are writing to us, and the kind of things they want to write about. There was a man who wrote to us saying he wanted to talk about why men don’t go down on their partners when their partners are on their period. He just seemed like a very regular person, with some regular job and not someone from the hipster community who thinks they have it all sorted out, and just want to tell other people what to think.
We also have had a lot of healthcare professionals and sex educators writing to us, saying: ‘It is so great that you are doing this. This is so needed’. We’ve even had such people writing to us from other countries! They are working on the ground with young people, and they really feel the need for this kind of material. Unfortunately, there is no firm policy on sex education in India. There is reproductive health subject part of the syllabus, which is taught in school, but a lot of teachers skip it. They just skip the chapter on human reproduction or they tell students you can learn the chapter at home. Recently, we did a Twitter chat asking people their sex-education memories from school. People have very funny stories about how they were not taught things or how they learned about sex-education. Especially in a pre-internet era, when you couldn’t get your hands on much material, people learned from really strange sources.
The interesting thing sex educators told us is that, in municipal schools that are servicing poorer kids, the environment is often much more relaxed. The more upper-class schools are very uncomfortable with running sex education classes. The need for sex education is probably more evident in municipal schools because poorer kids are living closer physically, due to the lack of space. The teachers and community-based organizations want to get whatever help they can so often they initiate bringing in sex educators to these schools.
You have been involved with different types of media in talking about on sex, love and desire in the past two decades, how have these topics changed over time?
Outwardly things have changed. One of the main changes has been the rise of sexual freedom. The idea that people are sexually active is much more common and also factually true. A lot more people are having sex. Pre-marriage, before marriage, whatever. But to tell the truth, I think what has changed is only the things to feel a sense of shame about. Shame has not gone away. Earlier people were ashamed about their sexual desires and maybe about being sexually active, in a way that was not the norm. But today there is a new norm. The norm is to be cool and sexually very active and, that’s the way to be. Therefore, if you are not like that or if you do not follow the new norm, you feel like you are not cool.
I think that speaking about sex in a scoring kind of way was not actually common among people. Only a small section of people used to talk like that, mainly the upper middle class. However, post liberalization middle classes have grown hugely and sexual behavior, as well as a particular lifestyle, now apply to a wider range of people in a way it applied to only a very few people in the old days. So what was once considered bohemian is now considered to be the norm. I do feel that a lot of people pretend to be sexually cool when actually they are not. Genuine openness about sex has not really happened. Not just in India but anywhere in the world.
Inwardly, things have not changed much. I am part of the first generation of women who in large numbers began to live alone, almost 15 years ago, but even statistics tell me that women are still not as sexually confident, or as sexually knowledgeable, or sexually relaxed the way they need to be. One-third the number of men use condoms as contraception compared to the number of women who are using the emergency pill as a contraceptive. It means that women don’t yet have agency over their bodies. Women in urban areas, women in a social or cultural setting like yours or mine, every woman says that men make a fuss about a condom. Women might be having sex in a blindly cool fashion, but it is not necessarily in a very thoughtful way. Often we do it without thinking whether this works for me or not, whether I am interested or not, if I am in the mood or not. Commoditization of sex allows people to talk about it as if they know all about it, but actually that is not the real experience they are having. I think that, reality of being able to speak about your sex life is very long way away – and in a sense it mirrors life, right? To be confident of exactly who we are as people requires a lot of thinking, talking, admitting to vulnerability, getting information, knowing yourself, challenging yourself and so on. Why would we imagine that this would not apply to one’s sex life? Sex is not just about having and not having, but rather how and why you are having or not having and this is the territory we as a project are interested in. Again, I feel this is true in the whole world and not only in India.
Where do you see Agents of Ishq going from here?
This is a project started by my production company Parodevi Pictures – which means myself and two other colleagues, Afrah Shafiq and Deepika Sharma and we collaborate with a number of media and arts professionals. We will continue to make more and more media that incorporates the actual experience of sex: the way that people are attracted to each other, the way that attraction is played out, the way people change their minds, get turned off, get turned on. Even the complicated interactions, we really want to mirror what happens in life instead of just giving some theoretical fundas (information). We don’t just want to be politically correct. We want to be politically useful.
We have a lot of people making art for us and we will be carrying different people’s erotic artwork on the website. An example of this is a post by a woman who draws male nudes. We recently made a film about consent. We’ve made it with Lavani dancers. Lavani is a very sexual, juicy and flirtatious kind of dance form. We don’t want to make a film about consent that is not taking into account the complicated layers of sexual interactions. Saying yes and no is really not enough to understand consent at one level. There is a very big spectrum of ‘maybe’ that people are not able to understand. Maybe can turn into yes, and maybe can turn into no. The idea that you can change your mind has to be worked into the discussion around consent. The Lavani dance is a really fun way to do this because it is very sexy and it celebrates the positiveness of sex. It also tells you that consent is a real thing that you have to understand.
In the near future, we are also planning to post a series of works around masturbation, STIs, safe sex, a small documentary about a trans girl who was born a boy but is making the transition with the support of her mother and an amazing school and a music video. There is so much exciting work ahead of us and we’re hoping also to make new partnerships and collaborations as we go!