Freeing Indian Women From The Shame Associated With Watching Pornography
In conversation with author Richa Kaul Padte on her thought-provoking book Cyber Sexy, we learn about unspoken-of worlds and emancipating tales
What was the impetus behind writing a book on porn?
Ever since two pornography bans were proposed in India in 2013, I wanted an Indian woman to write a book that talked about what porn and the internet meant for sexuality, and why they weren’t inherently bad for women. I spent at least a year waiting for someone to announce they were writing this book. And when no one did, I got this weird feeling that it might have to be me. What I ultimately tried to do with Cyber Sexy was write the book I wanted to read.
Did you have any kind of apprehensions, given that talking about sex openly is still relatively taboo in India?
My thinking around sexuality comes pretty much straight from the women’s movement in India and the UK, which I’ve been a part of for nearly a decade. Talking publicly about sexuality isn’t new for me, the only difference is that now I’m doing it in a more mainstream way. And because I’ve been doing it in spaces that have been so supportive and progressive, I was able to bypass the types of apprehensions that come with being an Indian woman writing about sex.
Do you hope the book will open up more channels of conversation?
I think that would be absolutely amazing — if it gets people talking! I think it’s really important to have open conversations around sex. Because a big problem with sexuality in India is that it’s treated as something dirty, immoral, and best avoided. Having these conversations is crucial to developing healthy, safe, and pleasurable sexual relationships. And if Cyber Sexy encourages even a handful of people to talk about things they’ve never said out loud, that would be an incredible outcome.
What are the anecdotes that really stayed with you?
I really liked Sasha’s story, which you can find in the chapter Homemade. She grew up in a conservative small town, and she moved back there as an adult. It was quite an isolating experience for her, because there was no one she could relate to. But she found an amazing community online, where she began posting sexy pictures of herself. The way she described those experiences as so comforting, intimate, and empowering really stayed with me. It’s a lovely example of how nurturing the internet can be for women’s sexualities.
Was it easy to get THE women to talk about their experiences openly?
Yes! This was one of the happiest and unexpected things that happened over the course of writing this book. I knew that there would be women who engaged with the ‘sexy’ internet, and I figured some of them would be up for discussing it. But I didn’t foresee the level of openness with which they would tell me their stories, because it’s difficult to talk about sex if you’ve always been discouraged to do so. It’s uplifting to know that Indian women are way more comfortable in their sexualities than we give them credit for.
Talking about one’s porn watching habits comes quite easily to some, while others feel shame in admitting it — why so?
For males, porn watching is often seen as a natural part of life, whereas for women, it tends to happen through the lens of shame. Men are more likely to talk about it than women, though that doesn’t mean they’re watching more or less of it. Just because men talk about porn doesn’t mean they’re being honest or vulnerable in these conversations. What’s needed is a shift in the way we look at sex itself, before we can shift the way we talk about porn.
The book covers topics ranging from consent to fan fiction — which one fascinated you the most?
I’m glad you mentioned fanfics, because I think they were my favourite discovery. I vaguely knew it existed, but I had no idea how wonderful it could be. I was especially fascinated by slash fiction, or queer romantic pairings between characters who are known to be straight — Draco Malfoy and Harry Potter for example. Search for ‘Drarry’ online and you won’t be disappointed!
How would you ‘reimagine’ pornography?
Making porn is illegal in India, which means everything is created under the radar. So if I were to reimagine pornography, I’d picture it as a space that foregrounds pleasure, decriminalises desire, and actively works to prevent and punish violations of consent. Porn can be a beautiful space, but it won’t ever be that space if we keep seeing sex as immoral and obscene.
What makes you feel empowered? How liberating is it to talk about your experiences in a book?
When I can walk down the street wearing what I please, and feeling like I have the right to be there as much as any man is a difficult thing to experience in India, but whenever I do, I feel my spirit soar. I don’t know if talking about your experiences is liberating or not. It’s definitely scary, to put so much of myself out there. But I was asking a lot from my interviewees: their desires, and fears. And if they were able to give so much to a stranger on the internet, the least I could do is be honest about my own experiences too.
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