Taboo, shame and misinformation surrounds the conversation on sex in India, whether it’s school children learning about their bodies or adults experiencing their sexuality. Pre-marital sex is hushed, discussions on contraception and safe sex are glazed over, open expressions of love are shamed and, as a result, the youth is left confused. So the question arises--where can one go to really talk about sex?
With illustrations dispelling masturbation myths, Lavni dancers talking about consent, podcasts describing experiences with vibrators, Munna the singing condom and more, one particular website is taking us closer to battling the stigma in incredibly creative ways, consistently striving to give sex the good name it’s always deserved.
In the spirit of moving the dialogue from behind closed doors to the forefront, we caught up with the minds behind Munna and the lot, the creative and bold Agents of Ishq (AOI), a project by Parodevi Pictures. As an online portal openly talking about sexuality, AOI crafts witty content, relatable videos, and bold imagery in both English and Hindi for children as well as adults.
“My work has always been around issues of desire, sexuality, feminism and so on,” says the heart behind the project, writer and filmmaker, Paromita Vohra. As founder and creative director of AOI, she explains the thought behind its conception. “I feel like there has been an increased conversation on sexual violence, rape culture, sexual violence and more in the media, which is important because it’s not discussed otherwise. But the problem is, the only way we’re talking about sex is through violence or pornography.” She adds that porn is one of the biggest sources of information about sex for a large majority of people, so with violence on one end of the spectrum and inorganic orgasms on camera at the other end, there’s a whole lot of room left unanswered in the middle. And that’s where AOI comes into the picture, filling that gap with its brilliantly unabashed content.
How do parents have ‘the sex talk’ with their kids?
In a country where 12 state governments have banned the Adolescent Education Programme (basically, sex education), children aren’t prepared for the changes their bodies undergo. “There’s a chapter on reproduction as part of biology, but that’s it. Even in schools where sex education is allowed, it’s sporadic and the information doesn’t connect to sex in real life,” Vohra tells us, pointing out how clinically sex is approached at the most important level of all. And another leg of the problem is that parents themselves don’t know how to broach the topic of sex with their kids, either out of embarrassment or confusion, since they were never spoken to about it openly either.
Featuring humour and quips to explain various sexual concepts, AOI’s seriously creative film ‘Main aur Meri Body’ is a sex education video for both children and their parents. “What croma-zone? It’s not an electronics shop! It’s chro-mo-some,” says one of the girls in the film hilariously, as it goes on to explain the difference between male, female and intersex--something that even biology text books fail to explain with such clarity and simplicity. Vohra tells us about parents who watched the films with their kids and rave about how useful it was in starting that awkward conversation. “I was watching it with my 13-year-old son, and he asked me to go back in the video because he missed something. That was serious progress,” one of the parents wrote to AOI.
”The first step is to say that it’s okay if you don’t know.”
As Vohra explains, most of online content around sex is usually mocking somebody. When sides are created and people are embarrassed to admit things they don’t know, the conversation will never move forward. Another problem with that dialogue is that it’s often gendered. “Much of the discussion on what constitutes as a positive conversation on sex draws on masculine perceptions of sex,” she explains, stressing on the importance of balancing out the negative conversation on sex with the positive one.
Before launching the site, AOI spent six months consulting with doctors, educators, people working on internet free speech, the youth, and various other avenues connected to the idea of sex education and sex conversations. In workshops they conducted in colleges, the initial ‘cool’ and ‘confident’ exterior of young students was diluted when they were asked to write in anonymous questions, and was replaced by their feelings of vulnerability, uncertainty, hesitation and shame. As Vohra tells us, “We realised that it doesn’t matter how ‘cool’ you are in college, safe sex information and practices are very low amongst most students. Some even use emergency contraceptives as birth control methods.”
Casual sex, slut-shaming and sex etiquette
“There’s a new social situation,” starts Vohra, as she talks about how more people are having casual sex and different types of relationships than before. And since this is territory that isn’t traditionally addressed in India very often, people don’t know the right way to react, or perceive it. As a result, casualness can often turn into disrespect. “Women are scared about being devalued, and even disrespected because they like casual sex,” Vohra explains. The talk about sex, the body and emotions all go together, and one of the biggest problems is that the emotional space is not addressed since the conversation on sex isn’t treated like connected to the rest of life. “I think it’s because they don’t connect sex to the psychological, mental and emotional parts that come with it, so people don’t articulate their uncertainties, and don’t behave well with each other,” we learn from Vohra.
“There’s lot of lack of good manners,” she says. As the soul of the AOI operation sees it, a lot of how people treat each other in sexual relationships boils down to just good manners and sex etiquette, as she coins it ‘sex et’. And putting all that good etiquette into a crowd-funded manual, AOI started the conversation on good manners, good behaviour, respect and politeness, asking people to write in questions. With men, women, and transgender voices expressing themselves in the new sexual era, the dialogue on mutual respect is carried forward by the people themselves.
In a country where moral policing, shame and stigma pushes the conversation on sex behind closed doors, Agents of Ishq is an important step towards providing a positive and counter dialogue to the negative dialogue surrounding sex and sexuality.
Words: Rhea Almeida