Deep Dives is an online imprint exploring relatively uncharted waters. You can read their stuff at deepdives.in @deep_dives. Over the next few weeks, Homegrown will republish Deep Dives’ first series ‘Sexing the Interwebs (season one)‘, which navigates links between gender, sex and digital spaces.
I couldn’t figure out anything from my tenth standard biology textbook when it came to the reproductive system. Sure, the female bit of it was familiar — I’d been apprised of it a few years earlier after I screamed my head off thinking I was bleeding to death. But the picture of the male organ was utterly perplexing.
My only exposure to real-world reference points was changing my nephew’s diapers (during which I was busy giggling) and occasional slips of my father’s lungi (during which I was busy looking away). In any case, the textbook diagram had way too much focus on what was going on inside and none on what might have been happening outside. And for some reason I always thought the right side of the drawing was the stomach, which was probably why I found it especially confusing.
On the bright side, we had a perfectly sweet gynecologist who was brought in to class as an expert on the subject. We found her revolutionary in her abilities to talk about ‘things’ without breaking a sweat — unlike our biology teacher, who had to deal with boys bursting into laughter as she taught us cell structure through a cross section of the ‘cork’.
I figured I’d get better information from my peers, but when I asked the question ‘What is masturbation?’ to a cousin who I assumed to be better informed than me, she said it was ‘the male version of the period’. Any attempts to direct questions towards adult family members led to the accusatory, raised-eyebrow, ‘Why do you need to know about all this?’ And as for the friendly Encyclopedia Britannica, it was somewhat helpful despite its use of the same damn diagram, but didn’t really answer the questions I had, which were more to do with ‘How on earth does that go into this?’
Come the end of my age of innocence, as it were, I found myself woefully inadequately prepared. This was enhanced by stories of girls my age who were sexually active (in retrospect, probably highly exaggerated tales), which meant I couldn’t ask them my basic doubts, lest I be called out for the ignorant small-town girl that I was.
But then suddenly it was 1999: the year of my first kiss and the first year I had independent internet access. And nothing was the same again.
* * *
I was a twelfth standard student living far away from home, dealing with terrible mess food and a hostel ‘rector’ who was convinced that all of its residents were commercial sex workers. My use of the internet at the time revolved around communicating with my school friends via Yahoo! Chat or MSN Messenger, diet staples for many 90’s kids.
The idea that online spaces could be used to source information on life’s difficult questions did not occur to me at the time, since I was struggling to make the most of the rupees-fifty-an-hour internet access (including frequent disconnections), trying to sustain doomed long-distance school friendships and make sense of mixed messages from boys. Like the one time a guy sent me an ASCII art rose @}}> — — instead of giving me a real rose on Rose Day. Was it because he was too shy or because I was too fat to be seen in public with? I suppose I’ll never care enough to find out.
Also in 1999, my friend Arya*, then a 21-year-old media student, was making out with her boyfriend (‘not full sex, you know’). She tells me, ‘the next thing I knew, I was completely wet. Like soaked. Not in the lubrication sense of getting wet. It was a gush and it wasn’t stopping — it was just over and over again. I was horrified, but he was like, “Oh wow, you are a squirter!”’ A what? All that he had established was that whatever Arya was experiencing was something not normal.
Luckily her college town of Pune was full of secure cubicles in cyber cafés where no one could see what anyone else was up to. And Arya, just about discovering the encyclopaedic potential of the internet herself, marched into one for some answers. ‘Everyone was watching porn anyway,’ she recalls. ‘In those days, no one asked for your ID when you entered.’ Prepared to be enlightened, she asked Jeeves what a squirting woman was.
Thankfully, the computers had no speakers. Moaning women were rubbing their vaginas and squirting small amounts of clear liquid in short bursts, followed by satisfied groans. ‘It didn’t seem like anything I had experienced. It took a ridiculous amount of time to happen (probably not helped by browsing speeds back in the day), and there was nothing else to go by, except two words: female ejaculation.’
On subsequent visits to the cyber café, Arya avoided the videos and instead tried to read scientific takes on the phenomenon, most of which focussed on paraurethral glands and the widely accepted theory that squirting was an expulsion of urine. Porn, on the other hand, portrayed female ejaculation as the equivalent of ‘cumming’. ‘I felt really inadequate with both approaches,’ says Arya. ‘I was sure that it wasn’t urine. I mean I had a full bladder to empty out after sex. And it wasn’t really an orgasm, it certainly didn’t feel like one.’ Why didn’t she ask an online forum, I wonder.
‘Well, I mean, you had scientific papers on the one hand, and on the other porn actresses. I just thought I was some kind of freak — why would I want to put that up anywhere?’
* * *
‘The first sex-ed query I Googled is how many holes do women have,’ says Noopur, who was in her seventh standard at the time. By the mid-2000s and the time of Noopur’s query, websites for information crowdsourcing had started gaining popularity. For 23-year-old me, spaces like answers.com, however rudimentary, provided comfort that perhaps there were people even more clueless than I was. I did have the initial fear, though, of going down in interwebs history for asking a ‘how is babby formed’ type question — even if I was doing the asking via an anonymous handle.
Noopur’s second major internet-query came several years later when she was 22, and even today makes me relieved that I wasn’t the only one asking the very basic question: how on earth do you have sex?
‘[The] penis entering vagina seemed like a really difficult feat. I had read a little bit on the internet about positions and angles, so I figured we weren’t doing it right. This inability to have sex went on for almost a year, at which point I was frustrated and started wondering if something was wrong with me.’
Like a fair amount of copyright-expired literature, the Kamasutra — ancient India’s much-misunderstood sexual treatise — was available to read online. Here Noopur discovered that there was a possibility of the vagina being too small. The search engine solution for this was ‘pilates’. Frustrated, Noopur tried various searches on Google including ‘tight vagina’ and ‘penis can’t enter’. (This was back in the day when Google had just established itself as the default search engine, but wasn’t yet creepy enough to make suggestions based on search strings)
It’s debatable whether the ease of self-diagnosis is the internet’s greatest boon or bane, but for hypochondriacs like me at least, spaces like WebMD — featuring a wondrous ‘symptom checker’ that diagnoses you via algorithm — have been prolific sources of (mis)information. Noopur turned to Yahoo! Answers, which answered her query fairly definitively: vaginismus, the involuntary contraction of vaginal muscle. Armed with this information, Noopur visited a gynecologist in Mumbai.
‘[I] told her resolutely that I had diagnosed myself with vaginismus,’ Noopur explains. ‘[The gynecologist] laughed, examined my lady bits, and told me I might have already had sex and not realised it, because in real life sex isn’t pleasant initially. It’s only in porn videos that it appears so.’
I confess my own obsessive Google search tendencies to Chennai-based Dr Madhavi, a general practitioner specialising in women’s health. Dr Madhavi often conducts sex education training for girls in colleges, where participants write anonymous questions on chits of paper. ‘I don’t know if girls have become bolder or whether they just have more exposure on these things,’ she wonders. ‘The first time I really had to resort to the internet was when someone asked me where the G-spot was. Even as a doctor, there was too much conflicting material for me to really explain it. And in any case, every woman’s response cycle is very different. So I used it as an example to demonstrate that point.’ I am tempted to ask her to elaborate, but figure I can just Google it later. I narrate Noopur’s experience and ask her whether self-diagnosis is a good thing. She laughs at first, and then shrugs. ‘Well, most WebMD articles will end with [a] “go see your doctor” warning, so at least they end up going to the gynaec.’
For most women, it often comes down to figuring out which spaces are best for them. Reshma, a 27-year-old Bangalore-based brand manager, is very clear on what forums to avoid: Yahoo! and Google Answers are at the top of her blacklist. She prefers articles from international magazines like Cosmopolitan because of the ‘perception of legitimacy’, as opposed to open source ‘crowd guessing’. ‘The one thing I don’t go for are these standard 101-ways-to-orgasm type articles. In all probability they won’t address your queries.’ I nod, recalling the time I nearly caused myself an injury trying to follow a ‘self-exploratory’ how-to that I would rather not elaborate on.
I was not the only one with #fails when it came to incorporating sex advice from the internet. A few years ago, 38-year-old Pranavni was looking to add some spice to her marriage of 15 years. She recalls, ‘I wanted to go beyond the me-on-top-then-you-on-top routine, so we decided to read up on what we could experiment around.
‘We reached out for our Blackberry and Samsung phones for inspiration, and we both slept off reading about Kamasutra positions.’
How information translates into practice is also closely linked to who is producing the content, and for whom. When 35-year-old Asha, a stay-at-home mum from Mumbai, began to doubt whether or not she was able to achieve orgasm, she made her way via Google to about.com, an online repository of articles and videos. I’ve always considered about.com to be a level-headed and reliable source of information, but sometimes quite textbookish. Which is why it was no surprise that the article Asha found heavily referenced the Masters and Johnson description of female sexual response. ‘I read about the response cycle: arousal, plateau, orgasm. [One time] I felt so excited that I was close to an orgasm that I lost it entirely because I was obsessed with which stage of the whole thing I was on — was this arousal, or an orgasm? I didn’t plateau yet, [so] how can I be orgasming?’
By around 2007, the biggest information crowdsourcing project of the interwebs — Wikipedia — had finally expanded its entry on female ejaculation to include ‘alternate’ views. However, as Arya quickly learned, the views weren’t from women who had actually experienced it. She explains, ‘I read that a lot of feminists had dismissed the whole idea that women could ejaculate, and I felt really bad about it because I always identified myself as feminist. I didn’t like being dismissed as a figment of the male imagination.’ What’s more, Wikipedia’s citation-requirement dissuaded Arya from posting her own views on the topic.
‘What would I say? Arya, a female ejaculator, disagrees? I was caught between science and feminist scholars. What was the point?’
* * *
The first time I heard about Planned Parenthood was through a friend in 2001. His long-distance girlfriend was visiting him at his first job somewhere along America’s Bible Belt, and their reunion was intense enough to warrant them spending the rest of her brief visit trying to find a place willing to sell them the morning after pill. After failed attempts at all the local pharmacies, a Yahoo! search led them to the closest Planned Parenthood, a non-profit organisation that provides reproductive health services throughout the United States. Since its inception Planned Parenthood has faced aggressive intolerance from anti-abortion activists, and just last week a gunman opened fire on a clinic in Colorado, leaving three dead. Their continuing work in the face of these horrors is nothing short of awe-inspiring.
In its online avatar, Planned Parenthood is a comprehensive sex education website, culture-agnostic enough to appeal to young people across the globe. Its orange and blue pages are divided into categories including ‘abortion’, ‘STDs’ and ‘women’s health’.
As I trawl through its contents, I certainly get a lot of politically correct information, but I also end up pretty bored. As far as I can see, there are no pages with details that the women I spoke to were looking for. Questions like ‘How do you masturbate?’ ‘Is it normal to achieve orgasm through nipple stimulation?’ and ‘Fisting seems interesting but how exactly do we do it?’ are answered nowhere.
Planned Parenthood is not alone in its fairly clinical, text-heavy approach to sexuality. All the legitimate places to go online for sex information deal in contraception, identifying external sexual organs (even though the clitoris runs deep, as I found out on Facebook a few weeks ago), and ensuring a painless loss of virginity. But beyond body-basics, the reason many of us return time and time again to the interwebs with our questions is not just because we want mechanically correct sex — it’s because we want good sex.
And most of the conventional information resources — crowdsourced, listicled, or expert-driven — are often not where we end up going. For many of us, it’s been a long wait since the days of dial-up till we were able to find what we were looking for.
Last year, Arya discovered a slew of tweets protesting the UK porn ban, which outlawed specific sexual acts. She did a virtual double take as among the list of blacklisted acts, she found female ejaculation. In the previous few years she had given up both on reading about the subject and feeling bad about herself, but clearly in the meantime a lot had changed. Women were using the hashtag #notpee to talk about how female ejaculation was real and why it was discriminatory to ban it. ‘I found websites like xojane and everydayfeminism, where women were talking about their experiences and were really pissed off by being dismissed as disgusting or unnatural.’
Since the popularising of blogs in the early 2000s, the internet has given voice to a range of first-person narratives. Today, platforms including ‘serious’ magazines, newspapers, and online media houses publish a ton of personal stories, with websites like xojane leading the brigade when it comes to focussing on women’s voices.
Many women I speak to who are looking for sexy how-tos are realising the potential of first person stories to place pleasure at the heart of sexual information. For example, there’s My Tiny Secrets, a thoroughly sexy website with personal articles ranging from ‘Squirting 101: A Splishy-Splashy Guide for Evolved People’ to ‘Why I Don’t Fuck Spiritual Guys’. Its founder, Adina Rivers, signs off the website’s ‘about me’ with ‘I see you. I care about you. I’m here for you.’ As I skim through the site, I do get the sense that she actually cares about ensuring a discovery into self-love for her readers (even though some of this caring quickly escalates into the sacred-gateway-to-the-secrets-of-the-universe territory).
It’s like Bobbie Morgan, a prolific writer on A Good Woman’s Dirty Mind, says about why she shares TMI (a.k.a Too Much Information — ranging from how to hire a female escort for threesomes to using motorised male masturbators). ‘I think the world would be a happier place if everyone knew how to have great sex and relationships. For some people, it’s all about knowing, “I’m normal, I’m okay, because I know someone else who feels and thinks the same way I do.” For other people, it’s all about getting a clue or two. I just hope that I can set an example by sharing my TMI.’
I revisited the website just before this essay was due to be published, and I was saddened to find that Morgan had recently passed away. The comments on tribute posts are from grieving women who have lost a close confidante and the most non-judgmental friend they ever had.
* * *
In the hierarchy of acceptability, if Planned Parenthood represents the most legitimate source of sex information online, personal narratives would probably find themselves several rungs down at semi-legitimate — just above Twitter hashtags but a little below Wikipedia. But what about the illegitimate sexy spaces? In other words, is it really possible to talk about sex and the internet without addressing the billion dollar elephant in the room?
When Nadika, a 33-year-old transwoman, was growing up in Chennai, one of the only ‘normal’ sexual things she shared with other 16-year-olds assigned male gender at birth was an obsession with porn. She recalls, ‘My porn habits were threatening to derail the carefully constructed shield of ignorance around the escalating telephone bills. I downloaded a staggering 100MB of jpegs in a world where the average website fitted on a 1.44m floppy disk. And the crappy, much-shared third-hand videos that took forever to download.’
The amateur porn she sought out wasn’t solely for the purpose of arousal. It was also a means to understanding her identity. Nadika was absolutely transfixed by some of the women she saw in porn — it was as if the wandering Dorothy within her had finally found her personal Oz. ‘Women with breasts, long hair, beautiful bodies — but a penis. Oh my!’ Who were these women? ‘I remember the tag on sex.com [was] “hermaphrodites”. Some other websites referred to them as “shemales”.’ (It was still a while before ‘transwoman’ would become a valid search term on a porn site)
Finding her gender and sexual identity was comforting, but Nadika now relived the same anxiety that plagued Noopur, me, and possibly many of you too: how was she supposed to have sex?
‘It was porn, once again, that answered all the questions I had on the how-tos. Shemale porn, to be specific.’ Nadika now cringes while using the term and says, ‘In that sense, the internet was my deliverance and my oppression. For the first time, I could find some validation of the kind of person I thought I was. I could identify with the various Yahoo! Chat profiles with variations of “chix with dicks” as their names. I could tell this random stranger who I was chatting with, that yes, I wanted to be a chick with a dick too. And he would go on to explain how he would make tender loving care to “it”.’
It’s not like we learn from textbooks all the time, and much of what we learn is from the things we see around us. Porn, despite what its critics would like you to believe, is no different.
In 2001, Amrita, a then 18-year-old commerce student from Mumbai, watched the critically acclaimed film Y Tu Mama Tambien and realised that she was ‘…really into watching two hot guys have sex.’ A few years later popular porn website Fleshbot.com was launched, allowing her to explore her newfound desire further. ‘I could watch more of what I liked,’ she tells me. ‘I realised porn was like sex: you need to find what gets you off. Not everything will. I wasn’t really interested in any before I could see hot dudes go at it.’
Personally, I envy women who were enlightened and enlivened by their first exposure to porn. Like Amrita, I also had mine in 2001, but with the not-so-highly-rated ‘Hungarian Sex Service’. I was 18 and in my first year of law school, and it ended with my roommate throwing up and the two of us pledging ourselves to celibacy — a promise that did not last long, I can assure you.
* * *
When we’re teenagers there’s a lot about sex we don’t know, but it’s pretty clear that even a more detailed and readable chapter in a tenth standard biology textbook won’t cut it. As we have more sexual experiences, our curiosity and need for information increases. And as we grow older, many of us are reluctant to ask questions openly for fear of being judged — either for our promiscuity or our ignorance.
Sometimes it’s not the hows and whys that matter — it’s just the affirmation that our bodies are different, that we seek and express pleasure in various ways, and that this diversity is perfectly okay. Karunya, a 28-year-old media professional living in Delhi, puts it well when she says that she constantly goes back to articles on the internet for the ‘… reassurance that there [are] many “normals” when it comes to one’s body and sexual responses. Finding the same answers offline is a struggle.’
I’ve had more meaningful conversations about sexual response on Reddit forums than I’ve had in ‘real’ life with friends, partners, therapists, or gynaecologists. I’m circumspect about where I get information from and tend to prefer personal accounts above all else. Sometimes I establish common links with strangers on a public forum and use private messaging options to take these conversations forward. We exchange notes, hyperlinks, PDFs of research papers, embarrassing anecdotes.
If nothing else, these are just virtual knowing glances exchanged across a room, letting us know that we are not alone in our experiences. And that even if we are alone, that it’s okay.
As a 32-year-old woman, that’s possibly the most valuable sex education I can get.
[Amba Salelkar is a lawyer working on disability law and policy, but she enjoys stepping out of her comfort zone from time to time, especially when it comes to sex. Tweets @MumbaiCentral]
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