From Sunny Leone To Ismat Chughtai – 10 Of India’s Most Sexually Progressive Icons

Sunny Leone (L) and Rituparno Ghosh (R).
Sunny Leone (L) and Rituparno Ghosh (R).

Whether it’s in pop culture or at family dinner tables, Indian society has always shied away from candid, normalised discourse on sex. There is quite literally no limit on how much moral policing takes place in every sphere of life, with an abundance of unsolicited advice about what you should wear, who you should marry (or that you should get married because God forbid you engage in premarital sex), and what your core set of values should be.

These don’t necessarily come from a place of malignance or anger, but rather decades of conditioning that have shaped how we collectively think of sex and sexualised behaviour. On the one hand, people – especially young women – are shamed and subjected to violence for expressing themselves sexually (and this includes benign acts like wearing clothing that some total stranger in power deemed ‘too sexual’); and on the other hand, every silly joke remotely sexual in nature is met with embarrassed but thrilled giggles or abrasively slapstick appreciation.

We have to question, challenge and transform the way societal norms around sex are constructed and reinforced. As a society we have to evolve and move away from the narrow-minded approaches of the past – and in a country that reveres its celebrities and values aspirations of fame, those who have “made it” become pivotal in shaping new narratives.

Some of these Indian icons have truly embodied this goal. By breaking away from rigid expectations despite their status and fame in society, they have really become the change they wanted to see. It’s important to recognize their boldness and draw inspiration from them in the path to equity. We put together a list of India’s most sexually progressive icons over the years, whose work and dedication towards demystifying sex merit attention.

I. Sunny Leone

Everyone knows Sunny Leone’s history as a pornstar – there’s no shortage of crude and derogatory humour about her making their WhatsApp rounds, as well as several legal criminal complaints against her by self-righteous people against promoting sexually explicit content (surprisingly, or not, they’ve been mostly women). But Leone has fought against patriarchal stigma and hypocrisy with fierce determination even simply by taking pride in being who is. She has been open about her bisexuality and has embraced her past when everyone else seems to insist she be ashamed of it. Having recently moved back to India, she has become the first former pornstar to establish a career in Bollywood despite getting a lot of hate and controversy within the industry. Happily married and a mother of three children, she is a headstrong woman who is living proof that even the most stifling social structures can be navigated.

Sunny Leone with her husband and daughter in a photograph that became controversial

II. Protima Bedi

A renowned Oriya dancer, Protima Bedi is an incredible feminist icon whose sense of humour is as great as her unapologetic way of challenging every societal norm and expectation towards women. In a super-controversial act that the Moral Police criticised for years, she streaked (AKA ran completely butt-naked) on Juhu Beach in 1975. She has spent her life defying every form of social conditioning we are subjected to and is perhaps one of the first women to be so publicly comfortable in her skin. “I shed my clothes, my inhibitions, my conditionings by outdated social norms so that you too can discover yourselves,” she has famous said. She is one of the greatest inspirations to young women battling body insecurity and shame everywhere.

III. Manvinder Singh Gohil

When you think of a Royal Family, ‘sexually progressive’ probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Yet Manvinder Singh Gohil has defied centuries of norms by being the world’s first openly gay prince. He has taken up many initiatives to challenge stereotypes about the queer community, including founding the Lakshya Trust, an NGO that helps older gay men find homes and employment opportunities in his conservative state of Gujarat. His palace grounds are open to all members of the queer community who may have been disavowed by their families, where he provides shelter and vocational training. He is a vocal critic of anti-LGBT laws and educational curriculums, which he is actively changing by implementing new policies as and when he can.

IV. Gauri Sawant

A transgender activist and one of the only transgender women to be featured in a commercial television campaign, Gauri Sawant is a radical voice in Indian society that warrants our absolute attention. She became known for her role in Vicks’ ad campaign #GenerationsOfCare, where she played the transgender mother of a young girl – a beautiful ad that truly moved the public. But her work towards dismantling stigma goes far beyond that. She founded the Sakshi Char Chowghi Trust that provides counselling and information about safe sex to transgender people and those diagnosed with HIV. In 2014, he became the first transgender person to file a petition in the Supreme Court of India for transgender people to have adoption rights. She was also part of the campaign that got the Court to recognise a third gender. She adopted her daughter in 2008 (also featured in the Vicks ad). If that wasn’t enough, she is also planning to start a home for sex workers’ children to stop them from being sold and pushed into prostitution.

V. Rituparno Ghosh

Rituparno Ghosh was one of the first Indian filmmakers to ever come out of the closet despite having lived in a conservative space for most of his life. While most sources address Ghosh with him/his pronouns, Ghosh has often said his identity is not cis-gender and he is fluid. Acclaimed nationally and globally for his work, Ghosh’s work features homosexuality and queerness with nuance and depth. He was brazenly confident in the way he carried himself and embraced his gender-bending aesthetic with incredible charm. No topic was too taboo for him, and both his on-and-off screen persona is a testament to his courage.

VI. Ismat Chughtai

While Ismat Chughtai certainly needs no introduction, this prolific writer was not only ahead of her time but also an icon memorable specifically for her systematic breakdown of sexual stigma. She often wrote about female characters exploring their sexualities and sexual needs without hesitation. Like her longtime friend and contemporary Sadat Hassan Manto, Chughtai was an outspoken critic against patriarchal and colonial-era laws over women’s bodies, freedoms and aspirations.

VII. Vasu Primlani

Vasu Primlani is India’s first queer comedian, and doubles as a somatic therapist and an environmental activist. She works with survivors of rape, suicide and sexual abuse following childhood trauma herself. Her stand-up bits are often as deeply insightful as they are witty and entertaining, inspiring many other comedians after her, like Radhika Vaz (who did a whole show butt-naked), to tackle the most archaic mindsets through humour, proven to be an effective and accessible tool. Primlani is truly an icon worth following.

VIII. Silk Smitha

Like many others on this list, Silk Smitha’s reputation as a badass woman precedes her. A South Indian actress who became famous for her role as “Silk” in the 1979 Tamil film Vandichakkram, she became a major sex symbol and the most coveted erotic actress of the 1980s. Many critics and journalists have referred to her as a “soft porn” actress for her explicit item numbers – which arguably are no different from the fairly objectifying and tactless ones we see today – but in every role she embodied an effortless freedom and unabashed embrace of her sexuality that society was eager to discard as “softcore porn.” Most of her roles featured her as a super-strong agent, but in a bikini, beating up big dudes. She could lift every film to massive commercial success by just making an appearance, and even outside her sexual roles she was a talented actress and a vocal champion of feminism.

IX. Wendell Rodricks

Although the “male fashion designers are gay” trope has been around for a while, Wendell Rodrick’s is India’s first openly gay, publicly acclaimed fashion designer. The fashion industry has been far from inclusive, but with icons like Rodricks there is hope for change. Having come out in the 1980s, Goa-based Rodricks is not just a designer but also an activist for LGBTQ+ rights, the environment and other social causes. In 2014 he was awarded the Padma Shri by the Indian government much to the (pleasant) surprise of the community. Most recently, he set up a unique helpline for queer Catholics to get closer to the Church, in an effort to bridge the gap between religion and historical conservatism. For decades, the Church around the world has shamed and shunned even the most devout Christians for their sexualities – and Rodricks’ simple but absolutely vital idea is a rare one that will encourage compassion, awareness and support.

Wendell Rodricks (left) with his husband Jerome Marrel

X. Vikram Seth

An Indian author and poet, Vikram Seth is widely known for his incredible stories that have resonated with people across the country. He is openly bisexual and as expressed some of the deeper and more emotional realities of being sexually marginalised through his poetry, particularly a beautiful one titled “Through love’s great power.” Many of his works centre queer characters and themes. Although writing is his preferred method of promoting healthy discourse and breaking societal barriers, he took up the fight to strike down Section 377 in a very personal and outspoken way – the kind of sincere, sexually progressive writer that is rare to find even within literary circles.

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