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From Erotica To Savita Bhabhi: This Book Smashes Notions About How Indians View Porn

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I first discovered porn as a 12-year-old, rummaging through my brother’s desk, possibly trying to find things which I could snitch to my mom about. The unassuming plastic covers gave away nothing about the contents of the CDs. But an intuition told me that this detective had finally struck gold.

What I discovered was lesbian porn. Two white women, having sexy times on a beach, their moans filling my head (and heart) with both thrill and dread. The all-girls Catholic school upbringing never made me realise that such a thing was even possible. We were never taught about sex, let alone allowing the possibility of unabashed displays of passion and desire between two women. Did it mean I could fall in love with my best friend?

I didn’t let that thought linger as I moved on to the other CDs which featured men and women shagging like there’s no tomorrow. Their private parts shot in extreme close-ups, almost normalising the process for a shy seventh grader who couldn’t remember the last time she spoke to a boy.

In her book, “Cyber Sexy”, Richa Kaul Padte describes a similar experience of coming across porn on her laptop which her housemate had borrowed, “…I opened it to discover Jackie and Michelle, gorgeous, topless, shaking their massive breasts at me… And I am equally sorry to confirm that, yes, ‘Big Tittied MILFs’ was my first encounter with porn.”   

 We live in a country where men and women are expected to bottle up their sexual desires, where porn was almost on the verge of being banned, where consent is exploited by spurned lovers, where CCTV cameras take advantage of the privacy of women in waiting rooms and where internet access is still few and far between. How do we then, even begin to recognise and claim that messy, unadulterated, fun part of ourselves which values intimacy and wants to channel their desires in a safe, non-judgemental space?

“Cyber Sexy”, which explores what it means to seek pleasure (in its varied forms) on the internet, starts by challenging the very definition of porn. It is derived from the word ‘prostitute’. Of course, any creative work, which challenges our so-called morality, must be warranting a comparison to a promiscuous woman. What business does a woman have thinking about sex, anyway?

But from fan-fiction to nudies, homemade videos, social networks to virtual reality platforms, Indians on the web are sharing content they have created and what they have liked. They are making choices and developing their preferences – they don’t care for a definition as long as they are able to access supportive spaces online.

For someone like me who operates in her own bubble of watching an occasional “Fifty Shades” movie and listening to her friend lament about her partner watching “too much” porn, this book was a revelation in so many ways. While researching for this book, Padte had at least 10 men confessing their fear of developing an addiction towards porn because they were watching it once or twice a day. She writes, “It is something they are learning from what they see and read and hear around them. From a global society that is collectively drawing arbitrary, alarmist lines around how much porn is too much, and then scaring everyone into thinking they are pervs.”

And she astutely observes that women don’t even have to worry about watching too much porn. With our low necklines and our bare backs and our short dresses, we are always on the verge of crossing the line. I’ll admit, I did have a seething anger against the pop music industry for fetishising young women and ensuring that what they wore in their music videos and live shows left very little to the imagination. What I conveniently didn’t realise was that this could also be an act of self-expression, of feeling empowered in the way these powerful ladies carried themselves in front of thousands.

Padte writes about rapper Nicki Minaj and her video “Anaconda” which her friend saw as porn and didn’t think was ‘acceptable for a music video’. “She is an extraordinary rapper but she also unsettles a lot of people. Not because she’s doing something new (even though in many ways she definitely is) but because she’s often doing what male rappers have always done: featuring women as super sexual.”

I read this book in the metro, on a flight, during a quick trip back home. With every page, I let loose the inhibition of reading about something which is essentially perceived as ‘taboo’ in a public place. In the penultimate chapter titled ‘Mass Intimacy’, the author regales in the glory of sweaty dance floors, theatres showing adult films (most of which have already shut down), the camming website Chaturbate (‘The act of chatting while you masturbate’) and virtual reality platforms. She asserts that a mass of people frighten those with power, and a sexual mass, ‘even more so’.

“The mass is about ‘undesriable’ groups coming to together, and as a result, their intimate unions are often seen as a threat to institutional power. And often, this power is trying to regulate and order sexuality as a means to regulate and order a population.”  

So, the personal is indeed political. And in many ways, “Cyber Sexy” is a call to action. So that a breach of consent and the act of producing porn in an ethical manner, is not charged under the same obscenity clause. So that people get to have a say in what they want to watch and feel a sense of accountability in reporting instances that look like consent violations. So that everyone has the freedom of sexual expression, which could perhaps offend, but not harm anyone.  

The book mentions the famous quote of American judge Potter Stewart, “I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it.”

Yes, you can’t and no you don’t. Padte leaves the reader with a sense of empathy and an understanding of human emotions – someone’s porn could be your erotica, their nude photo could just be perceived as a selfie. Desire can’t be contained in a box and locked away. It is sweating, heaving and thriving inside you. So…

“What ‘counts’ as porn? Screw them, you tell me.”   

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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