Richa Kaul Padte first started thinking about porn in 2013, when a legal petition to ban internet pornography was presented to the Supreme Court of India. In a country where the making and distribution of sexual content is officially illegal, countless digitally connected people make their way online every day to watch, read, write or upload content that turns them on. The internet has begun to dislocate traditional gatekeepers in favour of multiple portals and numerous entry points. This means that the internet is also a space where almost all people can find pleasure regardless.

The 19th century saw the active erasure of a lot of predated sexy stuff by Europeans who “discovered” them. When males of the European aristocracy first excavated the city of Pompeii, they reacted in horror to what they found – sexy frescoes, sculptures, paintings, mosaics and lampshades featuring naked women, sex scenes and phalluses. A handful of Regency era wealthy men didn’t just pick and choose which aspects of culture were appropriate to preserve, they also labelled others as definitively inappropriate, terming the contents of Pompeii as “pornography”.

“Right from the first excavations of Pompeii to the newest digital avenues of desire, calling something porn means telling people who watch sexy content, who participate in sexy expression and who produce sexy stuff that they lack values. Because the word porn is typically used to devalue things, it’s pretty ironic that in practice, it ends up describing precisely those things that people value loads. The truth is that people really value sex,” says Richa Kaul Padte in her book Cyber Sexy.

Most of us stumble on to porn without any real context around what it is, what its politics might be, and why we should value consent. – Richa Kaul Padte

SheThePeople.TV converses with the journalist and author about the significance and importance of pornography in the lives of Indians, and how what’s sexy is also systemically connected to the cultural and political.

Richa Kaul Padte
Image Credit: Penguin Random House India

How could first encounters or experiences with porn be made better and safer – with respect to comfort, consent and access?

I think creating awareness around porn is very important – not just for young people but for everyone who is going online. Most of us stumble on to porn without any real context around what it is, what its politics might be, and why we should value consent. And I think changing this is essential.

If you could design a sexuality education curriculum, in which ways would porn factor into it, and what must sexuality education in India be inclusive of?

I feel like I wouldn’t be the best person to design a sexuality education curriculum, because I don’t know a ton about children. What I do know is that kids develop at their own individual paces and are ready for different things at different ages. Just like many educators argue that there can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach to education, I think maybe the same can be applied to sexuality education too. What’s most important is to create schools and spaces that are open-minded and inclusive, where sexuality is not seen as shameful. Then children can freely ask adults any questions they may have and receive honest, sensitive answers. Including those about porn.

What’s most important is to create schools and spaces that are open-minded and inclusive, where sexuality is not seen as shameful.

This isn’t to say that there should be no sexuality education curriculum – just that there are people better placed than me to design it (I’d encourage everyone involved with kids in any capacity to check out Tarshi’s curriculums which are just amazing).

In Cyber Sexy, you talk about the work of Indian female artists such as Amrita Sher-Gil and Meenakshi Sengupta. A lot of art in 21st century India deals with sexuality and gender too – artists like Sarah Naqvi, Kruttika Susarla, Priyanka Paul are pushing the ante with their evocative and thought-provoking pieces. Why do you think sex, gender and their intersections keep finding such strong expression and resonance in art?

I love all these artists you’ve mentioned! I think visual culture has an incredibly powerful impact on us, because those of us who can see are almost instinctively drawn to visual aesthetics. We are also very drawn to sex, which is why throughout history, we have seen countless representations of sex and sexuality in art. Think of all the nudes! But I think the difference now is that there are more women behind these artworks, so they are drawing bodies and desires the way they see themselves – and not how men do. What has shifted is the gaze, not the subject. And that has been just amazing to witness.

What has shifted is the gaze, not the subject. And that has been just amazing to witness.

You speak about how criminalisation in law and consensual sexual expression must be considered to be two very different and separate things in Cyber Sexy. How do you think the nation could get to such a consensus?

What we need to do is get rid of obscenity legislation, because we already have laws in place that talk about consent. What is getting in the way of these laws being used properly is the very outdated British idea of seeing everything sexual as obscene. The trouble is, of course, convincing a court that this legislation needs to go. Indians seem to have taken the idea of being against obscenity very much to heart, like this is something that inherently defines our values and culture. But this is a British law! The idea of obscenity wasn’t even around in India before the British got here! And if nothing else is going to convince our moral gatekeepers – who are so afraid of “Western influences” – maybe this will.

In Cyber Sexy, the interviews and survey answers that weave into the narrative really do cover the spectrum of gender, sex, sexuality, caste, class, age, ability and their intersections with porn. Why was this important to you in terms of representation and inclusivity, and what was it like to learn about the experiences of a diverse group of individuals?

I didn’t always actively look for people from marginalised communities; I just looked for people. So for example, I would ask on Twitter, “Is anyone here into fanfic and erotica writing?” and I interviewed whoever responded. So, I think some of the diversity in Cyber Sexy can be attributed to the types of Twitter circles I’m a part of, but also maybe to the idea that if you don’t assume straight cisgendered men are the norm, then that reflects in the types of people who want to talk to you.

It was hugely important for me to create an inclusive book, but I also think that with diversity, you can always go further, can’t you? For every type of person who is represented in Cyber Sexy, there are a whole bunch who aren’t. I guess at the end of the day, I didn’t plan on the book being representative so much as having an inclusive approach to desire and sexuality. And hopefully, I managed to do that.

Since you started writing Cyber Sexy, how has your own understanding and perception of porn, gender and sexuality changed?

I think a lot of the thinking behind Cyber Sexy is based on the lenses I acquired working in various gender and sexuality rights movements. And I don’t think those have changed very much. I do think my perception of porn has changed though – because there are sexy worlds and universes out there that I had no idea about. Porn is so much more than it’s given credit for, and I’m so grateful to have gotten to explore it through the eyes of the people I interviewed.

You mention how any relation or interaction with porn tends to devalue a person societally. How can we begin to dismantle this stigma at the most basic of levels?

We have to dismantle the stigma around sexual pleasure first. And I’m saying “sexual pleasure” and not “sex”, because I think there are certain contexts in which sex is approved of (mostly marriage and baby-making). But masturbation, on the other hand, or sex that’s just for pleasure, is seen as morally reprehensible. Until we accept that everyone deserves the right to pleasure, we’re probably not going to stop using porn as a means to devalue a person. Because porn’s only purpose is pleasure.

Until we accept that everyone deserves the right to pleasure, we’re probably not going to stop using porn as a means to devalue a person.

As you mention in the book, a lot of people are unaware of there being a caste, class and gender barrier to porn due to moral gatekeepers. How can ethical porn be made accessible to all?

I honestly have no idea. Right now, we can’t even make the internet accessible to everyone, so I think we are a long ways away from figuring out how to subsidise ethical porn for people who can’t afford to pay for it.

How would you describe what constitutes porn?

I think this comes back to what I was saying earlier, about how my perception of porn has changed so much, because I’ve gotten a glimpse into how diverse the landscape is. I think any efforts to define porn tend to exclude someone’s experiences or desires, and through writing Cyber Sexy, I’ve come to believe that these definitions aren’t all that necessary at all.

Feature Image Credit: Richa Kaul Padte

Cyber Sexy, by Richa Kaul Padte, has been published by Penguin Random House India. It is priced at Rs. 399, and is available online and in bookstores.

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