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Interview: Namita Aavriti

Namita Aavriti, writer, lawyer, feminist, and coordinator and editor for GenderIT.org, focuses on issues related to gender, ICT and internet rights. GenderIT.org is a platform and think tank on gender, technology and policy, and part of the Women’s Rights Programme of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC).  Namita is also the co-curator and organiser of the Bangalore Queer Film Festival (BQFF), and this year will be the tenth year of the festival. She has also been the curator and organiser of several exhibitions including World Information City, Nirunkusha, and more recently, Port of Kashmir. She has worked with and co-founded the online video archive Pad.ma (Public Access Digital Media Archive).  Previous to this, Namita was with the Alternative Law Forum (ALF) where her work revolved primarily around law, media, technology, and obscenity. Here, in a nuanced interview, she speaks with Shikha Aleya about a range of issues related to erotica, including how the discomfort that it may evoke can open up new ways of thinking. As Namita says,“…it’s interesting when people find it difficult to watch an image, and I find it in myself too. It is so easy to just watch the latest Avengers film. What is harder is to know and even follow what you might be intrigued by right now.”

Shikha Aleya: Namita, we’re happy to interview you for this issue of In Plainspeak, many thanks! As a first question to help set a frame for reflection, please tell us – what is erotica according to you? Does erotica connect to our lives, experiences and expressions of self?

Namita Aavriti: Erotica is what makes you feel, and a little bit about what makes you feel sexual. Sometimes this is a book and other times it’s a sexually explicit image. How it does this is often difficult to work out, it is social and cultural, and idiosyncratic and personal – it connects to your history, to your unconscious, your childhood, your current friends circle, the company you keep, the junk you watch, and so on. To define erotica is a valid question to ask but it still feels silly to answer – like people know the answer already so there will be nothing new in what I say, but there is some value in asking it because otherwise erotica doesn’t exist, as separate from explicit pornography or from really good novels and films.

Shikha: Therefore, would erotica mean different things to different people?  Is the erotic influenced by perception, gender, prevalent socio-cultural norms? Would the identity of the person behind erotic expression be as significant as the content?

Namita: Well, yes. Many things about identity, biography, context, culture would be significant. For instance, there must be a reason why men in Bhadralok Bengal in the 19thcentury, as H.B. Biswas’ work shows,[1] were overwhelmingly interested in incest porn. Was it about the suffocating nature of social mores and cultures in these upper-caste contexts that their erotica was all about women within their homes or women whose sexuality they could control? Whatever the reason, there was simultaneously a taboo and frisson to sexualising relations with the figure of the bhabhi.

Another more contemporary project, Porngram that maps the tags on porn, in itself gives a slight sideways indication of what people are interested in now. Based on data taken from two prominent websites and from 2007 to 2013, it quixotically mirrors what Biswas’ work in the 19th century shows – that mother is repeated as a tag far more often than any other familial relation in the data, and is in 37 out of the 100 most often watched videos.[2]So what does that say?

In a beautiful film we showed at the BQFF titled Fifi howls from happiness,[3] the isolated and exiled Iranian gay artist Bahman Mohasses talks a little flippantly but also with some truth, saying that it is the taboo that makes gay sex so powerful and beautiful. That’s where the erotics comes from. There is a difficult relation between repression, suppression and erotics and it is hard to pin down mathematically. For instance, the diaries of Hannah Cullwick (1883-1909), who worked as a maid for a man who she later entered into a sadomasochistic relationship with, show desire, power and oppression all mixed up with each other.[4] Reading Cullwick’s diaries is difficult because it surfaces how power plays out in so many sexual relations and in our erotic imagination.[5]

Shikha: In a 2016 article online, you wrote of your experiences as the technical coordinator of the Bangalore Queer Film Festival, saying you “have learnt to detect by the sighs and shuffles of the audience, what is working and what is not. What is making them uncomfortable but is also opening up new ways of thinking and new languages of the body”. Were you to extend this to erotica, what thoughts come to mind?

Namita: What is thrilling about showing films and watching films in a dark room is that sense of embarking on feeling something together, and on your own. There is a certain joy I feel when someone says,“I watched Mommy is Coming[6] at your festival and it blew my mind.” I have a sense of the journey that person went through – knowing that they could walk away from a difficult, awkward experience and yet being hooked, and also of trusting and staying through with the vision that another person (the director, the actor or even the curator) brings into your world. It is that discomfort that is interesting because it’s really easy to slide into the easy visual, sonic, immanence of heterosexuality.

I remember seeing an artwork in the house of a queer friend, and I’m not sure who the artist is, probably Malaysian. It was a small blackboard, the kind you have in school, and written in chalk across it again and again, like a lesson, are the words: I shall not fall in love with a guy.  To me, the artwork showed the daily work of unlearning what and how we desire.

We don’t usually talk about unlearning and unspooling what we were taught through childhood, cultural and social influences about who to desire, and also how. Most people follow the lines of caste and class unthinkingly and yet keep thinking of desire and love as natural.

Which is why it’s interesting when people find it difficult to watch an image, and I find it in myself too. It is so easy to just watch the latest Avengers film. What is harder is to know and even follow what you might be intrigued by right now. Is it the blasé confidence of the older woman?  Is it a large body that envelops you entirely? And this is what is exciting about showing queer and other films. It is the somewhat naive hope that we can figure out what makes us feel a little bit more than we usually do, or even a lot more.

Shikha: With technology and mediums of communication changing the way we perceive and share our lives and interests, is there a corresponding change or evolution in the expression, and in the consumption of erotica?

Namita: I hear that people aren’t having sex as much (can we insert how I throw my head back and laugh evilly?). That’s not a real answer, that’s just me giggling.

It’s hard to tell if there is a corresponding change because of technology specifically since so many things are impacting how people relate to each other emotionally and sexually. From #metoo which itself is linked to tech, to changing income and education levels between the genders, to legality, to cultural norms and ideas, to persistence of divisions between people, and so on.

A few things have changed specifically because of tech – and one of them is availability. Andrea Dworkin suggests that porn is teaching men how to rape and how not to see women as real and human.[7] Oddly, though there is a lot to object to in radical feminism especially how it’s mired in biologically determinist ideas about sex and gender, but I think Dworkin’s ideas are centered on the notion that pornography is compelling and that it teaches people how to have sex in a world that is rigged by patriarchy. Most theorists of pornography who attempt to be “sex-positive” about it often insert, somewhere here or there, that they find porn itself quite boring (Susie Bright, Linda Williams, even stuff I’ve written). But Dworkin’s idea of porn is very much happening in a world of some scarcity – porn was in the corner video store where a guy (male, heterosexual, dominant community) could walk in and get it. But it was not so everyday and banal as it is now, where you can type in a website address and get images or words.

Now you can find porn easily but it takes so far and so long to find something that actually turns you on. Most of porn is about being mired in a kind of desperate self-hatred in relation to your body and that of others (another thing that Dworkin perhaps sees). Occasionally perhaps there is porn that breaks away from that – queer or feminist porn makes an explicit break or tries to, and sometimes collapses back into familiar parameters. Occasionally a well-made or thought-through film does also make a difference. Countless queer short films and stories do that, and these films with their minor and small revolutions of how they see things, turn up in queer film festivals. But they are not designed for mainstream circulation or appreciation. They might even fail when faced with such an audience.

So I can’t answer your question except to say that technology is intertwined with society in various ways, so it does influence porn. There is neither an evolution/ progression or backward momentum in how we relate to erotica. There are those who argue that the desire for sex and explicit imagery drives the evolution of tech, and to some extent it might be true. Muybridge’s imagery of naked people is pre-cinematic[8] and Linda Williams traces how early cinema were often experiments in pornography. Virtual reality and paradigms like Second Life provided avenues to play with self and others.[9] But VR is now used for various purposes beyond gaming and for making people empathetic towards each other.

Shikha: Namita, what are the aspects and issues of content regulation on the Internet with particular reference to erotica and sexuality? What would it mean to take a sex-positive approach to these issues?

Namita: Sex-positive is a hard thing to be suddenly, and perhaps with good reason. Can you be positive about sex in a world where desire is programmed to be about finding likeness – adhering to divisions of caste and race, and about re-entrenching the power of heterosexuality? And it would be foolhardy to expect institutions such as the judiciary to be anything close to sex-positive, but perhaps we can hope that they will not be sex-phobic.

What remains important to see in terms of the law is to look beyond the agenda of gay men that dominates the LGBTQI landscape, and to look particularly at lives of transgender people that are marked with precarity due to violence, discrimination and exclusion. What we definitely don’t want is the metaphorisation of the experience of people at the service of the other, so the precarity of transgender people being used as an argument to ensure that gay men can hook-up, marry and adopt in safety while trans people are still at risk. Or the straight people who turn up for Pride and are very happy to use queerness, pride, sexuality as some kind of metaphor for their own limited explorations, while not facing any of the risks of being outside acceptable cultural and social norms.

Right now, content regulation is not a problem about the State as much as it is about big tech. Companies use both automation and human labour for content moderation currently, and human moderators are employed at low wages to do potentially psychologically damaging work of cleaning up the Internet of illegal (child pornography, terrorism, copyright violations) and unacceptable content as determined by company policy (often pornography, nipples, and so on). If you look closely at the transparency reports of big tech it is remarkable that a lot of the content that is taken down, is taken down before it reaches any viewer. There is minimal information given to the user about why content is taken down and not many avenues to object to the decision or to understand the reasoning. The problem with content regulation is really that we don’t seem to have a good sense of how it works ideologically any more. Unlike with the judiciary where you can read the legal archives and texts of judgments, there is no need for justification, for transparency or accountability of big tech, except to the extent of what they have to do to keep users addicted to their platforms.

Shikha:  As an extension of that question, what are the points of connection between erotica, sexuality and the nurturing of safe, inclusive and sexuality-affirming spaces in our lives today?

Namita: What we want is autonomy, and proper recognition of bodily integrity, what is called self-determination in legal terms. We want a space where people are safe and able to explore their desires, where they don’t face violence, persecution, or discrimination. That safety which is fundamental, and is a springboard to thrilling explorations of their/our own.

***

[1]                      Biswas, H.B. (2013). The obscene modern and the pornographic family: adventures in Bangla pornography. In Wieringa, S. and Sivori, H. (Eds.). The Sexual History of the Global South: Sexual Politics in Africa, Asia and Latin America. London, UK. Zed Books.

[2]              Mazières, Antoine, Trachman, Mathieu, Cointet, Jean-Philippe, et al. (2014) Deep tags: toward a quantitative analysis of online pornography. Porn Studies, Vol. 1, Nos. 1–2, 80–95, Available at http://sexualitics.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/mazieres_pornstudies_2014.pdf

[3]                      Moghimi, M. (Producer), &Farahani, M. (Director). (2013) Fifi howls from happiness. (Documentary film). Music Box Films.

[4]                      Cullwick, Hannah & Stanley, Liz.  (1984).  The diaries of Hannah Cullwick: Victorian maidservant.  London: Virago

[5]                      McClintock, A. (1995). Imperial leather: race, gender, and sexuality in the colonial context. New York:Routledge.

[6]                      Dunye, C. & Bruning, J. (Producers), & Dunye, C. (Director). (2012) Mommy is coming. (Motion picture). Germany. Jürgen BrüningFilmproduktion.

[7]                      Fateman, J. (February 15, 2019) The Power of Andrea Dworkin’s Rage. The New York Review of Books.

[8]                      Strike, K. (June 9, 2016) The First Naked Kiss On Camera: Eadweard Muybridge, Sex And Murder. Flashbak. Available athttps://flashbak.com/first-naked-kiss-eadweard-muybridge-61902/

[9]                      Nadja, N. (2017) Gender binary: Second Life, First Loves. Association for Progressive Communications. Available at https://www.genderit.org/feminist-talk/column-gender-binary-second-life-first-loves

Cover Image: Namita Aavriti

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