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Hello?! Every Body in the R(/Z)oom?

A collage of two faces against a brown paper background.
Give me a sign if you are here

What does this remind you of? Where have you heard that line before? No, not talking to the Gods above – not yet, anyway.

If you are a Comprehensive Sexuality Trainer/Educator, quite surely this is the one-liner you use as a part of your own opening lines as you log into yet another online workshop!

So – “Hey y’all! Send me a sign if you are here.” A Thumbs Up. A hand sign. A heart. Something. I am talking and smiling a lot to myself and at stamp-sized names – all on mute, there but not there. Yet another online workshop! Send me sign – Yes, now I am talking to the Gods!

Have we sold out to Big Tech? Or have we handed the baton over to technology and telephones? I mean smartphones. Has Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) come into a new avatar and are we ready for it? Is Big Tech going to be CSE for All’s new partner, or are we just trading in our old problems for some new ones? Mixed feelings, virtually like we have for almost everything new and hybrid.

The key player – the table centrepiece aka the Smartphone!

From the “group size of no more than 25 please” seated on the floor in a circle on a chattai and gaddas, discussing gender, SRHR, and sexuality education in residential workshops in conference halls for eight hours a day, over five days, with the two NGO women facilitators in their Fabindia kurtas – much has changed, even Fabindia.

From the two, or at times four, counsellors on the TARSHI Helpline, as on many others, who worked and counselled over hours – on a roster system, with only so many hours for each counsellor (keeping burnout and counsellor exhaustion in mind) – we have come a long way.

Now, what you need is a good enough smartphone and sufficient data – these are the real “superstar” in the love affair between Big Tech and CSE.

All you need is a phone: Find the information, read it, watch it, listen to it, repost it, trash it, go back to it, love it, consume it, claim it or diss it. All you need is a phone, and Wi-Fi!

Today I “followed” a couple whose post at first was about “butch girls” (so they call themselves) wearing makeup and loving it, breaking the myth that they don’t. It soon went from make up to make out. The caption read: “Why should I be uncomfortable about kissing my lover when others are not?”

I love how technology and social media are being used. I can tell you we would never have come across this level of openness – of admissions of love, intimacy, pleasure and a couldn’t-care-a-damn attitude, particularly in women – even five years ago in any workshop situation. We struggled to find desi images and films of same-sex women (in particular) talking about or showing any display of sexual comfort, but now, here it is! In your phone – hum to mohabbat karega, duniya se nahin darega! (Roughly translated into: I shall love in my own way, quite regardless of what the world may say!) You go, Girls!

In her hands?

In the Helpline Era – I am forced to call it that now – we knew through research and anecdotal data that many women did not have a smartphone, and even when they did they didn’t use it for accessing information on sexuality and SRHR, and least of all on pleasure and sexual intimacy. Has that changed a lot? I want to say a big yes and a small no.

Yes, women are able to access a lot more content on these issues. Yet, familial conventions and societal norms continue to have significant influence and control over what young women use, subscribe to, consume freely, and are permitted and approved to do.

It is not uncommon to hear women say, “Mein Insta/WhatsApp nahin chalaatee” (I don’t use Instagram or WhatsApp). Using technology for education on self and body, on sex and rights, sexuality and personal issues for women still remains somewhat elusive. While initiatives on tech for women – like FAT, TechSakhi – are leading the way in encouraging women to embrace technology resulting in them finding appropriate and reliable content on sexuality, a big gap remains.

What now? / In an Instant

Instagram is my new favourite with respect to talking about sex and sexuality in very positive and pleasure-affirming ways.

Many people, particularly women are talking about sexuality, using rights-based inputs, lowering trauma and stress, and sharing their tales, reels, and stories in an honest and approachable manner. Am I for it? Oh yes. Is it being termed CSE, or any other such ‘respectable’ tag? Maybe not.

I can’t avoid offering a caveat though. There are many creepy people passing on unfounded claims as fact who have a huge number of followers. So clearly, we are still listening to and consuming a lot of rubbish in the name of information and education.

It brings you back to boot camp doesn’t it? More workshops, more well-trained, well-whetted “experts” in classroom or training hall settings talking about the same old thing?

Hell no! I think what CSE needs today is exactly what we have – hybrid models.

I admit my heart lies more in the good old-fashioned sit-on-the-floor style of training. But! Just as one needs a push to get up from those hard chattai covered floors and to manage the outfits we wear to training sessions of late, I will equally and loudly advocate, “No More!”

With Chatbots and Interactive Voice Response Systems (IVRS), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and voice recognition tools doing the job for you, a handful of trainers don’t need be everywhere. They are better used in creating content, in advising and reviewing matter and making new, trendy and savvy material to read, listen, watch and discuss over platforms which are not just vibrant and smart but fulfill needs of individuals depending on their own attention spans.

Individuals like Leeza Mangaldas, Divisha Singh, Karishma Swarup, and Chandana Hiran, amongst many many more, are doing some fabulous work breaking myths and taboos while talking about sex and intimacy, particularly on Instagram. Sexuality education organizations are using technology, offering easy to access, well-grounded information to consume in the privacy of one’s own space and time.

Cut some slack and also – Back Off!

Using tech for CSE is enabling what we were not able to accomplish in years – it is breaking taboos, reaching huge numbers of people, and reducing shame and guilt.

But it does come with its own share of problems. Sexperts, such as I, may still be nervous about putting themselves out, especially if it is content of a sexual nature and if one works in an independent capacity. Here’s what happened to me. I commented on a lip gloss company using a little girl making sexy faces and pouty lips to ‘model’ their product. In under five minutes, I got my own old butt kicked – “People like you, sexualizing everything”. Soon after, they wrote back saying, “We asked her to just be her”. One more comment later, “It was the parents’ decision”.

From colour and body shaming, to name calling… it’s truly endless. Poor Kareena Kapoor got a lot of it for being chosen as a Masaba bride – “too old – too fat for a bride!” All shapes and sizes, my friends – ladies! An organisation or a superstar may be able to handle the backlash but for an individual, it could be overwhelming.

Similarly, we know that once you open yourself up to questions and even just regular posts, posts, private dick pics and pussy shots are a part of the game and suddenly fill your phone. If you are looking for what people also think about sexuality on social media – have a quick look at the comments below too. One person asks a vlogger, “May I be rude?” she comes back with a distinct NO and they retort with, “Well that really hurts my feelings. Why are you here in that case?” All part of the job – would you say? Not what I signed up for – I’d say! Have things changed very much from callers heaving down the helpline in their own haze of masturbatory pleasure?

Systems in Place

Chatbots like Mobile Vaani (Wassap on 9266617888) use an IVRS system to convert rich archival data of individual queries which have responses from a domain expert – yours truly again – under the very successful initiative called Kahi Ankahi Baatein by CREA which ran for over five years. The content – still relevant with new things added every week – is now used for a chatbot where the user gets to hear a person’s voice answering their question. Is it as good as talking to a counsellor? Of course not! Is it still personal, private, not a machine (yet) and can it get relatable, non-sensationalised, non-fearful information out? Yes, it can and to many more people than a helpline could serve, irrespective of literacy, irrespective being able to read handouts, particularly in English. That is the language of Comprehensive Sexuality Education even now unless you are producing content in vernacular languages, which again thanks to the use of tech tools, has certainly increased but is still far from enough. We also have simple translation tools which a tech-savvy person can use to their advantage. Of course, it may cause some confusion between four play and foreplay as the translation tool may not be able to decipher the difference.

While tech offers a tremendous opportunity to further aspects of sexuality education, it also comes with a certain danger. Who is the self-styled ‘guru’? What content are they putting out? Are they doing more harm than good? Are they perpetuating and strengthening the exact same stereotypes and prejudices we have strived so hard to dismantle sitting on those hard floors conducting innumerable workshops? Are these individuals reliable and trained and supervised by someone with the right credentials? Conversely, is the individual sexuality educator protected in any way? What about remunerations? Is there a way to separate the chaff from the grain?

Buffet of choices – self-service please

Indisputably, there are a lot of choices. A lot to look for and find, to decide what works for you and what to discard. It is really about what you want to do and to what extent. Technology is here to help you do it, visheshkar mahilaon ke liye – particularly for women.

That sounds like self-determination and self-awareness – about creating new narratives, confronting censorship, reaching large numbers of people, understanding ethics and boundaries – for both content creators and consumers. It is about approaching sexuality education with affirmation and hopefully responsibility, consent and creativity. Those seem like solid principles of Comprehensive Sexuality Education to me. Combined with tech and social media, that seems like an undisputable Combo Pack – a Buy One Get One free (BOGO) offer we don’t want to miss!

Cover Image: Art by Shalini Singh