Manak Matiyani is a feminist queer activist with extensive experience in facilitating youth leadership for social change. He is presently the Executive Director of The YP Foundation, a youth development organisation that builds youth leadership on sexuality rights, gender justice, social inclusion and health equity. Prior to this he worked with Commutiny – The Youth Collective, The Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and as consultant to various groups, collectives and institutions. He was awarded the Acumen Fellowship in 2018. Manak says, “Play makes me think about the ability to be playful, and experience joy in whatever it is you’re doing.”
Shikha Aleya (SA): Hi Manak, happy to have you here again at an In Plainspeak interview! To begin by stepping directly into the theme of this issue, what do play and sexuality look like to you? What are the elements in this playground, what do you see, hear and feel as you look around you?
Manak Matiyani (MM): Many things came to mind around the idea of play and sexuality when I started thinking about this theme. One was about how children explore their sexualities and bodies through play, as part of their regular development and growth. There’s a lot of stigma that comes in here, instead of information, because we immediately label it as bad. Growing up, in conservative families and cultures, this continues. This stigma doesn’t just stay with childhood explorations, but continues in all our experiences of being sexual and exploring our desires, our fantasies. That is the other aspect of sexuality and play – explorations and experiences of our sexual selves and sexual lives and desires that are considered ‘different’ or ‘weird’. And the stigma around that is so ingrained that even I think of the labelling as a way to describe sexual play between adults instead of just calling it a regular part of people’s sex lives.
This whole idea of a sense of comfort, confidence, or just a relaxed approach to one’s own sexuality and sexual life, is entirely missing for many people. This part of our lives, when we deal with sexuality, or the time in which we have our sexual relationships, is not playful as it ought to be. It is ridden with a lot of anxiety, and stress, and trying to figure out what is going on – whether I’m good enough, or if they’re enjoying it, or if I should be in this situation at all, or what if somebody finds and chastises me. So, when I think of this as a playground, the information, sexual content, whether explicit, mainstream, or educational and niche/alternative are all elements in this playground. The stigma around all of this, whether for children or adults, is also unfortunately a big element in this playground. I really wish that other things that are around us in terms of information, content and experiences, that give us the confidence to be ourselves, with respect to our sexuality and desires, would help us deal with this big element that is stigma.
SA: Thank you for that! Recently, Agents of Ishq and The YP Foundation organised the Love Sex and Data conference that had over 3000 attendees. This was described as India’s first conference on pleasure and asked many questions such as, “What would happen if we accepted pleasure as one of the important aspects of life and looked at the world through that frame?” Looking back at the event, would you say play rated anywhere amongst the top few themes that emerged? As we look at the politics of pleasure, how do we begin to understand the politics of play?
MM: Yes, thank you for starting off with this quote! The whole idea of the conference was not just to bring a kind of playfulness and comfort into the issues of sexuality but also to put the idea of pleasure firmly back in any intervention regarding one’s sexuality, health, and so on. Ultimately, that’s what we want, right? To have happy, affirming and wholesome experiences in our lives. The objective of the conference was to bring together many people who are using this lens of pleasure to demonstrate what it can achieve when foregrounded in work on sexuality, health, identity and rights.
It was really exciting to be in that mix of people at the conference to listen and learn. From the Sangya Project, that spoke about making fun, playful and affirming sex toys; Shilpa Mudbi founder of the Urban Folk Project who narrated a lovely mythological tale told in folk music about choosing friendship and playfulness over service in marriage; Suhas Misra of the brand called Misters that makes men’s sexual health products, talking about men’s anxieties around their bodies and sexual performance, to Vinit Vyas, an expert on South Asian art, who traced the depiction of sex and sexuality in cultural works ranging from ancient art and miniature paintings to tik tok videos. The idea was to give people many ways to engage with the idea of pleasure in work on sex, sexual health and well being with young people.
We wanted to shift from looking at development work in this maha earnest, academic and stern kind of way, to make it about what people want from their lives. They want to make their lives happier and more comfortable and fun. Looking back at the conference, while organising it there were all these bouts of nervousness. We were trying to do something that had not been done before, reframing our work and our politics. Also focusing on those ideas and people that we felt we did not hear and learn from enough in this SRHR sector. But then experiencing it as an attendee, and also getting feedback from friends, as well as many other people we didn’t know before the conference, boosted our confidence. It demonstrated what feminist movements and others have been trying to say for years, that the hierarchies of needs are not so exact and compartmentalised. It’s not like class disparities erase our aspirations of enjoyment and pleasure, particularly among young people but really for everyone. The enjoyment of life is not so separate from, say, the aspirations and concerns of livelihood. People think of all of these choices from a lens of pleasure, as in – what work I will do should also give me some joy. So the conference brought together a bunch of people who work in very different areas – academics, business, culture and the arts, and of course development, to rethink work with young people through the pleasure lens. I think it will give us a political lens to bring all of this together.
I said this at the start of the conference, when we were opening, while we have brought politics into pleasure, can we please bring some pleasure back in the way we do our politics? That is really what the conference aspired to do, and I think it made a good start by saying, can we just, you know, have pleasure as our political lens, but also have fun in the way we do our work and politics?
SA: One quick question here Manak. I just wanted to ask, coming from what you’ve said, the word and the concept of ‘pleasure’ and the word and concept of ‘play’ – I know that we always look at them as together but is there anything that helps differentiate between them? Would ‘play’ be different from ‘pleasure’?
MM: I’ll admit that we’ve thought more about pleasure, as a concept. We have used that with more clarity than the idea of ‘play’. Even while organising the conference, we were thinking of how pleasure goes a little beyond rights. I think pleasure includes rights but rights don’t always end up including pleasure. But the invitation to think about ‘play’ is different. It’s a new idea and frame of thinking and instinctively I feel the word has a different meaning and implication. Play makes me think about the ability to be playful, and experience joy in whatever it is you’re doing.
That’s also what artists and the arts have been telling us for years. As children, we have an ability to explore the world joyfully, without inhibition, with our hands, with our bodies. This is central to engagement with art , and we lose this ability as we grow older. As part of my master’s course at Jamia, we had a paper in Visual Art, and our teacher would talk about the idea that the ability to be childlike is the hallmark of artistic creation. It’s not childish; it’s child-like. And I think play brings back to me that thought around being child-like, having this ability to not be inhibited about what you want; to be able to immediately say and do things based on what you desire. As we grow older, moral codes, conventions of appropriateness and shame, and the utilitarian and income-focused education we get make us lose that ability. The idea of play to me is about bringing back that ability and comfort into the lives of people so that they can actually play. That is what I think of when I think of play and playfulness. And it connects to what I said at the start about our sexual lives. I wish all inputs that go into people’s development and growth – whether it’s school, college, whatever – built the ability to continue being playful.
SA: That’s a lovely take on play, Manak. Something to stay with for a while when we think of play. Here’s a question that comes up often when we speak of sexuality, and certainly when play and sexuality share the space: how do we keep things safe for ourselves and each other? How do we create an environment which is self-affirming and inclusive, allows us to be ourselves, or explore other selves, on a range of being the identities that we are?
MM: Thank you for that question! I think a lot of our work is geared towards that, right? Across different organisations, of course at TARSHI, and at many other organisations that are continuously thinking about consent, thinking about how we build an awareness and a cognizance of all of these issues in people from a very young age itself.
I think that building the ability to listen and have conversation is most important. I think of course, there can be many very good and organized inputs around understanding consent, understanding boundaries, understanding the hierarchies in gender, and how much people are able to assert what they really want across genders, or how much agency people have. But I think that, say, if more and more young men who are in a position of power are asking, how do I know if my partner is having fun when I’m with them, sexually – I think that’s a great start. I remember doing a training of trainers where the participants were young married men who would go on to implement sessions on contraceptive awareness and consent with adolescents. I realised how detrimental this “no means no” approach to teaching consent can be, if taken up without nuance. The boys said, “You’re asking us to just stop if a girl says no, the girls are told their whole life that if you say yes the first time, boys will think you are a bad girl, so in this scenario how do we have relationships, interactions or sex?” That was a very valid concern. And that gave us a space to have a conversation about listening. Not just no, but how is the no said. How can you ask again without seeming threatening or overbearing? What is good flirting as against harassing someone? Do you ever ask your wife for consent, or even have conversation about sex and what she might like, with her? All these ideas seemed so new to these boys. You know, this moral panic that when we say sexuality education, we are teaching young people about sex, that was one time when I actually felt how useful it would be for young people to learn about flirting, the art of conversation, responding politely to rejection and retaining a playfulness in romance and friendships.
So I think this ability to actually have conversation, to listen, to let down your guard in your intimate relationships, whether it is sexual, whether it is romantic, whether it is friendship, and to be able to have deep conversations about what you really like, what you want, what you don’t like, I think this is central. This helps create a safe environment in which to allow sexuality to flourish and sexuality to be experienced in its wholesomeness. It is a combination then, of organized inputs, of the ability to analyse what you’re being told by multiple media and the content that is around you, and the ability to listen and drop your guard and be yourself with somebody with whom you’d like to have that kind of an intimate experience. The idea of play really captures the way we should speak about sexuality with a sense of fun, positivity and consent.
One aspect of creating safe spaces for play is the work between two people. The other is our collective responsibility as a society to enable an environment that encourages healthy and easy conversation about sex and sexuality. This means stopping things that really create stigma, like raids and violence against couples in parks or in hotels. This is just saying that no sexuality can exist anywhere and that we should not talk about it or express it.
These are very strange watertight compartments that we’ve made of ‘no sexuality in public’ and so much stigma even around sexuality in private, and then we have the expanding and weird notion of public space where a hotel room is also suddenly a public space! Even there you can’t be yourself. Then to have no cognizance of the fact that, you know, who does have a private space? What is the privilege that gives you a completely private space to explore your sexuality? So public space is outlawed, and even in private you don’t have the education, support or tools to explore your own sexuality in a healthy manner. All this needs to be thought about. So, as a culture, our responsibility is to normalise the idea of sexuality and not to be horrified about it and shut it down. So, those are the two aspects, I think, between individuals, and collectively as society, that we have to work with for creating safe spaces to experience sexuality and play.
SA: Lots to reflect on and talk about in these thoughts you’ve shared. Speaking of being “horrified and shutting it down”, Manak, in a conversation we had last year you referred to the stigma around sexuality and said, “when an adolescent walks into a room and asks about sex, everybody has a heart attack”. If you looked at play as a construct, over a person’s lifetime, what are the opportunities here for normalising conversations about sexuality?
MM: We made a meme about this based on a mythological painting as a joke about the drastic reaction children who ask questions about sexuality get. This is really the reason why The YP Foundation started doing work on sexual health and sexuality. To address the stigma and shame around young people’s sexuality and to take charge of this aspect of our lives as young people. Your question reminds me of many conversations that we have while working on sexuality about age-appropriateness. We continuously think of who should be talking to young people and when we go to say that young people should have this information, teachers will say, “Yes, they should but parents should do it.” Parents say, “Yes, they should, but we don’t know how, somebody else should do it.” The larger assumption is that when people get married, they will know, magically.
I think of my interactions with children in my own family, or friend’s children who do express curiosity about bodies, anatomy, or sexuality. Age-appropriateness, of course, has to be built into organised interventions like a curriculum, what will be taught where, what conversation can somebody publicly have with a group of young people. But I think in interactions that are more private, more in the family, or amongst people who you know, the cue for age-appropriateness really comes from that young person or child. When they are exploring something, you have to respond to it and the trick is to not respond in a way that shuts the conversation down or creates shame. Even if you think this is not appropriate for them to be experiencing right now, or talking about right now, explain why.
I’m not saying that if five-year olds ask “What is sex?” that you should launch into a detailed, graphic description. No. But you know, talk about why, or when this might be a part of their lives; when they can start learning about it; why you are saying what you are saying. I think many opportunities are lost.
The idea of sexual play amongst children also becomes so stigmatised. The moment the child says something around sex, or something like that figures in the way they are playing with other children, we immediately get horrified. But we’ve all grown up with playing doctor-doctor, exploring your own body, somebody else’s body, suddenly realising that, “Oh my friend’s body is different from mine. What’s going on?” My niece who was 6 years old, once looked at a baby boy doll which had a penis, and said, “Oh, what is this? Why is this there in that body?” So, you know, get into those conversations. Explain why and what. I think many times children will give us these cues to have conversation as they grow older. It is important to take those opportunities and respond in a calm and rational manner, so that children take their cue from the adults when they talk about sexuality. I think that’s very important. And, I think, that is really the way in which we can normalise these conversations in the lives of people.
From the vantage point of an organisation that is doing interventions in this area, I feel that we are working against the grain of media content which is continuously sensationalising things. We are constantly trying to tell people, “It’s not so sensational, it’s not so up there in the stars. Your experience of sexuality is a regular normal thing. It won’t be as great as you’re seeing in films. It won’t be as terrible as you’re seeing in films either. It’ll be somewhere in the middle. Everybody will figure it out on their own. You need to have trust in yourself – that I will be able to, and I have the sanction to direct my own sexual life the way I want.” That is part of what we need to do as interventionists, as organisations, to enable people to develop that ability and confidence – that I will be at the helm of this and I have the right to do this.
Cover Image: Courtesy Manak Matiyani