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Interview: Paromita Vohra – Part I

Picture of Paromita Vohra, she has short hair, wearing a pink saree and black blouse with a flower in her hair
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning film-maker, author, columnist and curator whose work focuses on urban life, popular culture, gender, politics and art. Along with all this she is also the founder of Agents of Ishq, a multi-media project on love, sex and desire. In a two-part interview with TARSHI, Paromita tells it to us as only she can: frank, articulate and free of male cow poop!

TARSHI: Agents of Ishq (AOI) is a multimedia project on sexual culture in India. How would you define the sexual culture in India right now?

Paromita Vohra (PV): We should be wary of asking questions like how you would define the sexual culture of India, as if to say that India has only one sexual culture. The very definition of culture is that it is diverse. You can never know what a culture is by just looking at a surface – especially one presented by mainstream media with its very restricted methods. The whole thing about culture is that it manifests in sometimes unspoken and invisible ways – it’s a feeling, it’s behaviour. It’s also what people state as their identity. But it is too diverse a thing to be qualified singularly.

Whether it is the annual sex surveys in national magazines, whether it is people continuously writing about sexual trends, or whether it is political discourse about sexual culture in India or about what is a culturally appropriate way of talking about sex. All of these things homogenise sexual culture, whereas it is in fact very heterogeneous.

There are people who tend to think in a normative fashion, believing that only one thing is possible for one identity with respect to gender, sexual identity, sexual choices, sexual behaviour, and of course, religious identity. But lived life is usually far more complex.

There’s also a large number of people who don’t conform to that normativity. We have found at AOI that you will discover diverse things in a semi-rural space and in an urban space. Also, you can’t really say that people in the city are all sorted out and progressive while people in small towns are yet to catch up. This is a linear idea of culture – you think that the past is backward and the future is forward. Or you think that village or small town is backward, and city is forward. Actually, it doesn’t operate like that. Linearity is not the way culture operates. So, you may find great conservatism in cities and tremendous experimentation in a small town, and vice versa. Things function in parallel lines and overlaps with individuals and groups making different choices until a certain critical mass is achieved and then the change becomes discernible at which point media might start to write about it – but that is not the real moment when the change has started to take place

So, at this point the one thing that we can say in general about what is going on with regards to sexual culture in India is that there is a greater push today, an overt demand, to have that heterogeneity acknowledged. We often see people trying to control sexuality in India; so, we begin to think that that the controlling way is the sexual culture. But consider that the reason people try to control something is because there is also a liberation and transgression constantly occurring. If nobody ran away to get married across castes, if nobody chose to come out as being queer, if people didn’t do things that were breaking earlier norms at a certain rate, then nobody would push back. There would be no desire to control because there would be nothing to control. So, the anxiety around sexual behaviour is evidence itself that sexual behaviour is pushing to have its heterogeneity acknowledged.

One of the fall outs of this anxiety is that even as people have increasingly diverse sex lives in larger numbers, sex education, comprehensive discussions about sex and information on sexual health are not allowed to enter the public domain. This severely reduces the possibility of people having healthy adult lives – physically, emotionally, sexually and a project like Agents of Ishq seeks to mirror the real experiences and questions of lived sexuality and respond to its needs as much as possible.

T: You have said in an interview that “sex is about pleasure but also about survival.” What do you mean by that?

PV: Of course, sex is about pleasure. But pleasure itself is about survival. Very often when we talk about pleasure we talk about it as an extra – like it’s superfluous. And we are only allowed to do those things which are necessary. So, one of the ways in which it plays out in sex is that a lot of the shame and control around sex is dependent on the idea that the only sex which is valid is sex for reproduction. And sex for reproduction means sex which happens within marriage, and that too heterosexual marriage. So, the idea that we will have sex for pleasure starts becoming frowned upon because pleasure is superfluous.  This thinking that is entrenched in many parts of the culture – even what might be termed progressive culture – can become like that; people are comfortable for example with a rights discourse because it is neater and about needs rather than desires which can be multiple, uncontrollable, unquantifiable, uncategorisable and also, politically incorrect.

But I would like to suggest that in fact pleasure is a basis of survival. It is only when we know what we like, that we can understand what we don’t like. If we are always being told,“Don’t do this”,“Don’t do that”, how will we know what it is that we want to do. So, pleasure allows us to discover who we are, what we like, what we would like to do, and what we would like have done to us by others. It helps us to make choices and therefore helping us to determine the shape of our lives. And in order to survive in this world we must know what works for us. Therefore, sex is a matter of survival, and I don’t mean it in a biological sense. I mean in order to survive in the world we must know what we think about our sexual selves.

If you are not in touch with yourself as a sexual person,that means you are not in touch with yourself as a person. Sex is a part of who you are. If you are made to doubt, question and feel ashamed about something that is an essential part of your nature – as you can’t control that you have desire (for sex) since it’s a part of being human – then you are going to doubt all of yourself. So, sex helps you to have a holistic relationship with yourself in order to survive in this world.

It is also at a more mundane level, about sexual safety. If you don’t know what you like, and you think about sex only in a negative way – and not in a positive way – you will never have an empowered and enabled relationship with safer sex. You will never feel comfortable (enough) to insist that a condom be used, because you don’t know how to talk about sex. So, by making sex – pleasurable sex – a normal part of life, by taking away the guilt, shame, doubt and hesitation that people develop around sex, we ensure that people have safer sex. That they have a good relationship with their own selves. That they become more confident, happier, and are able to take charge of their own safety and life journey.

T: You wrote that in mainstream discourse, “sex is empowerment, sex is gendered behaviour, sex is violence, sex is politics, but sex is so rarely, so infrequently, sex.” 

PV: It is about everything except real sex. We talk about sexuality, which is an abstract concept. We talk about violence a LOT. We talk about danger a lot. We talk about disease. We talk about all the things that can go wrong, but we never talk about the things that can go right. Now if you don’t know what going right looks like, if you don’t know what consent looks like, if you don’t understand that pleasure is a part of sex, how will you be able to act it out? So, to develop a powerful relationship with sex is to develop a powerful relationship with your own self. However actual sex – the activity of sex – is left only to pornography to discuss. In actuality we should have numerous accounts of sex in any culture – lived sexualness has to be part of our understanding of sex.

T: But why is it easier to talk about sex through issues of violence and politics than to talk about it as sex itself?

PV: The whole reason why we don’t talk about sex as sex is because people are being controlled through shame – made to doubt how they inhabit the world of sex.. For example, the kind of body image that is represented as ideal makes all of us feel we are ugly and undesired, makes all of us doubt not only our own sexual selves, but also our social selves. We wonder “Am I too dark”, “Am I too fat”, “Do I not look the way you are supposed to look in order to be considered attractive?” Since the only images of sex we see are usually in mainstream pornography, this doubt may extend to actual sex too – “Am I not looking as one should in sex? Am I not doing things the way they are meant to be done?” Now all of these things in a sense control and inhibit how we move in the world. When sex is recast in terms of other things – gender, caste, choice – those choices are controlled. Somebody else – not us  – is deciding for us what is appropriate and what is not.

And this taboo on talking about sex as sex can be found across the (socio-political) spectrum. It is not about being right wing or left wing. Even those who advocate for a kind of liberated attitude towards sex will often speak about abstract concepts, and not talk about actual sex. By “actual” sex, I mean the actual business of sex as the thing that people do. It remains kind of shrouded. Till we start to talk about sex as sex instead of something else, we will not create a place for powerful sex. Sex will always become a metaphor for something else instead of being a thing in itself, a sort of hidden, uneasy force and exert an insidious psychic and social control. Far better to enrich the world of sex by populating it with different ways of talking about this part of our lives, by filling it with metaphors that link it to all of life instead of de-linking it from life.

T: You have said that we currently have a “fake sexual revolution” in the country. What do you mean by that?

PV: I mean that more as that the manner something is being termed revolution is done so through fake paradigms.

There are two ways in which normativity occurs. Some years ago, people were ashamed of the fact that they are having sex, so they would like to hide it. Today sexual revolution is presented as the idea that everyone is having a lot of sex, and casualness is the aspirational quality of sexual relationships. This is not part of playfulness in life, but is presented as a reverse norm, which creates equal amounts of shame as before in those who may or may not feel like this.

Also we do see that while on the one hand people talk up the idea of sexual liberty, in so much of the content created online we are still dealing with the same old sexist jokes, the same old flat descriptions of male and female sexuality. You are also more likely to come across contempt for people’s ignorance, rather than actual information that will end that ignorance in what is called ‘online content’. Just talking about sex is definitely a step forward. But eventually the way in which we talk about sex has to change and that requires a huge shift of consciousness, like, a genuine creative and political enlightenment which is visible only in small patches. We are a little too keen to give lollipops to people for just talking about sexual violence or conservativeness and not much more. So, as far as I am concerned, if you want to talk about sexual revolutions then raise the bar, shift some paradigms, be audacious and wise, take some interesting risks. Otherwise you are just another kind of conformist pretending to be counter-cultural.

A sexual revolution is one in which people get to decide for themselves which sexual journey is good for them and we all accept that this is the choice that works for them. So, the idea of liberating sex being defined in only one way is as much of a norm-creation as the norm that you are not supposed to have sex outside of marriage.

Also, you can’t have a sexual revolution without many other kinds – you have to question your own attitudes to gender, class, caste, sexual identity, emotional vulnerability, artistic forms and political structures. If you are not willing to step outside your comfort zone more than once, and at least risk losing privilege (whether you do or don’t being another discussion), how much are you really changing?

T: You have been making films on sexuality and desire in India for over the last two decades. What changes have you seen taking place in India over the years?

PV: In the 1990s, there were not as many people talking about sex as we have today – that is a big change. I think the digital world brought about this change. Because of chat, Facebook and dating apps like Tinder, Truly Madly, OK Cupid, there’s a lot of people to connect with and ways to connect with them, outside your own limited socio-sexual sphere. It has given people private space to connect with others in a way everyday life often didn’t. Imagine you are queer, living in the 90s in a small town where gayness is never spoken about and you never see any mention of it in the media. You are likely to grow up thinking there’s something wrong with you. But if you are gay in a small town today, you can go online and find someone else like you and can know that it’s not a problem. If you are queer, if you are a girl who likes to have sex, if you masturbate, all of these things – the Internet allows you to know that this is totally normal and gives you a way to form a community. Digital culture has really altered the sexual culture. Many of those secret spaces have become normalised or are getting normalised. Internet has allowed so many new artistic projects that have helped (in this regard). It has allowed new sexual solidarity.

At the same time, the impact of mainstream commercial pornography on how we think sex actually happens has become huge. That’s not always a great thing. Because porn is just a movie, it’s not real life. While porn exists for entertainment, it can’t be seen as a documentary to teach you how sex actually happens. As it also operates under a certain commercial logic it has as much capacity for normativeness as do mainstream commercial movies, and finding other kinds of porn which are more positive is sometimes the same as finding art movies that don’t reflect mainstreamed prejudices.

Another thing that has changed is that in the 90s, I do believe multiple types of attractiveness were highly possible  – you could be a smart girl and be attractive, and you didn’t have to look a certain way to be attractive. Today, attractiveness means you have to be smart, conventionally sexy and to look beautiful at the same time. This is a lot harder than it was 20 years ago. Even if we imagine ourselves as ‘alternative’, even if we have made different personal choices, it’s to be remembered that we all live in the same world. Even if you are progressive you live in the same world as everybody else. So, while you believe that people should be attractive in different ways and for different reasons, we all live in a time where the way you look is important so it is going to impact you nevertheless. In its own way, the digital sphere also brings so many different worlds onto the same plane – that’s great. It also means that having a refuge away from the endless scrutiny of the ‘mainstream’ world becomes a little harder. As the digital space has changed from being a space of play, experimentation and being niche, to basically being the whole world in parallel, to being a space of work, self-promotion, corporate and government control, it is bound to reflect the same pressures, violence, normativeness as the offline world. This is inescapable and as offline, so online, a reflective, philosophical, capacious political thinking will always be needed to promote and strengthen values, emotions, aesthetics and ideas that affirm our experience rather than undermine it.

Part two of the interview.

Cover Photo: YouTube, CNN News 18

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