Richa Kaul Padte, in her own words, is “a writer and editor interested in gender, sex, tech, popular culture and illness.” She has recently authored Cyber Sexy, a book on pornography and experiences of online sex cultures and expressions. Richa is co-founder and managing editor of Deep Dives, an award-winning, digital imprint of Point of View, a Mumbai-based non-profit that focuses on issues of gender, sexuality and rights. Shikha Aleya interviews Richa about porn, pleasure and pussycats.
Shikha Aleya: Richa, thank you for taking the time and energy out for this interview. You have mentioned illness in the bio blurb on your website, and in the online piece ‘If we bring our loneliness to the internet, what do we take away?’ you have shared your personal observations of illness, the body, and experiences with internet spaces. How do illness / wellness connect to your experiences of life?
Richa Kaul Padte: The vast number of people who live with chronic or debilitating illnesses are women. Johanna Hedva’s ‘Sick Woman Theory’ is an incisive and evocative essay that many of us sick girls hold closely, because it contains, among many things, the idea that it is ultimately a capitalist patriarchy that is making us sick.
Personally, though, I haven’t deep dived very much into the theories behind illness, even though there is some wonderful writing in this area (especially by women). For now I am more interested in the effects of illness; how it changes the shape of your life, and how you can find a way to live through your symptoms in a manner where you still feel like yourself.
The internet has been both a blessing and a curse in this department (like it has in all departments) – I feel so inspired by all the sick girls I follow online, but at the same time, I am beleaguered by the feeling that they are doing illness ‘better’ than me. Last year I wrote an essay about this for Racked, and it’s something that I still wrestle with in my everyday life.
Shikha: That gives one a lot to think about. Now, on a different plane, in 2013, while blogging about a workshop by EROTICS India on sexuality and internet use across five countries, you wrote of claiming and advancing sexual citizenship. In the light of recent changes in India’s legal landscape, the reading down of Section 377 this September, the decriminalisation of adultery through Section 497 being struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, what are your thoughts on sexual citizenship now, five years later? What are the challenges up ahead?
Richa: I think we’ve seen some hard won legal victories around sexual citizenship in India in the last few years, but in my more cynical moments (of which there are many), I sometimes wonder if we’re going one step forward and two steps back. So for example, the two things you mentioned – Section 377 and Section 497 – are indeed incredible victories, but at the same time I’m thinking about the raising of age of consent to 18, the continued legal denial of marital rape, and our anti-trafficking and sex work laws that entirely disregard consent. I think as a society, both legal and otherwise, we’re still a ways away from embracing the concept of sexual citizenship – the idea that each of us is an autonomous sexual being, and that as sexual citizens, irrespective of caste, class, religion, marital status and so on, we have the right to pursue pleasure free from harm.
Shikha: You spoke to the writer of a recent online article about being threatened by online scammers saying they have footage of you masturbating to porn. Please tell us more about how you dealt with this. What are the strategies by which an individual can take control of their own personal narrative of sex and sexuality, in the context of a society where such control is almost always external?
Richa: The scam e-mail I received was precisely that – a scam. I was fairly certain they didn’t have any footage, in great part because if you spend two years researching a book on porn, your appetite for consuming porn for pleasure seriously diminishes. But that didn’t mean I didn’t feel a combination of panic, shame and fear at reading that e-mail. And the truth is that I don’t know how to not have those feelings, or what to suggest to other women so that they can avoid having those feelings. Because look, of course we all know the theory: sexuality is nothing to be ashamed of, your desires are legitimate, and violations of your sexual consent – online or offline – are never your fault. And I absolutely 100% believe all of this. But in that moment when someone violates your consent, or threatens to violate your consent: in an e-mail, in a nightclub, in the bedroom, it can be difficult to convert that theory into practice.
I think for me, talking about the experience helps. Sharing it with other people changes it from something you hold tightly inside yourself to something you can expel into the world. And as it enters the world, it not only becomes a lighter burden for you to bear, but it changes the landscape of the world itself. And that’s what is happening with the Me Too movement, right? Women are unleashing their experiences into the world, refusing to contain them in private webs of shame and fear any longer.
Shikha: So very true. In the book, Cyber Sexy, you make linkages between porn and power, saying that pornography often gets defined as something that goes against “existing power structures”. In India, where these “power structures” are often a cultural, moral policing around sex and sexuality, how does it go on to impact the definitions and consumption of pornography?
Richa: In India, power mostly lies with upper class, upper caste, cisgender, heterosexual men. And this power structure asserts itself on to the rest of us in a variety of ways, from cultural purity to moral policing to the family unit. I do wish I could have spent more time on this in Cyber Sexy, because I think one really important way to look at the preservation of power in India is through the family unit. The family is a stronghold of the dominant power structure: caste-appropriate, heterosexual, demanding female subservience, and so on. And porn, with all its diversities of desires and pleasures, does not fit into this space. It is women pleasuring themselves. It is men being ‘led astray’. It is children being exposed to ‘those kinds of things’.
Anti-porn attacks in India often include the idea that pornography is ruining Indian families – and this is a very difficult argument to contest, both personally and politically, because the idea of the family as sacred is enmeshed very deeply into all of us. No one wants to be a home-wrecker, right? Especially not those of us typically positioned as ‘home-makers’. And I think in order to free pornography – and by extension sexual pleasure – from the ways Indian society defines and demonises it, we need to take a good hard look at how power is preserved in our immediate domestic spaces, and how these spaces influence our own opinions and consumption of pornography.
Shikha: You speak of “feminist porn” in Cyber Sexy, describing it as “porn created in a way that considers the rights, pleasure and consent of all the people involved — on- and off-screen. Feminist porn isn’t porn for women, but it is porn that takes women’s pleasure into account as much as a man’s”. Please elaborate on this concept. What would be some of the aspects of an ideal form of “feminist porn”, and how can this be made more inclusive and accessible?
Richa: Feminist porn a term used by adult filmmakers from different parts of the world, who are bringing a feminist praxis to their filmmaking. Feminist porn typically has more women behind the camera, fair labour rights and contracts for sex workers, a greater diversity of bodies and sex on-screen, and an absolute commitment to consent.
But not all porn and sexy content that has these attributes calls itself feminist porn, which is obviously fine – I think something can be feminist without self-identifying as such. For example, I think of the many women I interviewed for Cyber Sexy who create and post sexy content online, and who are creating – in my mind at least – wonderful, feminist additions to the landscape of the sexy internet. So while the term ‘feminist porn’ applies to a particular branch of studio-shot pornography, I think its implications have a far wider reach.
Shikha: Thank you so much for this interview! A last question – Richa, there are these cats who feature in the About section of your website. How would you describe the connections between who you are, your work, and your connection with animals? Do tell us a little bit more about yourself and what you would consider the most significant elements of your life journey thus far.
Richa: I grew up in Kodaikanal, which is a tiny (or now, not-so-tiny) hill station in Tamil Nadu. I really loved living there, but it’s only much later that I was able to see how much growing up in the midst of forests and greenery with dogs at my side shaped me. I remember when I left Kodai in my late teens and spent a brief and difficult time in Bombay, I was so distraught that I couldn’t see the sky. I used to sit on the terrace of my grandmother’s building smoking cigarettes at midnight, and all I could see were city lights. I felt so absurdly trapped, and I told myself that if I had a choice, I would never again live somewhere I couldn’t see the sky. I don’t know if I have an explanation for how this is connected to my working life; maybe it isn’t – I am an ace compartmentaliser. I will say this though: Cyber Sexy is dedicated to a cat, which should tell you everything you need to know about me.