Ritambhara Mehta is with Nazariya, a Delhi-based queer feminist resource group. Nazariya works on issues of gender and sexuality with a focus on issues of queer women and trans* persons.
Shikha Aleya (SA): Thank you for taking the time out for this interview Ritambhara. Diving straight into the subject, what is pleasure? How does pleasure relate to sexuality, consent and diversity?
Ritambhara Mehta (RM): I did a word mapping exercise on what pleasure means to me and these are the words that came to my mind: masturbation, sex, sexuality, risk, fantasy, righteousness, taking a moral high ground, orgasm, being different, food, kink, Bollywood, pain, legal, queerness, thrill.
Safe sex and consent weren’t the first words that came to my mind. I was also surprised how I even thought about righteousness. When I dwell on it, I realise I take a lot of pleasure in being right in an argument, to prove someone wrong. I also take a lot of pleasure in being a 33-year-old who has questioned certain sexual norms in her family. I feel it definitely gives me the moral high ground as compared to my cousins and friends who have chosen the normative life.
Even when I place myself on this side – I would still not want to not settle with what is offered to me as an alternative. A lot of examples come to my mind – being monogamous vis-à-vis being polyamorous, prioritising family over friends or vice versa, consent vis-à-vis – I can’t even think of this. If not consent then what? This is a part of questioning the norm, and the challenges that follow. For example, questioning monogamy, because it’s the non-normative or queer feminist thing to do, but at the same time struggling with accepting polyamory. I want to be a part of these discussions and want to question what I have internalised, but I also struggle with my insecurities.
There was so much taboo around everything related to sex and sexuality during my formative years, and this may resonate for a lot of other people as well: that it takes a lot of conscious effort to talk about pleasure. When I say pleasure, I just mean sex, joy, fantasies, and such. On the contrary, it’s easier for me to talk about sexuality, about choosing to live a certain kind of life, breaking sexual norms, etc.
SA: In your work with different population groups, at colleges, with NGOs, at queer events, does pleasure enter the conversation? What are some of the attitudes and responses you observe and engage with when the subject comes up?
RM: In my experience, through Nazariya, we end up talking about pleasure in two ways. One is to ask people to list their fantasies. Here, people mostly end up talking about fantasies such as of walking on a beach naked, or having sex with their lover on a mountaintop, but even in these fantasies, sex is a recurring theme. The second way involves an activity based on talking about different sexual acts that people can engage in. Often between 20 participants, the responses you get can become a list of 1000 sexual acts . The point is, once you open up this space, people start talking about it. I refuse to believe people aren’t willing to talk about pleasure, but it’s just that as trainers, as organisations, we also don’t open up that space. Once you do that, people are willing to talk about it. It’s important to open up these spaces. Where are the spaces where people are talking about sexual acts and where are the spaces where people are asking about sexual fantasies?
However, even when I end up talking about pleasure, I can’t help but talk about only sex! And when I talk about sex, I can’t help gearing the conversation to safer sex practices or consent or bring in the legal aspects. Which makes me wonder, is there no way to talk about pleasure without looking at it from the safety lens? Or, from the point of view of just consent? Or, from a legal point of view? For example, can I find someone’s advances at work towards me objectionable and yet flattering? The answer can perhaps be yes, after all who is stopping me but it is not every day we engage in discussions on pleasure, sex, sexuality while growing up – at home, in school, at work, etc. so how do we even begin to wrap our head around these concepts ? How do I ask for her phone number – maybe I should just somehow get it from her friend’s friend? There is a different kind of pleasure in that, in what it means to ask someone out on a date. How do I talk about my boyfriend to my parents? (In my case there have been far too many people – boys, girls, boys – I feel terrible for my parents.) We have not grown up talking about pleasure, or the intensity of our feelings around sex, love, rejection. These are difficult aspects to address with a yes and no approach to anything including what is pleasurable and what is objectionable.
SA: Is it important to reclaim the space of pleasure in our experience and understanding of sexuality? Why? How do we do this? Would the experience of such a reclaiming be different, and in what ways, for different populations, for example, for individuals assigned female at birth?
RM: There are three thoughts that come to my mind when I think about this question: 1. Just today, at a workshop on gender and sexuality, a participant – a young girl – came up and asked “Why do people have sex? Why are young people so obsessed with it?” She is someone who, when she introduced herself, had also said that she feels distressed when she sees 15-year-olds obsessed with falling in love with each other when they should be concentrating on their studies. 2. Often at workshops, there is a popular narrative attached to people with non-normative gender expressions and sexualities – that we are all bhagwaan ke bachche (children of god). 3. I take pleasure in being different from others by being queer, choosing to stay unmarried, childfree, choosing to live apart from my family who are in the same city.
In all these three things there is a certain de-sexualisation, where it is almost wrong to talk about people as sexual beings, and therefore impossible to think of pleasure in connection with sex and sexuality. Why can’t it be that 15-year-olds are obsessed with sex? Why can’t young people be obsessed with sex? Do I need to prove myself in other ways to justify my queerness as a bisexual unmarried person who has sex? Or is it that I can’t simply talk about sex as an act, but need to talk about the politics of sexuality to justify my choices?
SA: Safe, Inclusive, Sexuality-Affirming spaces, SISA spaces, require focused attention, both in the elements that are integral to the creation of such spaces and to sustain them. Can you share your experience of some such spaces and whether pleasure is an element of that experience?
RM: In 2012, I became a part of the Delhi Queer Pride (DQP) planning committee listserv. I was a lurker for about 6 months until I decided to volunteer for the Queer Bazaar. One of the first meetings I attended was at India Coffee House. I was 26 then, I attended that meeting with another queer person who I’d known for about a year. There were so many other queer people there that I was meeting for the first time in my life, and sitting with them and having coffee with them and discussing things with them; it was a somewhat surreal experience for me. Seeing so many queer people in flesh and blood was extremely overwhelming. (It was 2012 and I grew up in Delhi!) The fact that such a space existed meant a lot to me.
Soon after, some of us got together and revived this group called Qashti, a queer, feminist collective. There weren’t too many spaces in Delhi for queer women and transmen. The fact that one was part of such a space was extremely reassuring. We did not all share the same politics, but the fact that one could come together and chill, in a space where there was no need to hide our sexuality, was a huge relief. I don’t remember talking about pleasure there, I don’t remember if those discussions happened; all of us were still grappling with the fact of coming together, and creating a space where people were coming out, partying, or just watching a film together, or going out for a drink. It was definitely pleasurable. The group lasted for about two and a half to three years. I ended up making a lot of friends. It also led to the founding of Nazariya.
SA: Thank you for all that you’ve shared here with us! Please tell us something about yourself and the influences that have shaped your perspective on pleasure, queer spaces and sexuality.
RM: I owe a lot to discussions I have had at Qashti and now at Nazariya during lunch, coffee breaks, and numerous other breaks that we end up taking! These conversations really help me in reflecting on how I think about situations. To begin with, even when one joined the DQP or was a part of Qashti, the idea was never to find a partner (well, it was not my primary aim!) I wasn’t looking for a space to party, the idea was to find a space to call one’s own, or as Virginia Woolf says, “A room of one’s own”. I grew up in a middle-class Punjabi family, where the expectation was to finish studying, get a job, get married, have kids, but my parents were open to the fact that there are other choices as well. So, when you’re trying to find yourself in the larger scheme of things, when you are trying to discover yourself, create a space for yourself, make sense of who you are, it was refreshing to see other people who were making similar choices in life where finding a partner is not the be-all and end-all of it. Being by yourself is something people revel in, and take a lot of pride in. These are spaces where friendship means a lot and I am able to strengthen my friendships as well. Not just collectives, resource groups, and organisations but conversations like this one which took place over three days (thank you Shikha!) also help you think through things.
Cover Photo: Pavel Sagolsem