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Sexing the Digital

low-angle photography of an interconnected metal structure.

There are some things that just get stuck in your head. A few years back, a 20-something married woman from rural Madhya Pradesh attended one of our digital literacy workshops in Mumbai. It was a huge thing for her. Mumbai! Maximum city! New smartphone! On the last day, she took a selfie wearing a yellow zari-bordered sari – without the pallu covering her head. When she proudly displayed her selfie to her husband, he grabbed the phone, hurled it against the wall, and broke it.

What was that really about? Was it that she’d subverted the age-old gender norm of technology not being for women? That norm has held on to its absurdities over centuries – in the 1800s, the sewing machine was feared for sexually stimulating women and encouraging lesbianism (with its up-down leg movements). In the 21st century, this norm is mutating to deny digital technologies to women. During the build-up to the November Rajasthan state elections, male leaders in some communities refused to let women be trained in operating social media or mobile apps. “These technologies are not for women,” they flatly said.

What else does this phone hurl indicate? That offline patriarchal norms are travelling online – lock, stock, and barrel. In a village in the Sundarbans that I visited, worried mothers railed against the mobile phone which was making their daughters elope. (Similar to the anxiety around the sewing machine, huh?) Decode: what they were actually saying is that mobile phones were giving their daughters mobility, including sexual agency and mobility sans parental surveillance.

Digital technologies may appear to be gender-neutral, but floating below their waters is the whole kit and caboodle of patriarchy. Just that one woman taking that one yellow-sari selfie broke so many norms: that women must cover their faces in public, that women mustn’t image themselves for their own pleasure, that women must neither give nor receive sexual gazes. As a 2019 study shows, in contexts where honour and shame are tied to women’s bodies, modelling photos, or images of ordinary interactions or friendly chats between men and women can be seen as norm-breakers, or ‘slutty’, with women inevitably facing the backlash.(1)

The humble selfie – which is typically seen as narcissistic or empowering – is an unlikely tool on this patriarchal battlefield. Academic Nishant Shah writes:

The selfie also needs to be seen as an object that also circulates between the online and the offline, becoming sometimes an object, and at others, the body of the user. It intrudes into the private, it captures the intimate, and as it circulates between the online and the offline, the private and the public, it leaks those solitary moments of life which need to be kept under wraps. The selfie is created to be shared, and when it is shared, it enters into circuits of viral consumption and untethered movement, changing locations, ownership, possession, and belonging, creating what Elizabeth Bernstein (2007) calls the condition of being ‘temporarily yours.’ Indeed, it is this very condition of the selfie as temporary, multiple, travelling, visible, and public that leads to it becoming an object of shame and control, particularly of women’s bodies in the digital spaces.(2)

If “I share therefore I am” (Sherry Turkle) is the way we live now, how do we ensure that we can share freely and fearlessly? That is the paradox we face.


In a wonderful essay on her teenage self, the author Zadie Smith asks herself this question: “Where can a twenty-first-century girl go these days to retreat from reality?” As an aside, she adds, in brackets: “(If the answer ‘the Internet’ comes to mind, I’m guessing you’re either over fifty or else somehow still able to imagine the Internet as separate from ‘reality.’)”

She’s right. The online is real, not ‘real’. No, it doesn’t have a material presence, except on our screens – but that doesn’t make it any less real. (We can’t really touch and feel our emotions except in our hearts and minds. Does that make them less real?) Researcher Nyx McLean notes how “the digital environment has become as much of a real space as a park, coffee shop, town square, clothing store or a couch in your living room”(3). And activist Jac SM Kee talks of the “urgent need to break the binary between what is perceived as online and on-ground. Rather than see them as distinct, we need to understand the flow and impact between one and the other.”

When it comes to sexuality, this digital-physical flow has been visible for the last decade or more. The ‘phygital’ is now the site where desire, intimacy, sex and sexuality are expressed, formed, shaped, negotiated, and contested. Within this daily dance, the digital increasingly determines “how we view our bodies, how we perform and experience sex, the array of sexualities we can observe, the dating and marriage partners we have access to; the content and delivery of sexual education resources and so on”(4). For example, from 2010 onwards, when the Android phone came to India, most LGBTQIA+ groups and collectives around the country, from small towns to megapolises, have formed in digital spaces. Digital spaces are easier to access than physical spaces as long as one has access to the Internet, anonymity provides a cover for stigmatised or marginalised sexualities, and digital spaces feel safe, especially with provisions to form ‘secret groups’, etc. Many of these still remain digital, or digital-first. Be it sexual identity formation, queer affirmative counselling, political struggles, hook-ups or intimacy building, sexual pleasure, and yes, sexual commerce, so much of it happens digitally. What could be more real?

In this new terrain of sexuality then, expression – or words and images – is the key tool, both for the personal and the political. And discourse itself has become a key site of activism. Writes SM Kee: “In an age of unprecedented circulation of information, discourse, visuals, and knowledge – there is a need to reimagine and understand better discourse as a site of activism, in and of itself, and its potential for deep transformative change.”

What does this mean in practice? It means embracing new forms of movement-building: posting, commenting, liking, sharing, and imaging are no longer peripheral or trivial actions. These everyday actions are deeply political actions that build movements. It means embracing new movement players, who aren’t always part of organisations. SM Kee writes:

Some of them are content creators, some are social media activists, some are part of interest-driven collectives, some are feminist techies, and some are what I like to call “free radicals” – nodes that connect between formal organising and informal networks who act as key bridge builders and interlocutors of different actors and different spaces. The internet and its capacity for anonymity and distance has also enabled actors who are diffident of visibility for various reasons (e.g. risk, introverts, etc) to participate actively and expressively in organising for change…

In short, movements today are much more diverse and broader than we had imagined.


Almost 25 years after the Internet came to India, sexuality online still remains a paradox, swinging between pleasure and danger. While anonymity enables sexual expression online, datafication connects our various avatars behind the scenes and strips away this anonymity. On the one hand, we can be multiple versions of our selves online, all of them differently authentic, reducing pressure to be a ‘singular self’; on the other, there’s pressure to conform to a certain sexual self. Writes Tiffany Kafure Mago of HOLAAfrica:

“The world increasingly looks like everyone seems to be telling you that you need to swing from the chandeliers to show that you are a sexually liberated being…Sex positivity is rife with myths such as ‘you have to be kinky’ and ‘you have to be sexy’ and ‘your body count needs to be through the roof’. You also apparently need to know the latest sex tricks in order to be sex-positive.”

While digital sexual spaces are opening up for some, they are shrinking for others. Sex workers who have been shadowbanned and lost access to payment gateways have started talking of ‘sexual gentrification’ online. In India, porn sites continue to be banned each year, more out of moral panic than anything else. It’s all very similar to another technological moment, 100 years ago, when the offset printing press came into being.

In the early 20th century, anxieties (Gupta, 2000) around sexual literature intensified as offset printing presses flooded the market with everything from ‘penny dreadfuls’ to erotic sexual manuals, surreptitiously disrupting the dominance of ‘clean literature’(5). Misgivings about ‘dirty literature’ soon mutated into a full-scale war on smut. Books, pamphlets, postcards, and pictures were confiscated. Publications on birth control were banned, books on homosexuality became taboo, and shops were warned against stocking the Kama Sutra. Railway bookstalls were not allowed to keep ‘objectionable’ material. Bookstores were searched, publications coming from Europe were seized, and booksellers, presses, and publishers were prosecuted under new anti-obscenity laws.

This moment feels very much like that: history repeating itself. Sex for pleasure and sexual expression are still not considered legitimate. Sex and sexuality are still viewed as problems to be solved, not integral parts of our lives. It’s time we stopped binarizing free expression, by treating political and religious expression as legitimate, and sexual expression as illegitimate. It’s time to start drawing the fault lines of sexual expression – between the consensual and the non-consensual, between actual and imagined harms, between bodily violations and bodily integrity. And it’s time for our movements to re-vision the politics of sexuality as we really live it: online and offline.


(1) Sambasivan, N., Ahmed, N., Batool, A., Bursztein, E., Churchill, E., Gaytán-Lugo, L., Matthews, T., Nemar, D., Thomas, K., Consolvo, Sunny. (2019). Toward Gender-Equitable Privacy and Security in South Asia. IEEE Security & Privacy, 17, 11-77. 10.1109/MSEC.2019.2912727.

(2) Shah, N. (2015). The Selfie and the Slut: Bodies, Technology and Public Shame. Economic and Political Weekly, 50(17), 86–93.

(3) McLean, N. (2014). Considering the Internet as Enabling Queer Publics/Counter Publics. Spheres Journal for Digital Cultures, 1, 1-12.

(4) Orchard, T. (2019). Sex and the Internet. Encyclopedia of Sexuality and Gender, 1–5.

(5) Gupta, C. (2000). “Dirty” Hindi Literature: Contests About Obscenity in Late Colonial North India. South Asia Research, 20(2), 89-118.

Cover Image: Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash