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Why Do We Find Erotica Shameful?

A scene from Sita Sings The Blues. Scott, A. O. “Legendary Breakups: Good (Animated) Women Done Wrong in India.” An illustration of sita lying in bed with hanuman behind her.

At least once in your life you have hidden your erotica in the corner of the shelf or had to justify reading it like Rachel does on the famous show, FRIENDS (Season 7, episode 2, The One With Rachel’s Book). There is something innately criminal about reading erotica, or at least, we feel that when we pick it. The semi- naked people in compromising positions make us blush, and we know that we will be judged for indulging in these reading pleasures. However, many would agree that erotica is just as important a read as any. It helps us educate ourselves in the art of seduction which doesn’t stem from the desire for reproduction. But it is not just sexual seduction. Good erotica also has a strong heroine. Here, note that I am focusing on heterosexual erotica and not any other kind (for the lack of having read much of the latter). In this erotica, we find women who are vocal, women who feel sexy and sure about themselves in the bedroom. While reading, we often think of ourselves in their situation, in their actions, and imagine ourselves saying the things and wearing the clothes they do, and like them, smelling of sweet berries. Erotica also helps us understand our own drives and desires, and if not recognise or understand our likes and dislikes, at least helps us put what we feel into words. Here, I am falling into the same old trap of justifying my choice of reading. But all in all, one should read erotica because one likes it. Our reason for providing justifications is that many people associate erotica with porn, trash and shameful and immoral material, and this notion isn’t completely misguided given our postcolonial Indian context.

We have clear boundaries between moral pleasures and immoral pleasures and what is acceptable and what is not in the society. These boundaries are set in our heads since childhood through fairy tales and Hindu mythological tales which are often used as moral stories. Our role models are supposed to be women like Sita, Draupadi, Savitri etc whom we can never imagine being in a compromising situation ever, despite having handsome, healthy and extremely desirable husbands like Ram, whose beauty is described in detail in the Ramayana; Arjun, one of Draupadi’s husbands who is praised for his beauty in the Mahabharat; and Satyawan, who Savitri chose as her husband against her father’s wishes. Yet, all three mythological characters, Sita, Draupadi and Savitri, are not recognised as women with desires, but rather, as women in a certain social role. Here, I am not saying that we need a sexualised narrative, but what I am saying is, it’s not possible for us to imagine them in any other role. It took years to imagine Sita with curves (in Sita Sings the Blues, a film by Nina Paley which in any case, isn’t a mainstream film in India)! We shun the sexualised narratives of our mythical characters, one might say, but we have no qualms in sexualising the apsaras in heaven who danced for the gods and distracted the saints. Hence, we don’t necessarily have a problem with the erotic but with whom we sexualise. These apsaras were never recognised as mothers in spite of having had children with sages and kings, or recognised as sisters or daughters. They are clinically cut off from all social roles in society except that of a lover for it’s deemed unacceptable to have a relative of yours engaging in sensual desires without social/marital/domestic responsibility. These women were only recognised for pleasure, sensuousness and their art of seduction. Then, we have clearly set the boundary through these narratives of what it means to be a socially acceptable woman, often taking away or limiting our sexual agency and desire.

However, it’s not that the South-Asian subcontinent doesn’t have a history of the erotic. We have the moral and the immoral residing together in this space, says Madhavi Menon in her book, History of Desire. We have documented sensual carvings, paintings, sculptures and literature. We have Kalidasa comparing Dushyanta with Kama Dev (the lord of sexual desire) in Abhigyan Shakuntalam and Radha educating her niece Ila in the art of seduction in Radhika Santawanam(which was banned in colonial India). More than that, we have the Kamasutra. However, we still don’t look very kindly towards the contemporary erotic narratives.

We still, subconsciously maybe, have the distinction of high and low culture in art because of which we don’t look kindly at the narratives we find on or on experimental platforms like Wattpad. These narratives, I partially agree, are crude, callous and not the best form of literature available on the Internet, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are still pleasurable, and an expression of someone’s sexual desire and fantasy which somewhere resonates with our own, or else, we wouldn’t have chosen to consume them. We must also recognise that with the technological advancement of our age, we find erotica in various forms on various platforms like Instagram. We have water paints and doodles to express desire or the desirable and captions that ignite our passions. We are also acquainted with the comic strips of Savita Bhabhi, which for a brief period faced legal charges but now are freely available on the internet. These different forms not only show advancement in the judged genre but also cater to a wide audience with different interests.

Keeping this in mind, it is safe to say that the genre of erotica is a space that allows its writers and readers to express their darkest, immoral, socially acceptable as well as unacceptable desires and quench rather than suppress them. Erotica, which according to statistics is largely a women dominated genre, often creates a platform where women across space and time can connect and don’t feel alienated in their sexual needs when they find a heroine with the same desire, or when they read about a plot situation which resonates with their own. Erotica not only provides entertainment for a brief period of time but also helps add a little flavour to our own life, and maybe help us change our perspective of erotic desire, or question it.

Cover Image: A scene from Sita Sings The Blues. Scott, A. O. “Legendary Breakups: Good (Animated) Women Done Wrong in India.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 2009. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.

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