Think of erotica in India and the first few things that come to mind are sculptures in temples, white sari song sequences, and censorship. But the history and the lived experience of erotica in the country is far more nuanced, as a recently concluded Love, Sex and Data (LSD) conference showed.
Organised by The YP Foundation, an organisation that builds youth leadership for social change, and Agents of Ishq, a multimedia platform about sex, love and desire, the conference is a rare chance for those aiming to understand the erotic for professional or personal reasons.
Paromita Vohra, founder and creative director of Agents of Ishq, says that the conference was meant to be held in 2020 but had been put on hold because of the pandemic. Three months ago the organisers decided to wait no more and gathered together a community of thinkers, artists, sex-educators and writers.
These “pleasure activists” were part of workshops, panel discussions and lectures that explored the taboos and transformative powers of pleasure, the lack of adequate information that could help people in their sex lives and the politics of erotic experiences.
Keynote speaker from the first day of the conference, Charu Gupta, associate professor of history at the University of Delhi, lectured on “Why Are We So Scared of Pleasure?”, using references from Hindi popular print and pulp fiction to examine the history of pleasure and displeasure in India, with the latter sometimes squarely blamed on Victorian British values. Gupta noted that within academia, there were attacks made in the 20th century on texts that hinted at eroticism and pleasure as “hallmarks of decadent feminine and uncivilised culture”. Yet, among the public, as academic Anjali Arondekar’s work has shown, there was a 19th century manual for women which said that New India Rubber dildos were better than the early dildos of ivory or silver—not because it looked more like a penis but because it felt like one.
Agents of Ishq founder and creative director Paromita Vohra says, “Pleasure means different things to different people. To engage with the politics of pleasure is to engage with heterogeneity. It is a path to emotional resilience that helps you accept yourself, judge less and so, accept others.”
The conference has happened at a time when censorship threats loom around OTT content of sexual nature; and there are conversations around love jihad, yet, despite these so-called regulations, there are cases of gender-based violence, especially against Dalit women. In all of this, according to Vohra, the pleasures of sex are lost and sex becomes associated with violence and regulation.
Vohra says that one thing we learn from all the pleasure activists in the conference is that the idea of pleasure is capacious and exists in every culture. “To be human is to seek pleasure. And to control others is often to control pleasure—or define for them what is supposed to be pleasurable, something that gatekeepers of all kinds, including the market, do for people. In many ways, pleasure is the antidote to violence because it is inclusive—it is not about polarities but about relationships built through mutual kindness, enjoyment and respect,” she says. Vohra has previously spoken about “pleasure positive” as a more exciting idea than “sex positive”. “Pleasure reintegrates sex with everyday life – but it also goes beyond the fixed destination of sex to embrace a spectrum of desires. Those who find sex difficult, or uninteresting, still have a desire for and a right to pleasure,” she had tweeted.
Interested viewers can catch up on the conference on LSD India’s YouTube page. The conference often comes back to the need to understand what data could mean in discussions around sex, erotica and pleasure. Vohra had stated at the beginning of the conference that the absence of data on pleasure reveals the taboos, hesitations and discomforts about the inner world of people and communities. It also leads us to wonder if data on pleasure is not gathered because our definitions of data and research are limited to tangibles alone. And if data presents a certain partial picture of reality on which we base our understanding, our interventions, our policies, then is this kind of partial picture of humanity enough to include the diversity of experiences, needs, insights and realities of different communities? So pleasure poses that question of what counts as data and whose data counts as data?
Vohra says, “Without pleasure politics, there can be no meaningful consent. Consent is not a technology. It is an attitude embedded in equality of desires. If we cannot understand pleasure, consent will remain a kind of mechanistic lip service. Oh, did you know a study of 10 dating apps found they sold your data to as many as 135 third parties?”
Listen to the LSD Conference here.