Dr Niveditha Manokaran, a dermatologist and venereologist working as a clinician in sexual and reproductive medicine and HIV medicine in Sydney, decided to start talking about sex-positivity when she saw that young Indians still struggle with finding the right answers to many of their questions related to sexual health and pleasure. Through her Instagram handle @dr_nive_untaboos, which has close to 50,000 followers, she takes up topics like types of lubricants to use during sex, the use of vibrators and other sex toys, and weightier, medical issues like HIV and AIDS prevention. Many of the questions she answers come to her through Instagram Direct Messages (DMs), such as ‘does masturbation cause weight gain?’, ‘what can I do to take care of my vaginal health?’ (the answer is ‘leave it the f*** alone’), ‘can only women who’ve had babies use IUDs?’ and even questions related to feminism and society like ‘why are so many women getting divorced these days and not trying enough?’. Dr Manokaran’s approach is accessible and fun, making her a go-to resource for many young people who lack responsible sources of information on these topics.
In this Q&A with Lounge, Dr Manokaran talks about why she does what she does, and the barriers to understanding that pervade Indian society when it comes to sexual health and pleasure:
How would you describe your Instagram account—its purpose, objectives, its target audience, and the core message.
@dr_nive_untaboos, my Instagram account, was started to reach people in India as I realised there is a big gap in the understanding of sexual and reproductive health in India. I work here in Australia providing the best care to the youth when my own country has very less access to such resources. I missed out on this as a young girl growing up in India, and as a young doctor training there. I am fascinated by the acceptance of sex being a need and what a difference it makes to provide care once there is acceptance.
Several matters are struggling to be heard in India, due to taboos and non-acceptance. My page "untaboos" is designed to target a young Indian audience and break those taboos, unlearn what we have learnt, and make it easy to access support and care. It is also designed to educate youngsters about many tabooed topics and normalise several areas.
What led you to do this work?
Having missed out on what is most needed in India and being able to give the same care in a foreign country made me think it is time to give back. I realised that I can do this from wherever I am, thanks to the internet and working from home. I am mainly trying to address the gap between a layperson, and doctors and health professionals. If you don’t ask, you wouldn't know. And to ask, you need to break taboos and provide non-judgemental care. That's exactly what I am trying to achieve.
Although you live in Australia, is your audience primarily Indian? Why is this?
For all the above-mentioned reasons! Australia is well ahead in its sexual and reproductive health care while India needs it. It's time to bring that change to India. It's the need of the hour and the only way we can work towards a safe space, which includes prevention of sexual assaults, prevention of STIs, domestic violence, and providing mental health care.
Why is there still a taboo around talking about sexual health and STDs?
Because the word 'sex' is associated with one’s morals. And being sexually active, needy or being exposed to infections secondary to having sex, are all connected to someone’s poor morality. This is exactly what we need to unlearn. Sex is a need that should be met like hunger and thirst. Simple.
In your interactions with young people, what kind of awareness about sexual health and pleasure do you feel they are looking for?
Consent, condoms and contraception are few important things I stress in my interaction with young people.
While the HIV epidemic is considered to be on the wane, is it still a threat? Why do you think it's important to talk about it?
It's an achievement how from a pandemic, HIV became an epidemic. From a life-threatening condition, it has become a chronic manageable condition, with the tremendous advancement in treatment and prevention strategies. The advancement in treatment has reduced the spread and increased life expectancy. It is important to still talk about it, as many lack the right information and the taboo still exists due to lack of knowledge. The more we talk, the more we are working towards eradication.
Despite being a dermatologist, why did you focus on talking about venereal disease?
Venereology is a combined degree with dermatology. I always believed sex was a need and that everyone was fulfilling their needs somehow. Living in denial and shaming people who were upfront about it did not do any good, other than an increase in the number of STIs, HIV, illegal abortions, deaths and sexual abuse. I was determined to change this from a very young age and I am glad it's time now.