It was a dull lockdown Sunday afternoon. Anahita S. was sitting at the dining table with her family, a plate of rajma-chawal in front of her, when her 23-year-old girlfriend texted. A lifelike illustration of the vulva popped up. She fumbled. The phone landed face up near her mother’s feet.
Over a video call, Anahita, a master’s student, can’t stop giggling while narrating the incident from April last year. She was “figuring out sexuality” and the meaning of pleasure. The night before, she and her girlfriend—her first Tinder match of the lockdown—were discussing masturbation. “It was all very new to me…the names, the locations down there…. I thought I had received my first ‘V selfie’ (vagina selfie),” she tells me. It was only when her mother handed back the phone after a quick look that she realised it was a detailed drawing of the vulva, or the external female genitalia.
“It was one of those funny incidents, you know…,” she reminisces. “But now that I think about it, it’s a little embarrassing that I didn’t even know my body parts before seeing it (the illustration) despite living with them for 23 years. Female pleasure…why aren’t we talking about it more?”
India might be the land of the Kama Sutra and the third largest market for free-to-access porn, with a population poised to overtake China’s 1.41 billion, but sex and pleasure, especially when it comes to the vulva, still remain taboo subjects. School textbooks prefer to limit explanations to the reproductive nature of the vagina, glossing over details like why the clitoris—the only human organ meant solely for pleasure—has more than 8,000 nerve endings. Schoolteachers often still skip the section in the biology textbook completely rather than teach it and answer questions from students. Educational social media posts on vaginal pleasure still receive more d***k pics and trolling than acceptance. Even if there are some depictions in pop culture of women pleasuring themselves, they are mostly pornographic in nature.
A small but growing group of independent counsellors, students and content creators across the country is trying to change this mindset with the help of social media. They are giving shape to an online movement that’s encouraging Indians, particularly millennials and post-millennials, to talk about consent, sex and pleasure. They want people to learn about and openly discuss how deeply connected sexual and mental health are, with a special focus on a largely ignored topic—what the vagina wants and needs.
Hear me out first
At least once a day, Shivli Shrivastava gets an Instagram DM with a query from a 20- or 30-something woman, asking about female masturbation and how to do it. It’s a question that continues to pleasantly surprise the Raipur-based psychologist and sex educator. She started the @shivtensity account in June 2020 as a way to turn the services her registered company offers—education about sexuality, disability and mental health from a “pleasure-positive perspective”—into accessible social media posts and activities to engage with more people. Think a Japanese cartoon meme talking about consent, a slide show on why non-latex condoms are better, an AMA on genital care.
While her content is for anyone and everyone to consume, she tends to focus more on smaller cities like Bareilly, Varanasi, Ahmedabad and Lucknow, “where people don’t know many words when it comes to sex”. “Even if women are not doing it, it’s good to know that so many of them want to talk about self-pleasure and their own desires,” says Shrivastava, 25, who prefers being described as a sexuality educator. “In our patriarchal society, women’s needs are not discussed enough.”
Shame and guilt attached to sex is the other barrier. Often people create fake accounts to ask Shrivastava things like “kya kahan pe dalna hai (where to put what)?” But even then, she insists, “it’s good to see more curiosity.”
A big reason for the rise in interest is the pandemic. Over the past 15 months, Swati Jagdish, a sex educator based in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, has answered many questions about the vulva through her Instagram page @mayas_amma, where she hosts AMAs, posts educational illustrations/images, research and quotes. The 34-year-old expert attributes the trend to the pandemic-induced absence of physical touch and constant exposure to shows on OTT platforms, like Netflix, that are high in sexual content.
“After years of living with patriarchy and menstruation taboos, women are learning that having an orgasm, or just experiencing pleasure, is important,” says Jagdish, who is also a lactation counsellor. “It’s no longer just about pleasing the partner or doing just what they want. There are women who have looked at their vulvas in the mirror for the first time during the lockdown because more conversations are happening now in the safe space of the online world. It’s an odd to thing to say but a virus has made our work a little easier.”
Learning about the vulva or your own desires isn’t just about pleasure but also improved health (masturbation has long been known to reduce stress) and a better vocabulary to express yourself, whether to a partner or a gynaecologist. That’s why masturbation and sex education, in general, have a vital role to play in mental health. “It’s really strange our education system just doesn’t pay enough attention to such an integral part of life and health,” notes Jagdish.
After examining three decades of research on sex education, a study published in the Journal Of Adolescent Health last October concluded that talking about sexual health in schools has multiple benefits. It doesn’t just help reduce the risk of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections but also helps prevent child sexual abuse (by making children understand more than just bad touch-good touch) and creates a safer environment. This is likely to result in more confident students with improved academic success and mental health.
Even when it comes to adults, research shows that having trouble with sexual health can lead to feelings of worthlessness, even depression, triggering a vicious cycle of worsening depression and sexual dysfunction.
“Imagine if children were taught sex education more comprehensively in schools,” Shrivastava says. “Don’t you think it will create a more equal, healthy society that’s also safer? Clearly we are a country that loves sex, then why the shame?”
One toy, please
We really do love sex. IMbesharam.com, an online adult toys store, saw a 210% rise in sales in the past year, with the majority of orders coming from women—from Delhi to Jaipur, Pune to Chennai. This year, till April, over 60% of the toys sold were for women, while 38% were for men, says co-founder Raj Armani. More information, social conversations and influencers encouraging sextech as the best alternative to partners are playing a role, he believes.
Last year, the platform sold 135,600 toys and gadgets in all, generating ₹6.78 crore. Between January-April this year, they sold 72,865 pieces, making ₹3.15 crore. Their top two products last year were Lovense Lush (a smart wireless vibrator) and Satisfyer Pro 2 (which claims to help you reach an orgasm in a minute)—in the range of ₹20,000-30,000.
Also read: Let's talk about sex toys
That Sassy Thing, a wellness brand dedicated to the needs of women, too has been seeing a rise in sales since it launched in December. It has had over 1,500 orders, averaging ₹800, and has customers in the 20-35 age group from cities as varied as Mangaluru, Salem, Kochi, Lucknow, Guwahati and Auroville. During the most recent lockdown, the Delhi-based brand saw a 1.5x rise in sales of its all-natural lubricant, made with aloe vera, tea tree and olive oil.
“The Indian sexual wellness industry is so skewed towards men; lubricants in the market are full of chemicals that can affect women’s health. We wanted to bring a change,” says Sachee Malhotra, founder of That Sassy Thing. Even if men are buying products for their partners, she adds, it suggests “there’s a growing awareness about the female body and more talk on how to reach the big O”.
That’s one question Mumbai’s Indraja Devpriyam is asked frequently. Devpriyam, 25, is a content creator who started a personal blog called @liberatingsexuality on Instagram three years ago because “there was hardly anyone talking about something as natural as sex, and issues related to body image, sexuality and gender identity”.
A question that pops up often in her Instagram DMs these days is: “How do I know if I have orgasmed?” Her answer: “I first tell them to take a mirror and have good look at their vulva. Then I tell them if they had an orgasm they would know.”
Self-pleasure is the best form of pleasure given the conditions right now, she says, referring to the pandemic. “We are sexting more, watching sex-related content more. There’s just too much general frustration right now. So masturbation becomes an outlet.”
The other question that’s popular, she says, is about the mythical G-spot. Spoiler alert: It’s more like an area than a button. “The clit (clitoris) is one body part that’s meant just for pleasure but do you see much info about it in books? But they are filled with anatomical pictures of the penis,” says Devpriyam. Her sources for content are books, research papers and experts in the field.
There’s isn’t much research on the clitoris. Two decades ago, The Journal Of Urology published the first comprehensive anatomical study of the clitoris, led by the University of Melbourne’s Helen E. O’Connell. By 2005, a follow-up study under magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed it was not “a small nub of erectile tissue” but an orchid-like part that was the pleasure centre of the vulva. A 2020 Guardian report, citing a literature review by O’Connell’s team, says just 11 articles on anatomical dissection of the clitoris have been published worldwide since 1947.
There’s freedom too
It’s not just the bright, colourful pictures, catchy content and memes that attract many of India’s 140 million Instagram users to sex- and pleasure-related content. Online webinars, Reels and Instagram Live are playing a role too. “People are mostly online now. So people are now getting more invested in webinars, especially if the topic is sex,” says Devpriyam. Her own audience in sex education-related webinars went up from 10 to 40-50 per session during the lockdown.
The other reason is the freedom social media offers. In a country where a visit to a gynaecologist is still a hush-hush matter, there is little chance of someone knocking on the door of an expert for a sex problem.
So open DMs have become a source for answers, as Kolkata-based educator Karishma Swarup discovered through her page @talkyounevergot. She started the page soon after graduating from Brown University, US, where she was part of a programme to educate youngsters from lower-income groups about sex. After her return to India over a year ago, she realised people had similar questions here. “Youngsters were interested in learning but our education system didn’t offer answers. So social media here helps,” says Swarup, 24. “It offers liberty to ask whatever you want within the confines of your home without any hesitation. I have had so many women ask me how to use sex toys, where to buy them from, which ones are better. There’s no anxiety or embarrassment here because there’s no face.”
The freedom of the online space can prove to be therapeutic as well. Since 2017, visual artist and art educator Aru Bose has been trying to create a treasure chest of stories and experiences related to the vulva, “a kind of a guide to guide us and future generations”. In the pre-pandemic world, she created soundscapes of the vagina, interpretations of the vagina using the night sky, plants and leaves, and offered drinks at a show in menstrual cups “not to educate people but bring forth the stories of the vagina”. “Historically, we have not talked about women’s bodies from the women’s perspective. It has always been the male gaze. I want to change that,” says Bose, 31, who “exists online”.
As part of the initiative, she has been hosting the occasional vulva-drawing workshops, where she invites people online to come and tell their stories through the vulva. People have the option of registering anonymously, switching off their cameras and only displaying their artwork. “I am quite surprised to see how it has become a space of healing. There’s so much to learn from these paintings—how there’s so much pressure to have an orgasm or even have sex,” she says.
The comforting expression of art has also helped people deal with trauma. “Women share their recovery stories, sexual abuse, how menstruation alleviates anxiety, fear of menopause—there’s just so much to explore,” she says. After completion, the artworks are shared on the Instagram page @vulva_wonderland, run by Bose, if the creators permit.
Offline is logging in, sort of
Even outside the virtual world, conversations on sex, vagina and pleasure have started picking up, albeit slowly. Netflix shows such as Sexify and Sex Education have encouraged Indians to stop looking for metaphors when talking about sex. Karan Johar’s short film in the 2018 anthology Lust Stories showed a woman writhing under the effects of a vibrator in front of her middle-class family.
Such instances remain few and far between but “at least it’s normalising the conversation. Earlier, you would either find jokes on sex or crass comments. Internet, pop culture, dating culture—all are now contributing to more positive sex talks,” says Leeza Mangaldas, 31, who describes herself as a sex-positive content creator. The absence of resources and information related to sexual wellness and accessible gynaecologists prompted the Mumbai resident to start raising awareness through Instagram and YouTube four years ago.
“People believe pleasure is just some frivolous matter and talking about sex education to children will make them have more sex. It has quite the opposite effect,” she says. “Easy, accessible information will actually empower people to make more informed choices.”
This quiet awakening is pushing some parents to consider talking to their children about sex as well. “It’s a drop in the ocean; there are parents, mostly millennials and independent mothers, who want to discuss it with their children but don’t know how to. They don’t know the vocab,” says Niyatii Shah, a sexuality educator who has been in the field for over a decade. Her suggestion: “Talk small. Take baby steps with your child.”
There’s still a very long way to go. Jammu’s Shakun Sethi, founder of Tickle.Life, “a discovery marketplace for sexual being” that offers everything related to sex, says India is still in the “kindergarten phase”. “It has certainly become ‘woke’ to talk about sex now because of social media and global exposure but it will take us a good eight to 10 years to bring some amount of change through social media content.”
Making sex- or pleasure-related content for social media is no easy task, though. All the experts I spoke to had at least one funny and one scary story to tell about the way they have been trolled on social media. If you manage to duck the trolls and rape threats, social media might shadow-ban (Instagram blocking a user’s content in such a way that the user doesn’t know they have been shut out) you for using terms like nipple or sex.
While posting educational images, Shrivastava and Swarup have often received messages that it “violates Instagram’s policy”. The Instagram account of a friend of Shrivastava, who works in the same field, was closed after an information post on pleasure. “You can post about Viagra but not about breasts or nipples. The algorithm…or their bots…are really sexist. I use s3x (for sex) to find a way around it,” says Swarup.
Or, like Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh-based gynaecologist-in-training Tanaya Narendra (@dr_cuterus on Instagram), you may end up getting d*** pics, marriage proposals, love requests, or jibes like “you have sold the Indian culture”. “I have even got ‘I am ready to be your slave,’” says Narendra, who started the page in 2019. She used Facebook earlier to talk about sex but incessant trolling, with comments like “aap deshdrohi hai (you are betraying the country)”, made her switch to Instagram, where “there’s much less trolling”.
“Unlike Twitter, which offers more academic engagement, Insta is more fun and interactive since it has a younger audience that is receptive and wants to talk and learn about sex more openly. Anyway, trolling will happen anywhere,” she says. “In India, you have to be thick-skinned to talk about sex openly. And it’s high time we have this conversation.”
Some students started social media pages last year to talk more openly about issues related to consent. Sexeducation.india on Instagram, for instance, was started by a group that connected on Twitter after last year’s rape case in Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, to impart sex education to teenagers. “We were tired of shouting about the lack of sex education in India. Nobody talks about the patriarchal attitudes towards sex, about consent. Consent has a huge role to play in pleasure,” says Aashna Vora, 18, one of the founders of the page.
They host sessions with counsellors, NGOs and health experts, discussing everything from masturbation to the difference between good touch and bad touch, and the toxicity and sexism of the porn industry. “Everything and anything is presented from the male gaze. They dictate how women should look, how they should fulfil others’ desire. We want to change the narrative,” says Vora.
Vexed.India, too, was started after the Hathras case to offer a resource that has “more practical information about sex rather than textbook stuff. Our teachers and parents are still so uncomfortable to talk about it. So we had to step up,” says Ahmedabad’s Mallika Bawa, one of the 12 core members.
The other reason for an immediate need for such platforms is the increased conversations they facilitate on patriarchy, moral policing and gender inclusivity—topics that are yet to find a wider audience. “In school sex education, we only look at the reproductive side. What about porn, sexting—these things happening widely? Education is incomplete if it is not in sync with the times,” says Skye, who uses only one name. He’s part of Safe Space, a online community of college students from Assam raising awareness about sex education. “It’s so weird we are a sex-negative society. We have moved so forward ‘to be with the times’ but when it comes to sex, even our parents get uncomfortable.”
Anahita experienced it first-hand that Sunday afternoon. When her mother returned the phone, she asked, “Why do you need to know these things?”