‘Are you a doctor, or are you a porn star?” When I first started creating judgment-free sex education content online, I got asked this question almost every day. In India, an ordinary woman talking about sex – knowledgably and without shame – felt unfamiliar, even transgressive, to most people.
Sex remains a taboo topic in India. Victorian social norms and laws, established during British colonial rule, remain central to public attitudes. Homosexuality was only decriminalised in 2018. In 2022, marital rape is still legal. Premarital sex remains frowned upon. And marriage still feels unavoidable, especially for women. Less than 10% of Indian men use condoms, according to recent National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) data, placing the burden of family planning on women.
The Sex Book, by Leeza Mangaldas. Photograph: Palash Verma
It’s hard to escape the message that anything outside this oppressive and narrow framework, particularly unmarried women having sex, queer sex, paid sex, sex with more than one partner, and even masturbation, is bad, dirty, weird, punishable. We’re discouraged from even talking about sex, let alone questioning these beliefs, because, well, “log kya kahenge?”
That phrase means “what will people say?” and it encapsulates a preoccupation in Indian society with reputation and social standing. A fear of being judged dictates the personal lives of millions of people.
Representations of sex in the media still tend to be either medicalised and scary, such as news stories focused on disease and violence, or scandalous and explicit – celebrity relationship gossip, and (now, technically banned) internet porn. Sex is rarely presented as normal, a topic that we all can and should be able to talk about honestly.
I wanted to create a more comprehensive, inclusive, pleasure-focused sex education resource for young Indians
At school, if you’re lucky, you get a cursory half-hour lesson on the reproductive system in biology class. A teacher might point to diagrams of the penis and the testes, the uterus and the ovaries. Erection, penetration and ejaculation might get a mention. You never see a diagram of the clitoris. For women, the message is clear: sex is about having babies, not orgasms. Gender identity beyond the binary and sex acts other than intercourse go unacknowledged.
As a young, unmarried Indian woman trying to navigate my own sexuality, sexual health and relationships, there was no easily accessible and culturally relevant information about sex.
This was what inspired me to start my digital sex-education platforms five years ago. Today, my videos reach millions of young Indians every day. But short-form video and audio formats have their limitations. I wrote The Sex Book: A Joyful Journey of Self-Discovery because I wanted to create a more comprehensive, culturally contextualised, inclusive, pleasure-focused sex education resource for young Indians that felt friendly and honest rather than preachy and text-bookish.
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The combination of the societal shame and stigma with the lack of accurate information at best results in generations of clueless young people left to figure out everything for themselves, from how to have safe sex to how to have an orgasm. At worst, it results in women being killed for not bleeding on their wedding night, and queer teens being sent to quacks to be “cured” by conversion practices.
Fortunately today, an increasing number of people, mainly women and those identifying as LGBTQ+, are beginning to create education, art, activism, cinema, comedy and music that challenges dominant heteronormative, sexist, endogamous ideas. I’m proud to be part of this growing community. But even with significant changes to the law, such as the decriminalisation of gay sex, as well as globally significant movements like #MeToo, changes in the Indian mindset are rarely radical. They tend to be slow and incremental.
My hope is that our society and government begins to grasp that comprehensive, inclusive sex education is central to greater gender equality, to improved sexual and reproductive health and rights, to ending sexual- and gender-based violence, and to achieving a safer, kinder, more joyful world.
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