How ‘Agents of Ishq’ is helping India talk about sex
There’s a cheeky joke that’s often made about India: ‘It’s rather peculiar that in a country with 1.3 billion people and growing every day, nobody ever has sex!’
By Rhea Almeida
This quip is meant to point out the tradition that exists in most of Indian society, across urban/rural spaces, different classes, castes and religions, of hushing up and silencing the topic of sex. As per proper social customs, ‘bedroom conversations’ are not to be had in public, and if it’s pre-marital, they are not to be had at all. This moral policing has led to sensual movies scenes being censored, pornography being stigmatized, sex work being criminalized, and pre-marital sex being a sin. For most Indians, this means that there is no safe space to talk or learn about safe, consensual, respectful sex. In such a society, the worst affected are children, who are done the injustice of an incomplete education, who are given misinformation, and who are taught to look at sex, desire, and natural urges through the lens of ‘shame’.
On one hand, parents and teachers (the influential adults in a child’s life) either don’t have the conversation at all, or have it with improper, incomplete information – which is equally harmful. On the other hand, the conversations that children do have about sex, sexuality, anatomy, desire and so on, are inspired by porn and WhatsApp forwards, which are just as unreliable. Apart from the clinical diagrams in biology textbooks that fail to set any context, children are left in the dark about one of the most natural and important part of life. This problem isn’t with any individual person, but it is systematic. And aiming to mend this broken system with a bit of colour, fun and creativity are the Agents of Ishq (love).
Paromita Vohra and the Agents of Ishq
“India is such a complex and diverse country, that some things are taboo in some parts and others are taboo in other parts. So if you get caught up with thinking about the taboo all the time, you’ll get stuck with not being able to talk,” shares Paromita Vohra, artist, filmmaker, writer and co-founder of the platform Agents of Ishq. Agents of Ishq is an online creative space that carries videos, pictures, poems, podcasts, articles, comics and more in order to ‘give sex a good name’. The goal is to have a healthy, informational dialogue about sex and sexuality in a country where that dialogue is covered in historic, political and moral policing muck.
The leader of the project describes the start of her journey, “we knew from the beginning that when we created Agents of Ishq, it would be in an environment that was beautiful, artistic, warm and friendly. And in an environment where everyone can take it for granted that they can talk about love, sex, desire – there’s no prescribed way to talk about it.” This multi-media platform aims to help facilitate tough conversations that parents, teachers, students, friends, peers and individuals struggle with, and that too with cartoons and multi-textured graphics.
From singing condoms to memes of desire
With bright colours, joke-filled language, and light-hearted joy in every informative creation, AOI’s messages have been designed to be easy to consume. Made in both English and Hindi, it is both accessible and free. “It’s difficult to know what the right language to use with children is. What’s the right level at which you can give information or not give information. The people who are working on the website, we’re all artists. So we bring artistic solutions to the table. It all looks light and breezy, but a lot of hard work goes into anything that looks breezy and simple. So we actually also talked to a lot of sex educators, parents, teachers, we conducted workshops in colleges, to really try to understand at an emotive level what is it that people need. We don’t want to say to parents, ‘you should be talking to your kids about sex’ without acknowledging no one talked to those parents about sex when they were kids. It doesn’t mean that just because they’re parents, they know how to have this conversation,” Vohra shares.
Singing condoms, retro-themed comics of desire, informative sexual memes and more feature regularly on the website, proving that their content is supposed to be easily engaged with, had fun with, and experimented with. The team of artists behind AOI carefully creates and curates this work, ensuring that a wide range of topics are covered. Menstruation, body positivity, safe sex, consent, transgender rights, homosexuality, love and lust, India’s erotic history, and so on are themes often they touch upon. When designing this platform, Vohra was clear that she wanted to bring positivity to the popular public conversation around sex, which at the moment revolves around media renditions of sexual violence.
She shares,“I thought there was a lot of conversation happening about sex out in the open, the question was what kind of conversation? For example, in the last two or three years we’ve seen a lot of writing about sexual violence or child sexual abuse. There’s also been another kind of writing in a more consumer context, where people are supposed to be sexually liberated in a certain kind of way. So you have a lot of lifestyle magazines writing about that. But I just felt that this was not really a conversation where it was informing people in a culture which is not very informed about sex. We don’t have sex education in schools, and we don’t really talk about sex as sex per say. We either talk about it as lifestyle, or violence and abuse, or disease, but not as an experience which is a part of life. It seemed like it was an intervention that was needed, a warmer conversation about sex that was both informed and also inclusive.”
Making sex-ed fun, free and respectful
Apart from sex-shaming culture, adolescents and young adults are also victims of virgin-shaming, which is another stigma AOI hopes to tackle. “I think one of the really big impulses in the way we shaped the site was that, earlier there was a lot of shame around having sex. But now I think we’re also living in a time where there’s a lot of shame attached to not having sex. So you kind of replace one idea with what is ‘cool’ or ‘okay’ with another idea of what is ‘okay’, but they both become normative in some way.”
While creating the best, most appropriate and easy-to-consume content was one big hurdle of this project, another was how it would be accepted and received. In a country where sexual conversations are either swept under the rug, or are one-sided monologues through porn-watching, how does one accept a website that features cartoon genitalia and poems on menstruation? Vohra explains that it’s all about perspective, “How do you define pornography? One person’s erotica is another person’s porn. People are primarily getting their sexual information from pornography online, more specifically one type of pornography, which is very mainstream and misogynist in nature. But banning porn is not the solution either, the more you ban it the more you drive things underground and the lesser the chance of us having a reasonable, helpful conversation about it that is widespread.”
As she brings up the misogynist nature of most of the conversations we have about sex and desire, I asked her to expand upon the feminist lens of women’s sexuality and consent in AOI’s content. She explains, “It’s important to understand that the language of consent is not something that we grow up with. We don’t grow up accepting that women are beings with sexual desire, we’re told that men have sexual desire and that women are the objects of that desire. The idea of women as active sexual beings is very important to create, so people understand that when everyone is an active sexual being, of course consent automatically applies.” It is this stifling environment she is aiming to change with healthy descriptions of female masturbation, children’s videos on understanding consent and other such gender-positive content.
Changing behavior, both offline and online
While the online medium can only go so far, their strategy approaches offline channels as well. “There is a very deep awareness of the offline universe and the fact that not everybody in India is online. A lot of the content we create is in partnership with other groups, in a sense you’re taking stuff you’ve learned through offline activities and creating materials online with a view that it can also be used offline. For example, the podcasts are there in a couple of syllabi already in some schools,” Vohra demonstrates.
It’s been a long journey since AOI was started by Parodevi Pictures in 2016. While the road ahead is still long and challenging, the progress that this team of artists has made has been phenomenal.
“Conversations don’t change overnight. As you create more material and more people start using them, it can then become a more widespread conversation. It’s unproductive to penalize or shame people for their thinking or old fashioned way of looking at something, because maybe they just haven’t been given the chance to update their thinking. I believe instead it’s better to focus on the content you think should be out there in the world,” the artist says, signing off.