MEET THE WRITER

‘Get over the idea that women must be protected from sex’: Richa Kaul Padte rethinks pornography

An interview with the author of ‘Cyber Sexy’, a book whose ideas collide sharply with orthodox positions on pornography and its consumption.

Writer and editor Richa Kaul Padte’s first book, Cyber Sexy, is a non-fiction narrative on pornography and, by extension, sexuality in India. From what we think about pornorgraphy to how we consume it, Kaul Padte dives deep into something that is at once deeply intimate and intensely political. She spoke to Scroll.in about the making of the book, and what she discovered in the course of writing it. Excerpts from the interview:

Anti-pornography evangelists use the depiction of women in mainstream pornography to argue that their moral objection is justified. What is your response to this idea?
I would encourage people to consider two things: one, what it is exactly that they don’t like about the depiction of women in mainstream porn, and two, if they’ve really seen, read and heard enough porn to say that the whole genre should be banned.

I mean, look, there are many things I don’t like about depictions of women across a range of mainstream media – from films to advertisements to porn. And the things I don’t like are often similar: rigid beauty standards, glorified violence, women existing to serve male egos (from the bedroom to the workforce), and so on. But films, for example, are accepted as being part of a wider cinematic genre, and disliking how women are represented in mainstream films doesn’t justify a genre-wide ban. The same goes for music, books, or art. And just because one genre has more naked women than others, that shouldn’t make a difference. But what does make it different is the belief that women’s sexual pleasure is inherently immoral. And then this moral opinion gets couched in the language of women’s rights.

Just as in other forms of popular culture, we should be fostering more thoughtful, inclusive, women-led content. We need to diversify what counts as mainstream, not advocate against the mediums or genres themselves.

A lot of this moral panic around pornography is linked to moral panic around sex work. What do you think this is, ultimately – a fear of women’s sexual agency?
I’m not sure I’d say that the moral panic around porn is the same as the panic around sex work, but that’s also because I position porn as being more than what is shot in a studio for profit. But if we do just look at conventional, studio-shot porn, then yes, these two panics are inextricably linked, because porn performers are in fact sex workers too. And I think it does come down to a fear of women’s agency – sexual, yes, but also financial.

It’s very important to the current power structure to keep sex within the heterosexual marital unit, which is also a unit of capitalist production, or money. Sex outside this unit threatens this power balance, in the same way that women entering the workforce does. So when these two things come together – a woman who not only refuses to see sex as a sacred act between a man and his wife, but who also earns her own living by having sex – it’s a Molotov cocktail thrown in the face of the family unit. And I think that’s where this moral panic actually comes from – a deep fear that the family unit is under threat.

What would you like to say to people who want to “protect” young people in general and women in particular from pornography?
Grow up? Time to enter the 21st century? I really think we need to get over this idea that women need to be protected from sex – that sex is something done “to” us rather than something we seek out and find pleasure in ourselves. And porn is one of the major challenges to this outdated way of thinking, because women watching porn means women masturbating, and women masturbating means that possibly, just possibly, our experiences of sexual pleasure aren’t attached to men. Which brings me back to: get with the times?

What did you find out about the way pornography performers and sex workers who do pornography are treated in India?

Pretty much nothing, actually. We don’t have a porn industry in India, which also means that we don’t really have porn performers. Or none that I could find, at least. I spoke to one online sex worker who does cam shows over Skype for her clients, and she said that it’s been financially freeing for her to do this work, because it happens on her own terms. She says her clients treat her with affection and respect, but that the biggest issue for her is that it’s illegal to solicit clients, so it’s all happening under the radar.

Thanks to the internet, there is a certain degree of protection and anonymity available to sex-working women. But as we’re seeing with recent crackdowns following the passage of two anti-sex-work bills in America, the livelihoods of online sex workers aren’t guaranteed either. And this instability has to do with the way sex workers are perceived and treated, not with the actual work itself.

How much does privilege and access play a role in how Indians experience pornography?
It plays a huge role, because firstly there are very few people online, and the majority of these people are often city-dwelling, upper caste men with relative economic means. We often don’t realise just how skewed internet access in India is, and for how many people the internet is something they maybe visit once a month – if at all. Not to mention that most of the internet, including its sexy spaces, is structured in English. So you need a certain degree of fluency to navigate this world, and loads of fluency to go outside of its most mainstream avatars.

It’s also a question of other types of privilege. For example, some women told me about how as teenagers, they were dissuaded by their families from going online, or that what they did on the internet was tightly surveilled. If you want to experience sexual pleasure online, you need a certain degree of freedom and privacy offline. And for many people, especially for girls and women, this is often missing.

The book is a mix of the personal anecdote, deep research on history and the law, and many interviews. Can you talk us through this process?
My process was…a little haphazard, I think. I had a tentative outline when I began, but I was conceptualising, researching and writing Cyber Sexy pretty much as I went along. And I was doing all three at the same time. Which meant that I was forever going back and changing things, but in hindsight, I think this unplanned way of book-writing also gave me a lot of room to play with ideas and form. I definitely did outline each chapter before I began working on it, but I was also okay to deviate from the outline if I felt a piece of research or thinking was leading me elsewhere. And I rewrote a lot between my first and second drafts, because as soon as I had a little distance from the text, I could see things that needed to be removed, added or majorly changed. I think that’s when I worked the absolute hardest, too. It was a time-bound period, and I knew that whatever came out of this rewrite would be the almost-final manuscript, and I really wanted it to be the best I was capable of.

What were some of the most unexpected things you found in the course of your research for the book? Did you set out with a good sense of what you were going to say, or did the research show you things you hadn’t thought of before?
So to come back to the question about process you asked earlier – I both did and didn’t have a sense of what I was going to say. I had an outline for the whole book when I began, but I let the research lead me in entirely different directions too. And I think maybe the biggest new lens to emerge was that when I conceptualised Cyber Sexy, it was as a book on women and pornography. That’s the book I was contracted to write. But as soon as I actually began to speak to people, it became clear to me that this wasn’t only a women’s issue. And so I included the voices and perspectives of men too, including several straight cisgender men, which is something I hadn’t set out to do at all.

You’ve written several times about being a writer with a chronic illness. Can you tell us how you navigate this, and what is your advice to other people in a similar situation?
You know, I’ve been wondering if anyone would ask me this, and I’m really glad it was you. Chronic illness means that you are constantly walking a tightrope in terms of energy, pain, or whatever your symptoms are – physical or mental – and you almost never know what the day ahead (or even the hour ahead) is going to feel like. And I think that as a writer or any sort of independent artist living in the digital era, you can quickly start to feel very demoralised. Everyone seems to be producing more work, speaking on panels and going to important events, while you are sort of drifting between your bed and laptop wondering if you have the energy to wash your hair. This is not the writing life you were promised.

But I think what I try my best to remember (even though I often fail) is that there is no one type of writing life. We are all making it up as we go along, and there is no prescribed way to do it. And so I would encourage people living with physical or mental impairments to ignore conventional writing wisdom (“write every day” and other absurdities when you don’t know if you’ll be able to sit up every day), and to look for models of writing that are more inclusive. The internet has introduced me to some incredible writers who live with chronic illness (big props to Esmé Wang and Porochista Khakpour for being so open and honest about their processes), who signal to me that it is still possible for me to be a writer – at my own pace, in my own way.


Disclaimer: Richa Kaul Padte and Shreya Ila Anasuya were colleagues at the Mumbai-based non-profit organisation, Point of View.

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