Twenty-year-old Mumbai artist Priyanka Paul is unafraid to be herself. In 2016, Paul’s Tumblr-inspired take on Indian goddesses in edgy streetwear went viral, resulting in reshares and death threats in equal measure. Inspired by poet Harnidh Kaur’s Pantheon – which portrayed Indian goddesses as modern-day women – Paul’s Goddess series started from a quick doodle made on her mother’s old Note 3 that she never expected to blow up as much as it did.
Since then Paul’s work has spanned illustrations that convey social media musings, cover art for books of indie poetry, sneaker collaborations, T-shirt designs, posters in support of trans inclusivity and multiple zines. There’s a distinct visual identity in her work, with sloe-eyed women of colour in various shapes and sizes often being the focus. Paul though doesn’t see this “visual similarity” – for her, art revolves around “exploring my own identity”.
Like an increasing number of people her age, Paul has taken to the internet to candidly explore her identity – from being female to queer and non-Savarna – through her work. It’s the same quest for honesty that has resulted in her latest project: BEDx Talks (a parody of TEDx Talks), a desi sex education zine aimed at young millennial men.
Unlike her previous work, which was largely influenced by sex and body positive culture, BEDx Talks aims to be more driven by facts and educational. Starring a shiny suited Mr Dickinson, who functions as a guide, the zine is irreverent. The visuals are made up of collage-work drawing from characters and scenes in Hindi films – “we’re bringing to light and also critiquing the portrayal of sex in Bollywood”. The zine is “filled with a bunch of puns and is generally a fun take on sex, keeping in mind the male perspective and that it explores male sexuality,” said Paul. But it is not boringly mainstream – Paul has made sure that sexual and gender identities across the spectrum are addressed, making BEDx Talks inclusive.
As part of her research – along with co-collaborator Rushil Bhatnagar, a visual designer – Paul reached out in November to her audience on social media, asking men and women what surprised them about their sexual experiences. The responses, says Paul, were comprehensive, ranging from doubts about the hygiene and care of one’s genitalia to musings on how to have less painful sex.
The elementary concerns of her fellow millennials, says Paul, are unsurprising. Like her, it is likely that most of the respondents’ sex education at school was limited to a brief explanation of the male and female anatomy. Lacking context, unmoored from the reality of social interaction and a kowtowing to cultural taboos meant that people’s ideas of what sex looked like seemed largely informed by porn.
“There was literally no context [to the school’s sex education talk],” said Paul. “At least now we have so many great feminist blogs and websites that explain sex-ed for women. But there isn’t any for men. The only ones that exist are…just cringeworthy, honestly.”
Reaching out to men in her audience and collaborating with a fellow young person – the 21-year-old Bhatnagar – was part of a concentrated effort to reach young Indian men who might be left out of the conversation: “I’m not a man, I don’t know what that whole gender expression and identity works like, so this was me trying to understand it,” said Paul.
For Paul, choosing a zine as the medium was a no-brainer – the “fluid, non-imposing and non-structured” nature of the medium is a “subtle underground rebellion in direct contrast with mainstream knowledge”. It lends itself to “making work where you’re trying to shift the status quo on an important discussion,” she said.
When asked what surprised her the most about the responses on social media, and conversations with her peers, Paul has an immediate answer: “That people my age don’t take condoms that seriously. Having unprotected sex is completely normal. This is the so-called cream of society...how can you think that?”
A lack of sexual education can be dangerous, especially to marginalised communities. Paul was aghast when, with the #MeToo movement, she saw many of her peers say “that some acts don’t count as sexual assault”. “Unless the woman is screaming and fighting them, [they think] it’s not sexual assault,” she said. “And even with LGBT sex, cis-hetero dudes have zero idea how gay sex works. There’s so much stigma and shame around it...There’s so much ignorance...And when you don’t know something, it’s easy to hate on it. Which is why we made BEDx Talks inclusive – talk about how gay sex happens, precautions to take with that [and so on].”
Why does this universal lack of awareness about matters of sexual interaction among a young, supposedly informed and woke generation still exist? “It’s because this conversation never happens with them as children, especially people in my age group, who are just becoming adults have never had a conversation [about sexual health or sexual assault],” declared Paul. Much like the artist herself, the brightly-coloured, tongue-in-cheek, in-your-face BEDx Talks sex ed guide zine is unafraid to start it.