‘Cyber Sexy’ Review: Talking Porn, Pleasure, Consent & Bans
Richa Kaul Padte’s ‘Cyber Sexy’ is an essential primer for anyone who’s looking for sex education.
Richa Kaul Padte’s ‘Cyber Sexy’ is an essential primer for anyone who’s looking for sex education.(Photo courtesy:  Penguin Books)

‘Cyber Sexy’ Review: Talking Porn, Pleasure, Consent & Bans

So, what do you think of when you think ‘pornography’?

It’s something that thrives on the dark and depraved desires of men? It objectifies women to the extreme and promotes sexual violence? It’s a world dotted with immoral and unknown dangers and pitfalls?

If you have a ‘yes’ for all these questions, you are not alone. And this is what makes Richa Kaul Padte’s Cyber Sexy: Rethinking Pornography such an eye-opener. For one, the book does exactly what it says – it helps you “rethink” pornography, delving deep and wide into a world many of us have a fuzzy knowledge about, at best. For another, it helps question the filters we use to look at – and judge – this world and its inhabitants.

The <i>Cyber Sexy</i> book cover.&nbsp;
The Cyber Sexy book cover. 
(Photo courtesy:  Penguin Books)

Padte follows a distinct three-pronged modus operandi to approach the theme:

  • She demystifies the world of online pornography methodically, beginning with the origins of the word – from the Greek pornograph(os), meaning “writing about harlots” – to the widely different kinds of “sexy times” that are available on the internet.
  • She looks at it through a historic-socio-political as well as objective lens.
  • And she makes it personal, not only through her own experiences, but through the numerous Indian men and women she interviewed for the book.
Author Richa Kaul Padte.&nbsp;
Author Richa Kaul Padte. 
(Photo courtesy: Penguin Books)

Demystifying Pornography

Pornography, Padte establishes early on, is nothing but an umbrella term. She draws parallels with the term “drugs” – under which comes everything from Literotica and sexy comics to feminist and LGBT porn to Multi-User Dungeons (or MUDs) and porn on Reddit or BDSM (and much more).

Each category works for some and not so much for others, and the idea – as the author keeps underlining through the book – is to find your own sexual space online where you can just be, without the fear of being judged or maligned.

All this begins with the acknowledgement of one’s sexuality, and by extension, pornography.

The Power Game

What makes ‘Cyber Sexy’ really interesting is how Padte spins conventional ideas on their heads to charter new perspectives. 

What is the “acceptable” sexual behaviour in our society? she asks, leaving us a little startled with the answer - a heterosexual relationship defined by men (always upper caste/ upper class/ white/ cisgendered), where women and other minorities (LGBT, differently-abled and so on) have no agency – scratch that, they don’t and can’t have sexual desires. What is the acceptable sexual more, changes with what’s at stake for those in power.

“Since the 1800s, the drive to define porn has been closely linked to the drive to order the world into a system that preserves existing power structures. Right from its etymological link to sexually free (and, by extension, dangerous) women, the definition of porn has evolved according to whose power was at stake. Representations in ancient times of widows remarrying, eating meat and growing their hair luxuriously long? A-okay until Brahminical structures codified the belief that a widow should have no sensual pleasure (or any form of a life) at all. Those homoerotic, dick-on-dick carvings at Khajuraho? Totally fine until the British didn’t like homosexuality.”
An excerpt from Cyber Sexy: Rethinking Pornography

The Internet Boon

The government has made several attempts to ban porn in India.&nbsp;
The government has made several attempts to ban porn in India. 
(Photo: iStock)

And this is where the internet has revolutionised the sexual world. In a society where sex is a dirty, bad word shrouded in mystery, most Indians often get to understand the very mechanics of sex online.

In fact, the chapter where Padte describes sex education classes across Indian schools is as hilarious as it’s relatable.

For many, it’s a place where they discover their own inclinations and more often than not, find validation. Countless interviewees shared with Padte how intensely lonely they felt (Tiziana Cantone’s story breaks one’s heart) and thought of their desires as aberrations – until they discovered an online world full of people with similar inclinations.

Bad Women

For, like it or not, a huge number of Indians consume pornography – according to Pornhub’s 2017 report, Indians are their third largest consumers. And a good percentage of this number includes women.

Does this ring a few bells?

“Indian women are consuming a wide array of porn. Gangbangs. BDSM. Erotica. Webcams. And just like boys and men, we’re watching it to experience pleasure and orgasms, revelling in achieving them on our own. It’s just that we’re not talking about it. There’s so much shame around women’s sexual desires that many of us figure we’ll be better off if we keep them to ourselves, if we pretend that all we want is a caste-appropriate husband to routinely lie on top us so we can have his babies.” 
An excerpt from Cyber Sexy: Rethinking Pornography
Indian women are the 3rd highest consumers of online pornography in the world.&nbsp;
Indian women are the 3rd highest consumers of online pornography in the world. 
(Photo: The Quint)

Facts and Fiction

Padte goes on to methodically debunk some popular beliefs around pornography – objectification of women (a lot of the content is created by women themselves, so why are we denying them agency?), promotes sexual violence (the objectification of women in daily culture like ads, films etc are way more harmful, according to studies), all content is non-consensual (untrue).

The last one, especially, is a double-edged sword that only definitive laws can help clear. In India, everything from consensual underage sexy participation to what is morally deemed as “lascivious” to violation of consent (think revenge porn) and sexual violence – all come under ubiquitous and vague obscenity laws.

And it helps promote the oft-quoted dictum, she asked for it, and argue in favour of barring women from using technology, among other things.

“As Hasinoff writes, ‘Instead of being portrayed as innocent and vulnerable to predators, girls who produce [my italics] sexual media are often seen as irresponsible and out of control.’ Which is the double bind that any scheme to ‘protect’ girls or women from sexuality finds itself in: a girl is vulnerable to all sorts of terrible things right until the point where she willingly participates—and then, almost instantly, she’s the one to blame.”
An excerpt from Cyber Sexy: Rethinking Pornography

To explain consent and respect, Padte points towards the BDSM community, debunking yet another myth along the way.

A still from<i> Fifty Shades of Grey</i>.&nbsp;
A still from Fifty Shades of Grey
“This is something that we can all learn from the BDSM community, where consent is at the heart of all play. For bondage, humiliation or domination to be sexy, it’s important that everyone involved can check in and indicate whether they’re okay with what’s going on. Because when it comes down to it, sexual consent isn’t a simple yes or a no—though unless it’s mutually agreed upon in advance, no does mean no, whatever its decibel level. But more broadly, consent is a sexual context where the rights of all individuals, irrespective of their gender, sexual orientation class, caste or race, matter equally.”
An excerpt from Cyber Sexy: Rethinking Pornography

Celebrating the Self

What Cyber Sexy makes us realise is that the debate around pornography is essentially about the right to one’s identity. It is about being comfortable in one’s skin – quite literally – and the right to find pleasure alone or consensually with like-minded people without being guilted out or punished for it.

(Food for thought: Was the idea of sex “dirty” before Christianity and the Original Sin made it so?)

It’s also about respect, about opening our mental doors to accept that there are as many kinds of desires as there are different people – online and off – and denying it helps no one. It’s essentially about respecting the “other”. And this is where online pornography is acting as the great leveller.

“The mass intimacy that tons of people share online is an interactive, evolving experience of sexual (and non-sexual) community. These spaces, be they created via webcams or virtual selves, are constantly being shaped and reshaped by users. Rather than coming with predefined boundaries or rules, they are the living, evolving results of people gathering together to create and claim the virtual space that matters to them.”
An excerpt from Cyber Sexy: Rethinking Pornography

A Step Ahead

Padte’s lucid, often chuckle-inducing style makes Cyber Sexy an engaging read. And apart from the research that has quite obviously gone into it, what strikes one is its honest tone. The author doesn’t flinch from sharing personal fears and failings even as she never stops reinstating the importance of being open to ideas and inclinations different from one’s own.

The ideas that Padte discusses in the book may not be entirely new to some. Groups like ‘Agents of Ishq’ and ‘Whores of Yore’ have been doing some serious work to promote body positivity and encourage conversations around sex, sexuality and desire.

What Cyber Sexy does however, is demystify a much maligned world in an India-only context, while discussing pitfalls and the consequences of possible bans. It is indeed an essential primer for anyone who’s looking for sex education; who wants to understand the world of pornography, and by extension, the inner worlds of men and women.

(Cyber Sexy: Rethinking Pornographyby Richa Kaul Padte is published by Penguin Books; Rs 399)

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