The Invisible Trauma of ‘Bhabhi’ Porn in the Lives of Indian Women

From being fetishised by teenage boys to being reduced to a porn caricature in the workplace, the role can be uncomfortable for many Indian women.

The first day of the wedding rituals for Sunaina – a 32-year-old homemaker from the city of Raipur in central India’s Chhattisgarh state – was supposed to be a culmination of the dreams she’d harboured since childhood. But at one point, three of her husband’s friends gathered around the couple seated on ornate thrones on the wedding stage and made her feel like she was a prize her new husband had just won. 

“It was evident that I was simply a voluptuous, desirable sex object in their eyes,” she told VICE. “One of them even whispered how I was the best ‘bhabhi’ in the entire locality. My husband smirked and took it as a compliment, [a chance to] show off his trophy.”

In northern India, the term “bhabhi” is typically used to address one’s sister-in-law but is also used more loosely as a respectful way to address an older married woman. However, the term is a contentious one, as it can also be used to refer to any woman, usually married and middle-aged, who is deemed sexually desirable – the desi version of the MILF, in one sense. The character of the bhabhi with an insatiable sexual appetite who must be conquered and sexually satisfied because her husband is unable to do so has been fetishised in desi porn videos, Hindi films, and kitschy comic strips – the most popular being Savita Bhabhi, who is portrayed in pornographic comic strips as a nymphomaniac. 

Feminists, however, have reclaimed the figure of Savita Bhabhi as a portrait of a liberated woman in touch with her sexual needs and desires, despite the patriarchy and regressive circumstances she finds herself mired in. 

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In the context of bhabhi porn videos and desi pornographic comic strips, the real-life ramifications of fetishising a bhabhi take on a darker hue for Indian women. 

Apurupa Vatsalya, a 29-year-old sexuality educator, told VICE that in a country where “there’s no capacity building around sex ed and ethical media consumption,” these videos and comic strips do more harm than good, and further perpetuate clichés about the female anatomy that end up affecting Indian women. 

While conducting a sex-ed session in a leading Indian boarding school, Vatsalya recalls being passed an anonymous note in which she was asked if larger breasts secrete more doodh (milk).“I distinctly remember feeling the gaze of the class on my chest throughout the session and jokes about me being a bhabhi being cracked. My own sexual shame showed up and how.”

Vatsalya internalised that shame to the extent that she has since chosen to dress more conservatively during these sessions. “The additional stress and anxiety have honestly been so unnecessary,” she added. 

What explains this strange fascination of some Indian men towards the bhabhi figure – one who is usually married, at home, and seemingly unattainable? According to neuropsychologist Jasdeep Mago, there are different reasons for it. “Indian movies from the 1970s have shown this sexual tension between the bhabhi and her brother-in-law, or even her neighbours, as the story of ‘forbidden love’ has always fascinated us,” she said. “But, the way I see it, the [theory] of the Oedipus complex cannot be completely discounted either.”

Theorised by the Austrian neurologist and the pioneer of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, the Oedipus complex proposes that children have a latent, possessive sexual desire for their opposite-sex parent while viewing their same-sex parent as a rival.

“Usually, the Oedipus complex is resolved within a few years of birth,” she explained. “In certain cases, with men, it is carried well into adulthood and they find replacements for the mother figure, one of them being the bhabhi. So, bhabhi porn feeds into that idea.”

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She added that the mental toll that a woman goes through when she is endlessly fetishised as a bhabhi can be crushing. “You end up feeling extremely unsafe at all times about the way you look and present yourself. You might also ask yourself: Is this all I am? Does my life have no meaning beyond being a bhabhi? Is this all I have to offer?” 

In the case of Hemali, a 38-year-old architect based in Delhi who prefers being anonymous, the fetishisation came from the friends of a brother-in-law from her previous marriage. 

“I was only 23 when I got married and was the youngest bhabhi in the house,” she told VICE. “It was terrible – the way they’d say ‘bhabhi’, the endless flirting. I’d feel objectified at every moment and in every interaction.”During a family function, Hemali’s mother gifted her a maroon sari, coincidentally the same colour as the one worn by the Savita Bhabhi character. 

“All my brother-in-law’s friends gathered around me and ‘complimented’ me on how I looked exactly like Savita Bhabhi that day, it was seemingly casual and no one really interfered. [But I have] since sworn off maroon saris, and hate the colour,” she said. “People [might] think this is funny, but it’s not. You are being objectified by a group of men in public, and that’s not a good feeling.”

According to Henna Pande, a 31-year-old who heads an advertising agency, the sexualisation of the word “bhabhi” is closely tied to ideas of ownership and begins quite early in childhood. “Even in school, you would have the hero of the group claiming a girl from the class as his own and telling all his friends that she is your bhabhi, stay away from her. The girl had absolutely no say in all of this,” she said. “The same transforms into adulthood in more violent jokes. Only a few years ago, I dated this guy, whose friends jokingly told him that if he wasn’t in the city, they would take bhabhi (me) away.” 

The scenario of the “hero” claiming a girl as “his” might sound familiar to those who watched the 2019 Bollywood film Kabir Singh, a remake of the Telugu film Arjun Reddy (2017), both directed by Sandeep Reddy Vanga. The character of the house surgeon with anger management and substance-abuse issues who sets his sights on a first-year student was widely criticised for propagating sexist and patriarchal notions around ideas of ownership of women.

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The way Pande sees it, the bhabhi becomes the butt of all jokes. Even if the man is supposed to be targeted, it will always be through his woman. “Even in Indian mythology, Draupadi [the female protagonist of the Hindu epic Mahabharata] was stripped in a court because her five husbands had gambled her away,” she said. “So, the bhabhi becomes the medium for men to channel their anger and prove their masculinity to other men.”

Mythologist Sundeep Verma told VICE that Indian mythology is full of examples of men using women to inflict pain on their enemies and that Draupadi is an extension of the same idea. 

“I don’t think she was necessarily being sexualised in the way we understand the fetishisation of bhabhis,” he said. “The idea was to humiliate the five brothers through her.” 

But popular depictions of the bhabhi can also be read as empowering – a woman who prioritises her pleasure and is intimate with a man of her choosing, even if it means having sex outside of her marriage. 

In the 2012 Bollywood film B.A. Pass, based on the short story “The Railway Aunty,” by Mohan Sikka, the titular character has an affair with a sexually inexperienced young man. Later on in their relationship, she encourages him to have sex for money with other married women in her social circle. In the 2013 film Nasha, a teenager gets infatuated with his married teacher, leading to disastrous consequences for both. 

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When the Savita Bhabhi comic strips were banned in 2010, the Wall Street Journal opined that “in the hierarchy of pornography, Savita is perhaps the safest form of it” because she is a just a “cartoon, representing no risk of human trafficking or sexually transmitted disease.” 

Aakansha, a 34-year-old communications manager, said that, for the longest time, bhabhi porn provided her with a safe space to role-play and experiment in bed. She added that though she hasn’t been fetishised, some men she dated had been taken aback by her fascination with bhabhi porn – almost as if it was their sole domain. 

“I shared the idea of a bhabhi porn scene where a man sticks a kulfi (popsicle) in the bhabhi’s vagina [with my partner]. He was shocked and thought it to be literal,” she said. “Some men have a myopic view towards the world of bhabhi porn, when the woman takes control of the narrative and, clearly, those relationships don’t work out.”

Follow Arman on Twitter and Instagram.

Tagged:

Sex, porn, women, Fetish, mental health, Milf, bhabhi porn, savita bhabhi

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