Writer and editor Richa Kaul Padte began thinking about writing a book in 2013, when a petition to ban pornography was introduced in the Supreme Court. Cyber Sexy: Rethinking Pornography, recently released by Penguin, is as much about politics as it is about pleasure, posing questions like “Who gets to write? Who gets to masturbate?”
As someone who enjoyed porn, Kaul Padte was distressed by the petition—but what makes the book so resoundingly feminist is not simple sex-positivity, but active intersectionality. Kaul Padte brings disability, class, queerness, and notably caste, into her arguments as vital elements.
Everything from nude selfies to the sex lives of Second Life avatars finds a place in the pages of this brilliant debut. I chatted with Kaul Padte for several hours about her book—over the internet, of course.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
VICE: You write that you were uncomfortable with porn because of second wave feminist theory. How did this evolve into your current views?
Richa Kaul Padte: It was second wave feminist theory, but I think my adoption of it came from a very male-led Marxist movement I used to be part of. I guess it's not surprising to me that my most regressive feminism came to me from a bunch of men. That's the sort of space my activism was happening in, and that's the sort of writing I was doing at uni too—very rooted in male gaze theory.
"Under capitalism, everything we love, including love itself, can be turned into a commodity."
After many years, I moved back to India, and found myself working at a small feminist non-profit in Bombay that works closely with sex workers, for sexual rights. This idea of sexual rights was new to me as a political idea, and one that I was very drawn to. Finally, there was an approach to feminism and patriarchy and the world that matched up with how I felt in my personal life, where I dressed in sexy clothes, had lots of sex, watched porn and so on. That's when I actually embraced feminism, and started identifying as a feminist.
Can you talk about the links between capitalism and pleasure/sex?
Capitalism commodifies sex, in the same way that it commodifies everything both good and bad about this world. Under capitalism, everything we love, including love itself, can be turned into a commodity.
At the same time, capitalism combines with other systems of power, such as patriarchy, and perpetuates structural inequalities—between different groups of people, between companies and people. It is the exploitation of certain people's bodies that we see the most under capitalism: women's bodies, disabled bodies, “lower caste” bodies, and so on.
Because sexual exploitation is being perpetuated by capitalism, some branches of anti-capitalist theory start to see sex and bodies themselves as the problem. But sex is not the problem, inequality is.
There's this song by The Coup called "Laugh, Love Fuck" which goes, "I'm here to laugh, love, fuck and drink liquor / And help the damn revolution come quicker." That is the best representation of the type of anti-capitalist resistance I want to be a part of.
You write: "It can feel really disconcerting to witness a lone man at a deserted railways station having a wank as he stares at his phone. But maybe we should be a little less disconcerted by his class-caste status and a little more concerned that he has nowhere to go. Or about where his female counterparts are doing the same thing—or even if they can." Tell us about holding each person's right to pleasure as equal.
I think I need to say straight off the bat here that I’ve grown up and lived in this world with almost complete caste-blindness. And it is only thanks to the internet (ah, my beloved) and the tireless work of some amazing Dalit women on Twitter, that the real depth of my own prejudices has been revealed to me.
The truth is that if I walk into a railway station and witness that scene, I will not feel good. But I really hope that I will be able to check myself and at least ask those difficult questions of myself, and of this world. Pleasure is not just for those of us with bedroom doors and locks and internet access—we who have mostly-acceptable bodies.
What I’ve tried to do in Cyber Sexy is reveal people's humanity, no matter how "other" their desires or bodies appear to be. Is that intersectionality? I hope so, because that’s the definitely the feminism that I aspire towards. Intersectional feminism means you are always learning, and always willing to be wrong. If you have grown up with any sort of privilege then what you have ahead of you is a lifetime of unlearning.
What were some things you didn't know before you started?
I didn't have a sense of how vast and varied the sexy internet was. The sheer breadth that emerged from researching and writing seriously took my breath away. And still does. I went into this trying to defend an idea—trying to stop a porn ban—but what I have come away with is a sense that the sexy internet is full of truly precious, beautiful, terribly important spaces. And the fight to preserve it is so deeply rooted in humanity, in a way that I just couldn't have imagined before.
What are some of those spaces? In Cyber Sexy , there's everything from the iconic—Savita Bhabhi—to the unexpected—a visually-impaired man who enjoys the auditory experience of porn.
There's this idea I cite in my book by Brenda Brathwaite, on "emergent sex". Emergent sex occurs in multiplayer video-games that are not designed with sex in mind, but that players use to facilitate sexy interactions with each other. Basically she says that as soon as emergent sex becomes possible, it becomes inevitable. Which I think kind of applies to the whole internet.
What is the internet, finally? A space where people come together. And when people come together, some of their interactions will of course be sexual, because sexuality is a natural part of human interactions. So while yes, there are spaces online that are clearly identifiable for sexual purposes (erotica, porn websites, and so on), I would argue that there is sex everywhere on the internet; just like there is sex everywhere in the world. This isn't a bad thing or a good thing, it's a human thing.
Let's talk about vulnerability. An incident that stood out was when you describe writing Sweet Valley fan fiction. There was something especially revealing, and sweet, about your concerns as an 11-year-old. How important is vulnerability to sex?
I want to say that vulnerability is important to sex, because I feel like it's the right answer. But I don't know how to give that answer without lying. As women, sexual, intimate relationships are not always safe, nurturing spaces. I think most of us, especially as straight women, have experienced some sort of cruelty by men in the course of sexual relationships. I'm not just talking about violence, but about.. I don't know. Let's say a throwaway mean comment after sex about your body or something that just twists you inside.
While I recognise that sex itself requires a certain type of vulnerability, I would be lying if I said that I went into sexual encounters or relationships ready to be emotionally vulnerable. I am all for casual, hot, exciting sex, but in order to be a person who seeks and enjoys that, I protect myself by refusing (insofar as it is possible) to allow myself to be emotionally vulnerable.
Many of the women you interviewed are open about exploring fantasy and performance through the internet, including homemade erotic content, refuting the idea that banning porn protects women. What do our self-appointed guardians really want?
I think our self-appointed guardians want to preserve the power structure as it stands now. These guardians take many forms, from government officials to gau rakshaks to husbands. That's a really big one in the lives of women: FAMILIES. Often the most oppressive types of sexual control women experience isn't happening via governments or porn bans. It's happening from within their own families. In many ways the porn ban is just a replication of that: the paternal state, looking out for the interests of women.
What they are actually looking out for is the preservation of their own power. And that power is threatened by independent, sexual women. "For your own good" is something we hear a lot in Indian families. And the state is a huge-ass extension of the big happy Indian family. So sit straight, close your legs, and be a good girl. Because that way, the power structure will never shift.
You grapple with issues of consent and exploitation. How do we balance the right to sexual expression and the right to be free of violence?
Feminist revolution, innit? I'm serious! The right to sexual expression free from violence and harm is at the centre of sexual rights movements, and I think it also has to be at the centre of sexual rights in the digital world.
But I think for some reason, these get painted as being in opposition to each other.
So people say ,"Well, you wanted free speech, so here are a bunch of rape threats, which now you can't complain about because: free speech." I don't know why this happens, because free speech or sexual freedom doesn't include the right to inflict harm onto other people. It doesn't mean that as a survivor of that harm you were somehow asking for it. The right to speech, or pleasure, or livelihood means that you have the human right to these things free from harm.
I guess I see it as less of a balancing act and more like... the very thing that we are fighting for.
The human drive to document sexy times is ancient as we know; you briefly list Pompeii, Khajuraho, the poems of Andal and more. What do you think the future of erotic expression will be like?
I'm hopeful because I think more people will get online and have the tools to participate in sexual expression. I also think that we're seeing a mainstreaming of sexual rights and expression, especially from marginalised communities (biggest props ever to the global queer community for being so radically badass).
"The fight for sexual expression also needs to include the fight for a free and people-led internet."
I’m also really worried, because the internet is in a shaky place. I'm not talking about state censorship, which is a whole other kettle of fish that I talk about a lot in my book. I'm referring to the corporate control of the internet. Most of what regular, non-techy people like me experience as the internet is made up of huge corporations that we access via devices which are also part of huge corporations. We only see the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to just how much these companies control.
This isn't to take away at all from what the internet has meant for sexual freedom and erotic expression, but just to say that going forward, the fight for sexual expression in the digital era also needs to include the fight for a free and people-led internet. Which is part of the fight for a free and people-led world.
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