Since the nationwide protests and international outcry that followed the gang rape and subsequent death of a Delhi student in 2012, India has begun to confront the fact that it has a problem with sexual violence and harassment, known as Eve-teasing. But open discussion around sex remains controversial, which is why a website that provides a platform to talk about all things sex-related is providing a much-needed service.
“When we talk about sex as a pleasurable thing to engage in, what we imply is that it’s not violent,” says Gayatri Parameswaran, web editor of Love Matters, the first-ever Hindi-language sex advice website.
Each month, 1.5 million people visit Love Matters and its new WhatsApp group to find information on topics such as virginity, incest, STDs – and even penis size. It might sound trivial, but this is no small thing in a country where the subject of sex remains taboo; many young Indians struggle to get accurate information about sex from their parents or schools.
News Deeply spoke to Gayatri Parameswaran about how to make safe and informative conversation about sex possible in India.
Women and Girls Hub: How hard is it, at this current time, to speak about sex in India?
Gayatri Parameswaran: Ever since I can remember it’s been really hard to talk about sex; it’s always been taboo. I think the problem is that there is no comprehensive sex education in schools and there is a resistance to having any kind of sex education under the pretext that it’s going to corrupt young peoples’ minds.
Women and Girls Hub: This comes from whom, from the government?
Parameswaran: From the government, from the older generation, from conservative parts of society. I guess there is this general resistance to talking about sex because the conservative mindset thinks that, if young people are exposed to sex education, then they will go ahead and have sex. But right now, they are having sex without knowing what the risks are or having sex without protection.
Women and Girls Hub: Where do young people get their sex advice from?
Parameswaran: From peers. When I was growing up, I would rely on my older girl cousins, older girlfriends to get information about sex. It’s so funny, I remember this strange anecdote where there was this conversation among us teenagers about, “Who is sex better for? Is it better for the man or the woman?” One of my friends said: “Try this, put your finger in your ear and try to rub it in. What feels better, your finger or the ear?” This is how young people used to find out about sex! Back then there was no Google. I didn’t have the internet until I was 15. Now a lot of young people [with access to the internet] get sex information through porn, and that’s dangerous because that has so many antifeminist ideas about sex.
Women and Girls Hub: You’ve recently received funding to pilot test a WhatsApp group that gives people advice on sex and relationships. How does that work?
Parameswaran: We set up a broadcast list with 256 people on the group and people could write in to us. The main idea was that we wanted to send out messages to whoever subscribed to the service. The reason we chose WhatsApp is that it’s so cheap, it’s free for people to install and it’s free for people to access once you have internet on your phone. I was using content from the website as links to forward, and we also produced two animated videos, one about penis shapes and sizes – which is funny – and one about [the] hymen and virginity, which is another issue in India. There is this compulsive need to find out if my girlfriend or my wife-to-be is a virgin. So we did a video around this: it was a Bollywood duet about hymen and virginity, and it spoke about how in the end virginity doesn’t matter, love matters.
Women and Girls Hub: Have you come up against any hostility from right-wing groups, religious groups or the government?
Parameswaran: We haven’t had any backlash from the big right-wing groups in India yet. The biggest problem is that we always get taken off Facebook. All our accounts, whoever is administrating the Love Matters Facebook page, are blocked. In the last month, mine has been blocked twice because I’m an administrator on the Love Matters India Facebook group. They think that the content we are putting out is obscene or pornographic, or someone has reported it. That’s the kind of censorship right now that we are facing.
Women and Girls Hub: Do you have any data on which parts of Indian society are using the website?
Parameswaran: There is no way to find out who exactly the website users are, but for our Facebook page it’s primarily urban. Also for the website it is primarily Delhi and the Northern belt, because that is the Hindi-speaking belt. Our Facebook stats tell us that our users are mainly male. For the WhatsApp pilot we know that it was 98 percent male.
The fact that they’re accessing the information in Hindi already means that they’re not the elite, English-speaking banker going to work at HSBC. That really shows that we’re already reaching these men. The statistics, when I say these people are accessing their information from Delhi or from Bombay or the bigger cities, is probably that they are migrants who moved to these cities. Because a lot of upper-middle class and middle-class men would access this information in English.
Women and Girls Hub: What’s the impact of reaching out to men?
Parameswaran: It’s a positive because a lot of groups that work on gender, on sexual violence, on intimate partner violence are not able to make a safe enough environment for men to speak. One of the main things we advocate is pleasure in sex – which is a big taboo in India. When we talk about sex as a pleasurable thing to engage in, what we imply is that it’s not violent. We are explicit in a lot of ways in talking about violence and what to do and what not to do, and consent, but the springboard to start the conversation is always pleasure. That’s basically what we are using and I think it’s working.
Women and Girls Hub: Do you think that you’re reaching women indirectly through men?
Parameswaran: Yes. Technology is mainly in the hands of men, especially when we are talking about semi-urban areas. It’s still quite patriarchal. A lot of women might not have access to the internet on their phones. We are trying to find ways to reach the women: what we have been doing quite easily is to speak to men and engage them in conversations not just about pleasure, but also deeper conversations.
For example, we had someone who confessed on the website that they were engaging in Eve-teasing or street sexual harassment. He came out on the website saying that, “I used to do this. I’m very ashamed of it. But these are the reasons why I did it.” To be able to also give that a platform is facilitating a conversation. A lot of the time, people who commit human rights abuses don’t really know that they’re doing that. There are so many complex structural problems that they are abusing their family and might just think that this is normal.
Women and Girls Hub: What’s next for Love Matters?
Parameswaran: Love Matters has grown to other regions, and we are doing a research project where we are trying to find out whether people come to the website with questions about pleasure, then progress to disease, abuse, or contraception – whether there is some kind of trajectory. We’re able to prove that in most of the regions that’s true; people come with questions about, “How do I pleasure my wife?” or “How do I give oral sex?”, and then because of how the links are placed, they go on to look at information about how to use condoms or stuff like that.