Essay in Outlook: Tumhara Ishq Ishq....? The Double Meanings of Desire, Porn and Erotica
Tumhara Ishq Ishq…? The Double Meanings Of Desire, Porn And Erotica
Not taste and aesthetics, but class and power draw the line between porn and erotica. Exploitation happens everywhere in the world of real-world sex—not just in porn.
What are we really talking about when we talk about the division between porn and erotica? Why does this division keep returning to our conversations with slippery futility?
Perhaps the most succinct essay on the topic can be found in the film Ishqiya (2010). The character Babban, played by Arshad Warsi, says to Khalu, the character played by Naseeruddin Shah: “Yeh sahi hai Khalu. Tumhara ishq ishq huh, aur humara ishq sex?” Because Khalu has been imagining waltzes and making eyes at Vidya Balan’s character while Warsi has been making whoopee in an actual bed with her. What marks one as more lofty than the other, Babban asks? That one was consummated? That one involved physical sex and the other merely an erotic charge? When it comes to desire, everything has a double meaning—sex and love, a sticky twosome, are difficult to keep apart. The elites have been trying for years, and one way they do it is through a division of erotica and porn. But it is not only love and sex they are trying to separate.In 2008, I wrote an erotic short story in a collection titled Electric Feather. Assuming the purpose of erotica as sung by The Beatles—“I’d love to turn you on”—I wrote a story with euphemisms kam, explicit sex zyada. Many loved the story’s dedication to pleasure, but I received my share of admonishments, from the censorious to the prim to the jolly. “So,” said a postcolonial-writer-type friend, “I hear you have become a purveyor of porn now”. A college friend was disappointed in me, because it was “trashy obscene stuff”. A man I had gone on a couple of dates with wrote me a distressed email to say we could not meet again because “while I admire your other, socially conscious, work, this story is not even erotica for women, it’s just porn like men’s…and there are hardly any descriptions of the woman’s body, there is so much about the man’s!” (The story had a queer woman narrator with a man). Apparently so much naked sex and female desire strained the limits of permissibility, and I was perhaps saved from ‘cheapness’ only by the class-inflected tool of ‘good English’.
The division of erotica and porn is presented only as a matter of tastefulness, but its implication is around morality. At various historical moments, you see this ‘obscenity versus propriety’ debate gathers force. These are often turning points in technology and its hum-bistar, or bedfellow, access for a larger, heterogeneous public. The late 19th century already saw court cases against Raja Ravi Varma (in 1896), and we soon moved from there on to legislation around film censorship based on the idea that natives lacked the moral sophistication to make sense of films. The time leading up to nationhood saw cases against Ismat Chugtai and Manto. The era post globalisation saw court cases against Milind Soman and Madhu Sapre for posing naked with a python. Today, the Raj Kundra case has somehow caused an anxiety of definition. People are as discomfited by it as they are with double entendres.
Why does the double entendre cause such discomfort? For the simple reason that it disturbs a line of control—respectability. Respectability urges us to be literal—implying that being rich and being good are the same thing. That being tasteful and noble are one. That being elite and being meritorious are the same. The double entendre disturbs these conflations by its very mischievous Looking London, Talking Tokyo nature. We say one thing, but mean another—and everyone knows this to be so. In this way we defy the line of permissibility while pretending to toe that line, and become impossible to control. The double meaning, by its very form and nature, communicates that one person’s opportunity can be another person’s oppression; or, that one person’s erotica is another’s porn. We imply that there is nothing naturally good or essential about this line, but that it has been put in place by those who would control our intimacies, and our possibilities, by resort to that strict literalness. (“That is only erotica, and hence kosher. This is porn.”) Double meaning disturbs that, and at least in part, this unspoken revelation is what is disturbing about double meanings. No wonder you see a consistent effort, from the colonial times, to the present, to separate things into singular meanings.In that sense, l’affaire Raj Kundra is itself a double entendre. The fact that the partner of an A-list star from the entertainment and media world, a yoga icon no less and part of a high-visibility social set, has turned out to be a purveyor of porn disturbs the pretence of respectability that the upper set’s upperness is propped up by. Bollywood’s effort to separate itself from the Shetty-Kundras hinges on the tastelessness or ‘sleaze’ involved. But the idea of taste and purity are, in the end, ideas of expensiveness and money. Money is usually made in not very tasteful ways—it frequently involves straight-up exploitation. By making sex the problem, we avoid talking about all the other problems of power and injustice that exist in all parts of society.
Kundra’s wife, Shilpa Shetty, has defended his work saying, “It is erotica, not porn”. Nirali Bhatia, a cyber-psychologist and psychotherapist, was quoted in a newspaper as saying erotica is a form of art which emphasises the aesthetics and also the narratives around sexual themes while porn has straight-up sex meant to arouse the viewer—she cites the Khajuraho sculptures as serving an aesthetic and educational purpose, but somehow not arousing desire.One might ask, if erotica is so acceptable, why isn’t it more present in elite spaces? The desi non-elite, not-so-politically-correct world has been expressive of its sexualness—a word I use to speak of the actual experience of sex, as opposed to sexuality, the abstract evocation of sex—for a while. The B and C markets have driven the sex toy industry. Home-porn clips easily found on Twitter, under any one of many Hot Bhabi type handles, reveal all kinds of sexualness and it certainly does not appear non-consensual. There is some quick and dirty sex, there is steamy intimacy, there is foreplay, there is laughing and smiling and kissing. Perhaps when it comes to sex, we are all cheap. So why do we need this division of erotica and porn?
Recently we asked our audience at Agents of Ishq to talk about what they missed in porn and the answers are intriguing. They said they missed smiling, hugs, jokes, intimacy, even dialogue. In other words, they missed what Cindy Gallop, founder of Make Love not Porn, calls real-world sex, which is also described above. Why is this eroticism not available at large then?As sexual mores have changed and the idea of sex positivity accompanied by a certain brand-friendly feminism has become commonplace, we are no longer wrinkling our noses at the idea of sex itself. But is there a new respectability masked by a new sex positivity? One where sex as information is acceptable (sex education), and conversations on consent that are binary and do not get into intersectional complexities or even the complexities of sexual interaction are de rigueur. Here, love is love and that makes rainbows acceptable, but let us not get into too many details about same-sex sexualness, because, well, that’s ‘cheap’. These are the sexuality conversations online, neatly kept in place by social media’s Community Standards (which one can evade sometimes with double meanings).
A certain class divide is redrawn here. On this side of respectability is information, classy sensuality and enough money to subscribe to Western feminist porn. And on the other side is porn, exploitation, toxic masculinity and cheapness. We have seen these conversations about sexual morality, coded with double meanings of class and caste and gender, where those meanings play out in several ways.For instance, All India Bakchod’s music video Creep Qawwali denoted all men in the ‘others’ inbox who did not speak good English and sent unsolicited messages as ‘creeps’. Its double meaning took into its loop, without much ambiguity, men of a less privileged background...watchmen, lift attendants, pizza delivery boys. The non-creeps, by implication, are men of elite backgrounds, protectors of ‘their’ women. This is an implication which directly undergirds the scepticism that arises when liberal, educated men are accused of sexual harassment. Because their political aesthetic is ‘superior’ so too must be their ethical and moral framework in sexual matters, it is assumed.
In popular cinema, we have seen a different aesthetic sanitising. There is a growing acceptability for discussing sex as violence—and films that do this are quickly anointed to a place of greatness—but there is still a deep unease with depicting sexual pleasure. Elite criticism of Hindi cinema has long hinged on its aesthetic inferiority because of the one element that contained a vast repertoire of erotic expression, from heaving bosoms to stolen glances to cross-dressing—the film song. This was consistently critiqued as irrational, vulgar, cheesy, exploitative and ‘problematic’, to be gradually replaced by a masculinised realism and films about sex as violation or as a site of oppression. These examples also construct an idea of sex as violative of women, and airbrush depictions of women’s desires and sexual agency out of the narrative in the name of concern about their safety and respectability.The same divide is reflected when sexual expression on Instagram (whose users are more urban) is often seen as ‘empowering’ while sexual expression on TikTok (which was diverse, desi, edgy, messy, queer and overwhelmingly from non-English speaking spaces) was often denounced as vulgar and even toxic, on the basis of a few examples among the millions of bits of content there.
By displacing the conversation about exploitation, violence and misogyny onto an aesthetic sphere, we not only preserve the elites as arbiters of taste and morality but more importantly prevent a real conversation about both sexual desires and expression as well as the exploitation on which that elite status is itself built. Exploitation does take place within sex on day to day basis—it is not the speciality of porn, but of sexism and queerphobia.This is not to say exploitation does not take place in the production of pornography. The concept of ethical porn has been created to talk about a porn that is produced with fair wages and consent. But this ethicality is about labour practices—it is not about sex, nor should it be. In fact, the most important part of the Raj Kundra case is that some actors may have been coerced or blackmailed into performing, but there is relatively little discussion on this important matter of consent.
There is a hesitation in discussing this question because it means discussing all sex—the sexual violence or even unhappiness within marriages of all backgrounds; the world of sex that is not concerned with respectable matrimony or monogamy; or the right of sex workers to unionise like any other workers. As Meena Seshu of the National Network of Sex Workers recently said at a meeting, “Masseurs are considered to sell a service, not their bodies, so why isn’t sex work seen as a service, not the sale of a body? That’s what comes in the way of unionising.” And it also means discussing other aspects of social justice. In fact, many of these questions have implications for the entire media industry (Shilpa and Raj’s erstwhile social circle), not only that part which produces sexual content.
The separation of porn and erotica allows us to talk about exploitation, or even, the exploited, but never the exploiters. But as you know, the truth often hides behind the single meaning, in a way only double meanings can reveal.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Sex, With Cloven Feet")
(Paromita Vohra is a filmmaker, writer, committed antakshari player and founder of Agents of Ishq, a project about sex, love and desire for Indians. Views are personal)