If you happen to watch cable television post-midnight in Kolkata, you will be no stranger to programmes obsessed with increasing your sexual potency overnight. Similar content that classifies sex as yet another human need requiring the invisible hand of the free market to optimise itself is not difficult to find in Kolkata, be it on television or through bills and posters that adorn many a paan-stained wall across the city. But should you want a meaningful conversation on sex and sexuality that is grounded both in science and sentiment, your quest is bound to be a hard one. From biology textbooks in school to dinner table conversations at home, the subject of sex in Kolkata, like elsewhere in India, invites a lot of curiosity but very little engagement.
In search of this elusive engagement, My Kolkata caught up with Leeza Mangaldas, who has taken it upon herself to educate Indians about sex and sexuality through The Sex Podcast, explanatory videos on YouTube as well as informative reels on Instagram. This year, Leeza is among the influential women recognised as part of Spotify’s second edition of AmplifiHer, an initiative designed to uplift women in India’s audio industry.
In a chat organised by Spotify, My Kolkata quizzed Leeza about her content creation journey, why Indians remain hush-hush on sex, how to generate an ecosystem for important conversations and more.
Excerpts from the conversation follow.
‘What I really wanted to talk about — women’s lives and health, sex and sexuality’
Leeza had a flourishing career on television before transitioning completely to the digital space
Indian Super League
My Kolkata: What led to your transition from a television anchor to a digital content creator?
Leeza Mangaldas: I’m 32 now. A decade ago, when I graduated from college, content creation wasn’t a career yet. I always wanted to enter a space where my opinion would be valued on topics I care about. Mainstream media and journalism seemed to be the best option at that time. As it turned out, I didn’t get to talk about the things I wanted to. I worked with a business news channel, then hosted a car show, then went on to become an interviewer for a show on sports achievers and also worked as a football presenter for the Indian Super League (ISL) for several seasons. I’m grateful for all those experiences, but those jobs weren’t giving me the opportunity to talk about what I really wanted to talk about — women’s lives and health, sex and sexuality, and other things that are closer to my interests.
As a result, I started a YouTube channel parallel to my career in television. I had a lot of transferable skills, such as video production, editing and lighting, that helped me switch to the digital space. But it was only two years ago that I was in a position to let go of my television work altogether to focus solely on digital content creation.
What made you focus on sex-positive content as a creator?
I’ve always wanted to create an open, safe and judgement-free space to talk about sex and sexuality in India. I’m not looking for all the answers, but I want to raise important questions and bring in doctors, activists and experts from different fields to talk about their lived experiences. Over time, I’ve had so many queries and insights come from the audience, too, which have helped me widen the ambit of my content.
‘Publicly, we must pretend that none of us has sex’
Most Indians don’t feel like they can talk about sex, argues Leeza
Did you have doubts when you started creating this content, given how India, the land of the Kama Sutra, is also the land of didactic conservatism around sex?
It’s not that Indians don’t want to talk about sex. They do talk about sex and want to talk about sex. But they do so in spaces where they feel safe and where they can trust the people they share the information with. These spaces are small, private spaces. Publicly, we must pretend that none of us has sex. We can’t address our sexual health concerns or confusions around our sexuality on a public platform. Look, we have a population of more than a billion people in India. So, it’s not that Indians aren’t having sex or they don’t want to talk about it. It’s just that most of us don’t feel like we can.
‘The idea that sex education will corrupt kids… is a completely misinformed notion’
What is your take on sex education in schools? At what stage should it begin and what are the areas around which conversation should take place?
Sex education can be age-appropriate and ongoing, rather than a one-time lesson. But the way sex education is taught in Indian schools also needs to change. When students are taught the reproductive system in the eighth or ninth grade, most of the focus is on the internal organs and on how babies are made. I don’t think female external genitalia is discussed at all. I, for one, never heard the word clitoris in school. There’s also no conversation around sexual orientation since the entire sex-ed process is driven by heternormativity.
Research indicates that people with comprehensive sex education and/or access to parents, or caregivers whom they can approach with questions around sex and sexuality, are more likely to delay having sex and less likely to take risks with their sexual health. The idea that sex education will corrupt kids and as a result all of them will be rushing to have sex is a completely misinformed notion.
But it’s not just about schools. Parents also have to do their bit. Think about how parents in India teach children their first words. When it comes to introducing body parts, parents might describe the eyes and the nose and the mouth for what they are, but when it comes to the genital organs, they rarely name them to their children. Instead, they use some sort of shorthand or derogatory phrase, or worse still, use the words ‘shame shame’, a common euphemism, to refer to the genitalia. Think about what that does for children and how they perceive their own bodies. It’s literally enforcing embarrassment and stigma into children’s minds. And this isn’t just restricted to India. Etymologically, the word ‘pudendum’, which is still used in academic and legal jargon to describe the genitalia, especially the female genitalia, comes from the Latin word ‘pudere’, which means ‘to be ashamed’.
‘We rarely talk about gender equality in the bedroom’
A country where women orgasm as much as men is a country where gender equality is likely to prevail, believes Leeza
Within the conservative environment of most Indian families, sex is largely spoken of in the context of childbirth and not in the context of pleasure. How important is it to talk about pleasure to get rid of the stigma around sex?
I think there’s a hierarchy of acceptable contexts within which sex can be had in Indian society. At the apex of that hierarchy is sex after marriage with a person of the opposite sex, same religion, same caste and same socio-economic background for the purpose of childbirth. That seems to be the only context within which you can publicly admit to having sex. Anything else is considered to be less acceptable or shameful to varying degrees, including masturbation, which is the safest form of pleasure without any dangers of unwanted pregnancy, infection or even rejection. Then there’s premarital sex, which is such a big taboo. Sex is still couched as if it’s an instrument of the patriarchy to replicate existing social orders. That’s why there’s such an emphasis on endogamy as well.
But returning to the point of pleasure, I feel men feel more entitled to it, since ejaculation is central to the process of sex and even reproduction. But for women, pleasure is something they owe to men as part of producing a male heir. So many women writing to me have said that they’ve never had an orgasm or a satisfying sexual experience. This is because pleasure is seen as something that’s not for women. Only bad girls like sex or enjoy it. It’s as if women are the reluctant gatekeepers of pleasure and men are the voracious predators.
The way I see it, women’s sexual pleasure should also be seen as a marker for women’s equality. I can bet that a country where women are having orgasms as frequently as men is a country where gender equality is in good health. We’ve started talking a lot about gender equality in the boardroom, but we rarely talk about gender equality in the bedroom. I hope we can eventually live in a world where everyone is entitled to equal orgasms.
‘Partners need to be clear of their expectations from a sexual equation’
As casual dating and hooking up for flings become more common, there seems to be a narrative that sexual intimacy and emotional intimacy can be mutually exclusive. How important are emotions when it comes to sex?
I think people have very different responses and emotional makeups in this regard. Some people find that they’re able to detach their emotional attachments from their sexual experiences. Others feel more comfortable sharing their emotions with their sexual partners. Both are valid responses and it’s important to realise what feels good for us and to take care of our needs. Something that happens very often is people tend to hesitate to be vulnerable or even develop feelings after sex. This is where honesty and compassion are paramount. Partners need to be clear about their expectations from a sexual equation and whether they’re on the same page going forward.
‘If someone says no to something during sex, it has to be believed and respected’
Leeza explains that blanket consent cannot be assumed unless it is given
Courtesy: Leeza Mangaldas
As a society, we have a lot of confusion around consent. What’s a good starting point to initiate the discussion?
Imagine if you were hesitant to do something with your partner during sex, wouldn’t you want to be asked about it? So, why not ask the other person if they’re hesitant? I don’t understand why asking for consent is perceived to kill the mood. It’s not like you’re asking job interview questions! I think conversations on consent can be arousing in their own ways, a sort of a foreplay where you engage, understand the other person’s boundaries and make the experience safe, secure and wholesome for both. I understand that there are couples, especially those in long-term relationships, who have blanket consent. But one can never assume blanket consent unless it has been given or told to you as such, particularly when it comes to new relationships and partners. As partners, it’s important to keep looking out for each other. Sometimes partners, especially women, don’t feel safe saying no. That can’t be allowed to carry on. If someone says no to something during sex, it has to be believed and respected.
Not all stories from mythology are sex-positive, reminds Leeza
Indian art and sculpture, and more spectacularly, Indian mythology are replete with references to sex and there are innumerable stories of gods and goddesses embracing their uniqueness along the spectrum of sexuality. Can these resources be a feasible tool to talk more openly about sex in India?
I’m not an expert in mythology, but I do think that mythology isn’t all sex-positive. So, if we are using references from mythology, there will need to be cherry-picking of progressive and expansive stories. Because there are instances from mythology that don’t reflect well on what sort of sexual behaviour is acceptable. There’s mythology across religions that has ideas and concepts relating to virginity and purity that portray sex as sinful. Personally, I feel sex education is better off being secular, though I acknowledge that mythology, if used judiciously, can have a lot to teach us about sex and sexuality.
‘Gender identity should be a source of self-expression, not a tool for societal oppression’
Sex assigned at birth need not assign with one ‘s gender identity, explains Leeza
Most Indians assume sex and gender to be one and the same thing. How does one go about breaking down this notion?
We need to be thinking about this in the first place. Too often we think it’s somebody else’s problem and somebody else’s prerogative to give us the information. We should give ourselves some time to think about our own identity, like the way we think about our dreams and aspirations. When we do this thinking, a lot of the prejudices we’ve inherited in terms of gender and sexuality will become clearer to us.
Gender is still used in a lot of places as an imperfect synonym for sex. In fact, they are two completely different things. Gender identity refers to one’s perception of oneself in relation to social constructs around gender whereas sex is assigned at birth. When a doctor assigns a baby male or female based on their genitals, it’s important to understand that it need not align with their gender identity in the future. Sex and gender aren’t bound to correspond. To impose a gender identity purely on the basis of whether a person has a penis or vagina, let alone not allow space for any identities to develop in between on the gender spectrum, is crazy and absurd. At the end of the day, gender identity should be a source of joy and self-expression, not a tool for societal oppression and control.
‘I’ve never seen a video where a man talks about having a small penis and how it’s okay’
Leeza feels that Indian men often find it hard to talk about their insecurities around sex and sexuality with honesty
Finally, how has being a woman affected your experience of talking about sex in the digital space? Do you think it is harder for women to talk more openly about sex in India as compared to men?
As a woman, there’s a lot of slut-shaming that happens if you wish to talk about sex. Yet, ironically, I can’t think of a single cishet male sex educator talking honestly about sex in India right now, not including doctors who talk more about the technical aspects and less about lived experiences. Today, as a woman, I can talk about having small breasts and how I’ve become comfortable talking about and accepting my body for what it is. But I’ve never seen a video where a man talks about having a small penis and how it’s okay. While women on the whole need to be represented more in conversations on sex and sexuality, space also needs to be made for men to talk about their sex lives more honestly, with vulnerability and without embarrassment.