Leeza Mangaldas begins her book, The Sex Book: A Joyful Journey of Self-discovery, with an interesting line: “Imagine a world where all sexual experiences are consensual, safe, and pleasurable.” The followers of Leeza, a sex educator popular among young Indians thanks to her digital media works, are familiar with such statements that many believe have helped normalise conversations around sexuality, sexual health, gender, and human body. Leeza, who studied English literature and visual art at Columbia University with a focus on gender and sexuality, spoke to Frontline on her book and more. Excerpts:
Even a decade or two ago, for an average Indian, the ‘sexpert’ was a man—Mahinder Watsa, to pick a popular example. How did you enter the arena?
I started creating sex-positive content over five years ago on YouTube in 2017. As a young person navigating my own sexuality and sexual health, I felt there was a lack of easily accessible information and non-judgemental platforms to share questions and experiences, and obtain facts and resources pertaining to sex, sexuality, gender, sexual health, relationships, and the body.
As a young, unmarried Indian woman, even just accessing contraception or a test for STD (sexually transmitted diseases) often felt like an obstacle course, let alone talking about sexual pleasure. I wanted to do something about it. I’m sure thousands of others feel the same way.
We have long been conditioned to feel shame around sex. To a large extent there is still the overarching norm that the only truly acceptable or legitimate context within which sex can be had is within a heterosexual endogamous marriage with the intent to have children. And that only doctors or family planning policymakers can talk about sex publicly. That sex is not something normal everyday people who wish to be seen as respectable can or should talk about.
Shame breeds a culture of silence and stigma. Unmarried people having sex, queer sexuality, women assertive about sexual preferences, people speaking about experiences of sexual harassment, people seeking sexual health services for contraception, abortion, erectile dysfunction, vaginismus—these are things we deserve to be able to navigate easily and safely, but because of the taboo that surrounds sex, they become unnecessarily difficult.
Women and queer people are currently at the forefront because the status quo globally tends to still be systematically misogynistic and queerphobic. The #MeToo movement and the repealing of Section 377 are significant milestones that have made people more willing to acknowledge how important it is for us as a society to be able to talk about sex and sexuality, and how damaging the dominant culture of shame and silence is for all of us.
Social media and the Internet have allowed many people to be exposed to a much wider range of perspectives than before. When I was a kid, we didn’t even have a vocabulary to talk about gender identity outside the binary; today a lot of Indian teenagers have their pronouns in their bio. There’s a long way to go but these changes bring hope.
There is a general reluctance to consider young people, especially women, as experts on matters of sex.
I think women of all ages contend with misogynistic stereotypes in society. Young women are thought to be physically attractive but not sufficiently competent or authoritative to be taken seriously; older women are considered “over the hill” in terms of desirability but perhaps more competent or authoritative.
There’s also the idea that when it comes to femininity, one can either be desirable or respectable, but not both. For centuries there’s been a reluctance to simply see women as simply human—complex, varied, capable and worthy of agency and autonomy, and deserving of equality.
Sex education is still considered a taboo by many teachers and parents in India.
In an ideal world, all schools would offer comprehensive sex education that is age appropriate and inclusive, with a focus not just on health and the body but also on topics like consent and pleasure. Comprehensive sex education that is pleasure inclusive and queer inclusive is central to greater gender equality, improved sexual and reproductive health and rights, and to ending sexual and gender-based violence.
Some people mistakenly think that access to sex education will result in everyone rushing to have more sex at a younger age, but studies globally have shown that young people who have access to sex education and who can talk to a parent or trusted caregiver about sex, sexuality, and sexual health are more likely to delay sex and less likely to make bad choices.
In 2020, the government announced a “health and wellness education” curriculum for adolescents. This seemed like a positive step after political spokespeople routinely saying things like “sex education should be banned” in the past. However, it is unclear how successfully this curriculum has been implemented. Resistance from schools, teachers, and parents likely remains a major obstacle.
Instead of waiting and hoping for schools to do it right, my hope is that parents of my generation will decide to be part of the change. If this generation of parents decides it will not pass on the shame and stigma but instead educate their kids to have an informed, positive, and healthy attitude to sex, sexuality, sexual health, and the body, that could have a profound impact. Parents remain one of the biggest influencers, if not the biggest, in young people’s lives, particularly in India.
You quote American sex educator Emily Nagoski to say how irrefutable the similarities between male and female bodies are. What is the politics behind the two being treated differently?
The idea that “men” and “women” are entirely disparate categories, determined solely on the basis or whether you have a penis or a vagina—and that “men” must be aggressive, authoritative, strong, and dedicate their lives to accruing wealth and property while women should be beautiful, docile and nurturing, and dedicate their lives to marriage and motherhood is a limited vision of the body, gender, and identity.
The binary framework of “biological sex” that many of us assume to be the “natural” categorisation of “male” and “female” is, in fact, a framework that was created by white male scientists in the 19th century, much the same way they tried to create a hierarchy among races: all in order to justify discrimination against women, indigenous people, and people of colour.
Socially constructed ideas of gender have tried to impose an oppressive mesh of what is “appropriate” and “natural” when it comes to appearances and behaviours of “men” and “women”, falsely using “biology” as a basis for justification.
Many indigenous cultures, including our own, recognised long ago that gender identity exists beyond the binary, and have alluded to the idea that the masculine and the feminine are connected rather than opposed.
In India, crimes against women have increased manifold in recent years. In what way is this connected with the inability of women to reclaim their bodily rights and sexuality?
To a large extent, sex is still posited to women as a site of duty, pain, and shame.
Consensual premarital sex is frowned upon—sex is only acceptable after marriage. But marital rape is legal. For a woman to be sexually assertive or expressive of what gives her pleasure is considered unbecoming. This is the social and legal message women receive.
This framework needs a radical overhaul so that it is possible for women to experience sex as a site of joy, pleasure, connection, and self-expression.
Tell us about the response you have been getting on the book.
It has been overwhelmingly supportive. Most people share comments and messages of support, gratitude, and interest, so much so that it actually surprised me how receptive most people are to the idea that sex education is important. That said, I do occasionally get comments that try to slut-shame me; there are always some people who think that women should not talk about sex.