(This appeared as my F Word column in September 2016)
“You missed the best part,” my friend whispered to me as I slid into the seat next to her, “We all had to write our fantasies down.” All the fantasies were now in a tote bag with a rainbow motif, and people in the audience were taking in turns to read them aloud—anonymously.
This was The Pleasure Project (tagline: putting the sexy into safe sex), an “educational resource promoting safer sex to women and men.” They work mainly with NGOs and, surprise, surprise, the porn industry. And that weekend in the Museum of Goa, they were doing a talk for anyone who wanted to attend. I did. Of course I did.
After the bag had been handed back to her, sexual rights advocate, Arushi Singh took a moment to chat about the fantasies as they were read out. Some were out there (“in space!”) some relatively tamer (“in an aunty's room while she cooks for a traditional festival.”) most, though were about doing it in public. In the woods, on a beach, in the sea, people watching you, you all alone, in an elevator, it seemed the wildest thing most of that audience could dream up was being outside, away from the bedroom.
I wondered why that was. It's a popular choice to call out during a game of Never Have I Ever, never have I ever had sex in public. But then, you think back to your teen years, or your twenties, or however old you were when you lost your virginity, it was all in, technically, “public” if you didn't have the luxury of your own room. In Bombay, you see lovers gathered on the rocks by the sea, shielded from view by umbrellas, the spokes quivering just a little when the embraces grow more fervent. In Delhi, there are parks full of people touching, spooning, groping, the only place they can be—anonymous in a city full of strangers, you almost feel like you're in private. And for many people, their first glimpse of sexual activity could have actually been their parents, all of them in that one single room, a bedsheet thrown back before it was hastily drawn up again. Maybe the fantasy wasn't really “in public,” but “alone in public” because where in this country are you ever truly alone?
I watched the audience in the Museum of Goa's small auditorium get drawn out of themselves. Mostly middle aged women and men with a smattering of truly young teen boys sitting at the back looking nervous, peppered here and there with people like my friends and I, sexually liberated twenty and thirty somethings, for whom talking about sex in public was a bit risque, but not really.
The conversation turned, as conversation about sex often does, to consent. I think someone made a joke about a willing dog being good enough, and Singh gently corrected them. “Animals can't give consent,” she said, reminding us neither can children, neither can someone who is drunk.
There were no “tie me down and control me” fantasies in the rainbow bag, which stayed pretty much in safe zones. I wondered if, with sexual violence on the rise, whether fantasies involving sexual violence had become too real, too in your face to be expressed anymore. There's nothing wrong with liking to be controlled, as long as you agree to it.
Or have a safe word.
One man got very angry. I think he was drunk. “What is your message,” he kept shouting, until my partner sitting next to me shouted back, “Whatever you want it to be!”
Later, he accosted us outside. “It's not good to talk about sex in public,” he said. “It's important,” said my partner, “For instance, there are so many sexually transmitted diseases around, maybe discussions about sex would help to educate people.”
“I'm a doctor,” the shouty man assured us, between swigs of his beer, “I'm a doctor, and that's nonsense.”
Later we were handed paper and crayons and told to draw a vagina. All of us, even men, to contribute to a vagina wall. My friends reached for the pinks and the purples, yonis emerging in all shades of a rainbow. I was uninspired so I made mine out of words, but I wrote the words too big so my “clitoris” dwarfed the purple “vulva” I drew on either side of it. I added bright orange pubic hair and two green hands. Now it looked friendly, waving, removed of mystique. One beautifully artistic rendering in blue and yellow looked like a lamp post. “A temple,” insisted my friend, but all I could see was a lamp post. The teen boys at the back sent forward lovingly drawn pictures of the fallopian tube, ovaries &co., one each, marked “the female vagina” and signed. It may not have been them, but I've given them ownership anyway. I wondered if they'd come up and look at the rest, maybe take photos to pore over later.
The one that stayed with me the longest was a long lashed eye in the middle of two legs scribbled over with angry red. At least three were heart shaped, one was a flower, another was a butterfly.