Disha Wanchoo
Dec 15, 2020

India is watching more frank sexual content, but is that a good thing?

CULTURAL RADAR: Is a rise in adult content on OTT platforms taking India forward or backward when it comes to conversations on gender and sexuality?

India is watching more frank sexual content, but is that a good thing?

Various local OTT platforms (such as ALT Balaji and MX player) in India boast high viewership figures for mature content—a genre that is witnessing heavy investment and is slated to grow further. In a society that has historically shied away from overt or explicit depictions of sex, is the growth in easily accessible adult content a sign of normalising conversations around sex, or a further reinforcement of regressive gender norms? Does it indicate sexual liberation or a double-down on taboos? Has the male gaze shifted at all?

The kind of content we see and consume not only mirrors where we are currently but also reveals strong social undercurrents, which serve as a guide to gradual shifts in thinking and behaviour. Popular forms of media are often used to help predict the nature as well as the pace of change.

So what does the rise of easily accessible adult content signify? The answers to this question are indicative of friction points, which help uncover changing sentiments and cultural faultlines. It is this push and pull between where we are and what we watch that can help anticipate the next big shift.

One particular point of contention related to this has been visual media’s role in depicting gender and sexuality—specifically the portrayal of women. This is especially evident in content that has sexual undertones, in particular, pornography and erotica. Various feminist authors argue that female depictions reinforce archaic stereotypes such as, being weak and sexually submissive, which is measured mostly by physical beauty and appearance. Such characterisations play into stereotypes and, in effect, do not create critical friction required to further the feminist cause. Thereby making it difficult to drive contemporary female narratives.

With the rise of local and global OTT platforms, there has been a significant increase in the production as well as consumption of mature content. In order to truly understand its role and impact, it is important to place it in the context of other forms of media, as well as understand what it is truly depicting. Is it taking us forward or backward when it comes to conversations on gender and sexuality?

Rise in mature content: A timeline

Not so long ago, Indian movies went through a phase where they did not have any depiction of sex—however tame or explicit. These were typically viewed in a public setting (cinema halls or open theatres), which meant all taboos were activated. It was a sanitised viewing experience where you were extremely conscious of what is being watched and with whom.

Of course attempts were made to make movies that were ‘bold’ and not afraid to show or talk about sex. However, most of these faced a backlash and were not deemed culturally appropriate, thereby increasing the value judgements associated with sex and sexuality. There was also an implicit understanding that only ‘B-brade’ actors worked in movies that spoke openly about sexuality, which was often not a role that a respected actor would ever take up.

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While mature content has not been as mainstream or on demand as it is today, it would be all too simplistic to argue that its viewership is on the rise due to the novelty factor alone, as sexual content has been readily available to internet-savvy Indians for many years. Given stringent norms and censorship, pornography emerged as an accessible alternative. Today, despite recent attempts at banning websites such as Pornhub, India is the world’s third largest porn watcher, with 70% of the viewers being male, and more than half watching it on their smartphones. But unlike popular culture, one does not openly view or discuss porn, or its unrealistic and problematic depictions of gender dynamics.

Depictions across these contrasting spaces—sanitised movies and explicit pornography—coupled with the societal taboos and inhibitions around sex, have led to:

  1. A silence surrounding sex (a private topic, with many moral judgements prohibiting uninhibited discussions)
  2. An objectification of women that plays into the virgin/whore dyad—depictions tend toward either the demure damsel in distress or the brazen vamp. Popular songs of today represent yet another variation of this objectification: the hypersexualized woman.
Stills from Cocktail, Ye Jawaani Hain Deewani and various popular songs that depict the demure versus brazen objectification.

Present-day content: Dominant narrative

A report by Inc.42 reveals that platforms such as ALT Balaji, Ullu, MX Player and Addatimes have grown tremendously on the back of their ‘bold, mature content’. In fact, almost all of ALT Balaji’s originals cater to an 18+ audience. From being silent on sex to the sheer volume and variety of mature content that the country is watching today, what is the possible impact on Indians’ relationship with sex and sexuality?

The growing category of mature content might appear to make Indians more comfortable with sex, create space for sex positivity and allow for greater acceptance of hushed conversations. However, when viewed critically, the dominant styles of storytelling and tropes used across popular ‘adult’ shows on these OTT platforms—with almost brazen and “daring” depictions of sex—end up reinforcing regressive stereotypes. This is evidenced through the following:

  • Key theme and plots: While there is an investment in a storyline and plot, a quick scan of some IMDB reviews by viewers reveals that the aim of the content is to capture eyeballs through explicit depictions. Whether it is Alt Balaji’s Gandi Baat, MX Player’s Mastram or Ullu’s Kavita Bhabhi, the intent of the show is made amply clear right from the name or trailer.
  • Dialogue and screenplay: There is an almost unrestrained use of cliched euphemisms and metaphors to indirectly signal sex or sexual organs. The syntax used almost indicates that sex is not something to openly talk about or discuss; it is only hinted at, not spoken about freely and maturely.
  • Attitude: While there is variety within the genre (depictions feature role-playing, BDSM and other fetishes, characters of different age groups, small town settings), the content appears to be geared towards shock value, rather than to create awareness and sex positivity.
  • Character development: Depictions of women play to the classic dichotomy: a bold urban woman or a demure village girl. As such, the content caters primarily to a male audience. Gandi Baat’s Season 2m featuring four ‘female-centric’ stories are solely focused on either a passive or hyper-sexualised female with almost every shot of the trailer focusing on the women’s physicality.
  • Given the large number of Indians who access OTT content on their phones, mature content is predominantly viewed privately, and appears to follow similar viewing codes of (secretly) watching porn as opposed to creating conversations or discussions on social media/public spaces.

Thus, while this dominant narrative of mature content on OTT might appear ‘bold’ compared to what Indian audiences are used to, it is possibly not brave enough to challenge the norms governing sex and sexuality. It works through vicarious pleasure, outlandish depictions and mass appeal. But its role in creating sufficient friction points that could change or create new subcultures and conversations on sexuality (especially women’s sexual agency) appears to be minimal. 

The emerging narrative

However, there is an emerging parallel narrative, though still niche, which includes diverse and seemingly more authentic depictions of ‘mature’ topics. This features sexually liberated women, an open acceptance and display of sex without making it voyeuristic, as well as representation of diverse sexualities. Much of the content that gets classified, as such, makes headlines and leads to polarised opinions. However, it is this discomfort that reveals its potential impact, as it challenges pre-existing notions and creates space for newer, possibly more informed conversations, without compromising on its entertainment quotient.

Some of the key themes in this space -

  • A female gaze: Representation of women creators as well as actors. Open depictions of female sexuality and pleasure are part of this narrative, such as Swara Bhaskar’s masturbation scene in Veere di Wedding or Kiara Advani’s character using a vibrator for the first time in Lust Stories (though this does remain a fairly affluent, urbane depiction, and some actresses have been trolled heavily for their association with such content). While this sometimes slots the content as ‘for women only’, the controversies it unwillingly creates help it gain sufficient momentum to score a niche in the mainstream.
Still from movies and shows that have been criticised by certain sections for being too outlandish in their depictions of female sexuality.
  • Choice of actors: We see established, mainstream actors entering this space, lending it greater credibility, along with renowned film makers such as Pradeep Sarkar and Mahesh Manjrekar. 

  • Intent: This content addresses societal tension points adjacent to sex, such as infidelity, consent (Guilty on Netflix) and violence, and approaches it as a systemic conversation rather than just sexual depictions in isolation.
  • Diverse representations: While the tokenism and stereotyping struggle is real, there have been some strides made in normalising depictions of diverse sexualities, older characters and non-urban settings.

Not all of these movies and shows are equally successful, and definitely do not compare to the viewership numbers of those conforming to the dominant narrative. However, their continuing emergence reveals a key tension point: stories and characters that are not as mainstream, that have not been seen before and that reveal insights into previously uncovered people and populations. Though niche, this narrative has given rise to interesting subcultures that promote inclusivity and diversity while demanding better representation.

Knock on effect

Social media has emerged as a fertile space for conversations around sex and sexuality. We see evidence of this in various forms on social media, especially when it comes to younger audiences. This includes not only creation of content but active discussion, debate and dialogue that has the potential to steer conversations on sexual liberation and empowerment

  • The 2018 Vitamin Stree Sex Survey saw active responses from 2500 participants to understand the urban millennial’s view of sex and sexuality, with questions on porn viewing habits, trysts with experimentation as well as consent, communicated through videos featuring popular influencers. Padmini Vaidyanathan, Editor & Creative Head, Vitamin Stree said “This is such an important story to tell. It is not just telling young people to go have sex; but to tell them that if they are not armed with the right set of information, they may not make the choices that work best for them. Freedom to choose only works, when one has all sides of every story. We hope with this series, we can at least initiate the conversation that leads to informed, sexual empowerment for this generation and generations to come."
  • Fun, light hearted but also increasingly honest and authentic videos and testimonials on sex from leading digital agencies such as Buzzfeed – from sharing personal stories on sexual ‘firsts’ to testing out popular sex toys – retaining the ‘coolness’ of sex, but also creating a safe and inclusive space where one feels heard and recognised
  • Rise in popularity of sex positivity influencers such as Dr. Tanaya - a millennial doctor who talks about sexual health or Leeza Mangaldas (with over 250k YouTube subscribers) who aims to break sex based taboos. She famously started her sex positivity journey on the internet talking about her first experience with a sex toy and also recently helped analyse the findings of the Great Indian Sex Survey – In Bed with India.
Some of Leeza’s popular videos
  • An attempt to normalise swipe dating culture, especially for women - with the rise of online dating apps in India (local as well as international). Almost all popular dating apps advertisements feature assertive female characters – women who exercise agency and are free to date who they choose. Most apps have also launched safety features for women.
Stills from Vitamin Stree, Buzzfeed, Tinder, Bumble

Trends to bear in mind

1. Inclusivity and responsibility

Steering Clear of Tokenism: A powerful shift in narrative might occur when we open up to diverse creators, authentic stories, relatable depictions and focus on inclusion of non-normative characters.

Stills from a recent Tinder ad that showed a same sex relationship, and OKCupid, which encourages one to find their kind.

Given OTT and social media are the most impactful spaces to have these conversations, there is an in-built element of accountability on behalf of the creators. In a country where there is no consensus on a national sex-education policy for youth, and where violent crimes against women are on the rise, it becomes imperative for this content to apply a responsibility filter. We see this in Durex’s partnership with Vice, Finishing School, which is a space to talk about sexuality, leaving pressures and preset rules behind. Targeted at young adults, it has a series of videos including 'Sex education for the next generation' and 'Breaking down the sexual pleasure gap'.

2. Creating sex-positive spaces

Beyond viewing the content, there is a need to engage the audience with conversations on what they saw, how it made them feel and whether they related to it. There should also be an effort to create a space for the community to interact. Again, we see evidence of this on social media.

Using apps as an avenue for sex ed and dispelling myths, various young doctors and influencers globally are acknowledging the reach of apps such as TikTok and Spotify and using them to speak to younger audiences.

There exists potential to collaborate with sex-positive influencers and help partner in the creation of content. Examples include

  • Kaviya, a Mumbai based artist who uses illustrations to highlight the unspoken conversations around sex, such as body image issues
  • Gaysi’s blogs and erotic fiction page (that allows for submissions)
  • Indraja Saroha’s channel ‘Liberating Sexuality’
  • The Vice Guide to Sex in India (a series of videos).
Photographs from some sex positive content channels on social media.

Disha Wanchoo is lead at Quantum Consumer Solutions Bangalore.

Campaign India

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