Feminist and queer activist Jaya Sharma has been part of the women’s movement for close to three decades. She is also a co-founder of the Kinky Collective, a non-funded group that spreads awareness about BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sado-Masochism) and kink. Jaya Sharma’s reflections on her personal experiences as a kinky, queer feminist have been published in Verve magazine and the Kohl Journal among others.
She spoke to AOI about her personal journey with BDSM and how fantasies can help us look more deeply not just at ourselves, but our politics and the larger world around us.
Is there a difference between kink and fantasy?
Kink is a spectrum, you know. A lot of us, whether we think of ourselves as kinky or not, perhaps have fantasies that involve, for example, giving up or assuming control. But what’s precious about kink, for me, is that one can also enact their fantasies. It allows for play, beyond the realm of daydreams.
The play of power and sometimes also pain, exists in all eroticism. If you think of something quite wonderful but ordinary like a love bite, pain and pleasure are not easy to separate there. The idea of power play needn’t be associated only with BDSM. It can also mean, in very familiar sexual situations, your partner holding your hands down on the bed. Isn’t that power play as well?
Fantasies also have a dimension of pain or power or power play. I had done an anonymous online survey about people’s fantasies. I reached out to people I knew – friends or acquaintances, and asked them to share their hottest, dirtiest fantasies. About 30 people took it. Many of these fantasies were about being made to do things one didn’t want to, or making the other person do something they didn’t want to. Power, non-mutuality, and either giving up or taking over control were important dimensions of these fantasies. Only some of these people were part of the BDSM community, the rest weren’t. While the BDSM community does make possible a feeling of safety, there is always a danger of reducing kink to BDSM. People think (about the BDSM community) that “Oh, they’re kinky so only they must be having these fantasies”. That isn’t true at all.
There is the question of consent within BDSM that many people feel uncertain about…
Care and consent are really at the heart of BDSM. If it wasn’t consensual, it would be violent and abusive. At the Kinky Collective, one of the things we talk about is that consent is not just consenting to the other person. It’s also consent to oneself. By this, I don’t mean feeling comfortable or uncomfortable about my fantasies. I might be very uncomfortable or anxious about some of my fantasies, but there is a deeper level of acceptance, a deeper level of okay-ness and not judging myself for that fantasy. The whole discourse around consent needs to foreground consenting to oneself.
This idea of consenting to the self really requires us to bring the psyche or the unconscious into the whole conversation. I think we make a mistake – whether it’s about sexuality or the rest of our life, when we behave, talk, think and act as if everything is in the realm of the conscious. That’s actually a fantasy, that there is only the conscious, rational and cognitive mind at play. Maybe if we factor in the unconscious, it won’t come as a surprise that we have desires and fantasies that make very little sense.
While I say that there is no difference between reality and fantasy, I do want to make this distinction between sexual fantasies that are like daydreams and enacting them. There we have to bring in the dimension of reality because consent is, as we know, absolutely essential. I could have the wildest, craziest and what people would call “the most disgusting” fantasies and I may really want to enact it with one person or ten people, but that has to be done with consent. In that context I can’t say, “Oh yeah okay, it’s all fantasy, it doesn’t matter.” Of course, it matters!
I think, most of the time in a sexual situation, we ourselves don’t know what is going to happen, right? We don’t know what fantasies or desires will come out, how we’ll feel, how we’ll respond to the particular person even if we’ve played (a term used within the BDSM community to refer to practising or enacting your sexual fantasies) or had sex with them a hundred times before. It’s a kind of erotic humility, recognising that there is a huge dimension of the unknown.
Personally, I hate talking before or during an erotic encounter because, for me, it gets in the way of the flow of erotic energy. What I insist upon instead is the safe word. The safe word is a predetermined word which could be something as simple as ‘red’, which if either of us says it, whatever is happening has to immediately stop.
In the context of BDSM, there is the concept of aftercare – a kind of intimate zone that one enters after playing. It’s a winding down after the intensity you’ve been through. It’s also an opportunity to talk, a time of holding each other or holding space. This intimate space is very, very important to me. So, with a safe word then, I have the safety for the adventures to happen, for the psyche to play out and I know I can talk about it during aftercare to say I never want to do something again or my god, that was so amazing, can we try twenty versions of that again?
It sounds utopian, perfect. But are all kinks welcomed with an open mind like this?
Within the BDSM community, for example, Golden Showers (the practice of urinating on another person for sexual pleasure) are loved by people. It is considered “cool”. But Scat (the practice of playing with shit) is always looked at as “Ugh! Let’s not talk about that!” “How disgusting!” If we are saying that actually all fantasies are okay as long as it is happening with consent then even if you feel grossed out, even if you feel yucky, do you get to curtail my space? Maybe it is something that you want to explore but even within the BDSM community, you are so fixed in your ideas about what is ‘pure and impure’ and what is ‘dirty and not dirty’.
Why do you think we separate sexual play from falling in love?
Because it is separate from love. One can feel so much sexual or erotic intimacy even with somebody who you may have never met, or will never meet again. Of course, sexual play and love can and do overlap, but I think it’s important to also tease them apart.
It’s also important to look at them as separate because there’s so much premium, so much importance placed on romantic love, right? I am a sucker for love. I’m not dissing or dismissing love. I’m not getting into a lust versus love conversation either. I’m just saying that it’s important to recognize that erotic intensity might or might not have anything to do with romantic love.
This recognition is also important to us as feminists. Gayle Rubin, a feminist and BDSM practitioner, talks about this idea of the charmed circle. In the context of patriarchy, at the centre of this circle is the heterosexual monogamous couple. Any sexual practices, behaviours or identities that are different, are further away from this centre are deemed as sinful, harmful, all of that. If you are in the centre, you enjoy privileges, and as you get away from it, you are punished. In a very different context, you could have the respectable, sexual homosexual couple in the centre. But back to the context of patriarchy, what is it that binds this couple? Of course, there is marriage, private property etc. But there is also romantic love. It is the glue that holds them together.
So, I think that as much as we love to be in love, we need to look at love in a political way, through that kind of a critical feminist lens. And to also value experiences and phases that make sexual intimacy without love possible.
What were the points of similarity and/or difference you encountered in your journeys as being a queer and out person, and then as a person talking about kink openly?
I was struck by the similarities between the LGBTQIA+ community and the BDSM community. I joined the BDSM community when I was 46. I’m 57 now. I think what I’m saying still holds even eleven years later.
With my friends in the BDSM community (and one makes friends very quickly because you share your deepest, darkest fantasies with each other), if I shut my eyes and listened to the experiences they were sharing, of loneliness, of thinking that there is nobody else in the world like me, it could be a queer friend talking to me. The feelings of not being able to tell your closest friends about this very important part of your life, the fear of blackmail, the fear that you have to marry somebody who doesn’t share what you would like to explore in the erotic were similar. And then of course, like for many queer people, the internet helped people (who identified as BDSM practitioners) discover a community.
There is one big difference between both communities. The BDSM community kind of looks up at the LGBTQIA+ community to say, “Wow, you guys are so lucky that you are able to ask for your rights! Whether or not the court accepts it, you are able to struggle for it, claim it.” With BDSM, how can we even take it to the courts? I mean how are you going to distinguish between violence and BDSM? It’s a whole other story that BDSM isn’t illegal in India because it isn’t even in the discourse.
I’ve noticed that when people talk about either queer issues or kink, the typical liberal progressive kind of people don’t want to ask you uncomfortable questions. They are just so awkward. They fear they are going to say something insensitive or politically incorrect. I think the need is for open, honest, conversations where you don’t worry so much about political correctness.
What we know of BDSM is mostly from an urban context. In the workshops you conduct, have you heard of any non-urban/grassroot experiences or understandings of kink that made you see it in a new way?
I have never worked much in an urban context while working in the NGOs in the last 30 years. But I’ve never been able to have a conversation around fantasies or BDSM in the rural contexts in which I have worked because there is a sense of responsibility that the organisations (NGOs) should not get negatively impacted in any way through such a conversation. Also, BDSM is still stigmatised and the community is mostly underground.
I discovered the BDSM community in online spaces. And unfortunately, in these spaces, you need to know English, have access to the internet, have a smartphone or a laptop or a computer, so it is relatively the more privileged who have access to spaces like this. Right now, our offline presence is largely in the metros. There are these spaces called munches that are social, safe spaces where you can physically meet other kinksters, a term that we use for ourselves.
But of course, there are erotic practices to do with power and play in rural contexts. Why wouldn’t there be? Power and pain are so central to human sexuality and eroticism. They may take different shapes or forms. The question should be how do we have those conversations, build an understanding, create spaces for people who have these desires who might be judging themselves, whether it is in South Delhi or in Bundelkhand UP.
How would you respond to the representation of BDSM and kink in mainstream media?
When 50 Shades of Grey (a novel by E. L. James) came out, another person from the Kinky Collective and I wrote an article about it and we were so, so critical about it. Christian Grey (one of the lead characters)…I mean, what does he call his mother? “A crack whore”? That is so offensive on so many levels. To women, to sex workers. To say that someone is a sadist because they had a rough childhood, is pathologizing kink. But the fact is, that the book did bring kink to millions of people. There were figures about the sales of sex toys going up. Maybe the book did broaden the horizons for a lot of people and one is grateful for that.
In visual representation, whether in India or in the rest of the world, there is an obsession with leather and latex. We often laugh about how if in India we were to wear it, if nothing else we will all just die sweating!
In one of your essays, you say “accepting the dimension of fantasy can strengthen us as feminists”. Could you say more about this?
I think, like any other ideology, we place too much value on reason, the mind and rationality in feminist spaces. I think that reality versus fantasy is a false binary.
Fantasies are not just about the psyche. They are also about the conscious and everything we experience since we come out of the womb. The choices we make – for example, why have I coloured my hair blue? I mean, I coloured my hair blue because I could afford it so it is also about class, but it is also about the psyche, about the unconscious. In this way, fantasies are at play in determining every single choice that I make in my life – what I eat, what I wear, who I vote for, which ideology I subscribe to. When we say fantasy, we are often only talking about sexual fantasies. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m saying that sexual fantasies can help us see that fantasies are at play within us and all around us, all the time.
In Feminism, ‘affect’ has been really important. We know emotions, we know personal is political, we know all about solidarity, we know about fighting with each other also and how upset we can get with each other. But we have not considered enough the importance of the psyche and the unconscious. Not just an individual’s psyche, the collective psyche as well.
There is this American psychoanalyst Bruce Fink who says that prohibition eroticizes. So, what mainstream society or maybe even feminism considers to be incorrect, I might find hot. There seems to be a huge conflict between feminism and certain fantasies, especially of the non-mutuality variety that involve giving up or taking control. But the big question is, is it a conflict? If you bring in the dimension of the psyche and the unconscious, it can really help us question whether there is in fact a conflict at all.
What do we want as a feminist culture or a larger progressive kind of culture? Do we want to be judgemental or do we want to be more expansive? For that, we can’t do a literal reading of fantasies. If we are saying that ‘the personal is political’ is our mantra, then can we stand in the middle of that difficult place when we are troubled by our own fantasies, and can we help each other stand in that complex place? As a feminist, I think fantasies can help us see that everything is not rational, everything is not in our control. It’s a very humbling place.
But how would that actually play out on the ground – that’s often what feels hard to know as well, no?
For example, when I’m doing work with survivors of domestic violence, can I listen better when she is saying things that don’t really make sense to me, contradictory things like she wants to go back to her horribly abusive partner? Will I just use my mind, theoretical logic, or will I listen differently, with greater openness and humility? If I allow for the possibility that I too am not completely a rational being, then will I see places where I am inadvertently judging her rather than helping her?
In another sense, if we look at authoritarian leaders, can we understand why people support them, only through facts? How do we understand what is actually turning on their followers? Not sexually, but what is exciting them? What fantasies of theirs are getting fulfilled by the leaders or their ideologies? Delving into that difficult place of fantasies, and fantasies that don’t look like conventional fantasies, can help us see what is it that animates the widespread hatred that we find ourselves in the midst of today.