Agents of Ishq’s founder Paromita Vohra talks about the philosophy that underlies this unique cultural sex-education project at Dasra Philanthropy Week 2021.
How do we as children learn to become adults?
Most of us are taught that being a grown up is about learning to fit into the world and to adjust better to it so that it rewards us for our adjustments with success. This often means curating a part of ourselves that is acceptable to the world.
If we really stop to think about it, those parts that we are taught to minimize and reduce are the very ones that are pleasurable, emotional, sexual…the world of desires, longings, confusion, pleasure, doubt, pain, feelings. We see these variously as taboo, as inefficient, as “too much”. They are meant to be controlled in order to fit into the world. There is something these stigmatized parts of ourselves have in common. They cannot be counted. And because they cannot be counted, they also cannot be controlled. But does that mean they do not count?
If we are being taught to belong in the world – or even mostly given chances to fit into a world, that in itself creates inequality, injustice and exclusion – are we really helping create an equal world? Can we really imagine equality and justice if we treat parts of society as lesser, stigmatise and marginalize it, thereby doing the same to parts of our own selves too? When we treat parts of the human being as unequal, can we imagine equality, let alone practice it? If we edit out parts of ourselves that do not fit in and are included in a homogenous and homogenizing system, can this really be called inclusion? And if it is merely checking the boxes of how many identities it includes, without being changed by those, is it really inclusive, or is it always leaving something out or someone out? Is our idea of inclusion actually in danger of being built on an idea of exclusion?
When we started Agents of Ishq we did a landscaping exercise in which we learned a very interesting thing about young people who were participating in programmes meant to provide justice, equality and inclusion. They spoke about some subjects very easily in public and these subjects were always to do so with violence or difficulty. The subjects they discussed with a trusted trainer or a few friends, were often to do with the difficulties of social freedom, vis-à-vis their home and community. And then, there was a long list of topics they never discussed with anybody — and those were always to do with hurt, pain, self-hurt, shame, desire, longing, and pleasure.
We often talk about how school teaches us to pass exams and just write the answer the teacher wants to hear. That is what we carry out into the world too. We are trained to say the things the teacher, the trainer, the instructor, the boss, the funder wants to hear. Think of how we talk about sex – we talk about it as violence, disease or exploitation. We do not talk about it as pleasure, possibility, creativity or life itself– all of which it also is. So naturally, when we talk to people about sexual health and sexual rights in this way, people respond with the more less definable parts of their wishes and desires.
We pay attention when people talk of these negative experiences, because that confirms to us that we are helping them. The other experiences that we do not count, maybe because we do not have the language to count them in and learn from those accounts, are also accounts, but not the ones that tally up nicely. They are accounts of experiences which build the knowledge of people and the world as much as anything else.
When we do this, we are in danger of seeing people in terms of a lack, not in terms of their capabilities. We risk seeing them with an unequal gaze, rather than as co-travelers in a journey of change – which is simply another word for life.
So, where do people go to experience those hidden selves? They go to the world of enjoyment – Bollywood, Tiktok, the internet, pornography, books, music, fashion, taking selfies. It is a world that we treat as inferior and normally tend to not take seriously, because it is pleasurable. It is a world we treat with embarrassment or shame because it accommodates human emotion and pleasure and even when we are in it, we refer to it as our guilty pleasure. What could we learn if we paid attention to these parts of the self and the world? This is the question we asked ourselves when we started Agents of Ishq.
We created a space that was saturated with pleasure – it was enjoyable, it incorporated the popular culture that young people enjoy – from Bollywood, to the internet meme – and it was non-prescriptive. It was about sexual health and rights, but it was also about sexual desire…the world of emotions and feelings, doubts and relationships. Information, education, enjoyment, pleasure, emotion, sex, love, desire, rights – all of these were treated on the par and questions about sex were given equal place and importance. We believe this made us Agents of Ishq. And then we asked people – do you want to be an agent of ishq?
We didn’t say that we want to reform them; we asked them what they wanted to be and they replied with an incredible diversity of interpretations of the term agents of ishq. We think that these experiences changed the way we thought and reshaped the space. We are used to telling others what is good for them, but the truth is, people struggle to carve out a life for themselves – one that is about health and opportunity but also about happiness and self-expression. Their experiences are a place of rich wisdom and great learning that can reshape our imaginations. As people began to share their ideas and experiences two unique things happened.
One was the co-creation of the space that got reshaped on mutual terms and which we can’t stress that this is the central tenet of pleasure enough that mutuality and consent, something that shaped itself together and also sowed the seeds of its future growth.
The second thing that happened was an organic and incredible diversity because people were not being brought in only on the basis of identity but of their experiences. They were not being asked to enumerate their difficulties so that they could be categorized as an identity but rather to share what they had learned from their own lives. There were no boxes and so, no hierarchies; as a result it created a place where people meet on an equal footing without erasing their differences. This genuinely inclusive frame where you don’t check in with an identity card alone, while keeping half of your complex human self out of the picture, is a place of solidarity and connection which also acknowledges that there are great differences amongst us which cause us difficulty. This creates an intersectionality of identity but also an intersectionality of the human being – each person complete with all aspects of themselves, no part lesser than the other.
We believe that the purpose of justice is to allow us to be who we are, and to be respected for that as a whole. If we cannot accept people as complex wholes, but treat them as enumerable, quantifiable commodities alone, we cannot imagine a truly diverse world – because the frame we are fitting people in is one of sameness, a single imagination, and a single story.
People often ask us if we have been trolled since we talk about sex on the internet. The answer to that question is surprising. We have never been trolled. We believe it is because of the fact that we do not speak a language of aggression and of reforming somebody who is imperfect and needs to be fixed. Rather, we speak a language of exchange, inclusion and love which honours the human experiences and gives it dignity through art and offerings of pleasure and enjoyment. This, we believe, creates a confidence in the self, a belief in the right to be human – which is also a human right – and a world where we do not need to fear change, but can define change on mutual terms and walk towards it, hand in hand.