Culture

‘A Twist in a Straight Line’: Inside India’s Kinky Networks

Leonor Fini, Histoire d’O (1962). Image courtesy: http://www.cfmgallery.com/Artwork/Leonor-Fini/Leonor-Fini-Artwork/Histoire-D'O-5.jpg

Leonor Fini, Histoire d’O (1962). Image courtesy: CFM Gallery

Aditya’s* first memories of bondage are of childhood play. “I used to pull out strings from the sides of pillows we had at home and tie myself to the French windows,” the 44-year-old lawyer recalls.

As Aditya entered his teenage years, the nature of play changed and his self-bondage became sexually pleasurable. “I loved tying myself up, and I liked watching scenes in movies that showed somebody being tied up.” With this realisation also came the awareness that these were desires that needed to be concealed.

“There was a profound sense of alienation because I could not confide in anyone. I grew up before the internet, and porn was not easily available. There was one copy of Playboy that was being circulated everywhere, but it had nothing to do with [this]. I felt damaged and diseased.”

In 1997, Aditya first went online. He was in his late twenties, and began cautiously searching for information related to bondage and pleasure — all the while terrified that someone would find out. It was through these tentative searches that he came across the term ‘kink’.

Popular culture often equates kink with BDSM (bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, sadism and masochism), but BDSM is only one element of a diverse kinky universe. The spectrum of kink includes group sex, sex in public, role-play, sensation-play with materials such as wax, the use of restraint with collars or rope-bondage, and fetishes for objects such as shoes. As Aditya puts it, “There’s no real definition of kink. Etymologically, it’s just a twist in a straight line. [It] can be used to describe any sexual desire that’s not considered conventional.”

Back in the day, when he joined Yahoo! Chat listing himself as interested in ‘BDSM’ and ‘India’, one evening Aditya received an email from someone claiming to be a woman. The email said that she’d gone through his profile and was sending him a link to a forum he could join. “I immediately [thought] it was spam, and if I clicked on the link it was definitely going to be a virus.”

So instead of clicking on the link, he decided to write back, still convinced that he was writing into a virtual void. He laughs. “To my utter surprise, I found a few days later that ‘Spam’ had written back!”

The woman on the other end became Aditya’s first kinky friend. And over the years, it was people like her  –  some of them faceless strangers whom he would never meet  –  who became Aditya’s community: one that he can’t imagine his life without today.

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This was how it started for many others, too.

Towards the end of the 90s, folks in India first began to access the internet as a space for personal connection. The endless and semi-private surfing opportunities afforded by home computers and cubicles in cyber cafes allowed for tentative explorations into previously uncharted, intimate territory.

Using screechy VSNL dial-up modems and browsers that took ages to load, kinksters across the country started connecting with each other. For many, it was the first time in their lives they discovered that they weren’t alone. Over the years, a thriving community was born, ranging from the merely curious to the deeply committed. The community also began to meet offline, and Mumbai saw the first known offline gatherings of Indian kinksters in the early 2000s.

At one such gathering at a popular Mumbai café, one kinkster brought along a journalist friend, trusting that she would respect the privacy of the gathering. The journalist proceeded to write a newspaper article citing attendees’ full names along with their Yahoo! IDs.

Aditya recalls: “All hell broke loose. Overnight, people deleted groups, deleted their profiles, and disappeared without a trace.” Not many people had mobile phones at the time, so the community effectively scattered – save for a few people who had exchanged landline numbers or alternative email IDs. The rest were irrevocably lost.

Over ten years later, the fear of ‘outing’ is just as pervasive. I set out to write this piece nearly six months ago, when my only inroad to what felt like a secret society was Aditya, who was already my friend. Despite our friendship, he only agreed to an interview after I promised him that I would never publish the names of kinksters or their forums. After struggling for months to find people who were open to being interviewed, all the community members I’ve met or spoken with on the phone with are terrified that if the names of their forums become public, the websites will be banned in one fell swoop.

Against a backdrop of rising internet censorship and wider intolerance, their fears are entirely justified. I’ve promised to keep all identifying information out of the essay. In return, they’ve given me their stories.

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“The first time I opened a profile, I immediately shut it down  –  I thought it was a porn website, because of all the explicit pictures on it!” 26-year-old Nilanjana laughs as she recounts her entry into the world of online kink three years ago. She tells me she’s always been kinky, but it was only after meeting other kinksters online that she started identifying with the term.

A trained and practicing psychologist, Nilanjana’s first introduction to what the medical community thought about kink was via the DSM-4, text revision (an updated fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), where its various sexy avatars were neatly categorised and pathologised as mental disorders. Published by the American Psychiatric Association, the DSM-4 positions non-conventional sexual desires as ‘paraphilic disorders’, a.k.a sexual deviation or perversion, a.k.a pervs.

Unsurprisingly, Nilanjana has witnessed several clients experiencing guilt or shame over their kinky desires. “The discomfort comes from two spaces,” she explains. “External, where the person feels an acute fear of societal disapproval, and internal, where they feel that something is inherently wrong with them.”

This external discomfort is heightened by mainstream internet forums that equate kink with violence or abuse, and see kinksters as those with either low self-esteem or sociopathic tendencies. One of the most common misconceptions about kink, and especially about BDSM, is that it’s about making people do things against their will.

The Kinky Collective, an Indian group that tries to demystify kink, states on its blog, “Consent is at the heart of BDSM. It is not presumed, but actively negotiated, and can be withdrawn at any time, instantly and unconditionally.”

Happily enough, in 2013 the DSM-5 removed kink practiced by consenting partners from its list of mental disorders. However, the perception of kink as mental illness remains prevalent amongst many mental health practitioners. “The scenario isn’t any different from what most people think of homosexuality,” Nilanjana says. “In fact, I think kink may be frowned upon even more… Many psychotherapists feel that people develop these desires if they have a history of abuse in their lives, [but] they hold this belief without much evidence.”

In Nilanjana’s experience, people having any kind of sex  –  whether ‘vanilla’ or kinky  – might have a history of having been abused. “Even if I do have a certain kink because of an experience in my life, the reality is that I have that desire. What do I do with [it]? Do I suppress it? What’s wrong with it if I practice with a consenting adult partner who knows of the risks and consequences involved?”

Prior to her entry into the online world of kink, Nilanjana experienced tremendous guilt in committed relationships after becoming romantically attached to other people. But through conversations on kinky internet forums, she realised there was a word for it: polyamorous.

Since then she’s found several partnerships online. Nilanjana identifies as a ‘switch’, which in BDSM-speak means someone who is both a ‘top’ and a ‘bottom’, which in plain-speak translates into someone who both gives and receives stimulation, and in a domination/submission context, plays both roles.

But a kinky dynamic isn’t always about sex. For Nilanjana, kink is a lifestyle. “I find it very difficult to do one-off play with anyone,” she tells me (‘play’ is a common word for kinky activity, evoking both playfulness and play-acting). “I like to know my partner well, and I like for things to continue beyond a [single] session.” One of her partners is in another city, and even though they sometimes have phone- or webcam-sex, the primary relationship is of care and nurture. In this relationship, Nilanjana is dominant and her partner is submissive. In a scenario largely devoid of sexual contact, what does this look like?

Nilanjana gives me an example. “She doesn’t take very good care of herself in terms of food and water intake. [So] at the end of the day, she reports to me about what she ate and how much water she drank. Depending on what she says, I either respond with a word of encouragement or caution.” If her partner has been lax about taking care of herself, there are consequences. “Once I caught her lying and I made her do lines in German. She hates writing, and she was learning German at the time, so [that] was her punishment.”

In the case of another partner who lives in the same city as her, Nilanjana plays the role of a pet. “With her, I behave exactly how a little cat does around her human owner.” Irrespective of their physical or virtual avatars, what all Nilanjana’s play partnerships have in common is a deep mutual affection.

“It’s not that our relationships are only related to kinky dynamics; there are other dynamics as well. Most of my partners are really close friends of mine, and I love them dearly.”

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“I am not at all submissive outside of kink,” says 34-year-old Megha. “Many people I’ve met don’t understand this. When I first started exploring this, many men I met on Yahoo! Chat didn’t respect me and felt like they could say whatever they wanted just because I was open about the fact that I am sexually submissive.”

Abhay, her 36-year-old husband, interjects. “This is what I try to explain to young men who are new on kink forums: talk to a woman as if you’ve met her in a coffee shop. You wouldn’t walk up to a woman in public and say ‘Kneel, bitch!’ or ‘I am your slave, mistress’, would you? Then why online?”

This is a lesson Abhay learned from an older woman mentor he met online. He recalls, “When I was new on kink forums, I used to private message all the women, and I got blocked by most of them…[Then] I met this woman who explained to me that I was coming on too strong. She taught me how to relax and take a step back. She made me self-aware of my behaviour, and eventually I learned how to approach women in a respectful way.”

Megha and Abhay independently joined the same kink forum a few years apart. When they met for the first time offline, courtesy a mutual kinky friend, no sparks flew. “I was underwhelmed,” Megha says. In turn, Abhay knew that both he and Megha were sexually submissive –  a difficult fit.

But, he recalls, “a lot of my kinky friends [at the time] started telling me that I had dominant tendencies too, so I was just starting to explore that side of me.”

A few days later, Megha rang Abhay to find out the location of a kinky gathering. “We ended up talking all night,” she tells me. “We talked about random things.”

“It was very strange,” Abhay adds with a laugh. “I even sang a few songs.”

They soon started meeting regularly. “What appealed to me was that he was very straightforward,” says Megha. “Unlike most men I had met, he didn’t try to get sexual with me at any point.” It was she who initiated their first sexual encounter, and when they started playing together, Abhay dominated Megha  – a dynamic that both of them enjoyed immensely. A year later, they were married.

“The first year of marriage was the worst,” says Megha. Abhay lost a lot of money in his business, and she ran the house single-handedly for months. “It hurt me. I can’t feel equal to someone I owe money to,” Abhay says. Meanwhile, Megha had grown up with the idea that a husband should provide for her. “This is the kind of security I’d received from my father, and it was what I came to expect from Abhay.”

They began to fight, and as a result, found it difficult to be intimate with each other. When they did have sex, Abhay would dominate Megha, but as a switch, his submissive side remained unsatisfied.

Antonia Lopez. Image courtesy http://www.theloupe.org/2012/02/antonio-lopez-fashion-illustrator1943-1987/

Antonia Lopez. Image courtesy: The Loupe

“I had always thought of myself as straight and monogamous,” says Megha, “but this changed.” Over time she became open to the idea of Abhay being submissive to a dominatrix friend of theirs  – a woman that Megha trusted to respect their relationship. “Then Abhay asked me if I wanted to play with someone else. And I said okay. The first time was with another woman.”

Since then, Megha and Abhay have gently opened up their marriage. They regularly play with trusted friends, while remaining each other’s sole romantic partners.

They have been together for five years.

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Alisha grew up in a small town where everyone treated her like a little boy. But for as long as she could remember, she wanted to be a girl. As she grew older she also realised that she was strongly attracted to submissiveness and masochism. “For the longest time, I felt like the biggest pervert in my vicinity,” she tells me. “I wasn’t proud of it, but I couldn’t help it, either.”

Despite her small hometown, Alisha had access to fast internet at an early age. “I could name the things I did or wanted, and I came to know that were more people like me out there.” And when she discovered kink forums, she finally “felt accepted, even wanted”.

Today, Alisha plays with partners of different genders. “It often includes rope-play and bondage, in which I am the one tied up. Being tied up in itself is often enough to send me into sub-space  – a deep trance-like state of submission.” Depending on her partner, Alisha sometimes gives or receives pain, using objects like whips or floggers. “We can also use clamps of different kinds or even hot wax.”

For Alisha, her gender expression and kink identity are fundamentally connected to each other. “Lately, I’ve been feeling a lot more comfortable in my femininity,” she says. “This is thanks to the kink community. I may even have a feminine future.” Offline, or in her non-kinky life as an engineer, Alisha’s friends, family and co-workers think of her as a man.

Kinky spaces are not only welcoming of sexual diversity but of various gender identities. A popular Indian kinky forum allows members to tick one or more of several gender boxes ranging from genderqueer, transgendergender-fluid, intersex, butch or femme, right down to ‘not applicable’ for people who don’t identify with any of these or would rather not specify.

When Tamanna was growing up as a teenage boy, he noticed that his attraction to feminine women contained a tinge of jealousy. “I asked myself, ‘Why the hell should I be jealous of a woman?’ Eventually, it dawned on me that I wanted to be like them.” More than anything else, Tamanna was attracted to their clothing. “As a man, my attire is limited to jeans and a t-shirt, maybe formals. Women can openly flaunt so many styles of clothing, so many patterns.”

It was via a love for women’s clothing that Tamanna discovered a global cross-dressers group online. Most of its members lived abroad, but Tamanna befriended them, and looking at their pictures felt inspired to dress up. Saving whatever little money he had and buying whatever he could, Tamanna began to explore these new possibilities.

‘MYSTERIOUS SOLITUDE series — 1’, by Yugit Dundar (2015). Image courtesy http://www.saatchiart.com/art/Painting-MYSTERIOUS-SOLITUDE-series-1/424156/2451405/view

‘MYSTERIOUS SOLITUDE series — 1’, by Yugit Dundar (2015). Image courtesy: Saatchi Art

It turned out to be about more than just clothes.

Today, Tamanna identifies both as a man and a woman, or to be more specific, “a heterosexual man and a homosexual woman”. Speaking to me as a woman, Tamanna explains that she only wants to have sex with men when she’s dressed up as a woman, but what she really wants is to find a long-term partnership with a bisexual woman who will accept her as both a man and a woman.

She says, “I could have been married and had kids ten years ago, but most women will not understand what I am. I can’t cheat on anyone, and I don’t want to be unsatisfied for a lifetime.”

Tamanna says she has not let stigma infect her self-esteem. “I know that to ultra-religious people, someone like me is abhorrent. But this is irrational, because if you look at mythology, you will find Mohini, you will find Ardhanarishwara. Is that not what I am?”

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Like any other ‘scene’, kink reflects the outer world it inhabits. And like all online spaces, kink forums often end up replicating offline hierarchies of privilege.

When Megha first joined the kink community, she met one-on-one with a man who was ‘validating’ her. In the world of kink, a validator is a trusted person within the community who verifies a new person for an offline gathering.

When they met, he said he’d forgotten something important at home and asked her to go back with him. At his house they had a sexual encounter that Megha later realised had been planned in advance. Although she doesn’t hold that it was non-consensual, she feels betrayed by the man’s behaviour. ‘I realised he had planned this all along, and tricked me into going home with him,’ she says. “He was in a position of trust, which I think he violated by not being honest with me about his intentions. More than anything else, he was manipulative.” Megha spoke up about the incident after she saw that another woman had complained about the same guy on a forum.

There’s sometimes an assumption that because it’s a kink forum, anything goes. “I have a fair share of random requests to play with strangers who haven’t even bothered to get to know me,” Nilanjana says. “People think they can say whatever to me [or] ask for sexual favours.”

Divya, a 30-year-old bisexual and submissive writer, says that men often ask her to speak on the phone or send a photo of her vagina before they will even chat with her. “I have no problem with straight men asking for verification if they want to, [just like] I’m paranoid about straight men creating lesbian profiles. But their paranoia begins to ring false to my ears, like it’s about more than just verification. There’s some homophobia and transphobia lurking behind it.”

Like most online spaces, kink forums tend to be dominated by upper class, upper caste folks, and surmounting access barriers isn’t always enough to cut it. “People say on their profiles that they won’t talk to you if your English or your grammar isn’t perfect,” says Megha. “It amazes me. Just because you got an English education doesn’t make you any better than anybody else.”

And when it comes to kinks themselves, it’s not only people from outside the community doing the judging. Abhay, for example, sometimes faces judgement for his golden showers fetish –  the act of urinating on your partner for pleasure. “People say, ‘It’s gross!’ or ‘So unhealthy!’…We talk about how kink is also a sexual orientation, and how queer people should stand with us. But how can we expect solidarity from queer communities if kinksters discriminate against each other?”

But despite challenges, for most kinksters these forums are still safe(r) spaces than most. Besides, as Nilanjana says, “The chance and scope of abuse is as high in this community as it is in any part of society.”

And there’s no reason apart from prejudice for holding kinky spaces to different standards.

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So what really ‘counts’ as kinky anyway?

Almost everyone I interviewed collapsed the binary between ‘vanilla’ and ‘kinky’ sex and relationships. Aditya tells me, “I am not going to put kink in a box. If someone enjoys drinking Coke while having sex and considers that kinky, to me, that person is kinky.”

“When you have sex, have you ever given a love bite? Have you ever held the hand of your partner above their head? Have you ever put your fingers over your partner’s eyes and closed them? If yes, you are kinky too.” For Aditya, people who actively identify as kinky are self-aware and confident about exploring their sexuality, but it’s just a matter of degree. “You are on one level, and I’m at a different level.”

As Nilanjana says, “If people could really look into themselves, and honestly ask and answer the questions, ‘What turns me on? What do I want?’ [and] if they do this without shame and without inhibition, they will find some sort of kink inside themselves.”

The possibility that we are all on a continuum of sexuality, standing only some distance from one another, is within reach. In a world that privileges violence over pleasure, this possibility is dangerous. If we accept it, there will be no more perverts, no more deviants; just people who reach out with both hands for their desires.

And maybe this is among the most radical possibilities of them all.

*Names changed

This piece was originally published by Deep Dives as part of the series Sexing the Interwebs.