The Sex Talk Dilemma

Rii poses for The Pleasure Project
Corset strings loosen, as artists and social activists advocate safe sex through risque images

The sultry image of a dusky Bengali woman sticking out her tongue, like an angry goddess, confronts the viewer. Under this arresting image the words, "Can safer sex be sexy?" jump out at you. The photograph was showcased under the banner of the Pleasure Project as postcards and posters in a workshop campaign conducted in the streets of Kolkata's red light district Sonagachi and at HIV-AIDS conferences in Sri Lanka, Austria and Thailand. Now, these photographs are up on the walls of NGOs and arty and theatre spaces in Delhi. Soft boards at the Yodakin Book Store in Hauz Khas have bold images with suggestive text. The message is unmissable: safe, yet pleasurable sex.

"We started the pleasure propaganda as a guerrilla girl campaign in 2004, after the Bangkok AIDS conference, in Thailand. Till now, all the talk around safe sex practices have been either dry and clinical, or full of doom and death. The Pleasure Project strives to bring the world of public health together with art and advertising," says Anne Philpott, 40, the founder member of the Pleasure Project.

At Gallerie Nvya, Sahil Mane's photographs are staid and abstract, but that can't be said about the provocative title Orgasm. "My body of work uses the abstract approach to depict the tempo, tone, texture, intensity and passion of an entire sexual episode," says Mane, about the images. They are an explosion of colour and movement photographed with a Canon 5D Mark II, and an outcome of scientific, home laboratory experiments. These portray trickling of colours into water drops and their movement in ferrofluid, oil and magnets. "I wanted to capture the organic and powerful phenomenon of the orgasm in a mystical way," says Mane. "Violence is all-pervasive and we expect it, but a tiny love scene gets chopped off from a film. Love and sex is wholesome and we should be talking about it," he adds.

Condom campaigns in India are picking up the vibe of clear, pleasant messages, instead of convoluted, suggestive ones. Durex opted for a classy route by appealing to the five senses of a woman. It did not raise eyebrows, but the Lava phone advertisement did it connected maleness with a sleek looking phone and doubly endorsed 'Surex', in a reference to the well-known condom brand.

The trio of advertising, art and consumerism, in its response, seem to be loosening the straight-laced attitude of Indian morality, bringing in discussions of safe sex, pleasure and adventure into the foreground. "It is like exorcising the old socialist notion for a more liberalised one. In the past, the body was a sacrificing vessel of duty that upheld family values of constraint. Now, the body embraces desire, pleasure, freedom and the responsibility that comes with it," says social anthropologist Shiv Visvanathan.

Philpott, who has been working on the Pleasure Project, agrees that there could not be a better time to introduce creative and free ways of looking at safe sex practices. "I have had a few light bulb moments. When I was working on advocacy for the use of Femidom, the female condom in 2007, I found many women and men receptive to the idea of making it a part of foreplay. There was a nun who wanted to include the idea in her talk on safe sex," says Philpott, who has been campaigning with Arushi Singh. On April 30, she is planning to conduct a fantasy reading at the Yodakin Book Store. It is intended to open a dialogue on safe sex practice, issues of consent and desire.

The new-found lucidity around sexual politics is still in its nascent stages. "What we are seeing is not yet a breakthrough in the sexual revolution.

There has been an intersection of consumerism and aesthetics in advertising, painting and photography. There is talk of male vulnerability and feminine desire, but the old corset is still there," says Visvanathan.

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