For a country with one of the world’s largest populations, people in India rarely talk about sex openly. In this construct, a few and far voices are trying to amplify hushed sounds around this subject. One such voice is of sexual health educator Karishma Swarup, who is not only educating people about sex but dismantling the taboos around sexuality in India.
From being “blown away” when coming across a student sexual health educator during her college days, Karishma has come full circle. She soon realized that it was her calling to educate people about a topic that was perceived as petrifying in a country that looks down on people for being open about their sexuality. With the aim in mind to help young people, especially women, to have a voice and not repress their needs and desires, Karishma has been running an Instagram page – aptly named @talkyounevergot – to dispel myths and provide helpful information about sex, pleasure, intimacy, orgasm, menstruation, and everything sexual health.
In this exclusive conversation with Health Shots, Karishma Swarup shares her journey and how she deals with the criticism that comes her way when trying to educate people about sexual health.
What triggered you to become a sexual health educator?
Karishma Swarup: My journey as a sexual health educator began when I was studying at Brown University, US. I remember in my first semester I came across a student who was teaching sex ed to high school students. It blew my mind because I grew up in a very conservative high school where we talked about biology but didn’t go into detail about sexuality. Cut to a year later, I realized that I was also interested in doing it. So, I started working closely with Planned Parenthood, a huge organization in the US and began teaching sex ed to high school students.
What is sex positivity?
Karishma Swarup: Sex positivity is a cultural movement of shedding the negativity around sex. It is a movement where we allow people to explore what sexuality means to them. It could mean having sex, or it could mean not having sex or it could mean exploring masturbation. Sex positivity is about dispelling taboos which we have let seep into our lives and prevent us from having open conversations, something that should be a completely normal thing. It is something that a lot of people think about or engage in, and something really helpful to learn and talk about.
What is the biggest taboo about sex that still exists?
Karishma Swarup: That virginity is something that needs to be protected, pure or not messed with at all. It is a very gendered concept and ends up having grave implications on people’s lives, especially young women’s lives. When we think about this taboo, we also have to think about how one thinks about sex in our cultural context in India. People are very uncomfortable acknowledging women who might want to have sex for any other reason than giving birth. So, when we bring pleasure into that conversation, the religious and cultural baggage comes with it.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced so far as a sexual health educator?
Karishma Swarup: One of the biggest challenges is keeping up on a platform like Instagram. During the pandemic, a lot of my work shifted online and I realised that it allowed me to reach lots of people. But that also meant that it reached a lot of people who don’t necessarily jibe with the message that I am trying to put out there. So, I had to deal with trolls and harassment in the form of DMs and inappropriate images. For some reason, Instagram flags sex education as inappropriate which made me deal with censorship. It is also a platform that is superficial and people are more concerned about how a video looks. This can take a toll on one’s mental health. So, the biggest challenge has been to keep showing up consistently for a cause.
Yes, there are trolls on social media but when it comes to my life, I have been lucky to have a really supportive family who has been uplifting me while I do this.
Was there a stark difference in audiences of a more conservative society (like India) as compared to a liberal one (US)?
Karishma Swarup: Initially, when I moved back to India, I thought there would be a huge difference in the type of questions I get and the types of things people are curious about. But I realized we all are consuming the same kind of content that Americans are. The same myths exist whether you are in the US and whether you are in India. People have the same questions regardless of geography!
The big difference I would say is that in the US, I was able to walk into a classroom with a bowl of condoms, make it available to them, and have much more open conversations with them. There was no pretense that it was not something that kids were doing out there. However, in India, because of our legal system and the taboos that exist, a lot of schools and institutions are very hesitant about young people discussing sexual activity. So, it affects the way I have to craft my statement. I talk in hypotheticals!
What do you think our society still lacks when it comes to sexual health?
Karishma Swarup: Indian society really lacks when it comes to sexual health. The taboos permeate every section of society and there are very few pockets where people are having open and non-judgemental conversations about sex. Even when I go to doctors, they assume that you are not sexually active unless you are married. They decide and prescribe care for you, regardless of the fact that you are sexually active or not. So, sexual health becomes more of a taboo because there are young people who are sexually active, but they are not able to receive the care they want when facing general issues with their sexuality. This happens even in urban elite society.
When it comes to rural sexual health, that’s a whole other conversation. States have invested a lot in family planning, contraception, reducing population, etc., but there is little to no importance given to people’s sexual health. They also don’t have access to basic things like menstrual hygiene products, clean bathrooms, etc. So many taboos get layered and compounded on each other in conservative spaces. If they are not able to talk about menstruation, they won’t be able to talk about other issues related to sexuality and sexual health, regardless of gender.
What is your message to women who aspire to have a successful business while managing it all?
Karishma Swarup: ‘Trust your voice’ – that’s my one message to women today. A lot of times, we feel sad and frustrated with the patriarchal system designed to set us up to be someone we don’t want to be. While being a caregiver, or a mother are lovely things to do if you want to do them, a lot of times this script ends up defining what a woman studies, what a woman wants to do, whether a woman should get married early, whom she gets married to, whether she is heterosexual, and whatnot. A lot of times women know deep down what they want and need, but they become unable to trust themselves.
Women have all the rights to raise their voice and be angry, sad and frustrated… because if you wouldn’t do that, no one else would do that for you!
(Karishma Swarup is nominated for the Health Shots She Slays Awards in the Sexual Health Educator category. To vote for her or to review our other nominees, please check out the She Slays Awards nominations!)