Leeza Mangaldas Highlights The Importance Of Sex-Positive Conversations
In India, sex and curiosity go hand-in-hand. Every school educates you about ‘reproductive systems’ and ‘reproduction’ very early on in life. Sadly, no one lets us in on the concept of sex, that lies largely between the aforemention starting and ending points respectively. Half knowledge can be dangerous; curious teenagers (and young adults too, at times) scout for all the information on the internet, and we all know how terrifyingly unfruitful that can be.
Contrary to popular belief (where sexual awareness equals taboo, bad influence or unnecessary information), sex – a basic element of life – can be pleasurable, more than you think. No, it’s nothing like what’s shown in shows and movies – it doesn’t have to be dramatic, aggressive, violent or OTT. Remember what I said about half knowledge? Exactly. While the internet sends us on a wild goose chase, it has also nurtured safe spaces for conversations and procuring information. Today, there are a handful of well-informed persons on social media who do more than being just a sexpert, they value innocent curiosity, foster discussions and experiences – Leeza Managaldas being one of them. Here’s our chat with her, it’s more enlightening than you think.
From where did you get all the in-depth knowledge about all things sexual and intimate wellness?
I did my undergrad on a scholarship at Columbia University, and gender and sexuality were the themes my academic work was focused on. I was also a resident advisor there, which meant I was in charge of student life; this included conducting consent training workshops, and educating peers about safer sex practices. We even had bags of free condoms hung on our doors, so students had safe and easy access to protection.
Let’s talk about the basics. How did you get into doing what you do?
When I returned to live in Mumbai after college as a young person navigating my own sexuality and sexual health, I found that there were hardly any platforms providing easily accessible, non-judgemental information contextualised to India wherein to share questions and experiences, and information and resources pertaining to sex, sexuality, gender, sexual health, relationships, and the body. As a young, unmarried woman, even just accessing contraception or an STI test could feel like such an obstacle course, let alone talking about sexual pleasure, even though these are basic things that we should have access to in the interest of our own health and wellbeing. I wanted to do something to encourage these much-needed conversations in a way that felt safe, positive, and normal.
You’ve been doing this for over 5 years now. How do you think you’ve grown over these years?
I first started creating sex education video content over 5 years ago. For the first several years I was also doing a lot of freelance work as a TV presenter and emcee as that’s what paid the bills. My digital sex education content was not self-sustaining to begin with. It started as a passion project, and I simply created the content I myself wished I had access too. It was a curriculum for myself, so I read (and continue to read) everything I could about sexuality and sexual health, and frequently interviewed and consulted with activists, educators, doctors, writers, artists, thinkers, and people with important lived experiences they were willing to share – the goal was to create a community – and to ensure that the information I provide is always scientifically accurate, judegment-free, queer-inclusive, and pleasure-inclusive. I now create videos in both English and Hindi, both short and long form, which reach millions of people daily. I also have a chart-topping podcast called The Sex Podcast where I answer commonly-asked sex questions in Hindi.
Why according to you, is it important to have conversations around sex, sexuality and intimate wellness?
Unfortunately, sex is rarely ever talked about in schools or even among families, and if and when sex is talked about, such as during the reproductive system chapter, or a cursory, one-time “birds and bees” talk from parents, it is often a fear and shame based approach that dictates the conversation, or it is laughed off, and talked of as if it is frivolous and silly.
Why do you think spreading a lot of awareness about all thing’s ‘sex’ is still needed in 2022?
This refusal to talk about sex – at home, in school, in our communities – at best results in dozens of clueless people left to figure out for themselves everything from how to have safe sex to how to have an orgasm; but at worst, it results in things like women being killed for not bleeding on their wedding night, and queer teens being sent to be “cured” by conversion therapy.
Comprehensive sex education that is pleasure-inclusive and queer-inclusive is central to greater gender equality, to improved sexual and reproductive health and rights, to ending sexual and gender-based violence, and to achieving a safer, kinder, more joyful world.
How can we as a society change the narrative/perception of sex; how do we make it fun and pleasure instead of a taboo?
Sex and sexuality are rarely talked about in an honest and accessible way– we tend to talk about it as if it’s something only other people do – “bad”, “weird” people – not something we do ourselves. I wanted to do whatever I could to help make it feel safe, comfortable, and normal to talk about this stuff.
I hope to see the day where comprehensive sexuality education that is queer-inclusive and pleasure inclusive is widely present in school curricula globally. I also hope more of us begin to think more deeply about our own sexualities and attend more proactively to our own sexual health requirements – be it stuff like contraception and STI testing, or stuff like unpacking one’s own identity and getting better acquainted with one’s own body and pleasure. If each of us begin to recognize, and work to overcome, the shame and stigma we’ve been conditioned to feel around the subject, we can all help make these conversations feel more comfortable.
And, while some people mistakenly think that access to sex education will result in everyone rushing to have more sex at a younger age, in fact, studies globally have shown that people who who have access to comprehensive sexuality education are more likely to delay having sex, and less likely to make choices that put their or another’s health and safety at risk.
As a content creator who engages with a huge audience, what aspects of sexual and intimate wellness are most unexplored by people?
People from a diverse range of age groups, sexual orientations, gender identities, locations, and socio-economic backgrounds watch and respond to my content. If I were to deconstruct the questions I receive into one overarching concern, what I get asked over and over again is essentially this: “Am I normal?” From questions about penis size or breast size, to concerns about “performance”; from questions about fantasies, to questions about sexual orientation; from questions about sexual health, to questions about pleasure – most people seem to want to be reassured that there’s nothing wrong with them – their bodies, their curiosities, their desires.
The combination of the societal shame and stigma along with the ensuing lack of accurate information about sex, sexual health, and the body, means that many are worried that there’s something the matter with them when it comes to their sexual selves. The sexual and bodily autonomy and agency especially of women and queer people remains something that is controlled and surveilled globally. In a patriarchal global society, the idea that people are meant to have sex only after marriage, only with an opposite sex, and for the purpose of having babies, not orgasms – these are ideas that do still in many ways prevail, and need to be dismantled.
Lastly, what’s one thing you’d want to tell someone in their 20s and 40s respectively?
For adults of any age, here are 3 simple yet extremely important ideas:
Get to know your body: Self-pleasure can be an incredible gateway to sexual self-knowledge, particularly for people with vulvas, as we barely get to see or touch our own intimate parts unless we deliberately set out to do so.
Communicate: Get comfortable talking to and listening to your partner. Tell each other what you’re comfortable with, what you’re not comfortable with, what you’re curious about, what feels good, what doesn’t, how you like things. Talk about protection and contraception. Make each other’s consent, safety, and pleasure a priority.
Use a lube: A good lube is in my opinion one of the unsung heroes of better sex for everyone. It’s one of the simplest things you can do to make sex both more comfortable and more fun!
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