Being a Queer South Asian American
Season 5 of the multi-award-winning Masala Podcast is a USA Special. Our first episode features the trailblazing sex educator, sexual health expert and advocate Dr. Varuna Srinivasan.
Listen for a thought-provoking journey as we dive into the heart of sexual orientation, identity, and LGBTQ+ rights with Varuna.
Varuna’s story is incredible, and their empathy for others navigating their own journey through their sexual orientation & identity is astonishing.
Varuna identifies as a queer, immigrant, South Asian woman. They are a sexual health expert, writer, and activist who’s been featured in many publications like Elle India, Vogue, Business Insider, Cosmopolitan, and more. Varuna is the founder of Tara Health Media, a sexual health education and empowerment lead digital platform for POC communities. Varuna was named woman of courage by Serena Williams. In October 2022, Varuna was Cosmopolitan India’s LGBTQ + coverstar.
We are so inspired by Varuna at Masala Podcast, I know you will be too.
Dr Varuna Srinivasan on Masala Podcast: Transcript
Varuna Srinivasan 0:00
I was kissing girls, but we were doing it in secret. You’re scared, right? And I think that there are more open spaces now that I’m an adult, and I’m 33 years old now, but 15 year old me was confused. I was afraid for my safety, quite honestly. Because what ends up happening in a lot of Indian communities is if you even show an inkling of queerness, or deviation from the norm, they immediately start talking about marriage as a way to fix it.
Sangeeta Pillai 0:50
I’m Sangeeta Pillai and this is the Masala Podcast. This multi-award winning feminist podcast for and by South Asian women is all about cultural taboos, from sex, sexuality, mental health, menopause, to nipple hair, and more. This season is a US Special, and it took me by surprise. You see, I interviewed these incredible South Asian American women, I expected to hear some angst around identity and belonging. Instead, they told me how comfortable they were with both their South Asian and American identity. I confess, this is not the podcast season I set out to record. It’s so much more powerful. Talking to my guest, Varuna Srinivasan felt like I was talking to a younger version of myself. We both grew up in traditional Indian families in India, battling for space to be ourselves, fighting for our voices to be heard. Varuna identifies as a queer, immigrant, South Asian woman. She is a sexual health expert, writer, and activist who’s been featured in many publications like Elle India, Vogue, Business Insider, C-TV, and more. Varuna is the founder of Thara health media, a sexual health education and empowerment lead digital platform for POC communities. In 2020, Varuna was named woman of courage by Serena Williams. In October 2022, she was Cosmopolitan India’s LGBTQ + coverstar. I was impressed by all the amazing work that Varuna does and by Varuna herself. Her empathy and her vulnerability, I found both of those just so inspiring.
Varuna Srinivasan 2:56
When girls, when women, are born and other gender minorities, there are these unwritten rules, this is just how things are, I think, is a very similar sentiment or sentence that we’ve heard growing up. And so you can’t go for a sleepover, because I said so. You can’t go out of the house dressed like that, because I said so. Your brother can do those things, but you can’t. That’s just the way things are, there are just these different unwritten rules. And we kind of know that right? I think that I’ve been in enough conversations about a very clear divide about how men in India are treated versus how women in India are treated. And growing up, it is interesting, because when working in sexual health and sexual health education, and my husband being a child and adolescent psychiatrist, we spend a lot of time reading about adolescence and your identity. And the idea of who you are, formulates when you are a teenager and it’s very heavily influenced by your peers. And I remember being in eighth grade and seeing kids my age, having fun and to me fun was being able to wear what you wanted, to be able to text boys and talk to girls and stay on the phone late at night, and just live a normal adolescent life, to live in that curiosity. More often than not what ends up happening is an adult comes in and in a bid to be productive or safe will cut short that curiosity and create these invisible barriers to that exploration. And being the person I am I kept pushing back and so then started sort of the cycle of lying and sneaking and this is such a common Brown Girl story, right? That’s like my dad didn’t know I had a boyfriend. My parents didn’t know I had a boyfriend. Many of us were incredible internet sleuths. We had burner accounts, we had burner phones, I was buying prepaid SMS’s. And it kind of seems incredibly silly now. But at that time, it was so important for me to explore. And to learn more about who I was, because it’s just such a fundamental part of everyone. And so I really, I do think that is one of the biggest things I could think about is… I do think between 13 to 18 was very tumultuous.
Sangeeta Pillai 5:37
I think it is, for so many brown women, it certainly was for me, my family was very traditional, you had to come home at 06:30 in the evening. Couldn’t be speaking to boys, it wasn’t even a thing. Forget about boyfriends, you couldn’t even be speaking to a boy. So what you’re saying there really resonates like all the lying. Because there is no option. I mean, I’m sure you would have loved to say to your dad, “Dad, I’m just starting to see this guy, I don’t really know”, whatever. I would have loved to say, I think “I really liked this boy or whatever”, but you’re kind of living this double life, this one life at home and one life outside. It is so common. And I think it’s so sad as well. Not only as you say, you’re growing up, being an adolescent, you’re trying to figure out who you are, because those are crucial years, where you’re understanding and you’re building this person. And on top of that, you’ve got all this pressure of maintaining this facade, “oh, I’m this good girl”, or I’m this whatever at home. And I think that there is so much unnecessary pressure to what is already a pressured stage in life, don’t you think?
Varuna Srinivasan 6:45
I absolutely agree. And I was thinking about this the other day that I am interested, I have a degree in Public Health from Johns Hopkins, and my husband and I really credit a lot of my systemic thinking to him, because we think in terms of systems as well, and there are different layers of interaction. So there’s interpersonal, intrapersonal, community, and society, and of course, the government and the big systemic. And growing up in India, it wasn’t just, something I noticed is that it wasn’t just the resistance I was feeling at home. So it was resistance from my parents, right about sleepovers, talking to boys, not having boyfriends, not wearing miniskirts, going out, and dancing, which are absolutely normal things to do when you’re an adolescent. But I was also slut shamed in school. They would go through our phones and go through our messages to see if we had a boyfriend. And they found out that I had a boyfriend, I was 16, and I was texting my boyfriend at that time and it was really innocuous. We would send I love you, I can’t wait to see you, I can’t wait to hug you and kiss you. And somehow I was punished. So they call my mom to the school and reprimanded me and basically gave me a lecture on morality and the importance of abstinence, and how that contributes to… they almost make it like, if you stay off this course, you can focus more on your studies, because that’s what you’re here for, as if we don’t deserve to have a holistic lifestyle.
Sangeeta Pillai 8:23
I had a best friend in school, who moved away with her family to live in Chennai and we missed each other. And so we’d write these beautiful, long descriptive letters to each other. Anyway, one time, my friend wrote to me, telling me that she had kissed a boy, giving me lots of juicy details of how it felt. I remember reading her letter, feeling a thrill in my own body. Anyway, I went off to school. And when I came back home, my mother was waiting for me with a very angry expression. And this letter in her hand, she raged at me about “you girls are shameless, and you will ruin yourself and this family.” I said nothing. Because the concept of privacy didn’t exist in our families. My mother felt like the guardian of my morality. And I felt like I was the guilty party sort of caught in the act. So I guess the point I’m making is that our bodies were so strictly policed by our families and society. And all I felt was an intense feeling of shame, which I still remember to this day.
Varuna Srinivasan 9:45
And then it’s also your peers. I have had many men come up to me and slut shame me. When I tried to explore the fact that I was bisexual with a boyfriend at that time and he was incredibly shaming. So I think you’re kind of dealing with this resistance on multiple layers. And it’s one thing, right? If you’re fighting with your parents, but you’re also fighting with some peers, you’re also fighting against teachers, and everyone in society. Up until I was 25 in med school, the girls hostel had two security guards, and you had to sign in at 06:30. The boys hostel had a party every night, they could go and come as they pleased. And that’s why I opted to stay off campus and not in the hostel, which is a dorm, essentially, for American audiences we call it a hostel in India. And that’s what I really wanted to bring focus to, because we’re kind of like fighting different layers around us.
Sangeeta Pillai 10:47
And I think some of the messaging when you were talking about being slut shamed or being just shamed for being female, I remember this auntie, there’s always an auntie, in the building, who would come up to my mom and say, “Oh, but I have a boy. So I don’t have to worry, you’ve got a girl, you’ve got to be worried,” as if just our existence is traumatic for ourselves and our parents and everybody else. And everybody’s got to be constantly guarding against this danger that’s lurking at every corner.
Varuna Srinivasan 11:22
They treat you like you’re a liability and growing up in Chennai, I would watch a lot of movies. And in movies, again, it’s a common theme. And that’s why I’m so interested in media as well as such an incredible form of education, because a lot of what we know about gender roles, about gender identity and gender expression comes from the media, in movies. And if you grow up watching girls being overprotected, and watched on like a hawk, not just by her family members, but by society as a whole, you really internalise that and perpetuate some of those same habits. So the auntie that you’re talking about, I know several, and it makes me sad, because they are also victims of the patriarchy. They are just following this rulebook, this invisible guidebook that’s been handed to them by their ancestors.
Sangeeta Pillai 12:16
Absolutely, and I think in some cases, I think in most cases, women are perpetuating the worst of the patriarchy. I always think the patriarchy has brainwashed everybody so much that women are doing the dirty work now, in the sense that the aunties are policing the young girls, where does that come from? It comes from the Auntie’s internalising what’s been done to them. And their mothers and their mothers. So it’s kind of passed on, and they don’t need to be told now that they got to police young girls, they just do it, because it’s so encoded within them.
Varuna Srinivasan 12:53
Absolutely. And I wouldn’t say that this is just a problem in India as well, because I was watching videos on Tiktok the other day where this seems to be like a problem that happens a lot in America as well. But you’re right. I think in India, there is the morality police in the name of protecting young girls and protecting young women. And there’s just a lot of interesting narratives around honour, respect around the woman’s body, and I actually spend some time reading through some of the language that the Indian government uses. And just trigger warning in the language around sexual assault and rape. They use words like honour and dignity. And so we perpetuate this idea that a woman’s worth or how dignified or honourable she is in society is based on whether or not she has had sex and what has happened to her body. And of course, we know this in the US as well, but there are a lot of rules and policing of women’s bodies, of people’s bodies. So it only seems, unfortunately, to be… I think it’s just such an incredibly systemic issue.
Sangeeta Pillai 14:17
Whenever I hear the word “honour”, it makes me angry. Because how and when did the idea of honour get connected to whether a woman had sex or not? I was told when I was young and living in India, that if I gave my body to someone, even if that someone was in a loving relationship with me, I was “devaluing” myself, and that I would regret it for the rest of my days, as if a woman’s worth depended entirely on the use or non use of her vagina. Virginity is another concept that makes me so furious. Traditionally, virgins were considered pure, and women who had had sexual experiences considered not so pure. How can the very act that creates precious life in the world be impure? How can the woman who creates that life through her own flesh and blood be sullied for the act of creation?
Sangeeta Pillai 14:17
I wanted to talk to you about why our sexuality is this big of a taboo in our culture, and in culture in general. And I also wanted to ask you when, maybe, in your own life was the first time you thought, “Oh my God, why is this such a big issue?” Do you remember?
Varuna Srinivasan 15:51
Going back to the example I had growing up, again you are so deeply steeped in heteronormativity. And having a boyfriend was the norm, you were a girl, if you have a vagina, if you have a uterus, and you have breasts, you are a girl. And that was just understood, girls have long hair, my room was painted pink by my dad, and my brother’s room was painted blue. And I had already kind of grown up in this environment that had assigned sex, had assigned gender, had assigned gender identity, as well as gender expression. And so when thinking about my sexuality, it was almost laid out in front of me, because again, you’re talking to your peers, you’re talking to your parents, you’re watching movies, and you exclusively see men and women together, in most cases. And only when you’re watching porn, or you’re watching, maybe like I watched a French film called “A girl with blue hair”, or something to that effect and it showed bisexual love on screen. And so it follows the story of a woman who was in multiple relationships. And I remember thinking, I was like, “Oh my God, so you can, okay, so you can do that.” That opened up a world. And I remember coming to my ex boyfriend now, but boyfriend at the time, and saying, “I think I’m interested in women”. But I was still stuck in that binary that if I’m not with the man, I have to be with the woman. And I was still like living within that cis man, cis woman kind of binary. When really it was black and white thinking, there wasn’t a spectrum in my mind of sorts at that time. And I remember telling them that “I think that I might be interested in women” and sort of the harsh reaction was, “so you’re gay”. And I think what ends up happening is like, we love to put labels on things because it helps us. That’s why I think biphobia, and panphobia are so rampant. It is because our minds and society like to quantify things. And if you cannot put something in a box, then it therefore does not exist. And he was very adamant about the fact that I was a lesbian. And then the fetishising happened. And in my mind, I thought, “This doesn’t seem like such a big deal to me, it seems like more of a big deal to you than it does to me, because I’m trying to have an open conversation about my sexual preferences and my sexual interests and who and what I’m attracted to”, it almost never seems to go in an open and curious direction. And I don’t blame them at all. I think that they were also conditioned to have this black and white thinking. But I think that’s every time I was having a conversation when I was young, and in India, especially growing up in Chennai, which is moderately conservative, not as modern as Mumbai, where you grew up, or Delhi. I did not see a queer person for the longest time until I was in my 20s. I didn’t know a single person who was bisexual or gay or anything. I think that only happened after I moved to the US.
Sangeeta Pillai 19:25
Wow. So what was it like then to have, I guess, these complex feelings at that time? And even if you try to explain to a friend, then that’s the response you get, what was that like? How did that feel?
Varuna Srinivasan 19:44
It’s almost like touching a hot pan, right? You touch it, you get burned, you’re like, I’m gonna try again. And then after a point, you think that this is redundant, and I’m just hurting myself in the process. That’s a big part of why I am so visible and vocal and I will not stop going on and on about it because there was that space lacking for me. That I was kissing girls, but we were doing it in secret. And it was almost like, “oh, but I’m straight. I’m just having fun. I’m just drunk”. And it’s like it wasn’t like that for me. I actually do like you, I am attracted to you, I want to kiss you, I want to date you, but you’re scared, right? And I think that there are more open spaces, now that I’m an adult. I’m 33 years old now, But 15 year old me was confused, didn’t really know what was going on, and was afraid. I was afraid for my safety, quite honestly, because what ends up happening in a lot of Indian communities is if you even show an inkling of queerness, or deviation from the norm, then they immediately start talking about marriage as a way to fix it. And it was my biggest fear that if I kept silent, and I just continued to date men, and I continued to follow the rules that I would be safe. And so compulsory heteronormativity is the bane of our existence. But it really was a genuine fear that I would be ridiculed and be called a lesbian. When I hadn’t, I wasn’t comfortable with that. But what ends up happening is if you have a short haircut, which I’ve always had short hair, if you sit boisterously, you cross your legs, you wear pants, and you are seen hanging out with a girl and it automatically, it’s a small community, and rumours start getting perpetuated, like “oh, she’s a lesbian”, and then your parents end up thinking, getting you married is going to fix everything. And all you need is a man and that’s a lot of the biphobia that bisexual women face as well. I’ve had a lot of comments that say, “you need a man to… you just need a real man… What you really need is a real man that can convince you or fix you.” Like I need convincing. So I found that whole area of my life to be incredibly frustrating. And something that I was very obviously running away from.
Sangeeta Pillai 22:29
Hey, I wanted to pause this episode for a minute to share something that I’m really excited about. Podcasting changed my life. I went from typing into Google, what is a podcast? Yes, I did that to create the multi award winning Masala podcast. And now I’d like to share some of my knowledge with you. I’m starting podcasting masterclasses on my website, and one of them’s been created, especially for women podcasters. Just go to my website, soul sutras.co.uk and look under courses, or email me at podcasting at soul sutras.co.uk. And I’ll share details with you. I look forward to helping you on your podcasting journey. Now, let’s get back to our guest for this episode. You’ve talked in one of the articles I read about the decision to go public about your sexuality in 2020, was that hard? What propelled you to sort of do that?
Varuna Srinivasan 23:41
Honestly, we were in the middle of a pandemic. And it felt like the world was ending at that point. And if anyone remembers the summer of 2020, it was very tumultuous for everybody. And I was at home, I just got laid off from a job, which honestly I think is some of the best things that ever happened to me because then I spent a lot of time on online communities, which is where a lot of us were flocking during the pandemic and connecting with other people. And I learned about your work that summer as well. And I said what do I have to lose? It feels genuine, what do I have to lose? And so from being on different Facebook groups and talking to different people, it really is… My mentor once told me to see what you’re envious about. Think about what you are envious about, because that’s secretly telling you what you want. And I was really envious of people who were dressing the way they wanted to do, who were living the life they wanted to and being incredibly open and vulnerable about it and finding community that way. And that to me is the most authentic to me, right? Having lived quite literally 30 years of my life, under the radar, suppressing it, it almost was bubbling and waiting to get out. And it’s interesting because up until that point, it was very gradual. And then it suddenly started to take like a bit of a steep turn. And so I had actually come out in 2018, to my close friends. And so my partner, I was already in a relationship with him. And I came out to him, I came out to a couple of my other friends at that time. And this is why I think chosen family is incredible, because I have such an amazing queer community of bisexual and lesbian women, and gay men and trans friends who have really helped me come to terms with who I am right in moments where you want to raise yourself, they’re like, You better not do that, you stop that right now. And I think it’s kind of the added courage that got me up until that point where I was like, You know what, I’m just gonna, I’m just gonna talk about it. I think I can talk about it, I feel confident. And I’m sure that people are there, and people want to talk to me too. So it was kind of my bad signal, my way of sharing that. But having said that, I will say I talk about privilege a lot on my page. And as someone who is born into an upper caste family in India, who is skinny and fair skinned, who has access to financial resources, who is in a heterosexual appearing marriage, I have tax privileges, I have fertility privileges, I have access to a lot of avenues and society that aren’t readily available to a lot of queer and trans folks. So I definitely carry that privilege. And I think when I came out, I did not receive a lot of backlash. I think I received a lot of love and support which every queer person should, but I do think that the privilege I carry definitely has kept me safe.
Sangeeta Pillai 27:06
Was there a feeling of relief in finally, being yourself fully in the world?
Varuna Srinivasan 27:14
I feel very different. As a person, my soul is different. You feel this is the whole part of me right now. And it’s almost like re-parenting, it’s almost… I didn’t have those spaces as a teenager to experiment with my head with my makeup with my clothing, right? Because you have to wear a salwar when you go to college. No ifs and buts. You just have to do it. You have to tie your hair into two braids for school. No questions, your skirt has to be below your knee, right. And so I’m kind of in this phase of my life that’s almost childlike. I want to wear what I want to wear, I want to cut my hair super short. I want to sit how I want to sit, I want to wear sneakers, I want to wear blue eyeliner or blue lipstick. I want to play around with my pronouns. She/they feels good right now. Maybe they/them will feel good sometime later, maybe she/they as is. Maybe I’m actually more on the pansexual side of the spectrum. So it feels like I’ve opened this world in myself, because I think when I’m talking about it externally, I’m also working on it internally, and I’m breaking down that internalised biphobia that internalised homophobia and transphobia that all of us have and really telling myself this is your gender joy. This is your gender playground, this is like a gender neutral space for you to experiment and live life the way you want to. I got a haircut yesterday. And my first reaction, my immediate default was, “what if people think I look funny, I’m a girl and I have really short hair?” And I was like that’s them thinking that but do you think that and I’m like, “No, I actually like my short hair.” It affirms my identity, and it makes me feel like me, right? And I think even just getting to that point is just so amazing for me because I feel like I’ve grown in that regard.
Sangeeta Pillai 29:23
That’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing that. The other thing I read which really struck me was you speaking about coming out as bisexual to your husband and how that has completely transformed your relationship. I love that. Can you tell us more about that?
Varuna Srinivasan 29:40
Yes, I want to talk about this a lot and I do talk about this a lot on my Instagram and in a lot of articles as well that our sexuality doesn’t stop growing just because we got married and we have to stop this relationship escalator and in Indian families, we know that all too well, my dad’s goals for us are, get married, have a job, buy a car, buy a house, then have kids, and then make them do exactly the same thing. And that’s great for some people, that’s the stability that they crave and desire. And in that somewhere baked that you’ve kind of ended the road with whoever you’re with. So we are stuck in those gender roles, we are stuck in the cis heteronormativity, we are stuck in this idea that man, wife, woman, man and child, and that’s it. And something that I found incredibly difficult when I communicate with a lot of South Asian audiences, and I tend to get a lot of comments is “poor soul”, or “oh no, what did he get himself into”. And it’s interesting because they find that I have been deceitful, or almost done a grave injustice or betrayal, because apparently I was masquerading as straight before my marriage and now that I’m married, I’m like, “Haha, surprise, I’m actually bisexual.” And I want to change that narrative just a little bit. I want us to think of ourselves as infinite beings, capable of experiencing anything related to sexuality. We are amazing sexual beings. And that isn’t just in who we are attracted to, and who we’re having sex with. Right now, in a crass way, I’m having sex with my husband, I have one partnered sex with him. He is a cishet man. But the attraction I feel is so diverse. And in India, when we think of sex, and we think of attraction where like, but then you’re just going out, you’re acting on it, and you’re having sex with so many people. And that’s great for some folks. But that’s not what I’m doing. And that shouldn’t be the automatic assumption. So when I talk about this with my partner, it is incredible because we go into really complex and intellectual conversations, because I think we’re privileged and resourceful enough to have that language at our disposal. That’s exactly how we speak about it. We say, who you sleep with, and who you’re attracted to are different. And your sexuality doesn’t stop growing. Just because you’re in a relationship. William is my equal. We are equals. And I know a lot of people come out as trans or they come out as being gay. And , sometimes there’s an end to that marriage. And you’ve tried your best at making that marriage work. And some couples do go on to find joy in their relationship and continue on, or they get divorced, and they break up. But that’s the thing. No one is betraying anyone by living their truth. I think it’s almost worse for the marriage, if I’m sitting here thinking, I’m actually bisexual, but he thinks I’m straight. I would somehow think it’s way worse, to lie, and deny myself and erase myself. But now I’ve come out, I have this community. My husband is such an amazing ally. His best friend is bi man, his wife is a bisexual woman. And this is the running joke we have in our family. We’re like, are you sure you’re not like a little gay because you seem to be attracting all of the queer people. And I really do think it’s because he’s created such a comfortable space that made it easier for me to come out. And you would have heard the song on Tiktok that we sing a lot which is bi wife energy. And he has bi wife energy, it’s kind of the song how it goes. And it’s these men that are married to bi women. And I love that because patriarchy affects us all, and a big tenant of biphobia is misogyny and toxic masculinity and bisexual women actually face higher rates of domestic violence, sexual abuse, when they come out to their partners, who are men, and they face intimate partner violence and I find that to be, in my case, I feel incredibly grateful that I can come out to my partner and I really wish the same for a lot of people. And that’s why I love that trend. Because I do think it’s on all of us to start creating safer spaces within our relationships. And that’s what happened in my relationship. So now I feel much more confident talking to him about other things about how I’m thinking about changing my pronouns, I’m thinking about cutting my hair short and it validates who I am and this is what I’m interested in and I feel like sex is one part but the intimacy that we share has just deepened on another level.
Sangeeta Pillai 34:57
I absolutely can hear that because what do we all as humans really want? We want to be seen as we really are. We want to be in a partnership where we can fully be who we are, without having to pretend or add a layer or whatever. And if you’ve got this relationship now in your life where you’re able to be exactly who you are, I think that’s phenomenal. Absolutely phenomenal. I wish more of us had that in our lives. It’s beautiful, it really is.
Varuna Srinivasan 35:30
I wish the same.
Sangeeta Pillai 35:33
Why do we think it’s important for South Asian folks, particularly, to discuss sexuality more openly? To discuss what we want? We are talking about things like sexual health, why is this so critical?
Varuna Srinivasan 35:48
I mean, why not? Why not us? We grew up with this idea, and I heard it a lot. Sex is for white people.
Sangeeta Pillai 36:01
Hello, who’s got the largest population in the world?
Varuna Srinivasan 36:05
Right. And so these ideas we have already fit into these incredible stereotypes that, oh, Indians actually love a lot of sex. We have the Kama Sutra. It’s the land of like exotic beautiful women. And of course, these narratives really harm and hurt us. But it’s also the idea within our own communities that miniskirts are for white people, sexuality and boyfriends are for white people, dating is for white people. And Indians don’t do that. South Asians don’t do that. And it’s talking about our combined stories, where we have a familiarity in our dating lives, that if Sangeeta and Varuna were to sit together and exchange stories, we would say, “That’s my life”, like you had to lie to your dad to or, you had a boyfriend, and nobody knew his name or his face, and he just existed to you and you alone. And so there are these, regardless of where you are and I think this is similar for a lot of NRIs people who are born and brought up in other parts of the world as well. It’s almost this thing, the universal truth that ties us together as salvation people, but it is important to break down those barriers, because there are unique struggles in our community. We have some of the highest rates in India, of gender based violence, it is generally an incredibly unsafe place for women, and gender minorities, adding that as well. And it almost seems confusing to me. And I feel like you and I, and maybe like a handful of us in India, and in the US, are South Asians talking about sex, and I can count them on my hands.
Sangeeta Pillai 37:54
On my left hand actually.
Varuna Srinivasan 37:55
Exactly, which I find so interesting that when we think about the person who’s out there talking about sex, it is someone who is skinny, white, blond, talking about sex, and it almost feels incredibly unrelatable. I cannot relate to that. I cannot go up to my dad and say, I have a boyfriend, he’s sleeping over in my bedroom, we’ll talk to you later, like that will never, ever, happen.
Sangeeta Pillai 38:30
Ever in a million years.
Varuna Srinivasan 38:33
What would happen if your dad, or your parents walked in and they found condoms on your bed like you would be under house arrest for weeks.
Sangeeta Pillai 38:42
That’s the truth.
Varuna Srinivasan 38:45
That’s the reality, we are working on those problems. But our parents are our parents. The society is a society we grew up in. It’s not getting any better. It’s kind of staying the same. What I’m trying to do in thinking about sexual health is equipping and, I always like to use this word, culturally informed sexual health. Because I’m not going to go up to someone and say, “Buy this vibrator. It’ll liberate you.” Yes, buy the vibrator. But also start thinking about how you view your own body. What about your body stands out to you? How have your peers made you feel about your body? What are some of the people that you have dated, what do those experiences look like? Is there a common theme? What is the commonality there? And we’re sort of really thinking about what is relevant to us in sex and dating is huge. I spend a couple of hours every week sifting through questions from people who have very, what seems like basic to me, but it’s so important to them. Because at the end of the day, we all care about our sexual health. And we all care about wanting to take care of ourselves and having a partner that loves us, partners, whatever it may look like, or just finding freedom in our sexual health. And in that I see so many common themes, I’m ashamed of the way that I look, it looks really brown down there. And so what we see on porn, with white women or white men is it really can warp your sense of what your body should look like. And if you are melanated, your nipples are darker, your vulva is darker, your scrotum skin is obviously going to look darker, that may seem different to you. And you have kind of this internalised bias towards yourself. Not to mention, there’s a lot of colourism in our communities, but just really thinking about the many facets, and the issues that strike us as a community and how can we use that to talk about sexual health?
Sangeeta Pillai 41:07
I think a lot about what makes us feel desirable. If the only desirable bodies we are shown are white bodies. How do we start to feel that our own brown bodies can be desirable? As a young woman, I’d often look at my own dark brown skin and think I’m not attractive. Because I learned that being attractive was Western, I saw people on the pages of magazines or in porn were attractive, and white. So in my mind, being desirable meant being white. However, in the past few years, I’m consciously creating a practice to help me desire myself. I know it sounds a bit nuts. But I feel like literally changing our own minds, to find ourselves desirable, can be life changing. So here’s what I do. I stand in front of the mirror, and admire the beautiful brownness of my own body. The dark nipples, the dark hair, the wide Indian hips, the swaying curves of my waist, the soft roll of my belly. Because I believe the only way to change the narrative of desire is by starting to desire ourselves exactly as we are brown, and beautiful.
Sangeeta Pillai 42:42
The other thing I think, which you touched upon is, say India, because we’re talking about India is one of the most unsafe places, if you’re a woman, by that extension of that, if you don’t talk about sex, if girls don’t learn about sex, even if something awful happens, there is no language for them to tell anybody. If you’ve never had the language, how do you go and tell someone I’ve been groped or assaulted or any of that? It’s a horrific thing. And we don’t give our girls the language.
Varuna Srinivasan 43:14
We don’t and even just thinking about rape culture. It’s so deeply ingrained in our society. And that is such a big part of my work is sexual oppression, like how do we think about… sexual oppression can come in many forms. It’s being flushed when you’re on the subway, which has happened to me, being groped on a bus, which has happened to me being in precarious situations, which has happened to me, but sexual oppression is also the teacher who goes through my messages, and takes it upon herself to give me a morality lesson and preach the importance of abstinence. Sexual oppression is my dad telling me, you can’t go out of the house looking like that, you look like a prostitute comparing me to a sex worker. Which is already degrading in itself to the sex worker, because what they do is so important. And sexual oppression is us looking at ourselves and our dark nipples and internalising it and saying, I look ugly and unattractive. And I don’t like that. And so it is really deeply ingrained into all of us. I think when we think about a country like India, there is a lot of victim blaming. There are a lot of people and politicians who come and say the most ridiculous things. Like, if women behave, the society would be in check if girls stopped going out and partying everything will be okay. And it almost is a lot of pressure on us to… we’re never going to win this battle, we’re never going to win. It is what I think. I think it’s just a losing battle at the end of the day.
Sangeeta Pillai 45:06
We’ve got to keep fighting Varuna.
Varuna Srinivasan 45:09
Oh, absolutely. 100% I mean, this isn’t, I will, I don’t think, until my dying breath I will keep fighting. But it is… I definitely think we need more, going back to the conversation about how there are few sexual health educators and I think that the conversation is brewing and it’s growing and there are hopefully a lot more of us who are willing to talk about these topics more openly.
Sangeeta Pillai 45:34
What would Varuna sitting here in this room say to Varuna who was maybe a five year old Varuna or 10 year old Varuna ? What would you say?
Varuna Srinivasan 45:42
Have you ever seen Rupaul’s drag race?
Sangeeta Pillai 45:47
Yes. Clips of it.
Varuna Srinivasan 45:48
Okay, so this is literally, quite literally a question that they asked the finalists, they show a picture of the younger selves and they ask them to say something. So I’m living for this moment. Thank you for asking me that question. But I would say keep going. Honestly, there are gonna be a lot of trying moments in your life, but you’re gonna get to a point where you’re living an authentic, true life, and you’re finding joy in your gender and your sexuality and that is something that you’ve always wanted to do. So keep going.
Sangeeta Pillai 46:22
Wow. So keep walking this path, keep telling your story, keep going and going. Just keep going. Finally, would you have any advice or words for all the listeners on the masala podcast? What would you like to say to them?
Varuna Srinivasan 46:41
You are a sexually expansive being, your sexual powers, your identity, your expression goes so much beyond what you think it is right now. And I encourage you to be curious and to ask questions and to think about yourself in different ways because that can really help stretch the barriers that you sit within right now in your mind
Sangeeta Pillai 47:06
I’ll let that sink in. It’s beautiful. Thank you so much Varuna for giving me your time and your beautiful energy and this openness. I’m very touched and really really grateful. Thank you for being a masala podcast.
Varuna Srinivasan 47:24
Thank you Sangeeta, I have seen your work for a long time and I’m a big fan and it is a full circle moment for me as well to be on this podcast and thank you for talking to me about such important topics as well.
Sangeeta Pillai 47:42
Thank you for listening to the masala podcast. Masala podcast is part of my platform, Soul sutras, dedicated to celebrating and supporting South Asian women. This is a space for all of us bad betties who don’t do as we’re told. This is where we get to celebrate our culture our way and be exactly who we want to be. I’d love to hear from you. Get in touch via email at soul sutras.co.uk or my website soul sutras.co.uk I’m also on Instagram and Twitter. Just look for soul sutras. Masala podcast was created and presented by me Sangeeta Pillai produced by Anushka Tait opening music by Sonny Robertson.