Why you should care

This woman is making kink and consent a part of everyday conversations in India. 

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When Jaya Sharma was with a partner a few years ago, she realized she wanted what her partner’s dog, Gulbadan, was getting: undivided attention. “The jealousy was because she [Sharma’s partner at the time] was so much more attentive toward the dog than [toward] me.” Sharma sips her coffee one recent morning and giggles. “Just this kind of being able to be hungry for love and attention and in a way that doesn’t involve dignity.” But Sharma is cognizant that “life doesn’t really allow for that possibility.”

When Sharma first joined a bondage, domination sadomasochism (BDSM) social networking site, she says it was like falling in love. “A world in which fear was a thrill, the pain was a pleasure, the submission was powerful, losing control was delicious and consent sacrosanct,” she says. “A world in which I rapidly made very close friends.” Now 55, Sharma remains the only woman from the BDSM community in India to be out in public life.

Sharma — who calls herself queer, feminist and a kinkster — used to feel alone in her desire. It has become her mission to make the rest of India understand, and appreciate, her world. Eight years ago, buoyed by her newfound online community, she co-founded Kinky Collective, which conducts workshops in colleges, offices and other gatherings to dispel myths associated with kink and BDSM, about consent and safety. Sharma is also writing a book titled Fantasy Frames: Sex, Love and Indian Politics, which will be published later this year.

It is like you are standing on the edge and staring at [an] abyss, but someone is holding your hand.

Jaya Sharma

Over the past eight years, Sharma has seen the number of people attending BDSM munches grow — particularly women and young people, despite the scene’s reputation for patriarchy. “Sometimes I tell my friends that everyone else seems to be playing more than we are,” she jokes. She credits social media and dating apps for the boom, but Sharma herself has played a role too.

Still, when she first formed the group, she faced blowback from within the kink community because they were afraid of being outed and blackmailed. “We were also scarred,” she says. “A journalist once under the pretext of writing a story on the community published screen names and identifying details of various members.”

But she pressed on, intent on bursting the myths around BDSM — as well as reforming the problems within. For example, there is a class divide within India’s kink community between those who can communicate fluently in English and those who can’t. “To be able to talk online with strangers, you need to be able to have some command of the language,” she says. But Sharma does think it’s unfair to those who are Hindi-speaking and those who lack an educational resource like the Kinky Collective. She responds to all email queries the Kinky Collective receives, whether in good or bad English. 

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Eight years ago, Sharma co-founded Kinky Collective, which conducts workshops to dispel myths associated with kink and BDSM. 

Currently, the Kinky Collective is present only in big cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore. The number of members in Delhi, Sharma says, has grown over the years, but she declines to give a number. The movement remains very much underground. 

Sharma grew up in Delhi. Before joining the BDSM scene, she had a long background in the feminist movement as an activist and a founder of a nonprofit, Nirantar, that works for LGBTQ and women’s rights issues.  

It wasn’t until she was 47 that Sharma joined the BDSM community, introduced by a friend who, Sharma says with a laugh, probably thought she’d be “horrified. But I was actually fascinated.” She remembers one man who responded to her questions on fear: “Fear? You mean thrill?” It was everything Sharma wanted to hear. “It is like you are standing on the edge and staring at [an] abyss, but someone is holding your hand.” She was captivated by the conversations, “not just in an erotic way but in an intellectual way as well.”

Joy, a member of the BDSM community who did not want his full name used, says Sharma’s background in queer rights activism made him excited for her to join in with BDSM. “The work she had put in destigmatizing the community is massive,” Joy says. 

This is all the more impressive, says longtime friend Dhamini Ratnam, when you consider India’s culture. “In a country like India where even sexuality education in schools is taboo, to be able to speak about your desires is an act of courage,” Ratnam says. Having made kink a word Indians can use without cringing, Sharma thinks there still is some work left before she can rest. For example, many people still don’t want to speak about their kinks. “It is still a taboo topic,” she says.

Sharma, who is single, lives with her mother. She sometimes thinks of her ex-lover and the dog, that kind of attention, and what she’s found in the world of BDSM. “There is nothing wrong with your yucky, messy desires,” she tells me. “I don’t feel shame in begging for love.”

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