From sex trafficking, sexual assault, rape, sexual violence, intolerance of alternate sexualities, through sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies, to relationship breakups and unhappy marriages – all revolve around one aspect of human relationships – intimacy! Many would agree that the failure to openly discuss, address, and solve intimacy issues is the root cause of many social ills.
Pallavi Barnwal has truly understood the need of ‘conversation’ on this topic, which lead to the inception of RedWomb, an online platform that aims to help people unlearn shame, process trauma, and learn about intimaty. As an intimacy coach and wellness expert, Pallavi is passionate about improving intimate well-being by leading candid conversations, community support, and building world-class products that address intimate issues faced by adults of all sexual orientations on a daily basis.
Apeksha news network had a chance to have an exclusive conversation with the TEDx Speaker and intimacy wellness expert Pallavi Barnwal, where she talks about taboo related to intimacy in the Indian society, importance of sex education and a lot more. Read on the excerpts!
Tell us a little about yourself and your work under RedWomb.
Prior to founding RedWomb, I had a decade-old work experience in major digital consumer brands. I hold a business management degree from Symbiosis University and am a fellow at Startup Leadership Program, a highly selective, world-class training program for outstanding founders, leaders, and innovators.
In India, the majority of people fear to talk about intimacy because of the shame, judgement, and taboo attached to this aspect of human life. Ironically, the same country boasts of rich erotic past in the form of erotic sculptures engraved in caves, temples, and is the source of the world's first comprehensive manual on human intimacy, Kamasutra. Our society’s conflicted attitude towards physical intimacy – we all enjoy it but we cannot talk about it. RedWomb is a social platform for carrying out discussions and discourses on sexuality. We help men and women get over their culturally ingrained inhibitions and misconceptions by sparking personal conversations in the 4000+ community.
You have not just become a face for the woman who can talk only about the most forbidden topic based on intimate relationships but have been very vocal and public about it. Have you faced any kind of backlash because of that?
Well, I did not plan to become the human face of a sexually empowered Indian woman. My entrance into this space was driven by my life experiences and those of others related to me, around me. I remember the conversation I had with a Gurgaon-based Gynecologist back in 2017 as I interviewed her on havoc caused by reckless use of emergency contraceptive pills on young women bodies. She talked about a 15 year old girl who walked inside her cabin wanting to get an abortion just a day before her 10th board examinations, and upon asked to bring a guardian since her pregnancy required surgical intervention as she was in her second trimester, the girl was in jitters. She left the clinic stating that she cannot talk to her parents about it. That girl and thousands of other such girls are the reason I am here in this space.
Yes, I received severe backlash because of speaking out my mind uncensored, something that is prohibited by the Indian society in general. Monogamy is the primary model on which this society operates but it does not mean that it is the only model. One’s sexual preferences are one’s personal choice and should not be dictated by social mores. This hypocrisy is precisely the reason why we have umpteen covert affairs, cheating, outside marriage. The inside story is quite murky. Psychologists will vouch for that!
How important is sex education in today’s era? And why?
Getting into an intimate relationship without being prepared for it is like driving a car on the highway without knowing how to drive. In the absence of sex education, we end up perpetuating myths as false reality. Both at the school level and for sexually active adults, we need thoughtfully designed, age-appropriate sex education programs to help them wade through the difficulties, confusions, and questions around their intimate relationships.
Do you think that crimes such as molestation, abuse, rape, etc. can be eradicated if society follows the practice of talking openly about intimate relationships? What is your opinion on same?
To a large extent, yes! Any repression leads to obsession. You have to see that our society functions at two polarizing ends when it comes to sexuality. On one end, we maintain a grim silence about it, where most parents still shy away from talking about menstruation with their daughters, and on the other hand we have a thriving sex consumerism business of sexually explicit content in media and films, porn, and dating apps that promote reckless hookups. What is the precedent we are setting to the restless, high on hormones minds? This is not justifying sexual assault in the lack of education, but to build initiatives and programs that talk about consent and respect before and intimate relationship. There has to be quality conversations without shame between parents and kids, between intimate partners, and in classrooms as a part of life skill education. The need for an open debate and discussion to address critical sexual issues has long been pending. It is high time that we address this.
In terms of sex education, do you think the existing programs introduced by the government needs enhancement? Any suggestions to the government?
Of late, yes I have read about sporadic workshops being conducted in private and government schools. But most of these programs are conducted as a one-time session and continuity is not maintained. We have to understand that sex education is not a one-time talk to be had with the kid and then brushing it off. Our sexuality evolves with our experiences, age, and connections with the outside world. Sex education is about acquiring vital life skills. There are so many aspects you take with you for the rest of your life that constantly impacts your intimate relationships with others and your own self.
The sex education program should be made mandatory at the school level, which is already implemented rigorously and passionately in Japan, Germany, UK. The existing government programs mainly focus on sexual anatomy, good touch-bad touch, contraception and reproductive rights! In order for sex education program to become a comprehensive one, we need to include relationships, decision-making about their bodies, sexual debut, contraception, family communication, sexual orientation, blurred boundaries/consent, and disease prevention. We also need to include emotional, psychological, social and financial impacts of what happens when young adults and adolescents engage in intimate relationship and other sexual practices. Most government programs are still abstinence focused and shy away from talking about pleasure; the whole concept gets approached purely biologically with no regards to relationships. The outcome should be targeted towards making teenagers self-sufficient in taking important decisions concerning their sexuality and to alleviate the tension and awkwardness around discussions of sexual health and practices for parents and their children.
What is the biggest struggle of a woman today in India?
There are many troubles but let me focus on sexual self-objectification. If you see the flurry of visual updates (careful curation and screening of public view worthy pictures and selfies), you will find that lot of women are fixated on their looks as their worthiness. I once tried to post a picture without makeup, just the way it came, not taking multiple shots to get that one perfect picture that people will appreciate. While I have still not overcome this habit, I have consciously decided to reduce my visual updates and focus more on driving the mass momentum for the cause on social media.
Valuing women purely on the basis of their physical attractiveness rather than their skills and talents is a pervasive tendency that still permeates our society. This focus on outward, physical appearance deeply impacts women’s inner states, by leading them to self-objectify, i.e., to self-value and view as a mere body rather than a full human being.
What barriers have you faced, as a woman, in becoming successful in your field? How did you overcome them?
Frankly speaking I did not face as much barriers being a woman as most of my male audience state, “It came easy for you as a woman to talk about intimacy. Imagine if a man had attempted the same, he would have been viewed as a lusty man.” Primarily because most of the sexual assault incidents are still committed by men. But nevertheless, any unconventional journey that challenges the status quo is ridden with challenges. In my case, it was my ex-partner who was the biggest opponent at home. He lived off my earnings and yet humiliated me by saying my son will be ashamed of his mother. I gave him a fitting reply by appearing on the venerable TEDx stage and an array of reputed national newspapers. My path was clear!
A lot is talked about women empowerment, however women still await for their basic rights. Comments.
I agree to this. Recently, I had taken a trip in a remote village in Himachal Pradesh. The daughter-in-law of the family, known to be as one of the biggest land owners in the entire village observed a long purdah as she served us chilled lassi. Later I got to meet her and ask why she kept purdah on this beautiful face of her and she said she couldn’t do this in front of her father-in-law. The situation is still murky in villages and even in small towns, which can be traced back to education as the first and most indispensable part of human self-sustenance. The archaic gender roles do no good to either men or women.
Coming to the point of sexual rights, the same villages report incidences of intimate partner sexual assault where the man often dictates the bedroom life of the couple. True intimacy occurs in a relationship where both the partners feel free to share and care and is not tilted in the favor of power equation in the house.
Is (gender) equality an important issue for you? If yes, why? If no, why?
Of course!!! It is an integral part of the campaign for sexual awareness and rights. For instance, if you talk about contraception, it is still a prerogative of man to buy it in most of the cases whereas contraception affects both the gender equally and considering pregnancy, unprotected sex impacts women much more than men. I did a survey of around 200 chemists in Delhi NCR a year back on purchase of emergency contraceptive pills, and was surprised to know that in more than 60% of the cases it was the boy who purchased the pills from the counter.
Gender equality to the best of my understanding means that both the genders are empowered and informed to take decisions that lead to mutual welfare. Contraception decision still hinges one sided on men.
What main change would you like to see for young girls in the next generation?
I recently spotted a 15-16 year old schoolgirl with a middle-aged man in the lobby of a budget hotel. The girl stomped her feet and refused to step inside the hotel until the man buys her, her favorite bag from a shop next door. The man first tried to convince her but finally relented as he went outside on the road, bought the handbag and then they went inside the hotel. The incident shook me. In another case, a senior gynecologist at one of the reputed hospitals in Gurgaon expressed concerns over rising number of cases of teenage pregnancies.
Parents in most of such cases remain in oblivion since premarital sex is a more tabooed topic than sex itself, even if it involves their own offspring. In our country even mothers hesitate to talk about periods with their daughters; sex education is a far-flung dream. A lot of times teenagers are engaging in it under the peer pressure, intimate partner pressure or through coming under the influence of media gimmicks and unrealistic images presented of intimacy.
I would like the young girls to see through this distorted reality and follow their core self-instincts since I strongly believe that you are more than your body, your body is an instrument to pursue your life goals, it is not an ornament to be looked at.
If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would that be?
I would want her to be more confident and not misled by the endless barrage of film updates that dictated that you are incomplete if you do not have a partner. I was never confident about my own self, my body, my skills, and my talents and always measured everything about me with the goal of getting a man. This was what I learned that marriage is the ultimate destination, life goal of every woman that careers are to be built but again redirected to getting a suitable groom. I had seen my aunt, who qualified for medical entrance trying to take her life just because a man rejected her. I saw young girls paraded around the house, or pictures being sent for approval of groom’s family for marriage alliances, I saw dowry demands being made both to and fro by my relatives from my native village. All this had created a huge dent of self-worth in my tender mind. I now know that the girl back then was as talented and beautiful as the woman you are talking to in this interview!
What woman inspires you and why?
I am highly inspired by Kamala Das. She was a feminist Malayali author who ruffled patriarchal setup by her bold but not brazen writings. She talked uninhibitedly about her inner mental and emotional states, while being married to her husband. She was deeply melancholic and her writings portrayed her inner turmoil in relationships. She encouraged me to be raw and honest in my renderings. She did it more than 40 years back what I am attempting now!
Please share some details about your upcoming initiatives as an intimacy coach.
I am working with a set of companies in sexual wellness; in what we see as consolidation in this important yet obscured space. There is still a taboo around open endorsement of your preferences in sexual wellness. To bring fairness and information in choice, we need to talk openly about our experiences and share these with others. RedWomb as a platform is extending in this space where we are collecting vital consumer voice that aid in decision making for other consumers. Apart from this we are launching courses in intimate awareness in relationships for couples, to detect and stop abuse in relationships, and body positivity. We are also planning to launch more intimate awakening workshops across the country that help participants find an inner awakening and releasing of blocks to enable a fulfilled, orgasmic living. We have been getting tremendous interest from users across cities, small and big alike.
International Women’s Day was first marked in 1911 – over 100 years ago. Do you think the day is still relevant?
Well, I celebrate every day as woman’s day. I am grateful for my existence in this co-existence working, dreaming, receiving, and sharing happiness and wisdom. However, dedicating a day to celebrate womanhood may bring more spotlight and efforts to fix teething issues that hitherto lay unnoticed but this should be continued with relentless efforts in days to come!
Apeksha News Network congratulates Pallavi Barnwal for her efforts and contribution towards the society through her initiatives. We wish her good luck for her future endeavors!