Leeza Mangaldas seeks to dismantle the taboos surrounding sexuality in India
EAN presents an interview with Leeza Mangaldas, a well-known TV personality and author in India, who is also one of the loudest voices in the struggle against sexual taboos in the country. In May, she shared an 8-minute video on the topic on Instagram, freely and openly discussing her own sexual pleasure, including the fact that she has a favourite vibrator she got from www.IMbesharam.com. Considering that sexuality is still a taboo topic in India, the importance and bravery of this step, which has garnered Leeza a lot of positive feedback, cannot be overstated. Our interview also includes statements from Raj Armani, co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of IMbesharam.com, who describes the public impact of the video and the importance of social media activities for his own company.
Leeza, would you please introduce yourself to those of our readers who don’t know you and tell them about your professional activities?
Leeza Mangaldas:I’m a digital content creator and TV presenter based in Mumbai. My content on YouTube and Instagram is focused around normalising conversations about sexuality, sexual health, gender, and the body – www.youtube.com/leezamangaldas1 and Instagram.com/leezamangaldas. On TV, I have presented dozens of shows on popular Indian channels in the sports and lifestyle space.
When did you start focusing on sexual health issues? And what made you do it?
Leeza: This is going to be a long answer. Sexuality and sexual health in India remain highly taboo topics— even more so when it comes to female sexuality and female pleasure. The prevailing public attitude is that sex should only take place within the confines of a heterosexual same-religion, same-caste marriage, solely with the intent of having children. Anything else in unacceptable. And yet India is one of the largest consumers of pornography in the world, and we also have the second largest population in the world. Clearly people are having sex outside of this restrictive ‘acceptable’ paradigm. Yet, because of the incredible amount of stigma and shame attached to sex and sexuality, people are forced to lead double lives, their desires always laced with shame and fear.
Also, sex in the Indian mainstream media (movies, shows, the news) is only ever presented as either deplorable or funny – it’s either the subject of moralising and policing or the butt of the joke. It’s never treated and presented like the normal and joyful part of life that it is. It’s never presented as a serious and important subject worthy of unbiased attention, a fundamental and beautiful part of being human that impacts each of our unique identities. I wanted to help change that.
(And by the way, it’s worth noting that this prevailing attitude toward sex in India is ironically in large part an inheritance from colonisation – because India prior to colonisation had a rich and sex-positive tradition of erotic art and literature which our population has now forgotten. We espouse this Victorian approach to sex as something shameful as if it’s always been the Indian value system when it absolutely hasn’t. Even so much Hindu religious iconography is in fact an unabashed celebration of sexuality. But we forget all this.)
But back to the point of why I started my channel. In my early twenties, navigating my own sexuality myself, I found that as a young woman in India, there is such a lack of credible resources available to turn to for accurate, non-judgemental information about sex, sexuality, sexual health, the body, gender double standards, and women’s experiences. So, I wanted to create a safe space for conversation. I wanted to imagine an India where all sexual experiences are consensual, safe, and pleasurable. And I knew there had to be thousands of other young people out there who share this vision and are tired of being unable to express themselves without shame and judgement.
That said, I’m extremely lucky to have a family that supports my vision. Many women who want to say the things I say can’t for fear of consequences, not just from trolls or viewers online – but for fear of drastic consequences within their own home. Luckily, my parents and family totally share my point of view and are my biggest supporters. I realise what a massive privilege that is, and feel all the more a sense of responsibility to create a safe space for more young people, specifically young Indian women, even if it is just a digital space.
Who are you addressing with your sex education? Who is your target group? And what do you want to achieve with this commitment to sexual health?
Leeza: I hope that my content can help young people see sex and sexuality as NORMAL instead of shameful or scary. I hope that it will empower them to seek the information they need in order to make the right decisions about their sexual health. That it will empower them to ensure that consent and safety and pleasure are at the centre of their sexual experiences.
In India – and in many other countries, too – even access to contraception is still taboo. And for women, sex in relation to pleasure is something that is never discussed. For example, many people (men and women) don’t really know what the clitoris is, let alone where it is. Women are routinely slut shamed for even talking about sex or for their clothing choices. Most women in heterosexual relationships fake orgasms – many even do so every single time. Gender inequality extends into our knowledge of the human anatomy as well as the division of pleasure in the bedroom. We have such a long way to go. But I genuinely believe that India’s women are going to spearhead the change, and I hope I can be part of a much-needed revolution.
I am not interested in making click bait content for meaningless views – I genuinely want to help change mindsets and encourage people to unlearn centuries of sexist, patriarchal conditioning. So even though I talk about sex, I make it a point that the tone of my videos is friendly and welcoming without ever being coy or sensationalist. I think you can tell when you watch that what I’m saying comes from a place of genuine conviction, and that I think of these topics as important, not frivolous, and that I’m doing what I’m doing because I believe in it, not just for attention.
My aim is to educate and initiate important conversations, not to pander to the male gaze that sees a young woman talking about sex as entertainment. I do a lot of research and consult with experts when I talk about sexual health because I also want to make sure the information I provide is 100% credible.
I get so many messages from viewers saying my videos have helped them in radical ways. Some of the best gynaecologists in India have even started recommending my videos on topics like birth control, abortion, body image, and female pleasure to their patients. This is hugely gratifying for me.
You have just published an eight-minute clip on Instagram in which you present a Rabbit Vibrator – your favourite sex toy. What made you take this step now?
Leeza: I bought the toy several years ago – in fact, it was a major turning point in my own sexual self-discovery and a big part of the reason I started my YouTube channel in the first place. What I learned about my pleasure from using the toy – and the realisation of how little I had known about my own body before – that was a huge part of why I felt I needed to talk about sexuality and female pleasure on a public platform. I wanted for all women to be able to learn about their own bodies and pleasure what I had learned about mine.
But an Indian woman holding a sex toy is still a pretty ‘provocative’ image to put out there and when I started the channel, I didn’t have that level of confidence yet. I started by talking about slightly easier topics to address publicly – like contraception, body image and beauty standards, dating, self-esteem, heartbreak – and over the years, as I built a community and we grew together, I built the courage and confidence to start speaking about more and more topics that are typically left unspoken but that need to be addressed. So, if you look at my videos, you will see that over the last year, I have also talked a lot about female pleasure, female masturbation, and the anatomy of the clitoris. And finally, I felt ready to talk about the impact this specific toy has had on my life.
How has the response been so far?
Leeza: So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. It has generated many wonderful comments and messages and stories, especially from women. While people are still scared to talk about masturbation and pleasure publicly, so many women have DMed me questions about the toy and about self-pleasure – and the video has been shared via DM amongst my followers more than ever before.
You are a very well-known celebrity in India. Aren’t you worried that such contributions could be harmful to your career?
Leeza: This is not something I’m concerned about. I think it’s really hard to argue with the point of view I put forth in my content because it is not biased—it isn’t so much my opinions as it is simply putting forth factually accurate, important information that people deserve access to. Anyone who has a problem with it needs to re-examine their own values and viewpoints. If you believe in gender equality, if you believe that sex ought to be safe, consensual, and pleasurable for all people, then you will celebrate my content. It isn’t polarising. In my videos, I’m simply stating what should actually be obvious in an ideal world. And luckily, so far it hasn’t seemed to have hurt my career at all. Also quite frankly, I would have no interest in working with anyone who has a problem with a gender equal, sex positive world, unless they are willing to unlearn and alter their views!
When did you find out that Leeza Mangaldas, a very famous celebrity in India, introduced her favourite sex toy on Instagram, which she bought from you?
Raj Armani: On a bright Sunday morning, I got Leeza’s email about her appreciation for the brand, and she offered to publish her experience of shopping with us in 2015. That’s 5 years ago now! I have been following Leeza’s work in the social media space for a while. I was aware she has hosted several shows where she interviewed Bollywood celebs, sports personalities, and some top online influencers in India. And she also gave a whole day tour of one of the most exquisite palace resorts in Udaipur. So when she revealed she has been one of our earliest customers, I had a feeling of pride and joy, because our efforts to reach the female audience in India, and our constant support for the freedom of expression and choices for both sexes seemed to have gotten additional validation and support!
How do you rate this eight-minute clip on Instagram? What value does it have for IMbesharam and for India’s sexual liberation?
Raj:These 8 minutes summarise the fruit of our labour of the last 8 years. When we established the company, we were not looking to make a quick buck from selling the most sleaze or raking in profits by capitalising on the immense demand for adult products in India. From day one, we wanted to create a brand that is a home for all Indians who -have decided it’s time to rise up from the shackles of age-old customs and frivolous traditions that judge you based on your sexual preferences, desires or orientation. We wanted this to be a platform that young Indians wanting equality and a sex-positive society can relate to and connect with. Brick by brick, we built the foundation of our company with this vision in mind: to be a brand Indians can trust and that can deliver on its promises every single time.
After this video went live, over 200 women spoke up about their experiences and their emotions about having a safe space to address these topics. They also spoke on video and Insta Stories, thus effectively passing on the torch to many of their fans and followers. In summary, this video is not just of promotional value to us because it demonstrates the trust of our audience, but it may well be the start of a movement that has been 8 years in the making, and now, it will rise and grow!
What role does social media play in this quest to break the taboos surrounding sexuality in India?
Raj:For us, social media is the human connection which our brand uses to connect with our followers and new visitors on daily basis. So, the only way a brand can speak is by through content on social media and blogs/articles online. In past 12 months, we have been fortunate to bring in experts from various spheres of the sexual health and sex tech domain who have shared their advice, experiences, and tips on improving intimacy, giving product reviews and cracking jokes about the society which likes to put its nose in everyone’s business. Some of the topics we showcased have been around busting myths and warming up the audience to explore their body and take pleasure in healthy oral and anal sexual activity. Some of the best videos are:
What is your strategy for sharing, distributing, publishing the clip?
Raj: Honestly, we have a ‘No Strategy’ strategy. Because the needs of the audience keep constantly evolving, and the content plan for an adult brand is such a wide net, we are still experimenting with what works and what does not work. We partner with individuals who are crusading on the same track, with a similar purpose of unifying India and building up a sex-positive community. We engage them and give them free rein to conceptualise, script, produce, and deliver content they feel passionate about. And we serve as a platform for them, enabling them to speak on our stage. This works great because we can offer a democratic representation of the community and not a brand’s influenced version of information.
How did your customers react to Leeza’s clip? Is the vibrator presented in Leeza’s clip already sold out?
Raj: Our site had 3.5x more traffic that weekend, and we sold quite a few units of the Greedy Girl by Fifty Shades of Grey, inspired by Leeza’s testimonial. Since we had planned to have enough in stock, we were able to meet the demand, and the queries and interest still continues as we transitioned the launch offer to a 30 days sales initiative where 10% of the proceeds from her direct referrals will go to a charity of Leeza’s choice.
Do you hope that Leeza’s brave step will launch a chain reaction? That more women come forth and talk openly about their sexuality?
Raj: It already has. I mean, the response, adulation, comments, exposure, and the effect on our followers and her followers is profound. What and how this will influence the followers and our community in general is yet to be seen, but I think this initiative is a part of the machinery that is gearing up right now and when, over a period of time, all the other parts have fallen in place, the wheels of progress will spin like a Ferrari GT. The track is being laid now, and we will soon see the movement start and zoooom!