Against the norm - Interview about «#Female Pleasure»

Interview mit Vithika Yadav
Film Still / © Filmcoopi

Text by Jessica Houghton


I walk into Latino on Seegartenstrasse and am surrounded by somewhat familiar faces. We’ve never met before but I already know their stories. The stars of «#Female Pleasure» have reunited in Zürich for the screening of this brilliant docufilm about five women from different corners of the world on their individual plights to achieve the liberation of female sexuality in the 21st century. I greet the vagina-modelling Rokudenashiko from Japan as well as the valiant Ban-FGM Somalian Brit, Leyla Hussein. Then I sit down eagerly with Vithika Yadav, a vibrant and courageous Human Rights activist from India, inspired and motivated since an early age to campaign against human trafficking and slavery, and promote gender, sexual and reproductive health and rights. She’s 37, the same age as me, and I feel an immediate connection and empathy for her passion to establish women and men as equals.


Sexual Revolution 


«#Female Pleasure» might have just brought Vithika to fame on the cinematic screen but already,  back in 2011, as the country head of Love Matters India, was she well-known for founding an innovative global program talking to young people about love, sex and relationships. Vithika tells me, «It was the first digital platform of its kind in India. And today it is the most popular sex-ed platform in the world!» As an NGO founded with an initial grant from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Love Matters has, in the past 7 years, enjoyed rapid expansion into Latin America, Egypt, China and Kenya. All over the world, Love Matters has proved that there is the need out there for information on sex education. Young people tell Vithika over and over again, «I don’t want to know how I can die, I want to know how to have great sex!» In India, a country where there is no comprehensive sex education, pornography was - until Love Matters - the only source of information. And I agree with Vithika, that pornography on the whole is nothing but «misogynistic, cruel and disrespectful - and that is certainly not a good portrayal of good sex». Love Matters’ goal is to address mutual pleasure, communication and consent. And it’s not just directed at a female audience; young men in particular can feel comfortable, asking questions without being labelled and criticised. Both men and women now have the opportunity to see and experience the difference between a healthy and an unhealthy relationship. Vithika explains to me that, despite the success of Love Matters, funding is sadly still an ongoing challenge to keep the program alive. 


Parallel to Love Matters Vithika continues to work on Human Trafficking and Slavery. Like she says, «Everything is interconnected! It’s not all sorted in the West - just look at the Disney stories!» I couldn’t agree more - one only has to look at the examples of Trump and Google, or even on our very own doorstep - with the pathetic sexist behaviour of the Swiss construction company AGIR - to support Vithika’s argument.


I already admire Vithika for her brave and proactive personality and question, so just how did she get involved in «#Female Pleasure»? Apart from her obvious talent and hard work, she also happened to be in the right place, at the right time: In 2012 Barbara Miller and her last film “Forbidden Voices” had just taken part in the 25th International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). Michele Ernsting (co-founder of Love Matters) then told Barbara “for your next film, you just HAVE to meet Vithika!” Two weeks later Barbara was with Vithika in Delhi. It snowballed from there. Shortly after Vithika presented her 2013 TEDx talk at the Peace Palace in the Hague. The Dutch press loved it and gave her great exposure. Vithika was coming into the spotlight. The 2018 Locarno Film Festival provided the exclusive first look at Female Pleasure and proved to be a “real eye-opener, a big hit”, Vithika tells me. It was also the first opportunity that these incredibly brave women got to finally meet in the flesh. 


Victims of social conditioning 


«Someone need to stand up and say something», Vithika asserts. «And that’s what the film does - it’s the lived experienced of every woman in the world». We agree that huge obstacles to female liberation persist in the West. And Female Pleasure is the perfect portrayal that the oppression of women transcends all races, cultures and religions. The opening scenes of the film begin with popular cultural media and I couldn’t agree more with Vithika that, «Marketing has sold women in the West that they are liberated - but that’s not true. We are the same everywhere». The world is more connected than ever before. We are consuming the same information, it’s just the forms and visibility of oppression that vary. Nevertheless, Vithika is adamant in her belief, «My anger does not need to show up as isolating men because they are also victims of social conditioning». Men are indeed also under pressure to be masculine. Patriarchal as well as matriarchal structures are responsible for the challenges women continue to face. Boys and girls will continue to think they have to be and behave a certain way unless we talk about these issues. «We have to give people the opportunity to unlearn learnt behavior». It’s so true; we are very often oblivious to the power and negative effects of social and cultural conditioning. «It’s your family, your community, schools, popular culture and media». Vithika and I broach the subject of Leyla Hussein’s plea to ban the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and we can’t begin to fathom how strong the conditioning must be to enable one woman to harm another in the name of culture or religion. 


Religion, states Vithika, «Is the biggest killer - it is the easiest way to manipulate people». India may well be the land of «Kama Sutra». But «Hinduism was never meant to be a religion but a way of life. It is not my culture. It is very frustrating». And, learning Vithika’s thoughts on the matter, it appears to be the biggest challenge in India. It is a privilege-orientated society. Either you are born lucky or you’re not. 70% of India still functions from the countryside; so the cities cannot  reflect apparent progress. Vithika was one of the lucky ones: From a small town, middle-class,  modest family she enjoyed the same rights as her brother; the right to study and establish herself in the world as a socially and financially independent being. Her experience was different from her peers who were coerced into arranged marriages and financial dependency. Vithika’s mother, as a teacher, has always been an excellent role model for her as well as her father. Both parents have always been amazingly supportive of their daughter and her educative and career ambitions. Furthermore, she had the freedom to marry someone she loved - all very different from the norm in India. Vithika asserts that, «Education is key in India and what changes people». And her dad always encouraged her to be independent. She went to boarding school, just as her brother did. There was never any difference of treatment towards son and daughter. 


Vithika’s revolutionary work keeps growing from strength to strength: She is now on the global advisory board of DUREX, promoting sexual rights, health and pleasure via tool kits in connection with healthcare providers around the world. Vithika rejoices in her work that proves “it’s not just a male brand”.


So what are the future objectives for Love Matters? Whilst, Love Matters enjoys expansion to Rwanda and Nigeria, Vithika is channelling her energies towards projects in India. Because she understands that, «Local leadership and programs are important». The Love Matters India platform is now bilingual in Hindi and English and boasts a fantastic program with young peer educators in «high-risk» remote rural states of India. The next step is mobile and internet penetration, together with a mobile platform that does not need internet connection.


Inspiration, not isolation


«There is something for everyone is Love Matters». Vithika feels strongly that feminism is a very subjective ideal. «You do not have to hate all men or burn your bra! For me, it has always been about equality, men, women, all genders, all sexualities.» Vithika campaigns for equal rights and respect regardless of a person’s origin, social strata, or economic background. «Whatever, just equal rights for everyone». The support of her father and husband strengthens her compassion for men who «also feel like they are in a confusing place …. It’s easy to say, you don’t have a uterus so you shouldn’t have an opinion on the matter. But how it is said can be very isolating for men. Let men be inspired from what we are saying and not isolate them». Vithika also has a young son and has high hopes of raising him, to be an inspiration for society. She dreams of a future life for her son free from negative social conditioning and smiles, concluding, «Hopefully men like my dad and son will become the norm».


«#Female Pleasure» comes out in cinemas from15th November 2018.


Bäckstage Redaktion / Do, 15. Nov 2018