When you think of India, the first thing that comes to mind may not be sex positivity, or sexual health education, or gender and sexuality awareness campaigns. Quite frankly, India is often portrayed in the media as a very backwards society when it comes to these topics - and there are valid points being made. However, that’s not at all the whole picture - just ask Vithika Yadav, Surabhi Srivastava, Tanvi Prakash, and the rest of the team at Love Matters.
When Vithika started the Love Matters India in 2011, fresh from work in human trafficking (including producing a MTV show on trafficking survivors, working to restore rights to trafficking survivors, and advocating for better rehabilitation programs - incredibly cool!) she was prepared to have to fight an uphill battle to get these topics into the Indian mainstream. Instead, as she did on-ground surveys in Delhi and Haryana, she found that her target audience of teenagers and young adults were really looking for the information she was providing, and were often excited and willing to learn.
Of course, a lot of that is due to Love Matter’s in-depth understanding of tone and content. The team is able to keep their audience interested and engaged, while keeping content factual, educational, and above all, feminist. Amazing work for conveying information on a topic controversial in any society, and particularly in ours. After focus group interviews, for example, they created the incredibly popular character of a Punjabi ‘Auntyji’, that would answer questions on love, sex, and relationships sent in by readers. They found that their audience was happier asking questions to a personified figure that they found both familiar and familiarly irreverent - we all know that one aunty, don’t we? In fact, Auntyji was almost too popular - when I was at the office, the team mentioned that they continuously receive requests for Auntyji’s number from particularly enthusiastic fans!
Of course, the team does still face opposition, and some topics are more controversial than others. Surabhi and Tanvi walked me through the experience of trying to educate their audience on LGBT issues. They began with a set of definitions (‘gay’, ‘bisexual’, ‘transgender’), etc., and immediately heard complaints from readers - either that these were ‘useless’ to them, or ‘disgusting’, ‘unnatural’, etc. Instead of callout posts on the site, or lashing out, they sat down and re-evaluated their strategy. They realized what had worked for them in one-on-one conversations covering these issues was the sharing of actual, personal experiences, not the cramming of definitions. So they changed the narrative to follow a transgender friend of theirs as she had to navigate using the bathroom - such a relatable, human activity - on a hot day in Delhi, and how much of a struggle this simple action was for her. Suddenly, the conversations on the page became a lot less angry and a lot more sympathetic. People even posted that their minds had been changed by these stories - something you do not see a lot of on the Internet!
Vithika and the team also work to keep the site culturally relevant - adding snippets from recent Bollywood songs into quizzes, or using scenes from movies to illustrate, for example, what consent does and does not look like (DDLJ, anyone?). All of this contributes to the continuously soaring popularity of the site, even seven years later. And, of course, they have some very clever targeting techniques. Chuckling, Vithika told me about how when she started the site as a one-woman team in 2011, she reached out to Pornhub, copied their top keywords, and incorporated them all into Love Matters content. Needless to say, traffic spiked. Brilliant, right?
Love Matters is incredible for so many reasons. But one of the things that excites me about Love Matters is that it does not work simply within the echo chamber we are often accused of creating (and often rightly) with actively feminist content. Their audience is actually mostly male and heterosexual, and yet they are able to push content on menstruation, abortion, domestic violence, and other difficult topics without losing any of their popularity. Everyone I met on the team had such a fundamental understanding of how to educate without preaching, and how to discuss difficult topics with young people without being patronizing or moralizing. There’s so much to learn from the way they take radical, important issues, mix them in with a some brilliant marketing, some in-depth feminist theory, and a little bit of masala, and work to make our society a more just place for all genders and sexualities.