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Sex-Positive Superhero: Sunny Leone

Today’s sex-positive superhero: Indian-Canadian porn-star-turned Bollywood actress Sunny Leone.

A documentary about her life is about to drop on Netflix, so now is the time to revisit the star-powered sex-positive goddess that is Sunny.

Never heard of her? Then you’re probably not living in contemporary India/have not been hip with the porn world for the last decade. Born in Canada to Punjabi parents, Sunny was a wildly popular porn actor and director, starring in dozens of films and directing more of them through her own production company.

In 2011, she made the transition from Los Angeles to Mumbai, where she was featured in Season 5 of the super-popular reality show Big Boss (think The Real World, India-style). After that, she scored several big-deal Bollywood roles in sexy thrillers like Jism 2 (Body 2) and, my personal favorite, Ragini MMS 2. I’m telling you: watch it—there are subtitles. (Did I just write a 9,000 word graduate term-paper on Ragini MMS 2? Yeah I did, cause I’m into it.)

Besides all this, Sunny has beaten out classic stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Narendra Modi, the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy, to be India’s most-Googled personality for 5 years running. Dig that, right wing.

Sunny’s stardom reveals the complex and sometimes confusing attitude toward sex in India, where government film censors edit out sex scenes for movie theater releases (remember that sexy Monica Belluci scene in the last James Bond movie? Yeah, I don’t, because the damn censor board cut it out). It’s the same country where a right-wing Hindu resurgence has upped the campaign against fictitious “love jihad“—the Islamophobic allegation that Muslim men are carrying out an evil plot to increase inter-religious marriage. In this climate, it’s a sweet irony that the most-Googled celebrity is not Cultural Values Dude-in-Chief Narendra Modi—it’s Sunny, who has never disavowed her sexuality.

Wait, did I say the “sometimes confusing attitude toward sex in India?” I just remembered, in the U.S. we just elected a Vice President who wants to imprison us for having abortions due to his upstanding religious beliefs, and a Tang-colored Prezzi who brags about sexually assaulting people. Hypocrisy: It’s a small world after all.

But what makes Sunny so interesting—and what makes her work, in my view, so feminist—is how, unlike the well-known narrative of the celebrity who is forced to apologize for her “sexual indiscretion,” aka expression of sexual agency (see: every former Disney star), Sunny is not apologizing for her professional life or her sexuality. This is even cooler considering Sunny has literally been accused of single-handedly corrupting all Indian men and all the values of Indian culture.

Take this appallingly sexist interview from January 2016. In the interview, self-appointed journalist provocateur Bhupendra Chaubey, apparently viewing himself as a Bold Truth-Teller Who Asks Tough Questions, in fact asks all the asinine, moralizing questions we’ve all heard over breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s so funny how boring misogynistic truisms are not great journalism.

In the interview, Chaubey spends approximately 15 minutes interrupting Sunny and the other 5 giggling over the fact that he is sitting opposite a *real* *live* *actual* *porn star*. His killer questions include such classic slut-shame-bombs as (and I paraphrase) “What is your biggest professional regret” (clearly waiting for Sunny to say porn); “Does it make you sad that other stars don’t want to work with you [because you’re an enormous slut];” and “Do you worry that your past as a porn queen will come back to haunt you?”

To which Sunny answers (and I paraphrase): “It was confusing coming to Bollywood [probably ’cause of douchebags like you]”; “No”; and “You are literally the only person I’ve ever heard say this.”

(For further analysis of Sunny’s grace, composure, and overall badassery during this appalling interview, see The Ladies Finger.)

Besides her super chill media presence, I am also in love with the feminist potential of Sunny’s big-screen hits. Her films, filled with all the sexy gyrations you’d expect of Bollywood, also (in this *real* *live* Bollywood film reviewer’s humble opinion) contain pop culture feminist coolness.

Many of Sunny’s films directly address the slut-shamey bullshit often thrown at the actress. Some touch on issues like sexual culture and marital rape. Others remind us that if you’re the kind of douche who tries to fuck a clearly non-consenting possessed woman just cause she’s a porn star, you will get eaten by a ghost. (Seriously, watch Ragini MMS 2; it’s even on Netflix!)

Oh Sunny, I love you so.

Now, if Sunny were the sex-positive superhero of my dreams, she would be, like, an intersectional feminist revolutionary who also protested government capitulations to corporate land policy interests and took strong stands against marital rape. But I do firmly believe that in the politics of popular culture, one should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. And damn, is Sunny good.

It’s a real and important and awesome thing to make space in popular culture for unapologetic expressions of female sexual agency. Sunny does that, and I for one am a big fan.

And now for my important, rousing concluding remarks: Time for a DANCE PARTY!

Reina Gattuso is passionate about empowering conversations around queerness, sexual ethics, and social movements with equal parts rhapsody and sass. Her writing has appeared at Time, Bitch, attn:, and The Washington Post. She is currently pursuing a masters degree in Indian cinema, theater, and visual art at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Reina Gattuso writes about her sex life for the good of human kind.

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