No easy answers on porn

IN Law and Policy | 06/05/2013
Shouldn't we focus more on how we understand rape and sexual violence itself, rather than seek justification for a crisis of masculinity and an epic failure of governance?
MANJIMA BHATTACHARYA examines the contentious issue.

In the last one week, I’ve received calls from journalists writing pieces on the connection between porn and (take your pick) rape, prostitution, sex addiction, children, freedom of speech and expression. The sequence of cases of inexplicable brutal sexual assault against children in the country has left the academic and activist worlds exhausted with trying to find social theories in our jhola that match these realities, studies done somewhere by someone that could explain it for us.

But we are at a loss. Nothing seems to fit, pushing many to pick up theories thrown out years ago – the pathological, that only someone sick would do something like this or the instrumental, seeking cause and effect, one of them being the easy availability of images or porn that allegedly provokes men to rape.

A public interest litigation filed by advocate Kamlesh Vaswani in the Supreme Court has been the springboard for the latter, calling for a criminalisation of the viewing of porn, stating that porn is a ‘moral cancer’ that corrupts society, and the easy availability of online porn is a leading cause of the rape cases we see today.

Compounding this connection is a statement by the police (the same police that tried to bribe the parents of the victim to not file a case) that the rapist arrested for sexual assault on the five-year-old in Delhi had porn clips on his mobile phone, and that he had allegedly watched the clips before the assault.

In the op-ed cascade that followed in mainstream media, three broad responses emerged. One was the legal response that observed how laws and certain sections of Acts (such as Article 19:1 of the Constitution that defines exceptions to free speech and expression) are already in practice and have been actively used in the past to regulate material considered ‘obscene’ – though not always framed as pornographic. This view sees laws addressing sexual crimes against women as distinct from this set of laws, and points out that where the online world and violence against women intersect (voyeurism, non-consensual circulation of images and stalking), it has already come under the purview of the new Criminal Amendments Bill.

Then there has been the (social media driven) technological response – framing the banning of porn-viewing as a challenge of new technologies and something that cannot be fully implemented in practice, beyond the moral question of Internet freedom. The technical challenges of implementing such a law include: inability to prove intentional viewing of porn, given accidental pop-ups, the existence of mirror servers and shadow servers and so on and of course, the curiousity of every human being.

The third has been a more tentative, seemingly ‘feminist’-leaning response that accedes that there needs to be limits to freedom (of the Internet and of speech and expression) and a mulling over the question of porn itself. The underlying concern is not as simplistic a connection as the PIL makes (that watching porn incites men to rape) but that porn, in itself, (like saas-bahu serials, perhaps) is sexist and misogynist and that it cannot be good for society.

For many feminists, it isn’t the sexual act in porn that outrages – ‘it’s the violence, not the sex’, and the depiction of women in a derogatory manner. For them, this question of representation remains at the heart of the porn issue but this is not the concern of the PIL, which highlights only the connection between online pornography and rape.

The correlation between porn and rape has been studied extensively in the West, ironically with contradictory results. Initial calls to arms by radical feminists in the late seventies claimed that ‘pornography is the theory, rape is the practice’ but consequent studies and committees could not establish this ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. Some studies show the possibility of a positive correlation – that in some cases, there could be a connection (like correlations often sought between drinking and domestic violence, for instance, where, in some cases, it made a difference whereas in others there was no relation at all), but some also proposed a negative – that the more men watch porn, the less they are likely to rape (having consumed their supposed sexual energies in porn).

Some found no link at all, finding that in the years there was a phenomenal increase in access to porn (with the Internet) but there was no greater rise in sexual crimes as compared to other crimes. In the Indian context, this correlation is very difficult to make given the scant data on sex offenders. There is a layer of class-based prejudice at work too in the current premise – implying that poor men watching porn is far more dangerous than men of privilege watching porn.

Thus far in the history of India’s censoring and banning material deemed ‘obscene’, a link between porn and rape has not been suggested, remaining in the realm of acts aimed at ‘protecting Indian culture’ or maintaining ‘moral order’. Take the example of Savita Bhabhi, the cartoon porn site about the sexual escapades of a lusty housewife that was banned in 2009 while other real porn sites continued unaffected. Who was the ban trying to protect? Clearly, some imagined notion of Indian culture rather than women or children at large. It is possible also that given recent hyperbole about porn contributing to divorces in urban metros, that by banning access to porn it is the good Indian family that is being protected.

 

According to a research study with women internet users in Mumbai conducted four years ago, online porn was very low on their list of what they considered harmful. Even though the current discourse assumes that women do not watch porn, all women interviewed had viewed porn at some point of time. None of them showed any proclivity to violent crimes and did not perceive porn as something that the state should censure.

As far as preventing children from accessing porn was concerned, parents were employing their own strategies: using filters, blocking sites, placing computers in more public areas of the household, keeping checks on browsing histories and most importantly, trying to initiate conversations with their children about the problems with online porn. They were themselves working out ways to monitor Internet consumption of children without bringing the state into the picture that would suddenly infantilise them all.

From their point of view, online porn and other sexual content – text, images, chats, webcams – were an acceptable and desirable part of the gamut of adult experiences, and important to their right as an adult to seek and experience consensual sexual pleasure, safely and privately. The Internet, for those with access, has brought about something of a sexual revolution for women. For the first time, women can access information about sex freely, safely and privately and express themselves without the censure and surveillance that hangs over them elsewhere.

Given that barely 10 per cent of the country has access to online porn, regulation of this cannot possibly be seriously thought of as a way of controlling sexual crimes. This preoccupation with porn also ignores or does no justice absolutely to the variety of sexual crimes in the country – brutal caste-based sexual crimes or those in areas of armed conflict, for example. 

Given also that the Indian government has in its history not demonstrated that it can regulate the ‘obscene’ with any nuance, choosing to find ludicrous things offensive (even suggested nudity as the Tuffs Shoes ad showed), can we expect the government to be able to discern between violent, forced porn and consensual, pleasurable porn? Can we risk a blanket ban on all sexual content? This is not an unwarranted fear given the ridiculous examples we have seen in the last few years. Microsoft search engine Bing for example banned searches for the word ‘porn’ or ‘sex’ in India which resulted in denying access on anything related to sex (including vital information of sexual health and sexual rights) to Indians.

 

As a society where rape has repeatedly been presented as titillating (think back to eighties Bollywood or banned because rape itself is considered porn (for example, the rape scenes in Bandit Queen and frontal nudity were deemed so graphic that they could arouse male viewers, although a Supreme Court decision later revoked this), we should focus more on how we understand rape and sexual violence itself, rather than seek justification for a crisis of masculinity and an epic failure of governance.

 

There are many more things that need to be fundamentally addressed before looking at the role of porn in sexual crimes: like, what healthy sexual relations look like, why our boys can’t handle rejection and set out to harass or throw acid on women’s faces or why child sexual abuse has been neglected for so long. Let’s start there.

Manjima Bhattacharjya is a sociologist and feminist activist based in Mumbai. She was part of the EROTICS (Exploratory Research on Sexuality and the Internet) global research project. 

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