To Ban Or Not To Ban: Beyond Copy Cat Responses To Pornography
Our attitudes and responses to pornography must go beyond the copycat leftist reactions which only ape the line their Western masters and funders are pushing at the moment.
The ongoing controversy over whether to ban pornography as a social menace or treat it as a matter of liberated sexuality, individual choice and freedom of expression, is being carried out as though the issue has cropped up for the first time in India because we have a supposedly “right wing” BJP government at the helm of affairs.
Even senior journalists who should know better choose to ignore that not too long ago, the anti-obscenity provisions in the British-enacted Indian Penal Code (IPC) were made more stringent in 1986 with full cooperation of the mainstream media. This happened because a shrill campaign was launched by feminist groups to force the government to enact a new law to declare obscene or “indecent portrayal of women” in the media a criminal offence punishable with a minimum two-year jail term plus monetary fine.
Protests against the use of women as sex objects in the media, including advertising, had already been raised on a much larger scale by the feminist movements in North America and Europe because that is from where this disease emanated. At that time, mainstream media lent full support to feminist activists who went around defacing with black paint what were termed as “sexy” hoardings. These included pictures of buxom women being used to sell car tyres, or intimate pictures of couples to sell cigarettes.
Some feminists even took to protesting outside cinema halls demanding ban on movies with hot and lurid scenes or an excess of body display of women. This was the day and age when respectable films did not even show a regular kissing scene and instead used suggestive symbols to communicate sexual attraction. In those days only soft porn would be shown in a low key manner in the morning shows of regular cinema halls. The questions being raised were valid: Why do advertisers have to use women’s bodies in sexually provocative ways to sell sundry products from male undergarments, wall paint to cigarettes and soap?
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In fact even I had written several articles and film reviews critiquing the negative portrayal of women in the mass media. Even though the protests in India were sporadic and tiny, these mini protests, small meetings and workshops against women’s portrayal in the media organized during that phase got massive traction in the media—often front page coverage with a big photograph of the protest event.
This generous media coverage was in large part due to the fact that some of the NGOs who took up this issue as their cause celebre were backed by powerful western donor agencies, out to proselytize Indian women to adopt feminism as their intellectual prop. By the late 1970s, western donor agencies had begun funding feminist studies and feminist activism in India. The most notable among them was the Ford Foundation, which came to influence the agenda of newly emerging women’s organizations by providing them lavish financial and political support.
Therefore, condemning “obscene portrayal of women” in the Indian media came to be seen as a “progressive” move and hence enthusiastically supported by those who saw themselves as pro-women, including leftists in the Indian media. What better way for feminist NGOs to justify receiving huge grants from western donor agencies than to browbeat and guilt-trap MPs into enacting an all-India legislation to outlaw obscene portrayal of women?
Such was the hype created that within no time, a Bill was presented in Parliament in 1986, and a new Act added to the statute book that very year: The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act 1986. From what I remember, there was zero debate in Parliament on this Bill, nor any real opposition. As happens with most legislation claiming to be pro-women, no one among the opposition parties bothered to even read the law, let alone subject it to careful scrutiny.
With “liberal” and “progressive” mainstream media and leading feminists baying for this Bill, no one except two of us from Manushi (my colleague Ruth Vanita and I) stood up to take a politically unfashionable position against the Bill. We protested not because we favoured “obscenity” or “indecency” in the portrayal of women but because the drafting of the law was both brainless and impractical.
An article entitled “Using Women as a Pretext for Repression” that I co-authored with Ruth Vanita explained our position and warned of the potential dangers of that high-handed law while it was still in the form of a Bill. Needless to say, in that heady atmosphere, our voices of caution against the proposed law were ignored. Feminists hadn’t yet discovered the word “moral policing”. Instead they wanted the State to appoint them as “moral police’.
“Obscenity” as per the IPC
Why did we consider that law ill-conceived? To begin with, the definition of obscenity was borrowed straight from the British-enacted Victorian-minded IPC of 1860. This is how Section 292 and 292A of IPC defines “obscenity”: “…a book, pamphlet, paper, writing, drawing, painting, representation, figure or any other object, shall be deemed to be obscene if it is lascivious or appeals to the prurient interest or if its effect, or (where it comprises two or more distinct items) the effect of any one of its items, is, if taken as a whole, such as to tend to deprave and corrupt person, who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained or embodied in it.”
The definition is both arbitrary and vague. It is left at the discretion of police and courts to define what is “prurient” and therefore likely to “deprave” and “corrupt” morals. In the eyes of Victorian administrators with their prudish notions of sexuality, even the worship of Shivalinga was depraved, not to speak of the erotic art of Konark and Khajuraho with their open celebration of sexual union in all its diverse forms.
An epic like the Mahabharata, with numerous out-of-wedlock children or god Krishna with 16,000 patranis and countless romantic dalliances were all used as proof of the depravity of the Hindu culture and its diverse faith traditions.
Luckily, the British had the good sense not to bring down those temples or ban our sacred epics. In fact, recognizing the inherent clash of cultural values between the Christian West and Hindu civilization, the IPC made specific provisions to keep out of its purview,
any representation sculptured, engraved, painted or otherwise represented on or in—(i) any ancient monument within the meaning of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958 (24 of 1958), or (ii) any temple, or on any car used for the conveyance of idols, or kept or used for any religious purpose.
The punishment for the first time offence of producing or distributing “obscene” material under the still alive-and-kicking 1860 IPC is imprisonment up to two years and a monetary fine up to Rs 2,000. In the event of a second or subsequent conviction, the jail term can go up to five years with a fine of Rs 5,000.
Making the Existing Law More Stringent
When feminist crusaders launched their campaign for a new law, we tried reminding them that the IPC provisions against obscenity plus the existing film censorship regime were more than adequate; there really was no need for a new law.
Here is a summary of our reservations against the easy-to-abuse provisions of that Bill as presented in our article:
The definition of “indecent” in the 1986 law was a mindless adaptation of the definition of “obscenity” in the IPC of 1860 with new absurdities added to good effect. To quote the exact provision: “Indecent representation of women” means the depiction in any manner of the figure of a woman; her form or body or any part thereof in such way as to have the effect of being indecent, or derogatory to, or denigrating women, or is likely to deprave, corrupt or injure the public morality or morals…”
The punishment for a person “publishing or cause to be published or take part in the publication or exhibition of any advertisement which contains indecent representation of women in any form—book, pamphlet, paper, slide, film, writing, drawing, painting, photograph, representation or figure which contains indecent representation of women in any form” is the same as in IPC: It invites imprisonment of up to two years for first offence plus fine of up to Rs 2,000. Subsequent offences invite a jail term of up to five years plus a fine of at least Rs 10,000 which may extend up to Rs 1 lakh.
The Act gave any Gazetted Officer authorized by the state government to enter and search any premise where he suspects such an act is being committed. He can also seize any material he thinks is derogatory to women. This amounted to adding to the enormous arbitrary powers of police and sundry government functionaries to intimidate, harass and terrorize any citizen who they wished to extort money from or settle personal scores with. The danger is especially serious since the Act also lays down that, “no suit or legal proceeding shall be permitted against the government or its officers” if they carried out raids and got people arrested in “good faith”.
This is clearly meant to protect officers misusing the law for blackmail or extortion. Such misuse is especially easy since the very definition of what constitutes “indecent representation of women” is altogether vague and over arching. There are plenty of people who consider women without burqa or ghoonghat indecent. For others, a woman in a skirt or a plunging neck-line or the traditional backless blouse of Rajasthani women is “indecent”.
In the co-ed Delhi University college I used to teach in, some leftist lecturers were in the habit of nabbing students for “indecency” and threatening them with expulsion if they found a girl and a boy holding hands or hugging each other in the privacy of the college terrace. The Victorian-minded British considered Lady Chatterley’s Lover indecent.
It remained banned in England till 1960 and its author D.H. Lawrence was hounded all his life. Today, Lawrence is celebrated as a writer of great classics. The absurdity of such an over arching definition becomes even more glaring when the Act repeats verbatim IPC Section 292 that the law would not be invoked against any book, film, painting etc whose publication or distribution is justified “in the interest of science, literature, art or learning.”
The exemption was meant as a safeguard against nutty prudes, of which there is no dearth, who may want to ban school lessons in physiology that include a description of the sex act and the process of reproduction. The Act also exempts materials that are kept or used for bona fide religious purposes as also ancient monuments, temples, idols, etc—exactly as the IPC did.
This too amounts to an open admission that there is much in our religious literature, art, architecture and rituals etc. which in the eyes of many in the contemporary world amount to “indecent representation of women.” We also warned the ban enthusiasts that the law could easily become a pretext for political censorship. For instance, a detailed and graphic report I had published on the gang rapes and other sexual atrocities on Sikh women during the 1984 pogrom of Sikhs could well be dubbed “prurient” and hence invite a ban as well as a jail term.
That it was not a case of crying wolf was proven by the vindictive cases lodged against Illustrated Weekly editor Pritish Nandy when he published an article exposing the sexploits of then chief minister of Orissa J.B. Pattnaik through gross abuse of power. However, no action had been taken against Nandy for routinely publishing features containing large photographs of semi-nude women. Quite predictably, none of our warnings were heeded; the new law was touted as a major feather in the cap of feminist activism.
Feminist U-Turn on Obscene Portrayal of Women
But the very same feminists lost interest in this law because in America and Europe, feminism moved on to other issues. This was in large part due to the fact that in the US, the anti-obscenity-pornography stance got associated with right wing politicians who were traditionally opposed to many dimensions of women’s rights, especially the right to abortion. Therefore, the left wingers, including many American feminists, began taking a libertarian position.
Some of them also began to see both pornography and prostitution through the prism of “prochoice”, arguing that sex work should be treated at par with any other profession. Therefore, an influential section of feminists began to adopt the same position vis-a-vis obscenity, pornography and sex trade. The reasons behind this U-turn are revealing. By the 1990s, the spread of AIDS began to pose a huge challenge even to western societies. One of the strategies adopted by western countries was to promote the use of condoms and health checkups among sex workers.
With it came the demand for legalization of all forms of sex work, including porn. Millions of dollars were poured into western donor agencies to fund NGOs that lent support to this campaign. Therefore, it did not take long for an influential section of Indian feminists to use ingenious arguments to justify prostitution and pornography as legitimate professions. An additional reason for this U-turn is no less instructive. The campaign for the law against indecent representation of women was led by feminists either directly aligned to the left parties or those who saw themselves as part of the left political spectrum.
Since western donor agencies show a distinct preference for patronizing those with a leftist orientation, leading feminist NGOs are welltrained to be virulently against those they dub as “right wing”. This term, borrowed mindlessly from the political divisions in Europe and America, was thrust on BJP and related outfits as well as all those traditional women’s organizations unfamiliar with leftist feminist lingo.
When those alleged to be “right wing” organizations of women, especially those allied to BJP, began to invoke the antiobscenity law to protest against excessive use of sex and violence, the feminist NGOs and women’s wings connected to Communist parties began condemning such demands as retrogressive and trashing them as “moral policing”—another term blindly borrowed from the western feminist experience of battling right wing conservatives in their countries. This trashing happened despite the fact that “indecency” and “obscenity”—however one may define these two terms—grew by leaps and bounds after the enactment of a fairly stringent law against “indecent representation of women.”
With the growth of private TV channels and internet access, entertainment was no more confined to State-run Doordarshan with its sanitized programmes or cinema halls which could show only those films which were cleared by the Censor Board. Countless private TV channels invaded every home, every bedroom, including that of children. The internet provides access not just to sexy movies but also hardcore porn at the click of a button. Mobile telephones put pornography virtually in everyone’s hands, including that of kids. Therefore, anxiety about alarming doses of sexually explicit material through these varied sources began to aggravate even otherwise progressive parents.
But left wing feminists and their collaborators in the media erased from their memories and writings their notso-distant contribution to bringing in a legislation for “moral policing”—more draconian than the one left behind by our colonial rulers. Ironically, left wing feminists were the first group in India to invoke State censorship of what they termed offensive to their tastes, morals and sense of dignity as women.They seemed to have acted under the naive assumption that they would have a permanent veto in deciding what is to be banned and what constitutes indecency.
List of Ban Enthusiasts Keeps Growing
The fact that small women’s groups without any political base managed to get a special law enacted to ban what they considered offensive, emboldened other social groups also to press for similar bans on whatever these communities defined as “hurtful” to their sentiments. For instance, Marathas became hypersensitive about non-hagiographical accounts of Shivaji. They began demanding ban of scholarly books that were even remotely critical of Shivaji.
Likewise, Sikh leaders get virulent if their “hurt sentiments” do not result in speedy bans on films and books, including scholarly studies that do not meet with their selective beliefs about the Sikh Gurus. They were ready to kill Baba Ram Rahim simply because he dared to dress up like Guru Govind Singh. The zealous followers of Babasaheb Ambedkar will not just stop at demanding ban of a book or film that offers even mild criticism of Babasaheb’s political or personal life. They go on a riotous spree if their demand is not met expeditiously. This list of “ban enthusiasts” is not only endless but an ever-expanding one.
All these tendencies got strengthened in India by witnessing the success of Muslim leaders vis-a-vis Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and Taslima Nasreen’s books critiquing Islam and the rabid mullahs of Bangladesh. It is noteworthy that the Congress always went along and surrendered before ban enthusiasts if they came from communities that affect its electoral fortunes.
Under Rajiv Gandhi’s “secular” government, India was the first country in the world to ban Satanic Verses under pressure from Islamic fundamentalists. It is also worth remembering that it was under the CPM government that Taslima Nasreen was thrown out of West Bengal under pressure from Islamic zealots who were furious at her expose of the persecution of the Hindu minority in her country.
But the path to censorship was first shown by Indian feminists who didn’t ask for a ban on this or that book or film but on anything and everything that this minuscule elite group as the self-appointed guardians of women’s dignity considered offensive.
Double Standards of Libertarians
But, as I mentioned earlier, as soon as desi women’s organizations including BJP women picked up the issue and used their sensibilities to decide what products deserved ban, the “progressive” feminists not only disowned the law they had authored but they also began attacking all such demands as “retrogressive” forms of “moral policing.”
If the demand came from Muslim groups, it was treated deferentially as an assertion of minority rights to safeguard their culture. But any protest that emanated from a group that was not virulently anti-BJP, was dubbed freedom-averse, anti-women Hindutva— “fascist intolerance”. Among the many such instances, the most telling was the controversy over M.F. Husain’s nude paintings of Hindu goddesses—some of them were great art but a few were truly offensive.
Among them, Hanuman finding Sita sitting nude on Ravan’s thigh as he comes to rescue her was outrageous by any standards. Likewise, a naked Durga in a sexual posture with a lion, goddess Lakshmi sitting naked on the head of Ganesh, a naked Sita riding the back of Hanuman in a sexually suggestive manner, or a naked Mother India deeply upset the Hindu community.
This was especially so since Husain never took similar liberties with the beliefs and sentiments of the Muslim community. For example, in a painting depicting a Muslim Sultan and a Hindu priest, the former is fully clothed while the Brahmin is totally naked and far more diminutive in size. Husain’s defence that statues of Hindu goddesses are invariably nude or semi-nude didn’t cut any ice because Sita is never depicted nude—that too on Ravan’s lap! Nor has Mother India ever appeared in the nude.
Moreover, the traditional stone or bronze idols of goddesses may not be clothed, but they are crafted to evoke reverence not lust. A stone or bronze idol of Parvati sitting on Shiva’s lap has a very different meaning than Hanuman finding naked Sita on Ravan’s lap. However, the very same feminist groups that had mobilized opinion in favour of banning “indecent representation” of ordinary women in media—came out in defence of brazenly obnoxious portrayals of the most sacred feminine icons of the Hindu community.
The same media that had given laudatory coverage to small vigilante groups of women defacing cinema or ad hoardings or demanding ban on this or that film was upset when Hindu groups demanding a ban on the public display of those controversial paintings held protest demonstrations. When some of them took Husain to court on charges of “obscenity” and hurting their religious sentiments, the once-proban feminists and media suddenly saw in the legal proceedings against Husain a mortal threat to artistic freedom at the hands of “fascist Hindutva forces”.
They forgot that fascists don’t go to courts or seek redress through due legal process. They simply eliminate those they don’t approve of. Husain fled and chose to settle down in the UAE under the generous patronage of the royal family of Abu Dhabi to escape defending himself in Indian courts. This response is not very different from Lalit Modi’s escape to England.
Yes, some fringe Hindu groups did issue threats but none of them dared inflict any violence on him, certainly not the kind violence that Taslima or Rushdie faced. In any case, Husain had the backing of the Indian government. Both Husain and Lalit Modi claimed that they felt unsafe in India. But Husain became a cause célèbre—a symbol of the Hindu majority’s persecution of Muslims, a victim of Hindutva’s supposed intolerance towards artistic freedom etc.
By contrast, Modi, who alleges that the Dawood gang and its associates in India pose a threat to his life gets no sympathy. He has been dubbed a bhagoda who evaded trial in India. His escape to England is being described as a criminal act even though no case had been filed against him when he fled. Husain was never called a bhagoda, nor was issued any notice by the government to come back and put his faith in Indian courts.
In sharp contrast to Husain who got oodles of sympathy and support from left liberals in India, while he lived a luxurious life as a guest of the royal families of UAE, Taslima Nasreen never got a fraction of sympathy or support from left liberals even though she faces serious death threats, not just in Bangladesh but also from militant Muslims in India. She lives an obscure life as a fugitive in India, thrown out of this country as and when Muslim leaders build a hysterical campaign against her.
As someone who spoke for the endangered Hindu minority in Bangladesh and against the tyranny of radical mullahs, leftist secularists should have embraced her. But because the CPM and Congress turned hostile to her in the interest of safeguarding their Muslim vote banks, leftists of all hues keep a safe distance from her.
Pornography becomes Cause Célèbre for Liberals
Thus the recent controversy over pornography has to be viewed in the context of existing laws enacted during colonial rule and further solidified under Congress rule with ultra-progressive Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister. Let me make it clear at the outset that I am not a great enthusiast for government bans. Let me also state it loud and clear that the manner in which some crackpot within the NDA government decided to issue orders to internet service providers to block 857 porn sites was ham-handed, impractical and counterproductive.
That is why within a day or two, a fresh order was issued saying only child porn sites are to be banned. The internet service providers have responded saying they don’t have the wherewithal to identify child porn sites and therefore the government should make up its mind what it really wants. The government has thus made a mockery of itself. But it is equally if not more absurd that anti-BJP intellectuals, mediapersons, self styled “progressives”, including a section of feminists, have come out in defence of pornography as though porn deprivation amounts to crushing liberty, threatening well-being and an assault on fundamental human rights.
Here is a small sample of the passionate responses in defence of porn:
- “…with the ban on porn sites, the government takes one more step towards the Talibanization of India.” —Milind Deora, former Congress MP
- “By banning porn, India has kicked itself into the dark ages…All regressive governments start by banning internet pornography…It hits people at the very core, inside their private homes, and allows governments to regulate what people do in the confines of four walls of their room…
- Once a society has accepted a ban on pornography; it is ready for other restrictions.” — Jawed Anwar on website dailyO.in
- “The paradox is that India was not sexophobic then. Every possible sexual posture is carved in the stones of Khajuraho and Konarak temples. We also had Vatsayana’s Kamasutra then. It is a great heritage.” —Mahesh Bhatt, film maker
- “We should have destroyed Khajuraho and several other temples in the country. How are depictions engraved in stone at these places of worship any different? We are the creators of porn in stone.Then how can we denounce it? Of course porn that violates human rights should not be encouraged.”— Mani Shankar, film maker
It is noteworthy that all those feminists who worked with zeal to push for the enactment of “Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act” in 1986 have not come out to support government action against porn sites. They have mostly been silent or made non-committal statements like the following one by Donna Fernandes of Vimochana in Bangalore who said: “Instead of knee-jerk actions like bans, we should look at the problem more deeply.”
It is ironical that the very same westernized elite class that thought nothing of passing a draconian law against ‘indecent representation of women “ in 1986, has emerged as defenders of hardcore porn! The pro-porn proponents should understand that the government needs no new law to prosecute the consumers and peddlers of pornography. The IPC covers this “offence” adequately. The 1986 law made porn censorship even easier.
Nobody has ever thought of challenging the validity of the 1986 law or Section 292 even though anyone who scratches the surface of its implementation would know that it has been widely used by the police to extort bribes from those publishing, producing or selling smutty magazines, videos, films etc. The police themselves are habitual consumers of such material and therefore know each and every location where it is produced or sold.
Just as the police collect regular hafta from brothels and pimps supplying call girls, so also the “obscenity” producers and peddlers have for long been a regular source of “extra income” . No surprise then that the extent, scale and depravity of such materials kept increasing as the production of such materials became a well-entrenched industry. India was at first slow in catching up with the West. Because of the social stigma attached to it, men who consumed porn, semi-porn or even magazines with pictures of nude or semi-nude women had to do it surreptitiously. But today, watching porn is being peddled as a fundamental human right, a sign of progressive thinking and liberated sexuality.
Key Arguments against Porn Ban
Ban is impractical and virtually impossible to enforce It is argued that unless India follows the way of dictatorial regimes like China or South Arabia, there is no way blocking of porn sites can have even marginal impact. This is indeed true and the most valid argument against the ban, especially given the lawless, corrupt police we are saddled with.
Anyone who still has some faith left in the ability or intent of our police force should watch the recently released film Masaan, which depicts the horrific abuse of power our police routinely indulges in while pretending to combat sex crimes. Before the internet arrived, one saw pornographic videos being sold even in villages where there was no piped water and power supply was extremely erratic. Today India has caught up with the West in hosting even live porn shows, thanks to police complicity.
Apparently, there are over 40 million porn sites and growing by the hour. Those who are hungry for porn manage to procure it just as nashedis manage to access liquor even in states or countries that have enforced prohibition. However, as the experience of Gujarat shows, while liquor may be available through not-so-secret networks, it is rare to see a drunkard creating a nuisance in public places as routinely happens in the rest of India. Gujarat’s towns and cities are among the safest in the country.
Young women freely move around late into the night, either in groups or even alone because there is no risk of being harassed by drunkards and hoodlums. Even if people drink, they do so slyly inside their homes. The fear of being caught by the police prevents them from appearing in public since the social legitimacy of drinking has been taken away. Therefore, far fewer people drink, even among the working class. Women are the biggest supporters of prohibition since it means less domestic violence and fewer chances of men blowing up what they earn on liquor.
Similarly, ban on pornographic sites may not be totally effective, but it will surely deny pornography the kind of social legitimacy it has come to acquire in recent years. By making access difficult, it will certainly inhibit its consumption. Blocking porn sites invades the right to privacy This libertarian position holds that the State has no business to interfere in what a person does in the privacy of his/her home. This is an eminently reasonable position for the most part.
But it acquires a spurious character when used with regard to pornography. Firstly, porn is today being downloaded and viewed on cell phones, being shared not just with close friends but also being posted on social media sites. People are watching it in workplaces, including government offices. There are theatres that specialize in running porn films. People organize porn parties to be followed by partner swapping, group sex and much else. Thus the porn industry is not a “private bedroom” affair.
I would have no issue if a couple invited their friends to watch them engage in sex in the privacy of their homes. But pornography is today a trillion-dollar industry where women are often held captive as sex slaves. What is more, a large part of porn materials are surreptitiously filmed sex acts, which are then leaked without the consent of the concerned women. Incidents of gang rape being recorded and put out on the net are not uncommon either.
Porn is a harmless pleasure sport Pornography is a product of perverse male fantasies, which treat women as crass objects of pleasure and male gratification, and as pieces of flesh to be consumed by men, like carnivorous animals feed on the meat of weaker species. A large part of porn is a deadly mixture of sex with violence, sadism and outright bestiality. Even ordinary porn is not an edifying introduction to sexual pleasure.
The one and only time I saw a porn movie some 20 years ago, I was simply revolted even though it was regular mild variety. Far from titillating or arousing me, it nauseated me for the degrading way it treated women as slavish recipients of male lust in its crudest manifestation. No less revolting was the projection of men as brainless, heartless, emotionless stud bulls. And this was not even one of the sadistic types. Women whose partners/ husbands are addicted to porn will tell you how messed up their sexual and emotional life becomes and how much violence is inflicted on them by their husbands demanding the kind of sex they view on porn sites.
A student currently interning with me described it very aptly in the following words, though he admitted to being an occasional consumer of porn for relieving stress:
It’s like dogs going at it. The whole thing is extremely crude and unrealistic. It certainly messes up male sexuality by giving men performance anxiety since they cannot possibly match the stud bulls of porn. That is exactly what ultimately puts you off porn.
Moreover, today it is the product of a well-entrenched industry, a commercial empire spanning continents—and a very unethical one at that. People who work in it do so for money, not for pleasure, just as those who risk selling banned drugs, do so for making a quick buck not for the love of that trade. Barring exceptions like Sunny Leone, most porn actors end up with tragic lives.
It has been widely reported that porn actors tend to die young because they are given steroids, hooked on to deadly drugs and also run a much higher risk of sexually transmitted diseases. The same libertarians who will emote profusely over working conditions of bonded labourers in agriculture show absolutely no concern for the sex workers trapped in the porn industry. One can only feel sorry for those whose idea of “pleasure” and “sport” doesn’t balk at degradation of women who get sucked into this trade for quick money or are trapped in it as sex slaves.
Those who argue that porn is a necessary part of adult life, is a harmless fun sport—need to answer whether they would let their own daughters—or even sons—become porn meat even if it means becoming as famous as Sunny Leone!
Adult porn is about free choice but child porn should be banned
This too is clever posturing. All those who piously declare that child pornography is not kosher but adult porn is OK pretend to be unaware that children, especially teenagers, have become major consumers of porn.
With what moral authority can parents prohibit their teenage kids from watching porn, if they are themselves regular consumers? The difficulties in blocking child porn sites are the same as for adult sites. Moreover, special service providers like “deep and dark internet” enable access to child porn, bestial porn and a lot more to its clientele. Such sites may well be the cause of increasing brutality we are witnessing in sex crimes.
Most important of all, it is almost impossible to tell with certainty the age of porn actors. A 16-year-old girl could easily pass off as a 19-year-old with the use of hormonal drugs or surgical interventions. Teenage boys on steroids can also pass off as adults. Those who take a moral stand against use of children in the porn industry need to tell us whether consumption of porn by young kids is OK. If it is not acceptable, how do you control their access to porn in the day of mobile telephones, without resorting to blocking porn sites?
Porn not out of place in the land of the Kama Sutra
This is the most devious of all the arguments. We are reminded that “India’s cultural history is unique in recognizing sexual desire as a highly desirable attribute of human beings, that pursuit of kama (sexual desire) is one of the four pillars of Hindu life along with dharma, artha, and moksha”.
It is ironical that the westernized elite who rarely find anything worthwhile in Hindu culture and are forever trashing Hindu civilization for being oppressive, backward-looking, life-denying, anti-women, anti this, anti that—latch on to the Hindu heritage only when it comes to Khajuraho and Kama Sutra! But to compare Kama Sutra or the stone carvings in the temples of Khajuraho and Konark with porn is like comparing chalk with cheese.
To equate crass commercialization of sex through porn with celebratory depiction of sex in ancient Hindu art and literature is to not know the difference between Casanova’s promiscuity and Lord Krishna’s raas lila with gopis. The very fact that sexual union in myriad forms finds place in Hindu temples shows that kama was treated as sacred only so long as it was grounded in dharma. Kama doesn’t stand alone, it is one of the four pursuits of life which are to be kept balanced by adherence to dharma just as pursuit of artha or even moksha could not ignore the requirements of dharma.
That integral bonding of kama and dharma is what enabled the Hindu tradition to display and worship the symbols of sexual union in temples. This celebration and worship of sex was not a hidden, secret cult. It was displayed on the outer and inner walls of our temples and worshipped in the form of Shivalingam in the main sanctum—open to all—men and women, old and young, adults and children alike.
Ethical indulgence in sex includes caring for your partner, respect for his or her feelings, emotions and desires, including taking responsibility for its intended or unintended outcomes—such as pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases. Ethics in sex also means not treating it as a secret vice even though the sexual act takes place in the privacy of one’s bedroom. Kama and dharma going together have no place for rape or one-way sexual gratification. When dharma guides kama, one doesn’t cheat on one’s partner or exploit the poverty and vulnerability of a woman for prostitution. Dharma will not allow making sex into crass buying or selling of sex.
Can the most avid defenders of porn say the same about commercially available pornography and the sleazy industry that produces it? Would all those who equate the sculptures of Konark with porn flaunt the pornographic images they consume as a secret pleasure on the outer walls of their homes or offices?
The bald fact is that over time, pornography coarsens human sensibilities and robs sex of all ethical considerations. Most of those who consume it have to hide it not only from their children or parents but also from their wives. This is how a young man who watches porn on his mobile phone fairly frequently responded when asked if he shares porn films with his wife:
Oh my god, I watched porn with my wife once but its impact rattled me. No man should ever make this blunder. A woman who starts watching porn expects her husband to perform in the same manner—continue hammering her for an hour or two nonstop. No man can satisfy a woman fed on porn. It kills your relationship. If you can’t meet with her porn-aroused expectations—which are totally unrealistic, she starts looking around for other men. Porn is meant only for women who are into professional whoring.
Most male friends/relatives I spoke to, barring a few new age couples, had similar responses. They admitted to watching porn occasionally but most were emphatic that they would never share it with their wives. In fact, a majority said their wives would haul them over the coals if they got to know. None of them wanted their children to even get a hint of it lest they lose respect in their eyes. This sense of shame in itself speaks volumes.
State has no business to interfere in private lives of citizens
This too is an eminently sound position to take, but “modernists” use it very selectively only in areas where they want to appear in tune with prevailing intellectual fashions and social trends in the West. Incest takes place mostly in the privacy of homes, but such a relation is treated as a crime in western countries.
Therefore, the Indian elite too accepts it as a crime. The day American society decides to treat incest as “normal”, Indian libertarians are likely to fall in line. Let me illustrate this through an example. Western governments, through their donor agencies, have managed to convince countries like India that they have to control women’s fertility and limit family size to a maximum of two children.
Consequently, the educated elite of India fully support any and every coercive measure to impose the two-child norm on the poorer sections of society, including disqualifying people from contesting panchayat elections if they flout the norm. If you really believe in freedom of choice, no government should have a say in a couple’s decision regarding the number of children they wish to have.
No western government in this day and age dare enact a law restricting a family’s right to have as many children as they want. But since the West thinks Indians need such authoritarian controls, our elites don’t find it abhorrent. Similarly, the libertarian elite has no objection when the government enacts a draconian law making sex-selective abortion a serious crime, even though abortion per se is not only legal but also upheld as a woman’s basic right.
Whether a couple wants a son or a daughter is a personal choice. The State ought not to have a say in such matters. But we allow the State this intrusion in the overall interest of society. Since pornography has become legally permissible in western countries, our copycat elite is not willing to brook any opposition to it.
Women have also become consumers of pornography
Undoubtedly, in recent years, the porn industry has begun to produce female-oriented porn in an attempt to neutralize criticism that it projects women as brainless bimbos who exist only to cater to male sex fantasies. So now we have porn which projects women as active agents who use men as their playthings. As per a recent study of dubious worth, even in India, 30 per cent of porn watchers are women.
This claim is aimed at strengthening the case of pro-porn lobby that there is nothing anti-women in it. This argument may work with the most gullible variety of feminists but it won’t convince those whose sense of ethics is not derived from the brute force of numbers. For instance, smoking or tobacco chewing does not become healthy just because a lot more women have become addicted to its use.
Theft and dacoity do not become socially acceptable just because the number of women engaged in these crimes has increased manyfold. Prostitution cannot become respectable just because an increasing number of middle class women are voluntarily opting for it to make a quick buck. The great gift of western capitalism is that it knows how to manufacture consent through many devious means.
It can seduce people into believing that they are enhancing their life quality even while consuming patently harmful products. It has been well established that aerated colas are bad for health and addiction to them at an early age can damage children’s mental and physical growth, and yet, through seductive advertising and aggressive marketing, corporates have managed to invade the pockets of even the poor by making its consumption appear as a symbol of good life and upward mobility.
Coca Cola will not become less harmful even if a thousand market research findings showed that it is more popular among girls and women than among boys and men. There is no relationship between consumption of porn and rising graph of sex crimes It is noteworthy that almost all the studies that claim that there is no correlation between porn and crime have been done by those who support porn.
Conversely, those who are opposed to porn marshal contrary evidence to show that it strengthens stereotyping of women as sex objects, coarsens sensibilities and feeds into sexual brutalization and crimes against women. Also, most of these studies have been done in the West. There is no serious attempt to study the correlation between the two in India.
True, most who watch pornography don’t turn rapists, just as all those who consume liquor don’t turn into wife beaters. But there is direct correlation between high incidents of drunkenness and wife battering. In communities where liquor consumption is looked down upon or is kept within control, domestic violence is relatively less common. It is rampant among communities where majority of men are habitual drunkards.
So also with pornography, especially since a strong dose of sadism is an integral part of porn, with women shown even enjoying the brutalization of their bodies. When such attitudes and images are implanted repeatedly in the minds of the young and impressionable, they are likely to make them seek similar forms of gratification, using sex as an instrument of gross domination rather than mutual pleasure.
While people from stable families and internally cohesive communities who exercise a measure of social restraint among its members can handle small doses of porn without being damaged emotionally, by all accounts porn has a very explosive impact on the socially rootless, mal-educated, under-employed army of lumpenized youth being produced in India as well as globally. Rape was not uncommon in India but in today’s India, the sheer demonic brutality with which the bodies of women and even little girls are being vandalized and done to death in gruesome ways is likely to have a direct correlation with the ferocious spread of sadist porn. This phenomenon deserves serious study.
The Bane of Copycat Elite
The raging debate between defenders and opponents of porn is not a clash between prudes seeking sexual repression versus freedom lovers opting for joyful assertion of sexuality. It is essentially a clash between westernized Indian modernists pitched against those with traditional sensibilities towards male-female relations. The English-educated elite has a strong tendency towards blindly aping the dominant social values of the time in the West.
Unfortunately, the western cultures are known for unstable tastes, forever swinging from one extreme to the other in their blind pursuit of change and novelty. What is fashionable today—be it in the domain of clothing, art , architecture, literary genres or intellectual ideas—becomes unfashionable and discardable tomorrow. Western modernity demands a sharp break from tradition.
But in India, we prefer to inhabit a world of continuities where past and present are intimately and creatively connected. The donning of denim jeans does not make the traditional Banarsi or Kanjivaram silk sarees we have inherited from our mothers or grandmas unwanted or unfashionable. They continue to be valued in their own right, occupying a pride of place in every woman’s closet.
This is what makes most of us in India reject wholesale adoption of western modernity. We are more comfortable adopting it in palatable doses that don’t uproot us from our past traditions and culture. In the immortal words of Mahatma Gandhi,
I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.
But the hyper-westernized modernists want violent rejection of our traditional culture and values and swing wildly with every changing fashion in the West. During the Victorian era, the British managed to convince the Indian elite to adopt their prudish values as a mark of “civilized behaviour”. This included looking down upon matrilineal communities where monogamous marriage of the Christian world was unknown and women were free to choose and discard sexual partners at will.
The matrilineal communities were subjected to aggressive ideological warfare aimed at convincing them that their social practices were immoral and depraved. The mission was indeed successful. Matrilineal communities of India are now history. Likewise, several other communities where live-in relationships have had the same status as regular marriage, with no stigma attached to children of such unions, were targeted by missionaries to convert to Victorian/Christian norms of marriage, divorce and stigma of illegitimacy attached to children born out of such unions.
Similarly, Bengali bhadralok were made to feel ashamed of their women wearing blouse-less sarees. Consequently, women of elite Bengali families adopted Victorian-style high necked, full-sleeved blouses as a sign of “high culture” and women’s modesty. The devadasis in the South who were repositories of classical arts, music, dance et al were condemned as prostitutes and vigorous campaigns launched for the abolition of this tradition at enormous loss to the classical art traditions.
These are just a few of the countless examples one can cite of the English educated elite in India happily adopting the ideological prism and dominant norms of the West in viewing their own culture and slavishly adopting western norms as “progressive thinking.” This tendency did not get curbed after India won freedom from British colonial rule. On the contrary, this has gotten further entrenched in post-independence India in all those spheres of life controlled and influenced by the English-educated elite.
That is why when feminist voices in the West grew strong against obscene portrayals of women and equated pornography with prostitution, Indian feminists demanded a stringent law to ban such portrayal without caring to build safeguards against its easy abuse. As old-style feminism lost its clout in the West and the anti-porn position got intellectually junked due to its association with right wing politics, the westernized elite in India also swung in favour of porn as a symbol of liberated sexuality.
Our westernized elites rooting for porn feel moral doing so because the US Supreme Court had upheld in the Stanley vs Georgia case that people could view whatever they wished in the privacy of their homes, thus establishing “right to privacy”. The US Commission on Obscenity and Pornography appointed by President Lyndon Johnson further bolstered this view. Its 1970 report concluded that “there was insufficient evidence that exposure to explicit sexual materials played a significant role in the causation of delinquent or criminal behaviour”.
The verdict of this Commission has been used as the ultimate weapon in the hands of libertarians that legislation “should not seek to interfere with the right of adults who wish to do so to read, obtain or view explicit sexual materials,” but that such material should be restricted to adults. The issue was never settled even in the US because certain members of the Commission submitted a minority report expressing disagreement with the majority view. When Republicans came to power, a new commission was set up in 1985 by President Ronald Reagan. In 1986, this commission reached the opposite conclusion.
- Though most members had an anti-porn bias, nevertheless its conclusions can’t be altogether rubbished, especially the following observations:
- Pornography that portrays sexual aggression as pleasurable for the victim increases the acceptance of the use of coercion in sexual relations.
- Acceptance of coercive sexuality appears to be related to sexual aggression.
- In laboratory studies measuring short-term effects, exposure to violent pornography increases punitive behaviour towards women.
In short, there is a solid opinion even within the US that pornography constitutes a serious threat to “public health”. However as the feminist movement waned, the anti-pornography stance came to be associated mainly with the right wing of American politics. That is why in recent years, leftists and self-styled liberals in India began to emerge as defenders of porn and dubbing the anti-porn opinion as a product of right wing “Hindutva” ideology. This amounts to mindless aping of western categories and political battle lines in an altogether different scenario in India.
In India, there is no comparable “left wing” vs “right wing” divide on this or other women’s rights issues even though the pro-porn proponents would like us to believe that only “Hindutva” votaries are against pornography. No party in India has opposed the right to abortion or divorce. Nor has any party opposed equal pay for equal work, or opposed women’s entry into male citadels. The truth is that here, not a single party including those who are virulently anti-BJP and anti Hindutva, would dare take an openly pro-porn position.
Their own cadre, including those who may be secret consumers of porn, would lynch such leaders. We cannot blindly rely on research findings of other countries, most of which have an ideological bias. The least we owe ourselves is to think the issue through our own lenses instead of using borrowed lenses and copycat wisdom.
Feminize Men, not Masculinize Women
The State can only control the consumption of porn, not eliminate it by banning porn sites because in this day and age of the net, bans don’t work beyond a point. The real challenge lies in combating the growing social legitimacy of porn, which has come about ever since the westernized elite began to flaunt their indulgence in it as a legitimate and “natural” expression of sexuality.
Society has a more important role to play in this than government. For instance, smoking and tobacco use are negligible among Sikhs in comparison to most other communities of India simply because these are really looked down upon by the entire Sikh community. No law against smoking could achieve comparable abstinence. We need to build similar social pressure against porn and sex crimes. The stand we take on porn has far-reaching implications for the fate of the family as an institution. Porn as an industry is an offshoot of the free sex movement in the West.
Unrestrained pursuit of kama or sexual indulgence without any roots in dharma spells the doom of marriage as an institution, which demands loyalty and commitment as its founding rocks. Without mutual loyalty and willingness to exercise sanyam (self-restraint) you cannot provide a stable family life to your children. The proof is for all to see— in most western countries, irresponsible notions of sexual liberation have severely eroded the family as an institution. Those who deride the value of sexual restraint need to understand that every society, including the most sexually liberated ones, have set moral limits.
For instance, it is not uncommon for men to feel sexually attracted to their younger brother’s wife or even their own daughter-in-law. Some even end up establishing illicit relations or raping their bhabhi or bahu. But I can’t think of a single society that does not look down upon such relations as shameful. That is why such sexual indulgences are kept under check. Without a healthy dose of “moral policing”, family and society will fall apart. Thus far, most societies have adopted double standards in “moral policing” which are grossly in favour of men. The tyranny of these double standards has pushed many women into thinking that freedom lies in emulating men.
The world over, male sexuality has displayed a tendency to express itself in forms that demean women. Rape, prostitution and sex slavery predate the emergence of porn as an industry. But in most civilized societies, these were socially disapproved as brutalities that respectable men would not stoop down to committing. The history of civilization can well be described as the history of society trying to put male sexuality under constructive, ethical restraints. Hence the universal move towards criminalization of rape, sex trade etc as well as enactment of laws that force men to take responsibility for their marriage partner.
However, pornography encourages men back in the direction of restraint-free, amoral sex, which is totally dissociated from caring and love. This is lethal for all women. Therefore, the least women owe themselves is to act as restraining influences on men instead of adopting their vices as a sign of liberation. It is not for nothing that Mahatma Gandhi thought the future of humankind lay in feminizing men instead of masculinizing women!
That is however a long-term battle. In the meantime, we need to undertake serious studies in India, keeping our own social challenges and cultural traditions in mind, to find out whether:
- Addiction to porn has an enduring impact on male-female relations.
- Does it legitimize the use of violence and coercion in sexual relations?
- What is the impact on marital relations of men or couples that watch porn? Does their sex life improve or worsen?
- At what age are young kids in India getting exposed to or seeking out porn? How does it impact their relations to females, whatever their age?
- Are males and females addicted to watching porn more likely to have extra-marital relations?
- What is the proportion of child porn, soft porn, hard porn, sadist porn and bestial porn being watched in India?
- What is the incidence of porn addiction among men convicted of rape and other sexual brutalities? Do they see a link between porn addiction and sex crimes?
These and many other related questions require serious countrywide social research through our own lenses, keeping our social needs and notions of dignified male-female relations in mind. If it turns out that porn has indeed emerged as a serious challenge to mental health and increased violence and perversion in male-female relations, we do need to find ways to deal with this menace.
This article appeared in the September 2015 issue of our magazine. Get a copy of the Swarajya magazine delivered to your home every month – 12 issues for just ₹1500. Buy Now!
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