The Great Indian Porn Panic

Illustration credit: gary neill

This essay was written as a submission to International Journal of Law Management and Humanities’ essay competition on ‘Porn Ban in India’ in March 2019. It has been published in the Volume 6 of the book titled “Scholar’s Paradise” having ISBN number 978-10999-68808.

“How can someone do this to another person?”, asks a police officer repulsed by the brutality of the “Nirbhaya” gang rape. His senior has an answer. After detailing how income inequality has propelled strife in the country, he says, “Add to that the explosion of uneducated youth here. They have no sex education but get free porn online, which affects their adolescent brains. They don’t know how to interpret it. They objectify women and wish they could have that in their lives. If they don’t get it, they take it, with no regard for the consequences.” This dialogue from the Netflix series “Delhi Crime” captures the thought behind Uttarakhand High Court’s directive to ban pornographic websites in India. The jury is still out on whether an access to porn leads to sexual violence. However, it can be argued that a ban on 827 pornographic websites is so meaningless that it amounts to mere policy escapism.

The reasons for censoring pornography may vary. Some claim that pornography leads to sexual violence. This rationale, also employed by the Uttarakhand High Court, is problematic. For every study claiming that porn triggers sexual violence, you’ll find another one claiming exactly the opposite. In a paper titled “Sexual violence in India: Is it influenced by pornography?”, the authors concluded that easy access to pornography does not have any impact on crime rates against women. Such studies too need to be interpreted with a pinch of salt because it is almost impossible to carry out a meaningful study on this question. For example, the aforementioned study uses the data from the National Crime Records Bureau, Ministry of Home Affairs, India. This data becomes inconsequential in light of the fact that 99% of cases of sexual assaults go unreported. An increase in the number of cases reported by NCRB may also suggest that more people are reporting sexual crimes than ever before. This is something to be celebrated. Secondly, even if a correlation is found between sexual violence & access to pornography, it is difficult to determine causation. An experiment to prove the same will require unprecedented invasiveness in the lives of people.

The average internet speed in India has increased from about 800 KBps in 2012 to more than 6,500 KBps in 2017. With the entry of Reliance Jio in the telecom sector in late 2016, all the internet providers have been forced to charge rock-bottom data prices. These two factors have resulted in a massive upsurge in the Internet use in India in the last half a decade, a large portion of which is pornography (more than 30% according to some estimates). According to Pornhub, the most popular porn website, India accounted for the largest increase in its mobile traffic share. It jumped 121% from 2013 to 2017.

While internet & personal computers had a presence in many Indian households for more than a decade now, they couldn’t provide the privacy needed to watch porn as generally one computer would be used by the entire family much like a television. As smartphones have become affordable to a large population, they have, for the first time, allowed Indians to enjoy porn privately. This has fuelled a porn boom in India & consequently given rise to a “moral panic” around Pornography.

I use the term “moral panic” popularized by Stanley Cohen to describe “an episode of exaggerated concern about a supposedly threatening condition”. In such times, the concern expressed by a sector of the public, the media or the political institutions (judiciary in our case) is substantially much greater than what actual evidence suggests is the threat. Writing about moral panics, Erich Goode and Nachman Ben-Yehuda observe:

“Folk devils are designated as the—or at least an—enemy of decent, respectable society. The deviant’s behaviour is seen as objectively harmful, threatening to the values, the core beliefs, the interests of the society.”

The internet boom has democratized access to porn & expanded it beyond the previously digitally connected ones. It has allowed people to bypass their immediate world in order to pursue sexual pleasure. According to Pornhub, 30 percent of Indian visitors to its website in 2017 were women. This revelation is in stark contrast to the views espoused by some of the prime anti-porn activists. Kamlesh Vaswani, an Indore-based lawyer who pushed for Porn ban in 2015 says, “To say Indian women watch porn is an insult to their dignity.” Women’s chastity & virtue has always been used as a marker of national cultural worth. In her book Cyber Sexy, Richa Kaul Padte writes:

“The sexless, clothed bhartiya nari is seen as the epitome of morality and therefore cultural purity. She signifies the possibility of a monolithic cultural history, devoid of ‘Western influences’, or in fact of any influence at all.”

It’s no surprise that the war against pornography is being fought in the name of women’s safety. The recent ban was triggered by an unfortunate gang-rape of a girl studying in Class 10th in Haryana. The police found that the alleged rapists watched pornography before they committed the crime. No effort was made to find the root cause of the problem. After the court directive, the government refined the old list of porn sites that had been banned & implemented it again.

In a study titled “The problem of rape in India: a multidimensional analysis”, Sharma et al. (2014) came out with various factors responsible for rapes & similar violence against women in India. Among the factors found responsible included social factors like India’s patriarchal society which predisposes men to view women as their personal property. Another relevant social factor is the taboo of sex in India. A fundamental change was brought in the Indian mindset with the introduction of Victorian values in colonial India. Sex wasn’t a taboo in ancient India but today it has become one. Our concept of masculinity makes men believe that they are in charge of women’s sexuality and their honour depends on the premise that this control is seen as legitimate by society.

The popular media especially the Indian cinema glorify stalking & harassment. The concept of consent is asked to take a walk when the supposed hero tells you “Uski Naa Me Bhi Haa Hai” (Her ‘No’ also means ‘Yes’) & the women are regularly objectified as most children in the country grow up listening to “Tu cheez badi hai mast mast” (Girl, you are a fantastic “thing”).

There are legislative 10 challenges like the difficulty of registering complaints, low conviction rates & embarrassing investigation procedures. Educational factors like the inability to incorporate meaningful sex education in school curriculum & the resulting lack of knowledge & curiosity to indulge in sexual acts may lead to sexual violence. Environmental factors like migration & individual factors like psychological reasons and other motivations can play a role too.

Most of these factors have political implications because they involve society to change from bottom-up. Such a process of change is difficult, gradual & most likely to be resisted by the society. The only resistance that may come is from those who view the ban as an affront to the freedom of expression. Otherwise, a ban on pornography doesn’t call for resistance from any organised group as those who wish to watch porn will watch it anyway. The ban is pointless because if porn really affects sexual violence, a ban on just 800-odd websites out tens of thousands of such website is nothing more than a fig leaf that can’t even cover the private parts of these apparently “impure perversions from the west”. Moreover, the ban is incredibly easy to get around by using Virtual Private Networks & proxy sites. What the ban actually does it that it assuages the “moral panic” & makes a false appearance that something is being done to tackle the “rape epidemic”.

The ban may end up making things even worse. The 827 websites have been banned on the basis of their popularity.

Most of these sites, like Pornhub, have strict parental controls, a non-consensual takedown page & a strict policy against all illegal content like revenge porn, rape porn & child pornography. With these websites being banned, a lot of people would be driven towards less safe websites that do not have such controls.

They are likely to have more extreme & even illegal pornographic content. So, the porn ban may end up exposing people to more of the porn that the government should be trying to shield people from.

Corey Price, the Vice President of Pornhub, has offered to work with the Indian government & hinted that a Russian-style authentication can be set up in India where viewers can log in through their social media accounts. This may assuage the fear that pornography is corrupting the children. As for the people over 18 years of age, the saner choice is to let the adults be.

In the book “Porn: Philosophy for Everyone”, J.K. Miles argues why a free speech argument for pornography fails. He argues that while other forms of expression like religious expression or political expression involve persuasion, sexual expression is coercive in nature. Religious speakers cannot make you pray by praying in front of you but the exhibition of porn itself causes you to engage in the act of expression i.e. the consumption of porn. However, if pornography cannot be protected by freedom of expression, it can be protected by our right to privacy. In the light of Puttaswamy Judgement, it will be difficult for the judiciary to take away our right to do whatever we want inside our home if the action doesn’t harm anybody else.

In contrast to the view that pornography results in sexual violence, many scholars believe that pornography acts as a “safety valve”. People can express their violent sexual desires by fantasizing to all kinds of porn. The debate around pornography in India today is much like the Great masturbation panic in the late nineteenth & early twentieth century in Britain. The Porn boom has brought in a new chaos but this too shall pass. However, with such an approach towards the problem of sexual violence, we have missed yet another opportunity to have a meaningful conversation about underlying reasons behind it.

It’s about time.

Kadyalwar Sunil Abhinav

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