The Department of Telecom – it would appear – through the various internet service providers, sometime back tried to block Indian internet-users’ access to some 800-odd websites, most of them featuring pornographic content. All we know about what motivated this, is that it had some connection to a PIL in the Supreme Court, filed by a Lucknow lawyer, requesting that the Government ban all access to internet pornography. Many high-ranking officials in the government – perhaps only in an individual capacity – made statements about the reasoning behind the ban. What was more amusing, was the heated, highly-politicized argument that seemed to have taken over social media and still continues in a lot of circles. Here, I hope to present a couple of entirely apolitical arguments, in opposition to the #PornBan.
I think banning pornography is a move rooted in heteronormativity and misogyny, but before I get into it, three crucial disclosures. First, I am a consumer of internet pornography myself. Second, I’m not even going to go near addressing such things as child pornography or bestiality or rape pornography (which, in one important way is different from rape-fantasy pornography) because these are cases where informed consent is lacking – and we all know how I feel about the need for consent. And third, I think that personal views on this ban are less about hard facts and more about subjective judgment calls – so if you disagree with me, I don’t think you’re wrong.
First, there is the matter of banning online content, of any type. With the obvious exceptions of such things as hate-speech, or incitement to violence, allowing your citizens to access the internet on your terms – I think – is an infringement of our fundamental right to free speech. I made this argument four years ago, when the then government tried to clamp down on political comments and parodies, and I make it now about pornography. The internet is free, neutral, and open-access. In a country where mainstream film promotes voyeurism, and daily evening news is the personification of sensationalism, blocking off websites is nothing short of clamping down on free speech.
Detractors have argued that pornography falls under the exceptions that I mention – that it is both hateful, and that it incites violence. To me, part of those arguments sound like blatant apologism. I will get to that, but first let’s talk about one of the ‘reasons’ supposedly mentioned in the PIL.
That, by allowing access to internet porn, we are allowing children access to this content, which is “harmful to society”. Let’s for a moment ignore that internet users of age are probably smarter than you are, and will find a work-around if there ever was one. Let’s also ignore the toxicity of the idea that sexual content will ‘corrupt’ teenagers.
At the core of my contention with this argument, is that it is not a government’s role to serve as everyone’s legal guardian. Every child, or teenager, is different in what they have the maturity to handle, and what their guardians wish for them to access. I mean, fizzy drinks are bad for children, so let’s ban them entirely, because our country’s parents haven’t the ability to decide what’s right for their children? Even worse, is any policy that seeks to ban or block something because it is inappropriate for a certain section – in this case children – of the population. Because while there is a strong argument in favor of requiring laws to prevent children from accessing these sites (blocks in schools, requirements for sites to ask how old you are, etc. – as is done in the rest of the world), blocking it entirely to prevent access by children would be akin to banning everyone from accessing cars, or alcohol, or getting married.
Now, let’s address the concept that internet pornography is bad because it is demeaning to women and because it “outrages the modesty” of Indian women. I have multiple points of contention with this point of view and strongly believe that it can do with a paradigm shift. For starters, this idea pigeon-holes pornography as content only featuring heterosexual acts between cispeople; definitional heteronormativity. In making this generalization, you are devaluing the experience of the country’s queer community.
Far more grave, though, is the inherent assertion to this claim, that women don’t like sex or porn. The lawyer who filed the PIL even went so far as to say it was impossible that Indian women watched pornography. This is a lie, and I have been told so by enough women to know for sure. PornHub’s recent survey also showed that 25% of its traffic from India identified itself as female.
Attaching morality to sex, and sexual pleasure, is how misogyny has been perpetrated in ‘Indian Culture’ for generations. Perpetrating the impression that men are meant to enjoy sex, and women aren’t – therefore, the idea that any sex is a means for men to show dominance over women, is severely disempowering to half the country’s population. We need to change the narrative. As long as we are telling ourselves that women shouldn’t have sexual desires, or slut-shame women who are open about how much fun sex is, we will continue to disempower women. By extension, making claims that only men watch or enjoy porn – any and all porn – is disenfranchising women from their sexual freedoms and their right to enjoy porn.
At this stage, I often hear the apparently more nuanced argument that ‘some porn is ok’ but other porn with ‘weird’ fetishes or ‘abnormal things’ is bad for society. That may be a well-intentioned concern, but I assure you, it’s thoroughly misguided. (Reminder: we already took child-pornography, bestiality, and other situations where there is no explicit, informed, consent, off the table). As a rational adult with any semblance of mental autonomy, I put it to you that just because you think something is weird or abnormal, it doesn’t make it those things, and it certainly doesn’t make it “wrong”. Personally, I don’t get off on men tying women up. Or women tying men up. Or being tied up. But there are people that do. There are men and women – both viewers, and actors – who enjoy these acts, or in the case of the latter, who enjoy or at least willfully consent to portraying these acts for others’ enjoyment. Do I understand how this can be sexy? No, I really don’t. The solution therefore, is that I don’t watch it. And if you find it abnormal or depraved, then you shouldn’t watch it! There are people that enjoy watching it, and you are in no way affected by someone halfway across the world enjoying themselves when they watch a dominatrix do their thing. You have the right to freely choose what online content you want to consume, but it’s only sensible to exercise this choice in a manner that doesn’t curtail someone else’s freedom to choose what they want to watch or practice, for that matter. As long as it’s consensual, you and I have no right to decide for other people, what is offensive, or violent, or un-sexy.
I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it. ~ Voltaire
The other oft-heard argument, is one that “violent” porn – BDSM, specifically – incites sexual violence. This is the one that makes my blood boil. These ‘graphic’ videos, are, by law, required to carry an opening statement or interview with the performers – yes, they’re performers, doing their jobs – where they mince no words while providing consent, or discussing safe-words, or whatever else. As I’ve already discussed, we can’t judge someone for their fetishes. So if someone enjoys making or watching this content, so be it.
But why I bring up these interviews/opening statements, is to make a critical point about what is defined as sexual violence. Sexual violence is NEVER defined by the magnitude of the act, but by the status of consent from all participating parties. Which is why staring or making lewd statements may in many cases be sexual abuse, whereas someone consensually being tied up, or spanked or choke-held, is most certainly NOT sexual abuse. So at the outset, the presumption that a movie shows something beyond a missionary-position make-out session means it displays abuse, is highly flawed. Considering – but by no means conceding – that these movies show women being ill-treated, I argue that it is STILL wrong, to assert that these are in any way responsible for rape.
Because rapists are the only thing responsible for rape. Blaming a movie is apologism akin to blaming the victim’s sexual preferences and history of sexual activity. The argument that movies about two consenting adults having kinky sex causes other adults to force themselves on people who have not provided consent is akin to saying that it’s okay for me to come up to you, and without asking you, beating you up, because I watched all six Rocky movies last night. Long story short – women enjoy sex too, and consent is far more important than the nature of the act itself. Anyone that tells you otherwise is channeling centuries of patriarchy to continue the faulty portrayal that women aren’t sexual beings.
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