Pornography has existed for centuries, as has the censorship that tries to control it. Over the last few years the Government of India has instituted several bans on pornographic content claiming it causes rape and immorality. Have the bans made things better? I argue, they have made them worse.
Written by Aarushi Ahluwalia.
The first time I watched pornography it happened completely by accident. I went to get a DVD from what might have been the last one of those shops that existed in our town and as I was accustomed to doing, I asked the guy who ran the shop to make a suggestion.
“Do you want a movie to watch alone or with family?” He asked.
That was a strange question that I had never been asked before and I really was a little unsure as to why the nature of the film should change based on that. I told him I would most likely watch alone and he gave me a case that didn’t have an illustrated cover but had the word “competitors” scribbled onto it. I took the movie and later at night I started to watch on my little portable DVD player. The first shot was a naked girl on a wooden table and a man pouring a literal vat of oil on her. I have no idea how she didn’t slide off that table. Within seconds of the oil bath, they started to slide all over each other. Pornography is not great at providing context. Anyway, that’s when I shut it off, not because I take moral issue with naked people but because I felt a little strange that the DVD-guy had chosen to give me that. I wasn’t sure if he wanted me to watch it or he thought I wanted to watch it. In any case, I never did find out what the competition was.
Over the years though, I did find out, mostly from male friends and a few women, that the DVD-guy was once the human version of Pornhub and telling him that you wanted a movie to “watch alone” was code for “give me porn”. Other introductions to porn included magazines one kid stole from their parents and passed around to others or soft-core films mostly young boys gathered together to watch. Shortly after that the internet went mainstream and got cheaper and cheaper to use through the years and quietly, but surely, the porn industry exploded. In 2018, India became the third largest consumer of porn in the world, with 30% of those users being woman. 89% of smartphone users admit to watching porn on their phones and the bulk of these users are aged between 18 and 40. The majority of these users do not view Indian porn or as it is more commonly known on the internet “desi porn”. Which honestly, I kind of understand, because anytime I have viewed any Indian pornography I always felt like I was watching something non-consensual, not wilfully non-consensual for the hotness of it but like i was watching someone be coerced into making those videos, or I always felt like they were being distributed against the will of the participants, at least the female participant.
This is not entirely untrue. India has strict laws against publishing or distributing pornography and unlike other countries where this may be legal in some form, the minimum age for viewing pornography is 20, not 18. The fact that there is no governance or structure to protect anyone in the porn industry, means it is rife with exploitation. Not everyone in the porn industry has a Sunny Leone type story, I would venture no one else does. Even writers of erotic comics, erotica and phone sex operators (and these have existed for a lot longer in India than you would think) work mostly anonymously in India. Besides this, starting in the late 1990s, “hidden cameras” became quite popular in India. We all remember the DPS case, I am sure? When the rights of a young girl were grossly violated and we collectively conspired to drive her out of the country? Well, if you were a teenager in the aftermath of that, you will remember, that MMS videos of girls you knew became all the rage. All the boys claimed to have seen this or that girl naked. Then smartphones brought leaked nudes and revenge porn. The final nail in the coffin came, at least administratively, from in Dehradun, four boys raped a young woman they went to school with and claimed they did it after viewing porn, and as a response the Indian government began undertaking a series of bans on pornography. Do I believe that chronic porn watching could lend the ideation to believe they could just have sex with anyone? I think, yes. Do I believe banning porn was the answer? Well.
Here’s the thing that we don’t really want to admit. Porn existed long before the internet and people have always viewed it in some form. Personally, not a big fan of watching it, I’m a storyteller and I need rich characters and context so when I want to I read it instead. It also helps that when I read it, I know no real people were harmed in the making of it. Before there was visual porn, it was written. Whether that was the chapbooks of the 17th century or the letters to penthouse of the 20th century, porn has been around. Human beings have enjoyed pornography, sensuality and eroticism for many centuries. I think it’s probably because we are actually capable of having sex for fun. In a very weird civics lesson in school we were studying the “causes for the high population of India” and one of the causes was quite simply: Recreation. What they meant, somewhat horrifyingly, was that (and I kid you not) poor people couldn’t buy much recreation so they had sex as recreation and therefore more babies. Hence, population. Terrible textbook aside, they have a point, human beings do have sex for recreation. We all know that we all do it much more for that than baby-making. It’s like our country’s worst-kept secret. And because we have sex for recreation an industry develops around it, that is how marketing works in a somewhat capitalist but definitely consumerist world. There are industries that support all our pleasures. Pornography is part of that and that’s really not immoral, sex is only as dirty as you want it to be. We have become so embroiled in the conversation of morality, we have ignored a much more important thing. Managing the industry that already exists.
Because, no one stopped watching porn because of the bans. We watched more porn than ever this year. Based on the numbers, most of our population is on the “immoral” side but no one wants to be the champion of porn. So many watch it, pretend to abhor it, watch it again but none of them really ever seem to think that the people of this industry deserve our support? Bans do not control the internet (unless you are China), and VPNs are too easy to get, and everyone continues to view whatever they want. However here at home, bans impact people who work in the industry, their job becomes more dangerous, they make less money, the have fewer or no legal recourses, they cannot quit under exploitation. The pornography that comes out of such an environment speaks to the environment itself. So much Indian porn features coercion, rape, hidden camera set-ups, “girlfriend” videos, spy videos or “caught” at a hotel videos, and what that tells me is that even in our pornography we want sex to be a forced, hidden thing. Bans only reinforce that idea. When people watch that porn that is the idea they may get about sex, and that kind of idea could absolutely cause four boys to rape a young woman. It’s not because of porn, it’s because of how Indian “culture” reflects off porn. It makes DVD guys give you porn when you wanted gore. It makes women scared to have sex because it may be filmed. It makes men who think it’s fun to record rape. It makes private school boys create WhatsApp groups to expose girls they know. You think banning porn will stop that? Nope, it’s going to make it worse.
What would make it better is having better porn. Porn where you know the characters are consenting, decently paid, safe, legally-prot nor being forced or trafficked, not underage. Porn where we know everyone is medically sound and protected. Porn that does not allow for exploitation. And I daresay, porn with better storylines and richer characters. But what we have down is instead of putting the porn industry on trial, we have decided to put the concept on trial and even as we watch it unceasingly, we look up at the news of the ban and nod our heads in agreement. Ultimately the question is a simple one :
What is it we want to protect — an idea of Indian culture or real Indian people?