Lounge opinion: Let’s not call it porn

Twitter’s recent ban on ‘revenge porn’ is a reminder to start asking the right questions


A #badgirls poster
A #badgirls poster

In December 2004, the “DPS-MMS Scandal” caused middle-class India to implode with outrage. It was a grainy video shot on a mobile phone featuring a teenage boy and girl from Delhi Public School engaging in oral sex—the first in a subsequently long list of similar home-made videos that have gone viral since. Shared across newly MMS-compatible mobile phones and uploaded to several locations online, the video elicited public outrage centring on two questions: Why was she doing that? Why did she let him film her? And somehow, amid the disgust and moralizing, the more important question was almost entirely evaded: Did she give him permission to share the video?

The story of revenge porn is now as old as it is relevant: Boy films girl. Boy feels angry, vengeful, or scorned. Boy shares footage. Girl is shamed, blamed and hopefully “learns her lesson”.

Now, however, thanks to over a decade of active campaigning, the non-consensual sharing of sexual images is being recognized globally as a crime. The UK recently passed a law criminalizing revenge porn, the US is introducing a Bill to make it a federal crime, and in the past few months, Twitter, Reddit and Facebook have all developed explicit policies against this epidemic of abuse.

These are hallmark advancements for women across the world who have fought for stronger legislation and greater accountability from Internet platforms, not to mention a victory for the countless women who have been subject to such violations. Yet, when it comes down to the everyday whats, hows and whys of revenge porn in India, we’re still asking the same questions. Why did you take your clothes off? Didn’t you see the camera? What did you imagine he was going to do with that selfie?

In other words, we’re still blaming women.

The first problem here is that we’re choosing our words badly. From the young man in Vasai, Mumbai, who uploaded a sex video of his estranged wife, to the “Mysore Mallige Scandal”, in which a couple’s sex video was leaked online, to the numerous amateur porn websites to which Indian men are regular contributors, each day growing numbers of women are subject to their intimate photographs or videos being published and shared for one single purpose: to shame and humiliate them.

Using the phrase “revenge porn” to describe this masks the terrible violence of these acts. We’re not talking about porn, we’re talking about abuse. More specifically, we’re talking about abuse that is a violation of privacy and a violation of bodily and sexual autonomy. But given that this violence exists against a wider backdrop of “leaked” sex videos and media-generated “sex scandals”, it almost becomes easy to forget that someone is doing the leaking.

In a 2013 article for The Guardian newspaper, Jill Filipovic writes, “There aren’t popular sites with pictures of naked men, because as a society we don’t think it’s inherently humiliating or degrading for men to have sex.” In India, this type of abuse occurs frequently in smaller cities, simply because the smaller the community, the more pervasive the effects of stigma in every aspect of a woman’s life. In other words, the easier it is to shame her. Women across the world are speaking out about the weeks, months and years of trauma they experience, including losing their jobs, being afraid to go out in public, and experiencing a range of psychological harms, including anxiety, insecurity and depression.

What’s more, terming this rampant abuse “revenge porn” not only minimizes the violence faced by women, but also mistakenly equates pornography with abuse. Violations of consent in any sex-work industry must be fought aggressively, but by labelling abuse as another part of the industry—as another category—we end up demonizing all of it.

If you’re wondering what a law minus the term “revenge porn” might look like, look no further than our very own Information Technology (IT) Act. Section 66E of the IT (Amendment) Act, 2008, criminalizes violations of privacy in which anyone “intentionally or knowingly captures, publishes or transmits the image of a private area of any person without his or her consent”. Sure, that’s a little clunkier than the snappy, two-word crime “revenge porn”, but sacrificing nuance at the altar of brevity just isn’t worth it, especially when it comes to categorizing a pervasive form of sexual violence against women.

In 2013, the MTV India channel launched a TV series called Webbed, which ran with the tag line, “This is about those youngsters whose lives changed just because of one mistake on the web.” Recreating real-life stories of digital violence, the show’s pilot episode features teenage Jia, a “small-town girl” who fell in love online with Rahul, a “cool, handsome, college-going” man. At some point during their relationship, she is persuaded into stripping for him during a video chat. And as the story of love, sex and dhoka (betrayal) goes, he recorded and distributed the video without her consent. As viewers of the show, we sympathize with Jia, who is presented as otherwise morally upstanding, hesitant to engage in “those kinds of things”, and deeply repentant as soon as she does.

But what about all the Jias who aren’t hesitant or sorry?

Or to put it another way, how many “sexy” pictures of you are out there? For many of us navigating love, sex and relationships today, this is not an easy question to answer. There’s that swathed-in-a-towel photograph I sent a boy several years ago—I wonder if he still has it. Or that sexy video of you and your girlfriend in her hostel room, laughing all the while, wondering if you’ll get caught. And then there are those cleavage-enhancing, daring selfies that my auntie-neighbour takes of herself and saves in a folder on her smartphone, not quite sure whether she’s ready to share them with her current lover.

In a world where many of us mediate our lives through different types of digital technology, sexting, video-chatting, or even taking naked selfies are quotidian sexual experiences. In fact, they are forms of sex in and of themselves—it’s only the medium that’s changed. What was once long-distance phone sex at extortionate prices is now a Skype strip show. What was once a note carefully hidden inside a tiffin dabba (lunch box) is now a raunchy sext. And for many people who occupy marginalized spaces on the sexuality spectrum, including queer folks, people with disabilities, the growing BDSM community, and a lot of girls and women stuck at home, digital sex offers possibilities that never existed before.

But there’s certainly one thing that’s stayed the same. Just as it’s always historically been when it comes to women having sex, these new digital avatars come with the same addendum—you should have known better.

The Internet is overflowing with tips on how women can stay safe from revenge porn; pretty much all of them start and end with the premise: Don’t do it. Don’t take naked pictures. Don’t share naked pictures. Don’t let anyone film you. Don’t go into adult chat rooms. In this way, the “don’ts” for keeping your sexy stuff safe act as an extension of the impossibly sweeping cautionary measures women are expected to take. Don’t travel alone in an auto rickshaw. Don’t travel with a boy in an auto. Don’t travel. To add to the now-famous #badgirls poster, if good girls don’t go to Goa or ride motorcycles, they sure don’t get down and dirty in front of a camera.

In reality, whether online or offline, through a phone or on a bed, sex is always a two- (or three- or four-) way exchange—of desire, of trust, of power. If a woman’s ex-husband non-consensually shares her sex video online, she’s no more at fault than the woman who is raped by a man she invites home after a date. Blaming women for the (sexual) violence they face implies that they are doing something wrong; it rests on the assumption that they could be keeping themselves safer. But if rape alarms, pepper sprays and curfews have taught us anything, it’s that no matter how we try to be safe—and trust me, despite the fact that the onus isn’t on us, we’re all still trying very hard—it’s pointless and it’s limiting. It’s coming home early, it’s never stopping to sit on a park bench, it’s logging out of the chat room before midnight.

Digital technology enables countless sexual possibilities for people of all genders, and instead of cordoning it off with a culture of victim blaming, we should be celebrating its potential. And where violence occurs, let’s blame the perpetrators, support the survivors, and let’s sure as hell not call it “porn”.

Richa Kaul Padte writes on issues of gender, sexuality, digital rights and popular culture.

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