In defence of good porn

Pornography isn’t just a moral issue. It’s also a social one, because it enables pleasure. The question is, whose?


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s In Bed: The Kiss, 1892. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s In Bed: The Kiss, 1892. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The central government’s department of telecommunications’ recent directive to Internet Service Providers to disable 857 pornographic websites (the list of sites is available here) was revoked on Tuesday. However, sites which contain child pornography remain banned. On 10 August, the Supreme Court will resume hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by Indore-based lawyer Kamlesh Vaswani, which prompted the government to issue the directive.

The PIL asks for the ban of pornography, and to make people watching it liable for legal action (consumption of pornography is not illegal at present), because, it says, pornography fuels crime against women, such as assault and rape.

The need to keep discussions about pornography and sexual violence against women and transpersons separate is vital. There are two reasons for this.

One, because you cannot ascribe the actions of an offender to anyone other than the offender—it does not matter that they watch porn, or don’t; before or after they have committed rape. There is no justification to committing acts of sexual violence and taking cognizance of pornography as an enabler only serves to transfer blame.

Two, talking of pornography as something that only victimizes women does not recognize the possibilities of pleasure that pornography holds for women, who form a major chunk of its consumers in India. According to data released by pornography website Pornhub last year, a quarter of Pornhub’s users are female—this is 2% higher than worldwide average, reported a news website in November 2014.

Sexual violence and pornography do not have a causal relationship, but both are reflective of socially-sanctioned denial of women’s sexual desires. Sexual violence is representative of a notion of power and accompanying violence, which has everything to do with the way society privileges male desire and denies, demeans and derides female desire. Much of mainstream pornography does the same thing: the man’s desire, gaze, and satisfaction must be gratified; the woman is ultimately an object to achieve this.

This blind spot towards women’s pleasure and gratification is not surprising, as much of the discourse surrounding pornography happens from a point of view that privileges the male consumer. This then is the basis of feminist porn, which Everyday Feminism defines as, pornography that “present(s) women as sexual collaborators with men rather than as sexual conquests of men”.

“Porn doesn’t present men and women as equal partners, sexually speaking—that presents sex as something that men do to women and that women do for men—is dangerous. It reflects and thereby reinforces the warped view of sex that underlies rape culture,” an article in Everyday Feminism says.

Feminist porn is about equality. It shows sex as something two people do, with their whole bodies—irrespective of gender, sexuality and genitalia. Feminist porn encourages a healthy attitude towards the humanity and rights of its actors; it offers context and narrative that is realistic. For, as the Everyday Feminism article goes on to point out, “sex isn’t something a couple does for other people, but something they do for themselves.”

Does such porn exist? Yes, there’s actually an awards ceremony instituted a decade back to celebrate the best of it (read more). It’s not much, frankly it’s a blip in the ocean of pornography that commodifies women, but as Richa Kaul Padte writes on eroticsindia.org (read more), a website on issues pertaining to Internet technology, gender and sexuality rights, and communication, “Feminist pornography (is) the site for re-imagining the parameters of sex and sexuality”. This is because one of its central tenets is a commitment to fair treatment, pay and labour rights. Padte quotes Tristan Taormino, a director who makes feminist porn and maintains a blog called Pucker Up. The American director writes about how she makes her films. It involves asking performers about how they want their sexuality to be represented—who they wish to have sex with, the positions they wish to get into, the toys and lubes they want to use. “All based on their actual sexuality”.

A study conducted by Erotics (Exploratory Research on Technology Internet Communications and Sexuality) and available on the website titled Sex, Rights and the Internet has a chapter on female Internet users in Mumbai written by researchers Manjima Bhattacharjya and Maya Indira Ganesh. The duo conducted a quantitative survey of 150 young people aged 18 to 25 (120 of whom were women) and in-depth interviews with 31 respondents, of whom 27 were women (aged between 18 and 54 years, all of whom were regular Internet users) in 2009. The report expanded the idea of pleasure derived on the Internet. It states: “The current approach to content regulation on the internet is strongly influenced by existing laws on decency and obscenity…

...In many ways “pornography” is a red herring. Users’ excitement and exploration online lies not only in the one-way gaze of looking at porn but at the interactive intimacies that come from consensual, sensual chatting with friends and strangers using text, speech and webcams; putting up “sexy” images (according to extremely subjective ideas of “sexy”) of oneself and inviting an appreciative sexual gaze through profiles, photo albums and chatting (online)…

...To users it is not the images themselves which are problematic, but as the narratives and recent cases in India have shown, it is their manipulation and trafficking without consent that is of concern.”

This is interesting because it brings the blind spot into sharp focus for us. Pornography is not simply a moral issue. It’s also a social one, because it is ultimately an industry meant to enable pleasure. The question is, whose?

The Sex Talk is a blog on gender, sexuality and blind spots.

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