Can we ignore correlations between porn and crime?

The ban on 857 URLs should have been an occasion to talk about pornography. Instead, we're drowning in outrage.

Now that we’ve got the bad jokes out of the way (Sample: Why did Pornima change her name to Ima? A: Because Porn got banned), what are we really talking about?

To hear the outrage ever since 857 URLs were blocked this past week is to assume that the pornography debate falls into two neat categories. The pro-Indian sabhyatawalas argue that pornography is against Indian culture, that watching porn puts the country’s security at risk, that porn fuels violence against women, and that to imply that nice Indian ladies watch porn is—in the words of Indore-based lawyer Kamlesh Vaswani whose PIL resulted in the ban—an affront to our dignity.

On the other side of the divide are the free-speech libs. In the backdrop of shrinking spaces and bans on beef, films, books, NGOs, this constituency argues that what you and I do as adults in the privacy of our homes is our business. It argues that Indians as a whole are big consumers of porn, and that Indian women are not exempt (PornHub claims that 30% of the Indian visitors to its website are women).

Somewhere along the way the facts got fuzzy. The government said it was only following Supreme Court directions. But the Supreme Court had, in fact, declined passing an interim order to block pornographic websites on the grounds that to do so would violate people’s constitutional rights.

The government wants the Supreme Court to appoint an ombudsman that will regulate sites. The court wants the government to explain its stand.

Meanwhile, reports that the ban had been lifted seem to have been premature (sadly, more bad jokes followed) as the telecom department told service providers to lift the ban but service providers wrote back saying the 857 URLs would remain blocked until the telecom department sent clearer directions.

Of course since we famously don’t talk about sex, shy away from sex education and get our Censor Board to prudishly draw up list of “forbidden words", the actual questions we should have been asking went unarticulated. What is porn; is there good porn and bad porn; does pornography violate women (and men for that matter) in dehumanizing them and treating them as sex objects; how can we be sure that porn doesn’t use trafficked men and women?

But first, let’s get two fundamentals out of the way.

1. Bans are stupid. Bans of Internet sites that can be circumvented are stupider still.

2. Child pornography is bad, morally, legally, ethically and anyone found peddling it, promoting it, selling it, watching it, needs to go straight to jail.

That leaves us with the two sides of the debate. The cultural argument perpetuates the notion that “nice" women don’t and should not enjoy sex. Moreover, what culture are we talking about? The one celebrated in the statues at Khajuraho and other temples or the one that kills unborn daughters, sanctions “honour" killings, and tolerates marital rape or the one in which some Bharatiya Janata Party state legislators browse porn clips in the house? So, yes, the cultural argument is entirely bogus.

Yet the liberal argument—what I do in the privacy of my house is my business—is also flawed.

There is no one-size-fits-all porn. If you look at aggregator websites, they will helpfully break it down to categories (straight, gay, anime etc). What they don’t talk about is other categories of porn. Revenge porn, for instance, made by consenting adults while in a relationship but leaked on social networks when there is a falling out.

Because public memory tends to be short, we’ve forgotten the now infamous MMS clip of a young schoolgirl performing oral sex on her then boyfriend. The clip went viral. A full-fledged feature film was made. Millions watched but the boyfriend who made and leaked the clip never faced any legal consequences nor did those who watched or profited from that episode. The girl eventually left the country.

Technology has overtaken us since, making it easier to share and disseminate porn. One of the fall-outs is celebrity porn. When we watch naked pictures and videos of celebrities leaked by hackers in the privacy of our homes or when we forward them on Whatsapp and other apps, are we not aiding and abetting? We might not be in violation of the law, but do we have a social responsibility? Or do we shrug our shoulders and say “not our problem, they shouldn’t have made the clip"?

Can we ignore correlations between porn and crime? I am aware this is a thorny issue and rape certainly predates both porn and the technology that abets it. But remember the widely reported Shakti Mills rape case contained accounts of how the rapists forced their victim to enact porn clips that they had saved on their phones. Researching a story on marital rape, one counselor told me how husbands were insisting that their wives re-enact porn clips against their will. And, let’s not forget, points out film-maker Bishakha Datta, the Supreme Court is currently hearing a case where 90 actual rapes were filmed and then circulated around the net as porn.

That brings us to the makers of porn. While some stars, Sunny Leone, for instance, are unabashed about their choices, are we really sure every porn star has that same luxury? My colleague Ashwaq Masoodi won a prestigious SOPA award for a series on trafficking in which she reported that 80% of women in the sex trade in India have been trafficked. If that is the figure for the sex trade, then you have to logically ask what it is for the indigenous porn industry. Your right to watch porn in the privacy of your home cannot become a reason to support and aid an illicit at worst, an exploitative at best, industry.

Finally, there is the argument that pornography has little to do with sex but is a business that caters largely to straight, male consumers. Former porn addict Daniel Dowling in The Good Men Project talks of how “it affects your capacity for intimacy." Even feminists who are pro-porn because it recognizes women as humans with sexual needs, desire and fantasies, will concede that the market that actually caters to women is minuscule. One exception is the female-owned and operated membership site BrightDesire that won a feminist porn award this year and comes with a declaration of “ethical porn"; all performers are “paid properly and given respect for their work."

BrightDesire is the exception in an industry that seems impossible to regulate. Should every porn film come with a statutory warning: no humans were harmed in the making of this film? Can it? Asking the courts to appoint an ombudsman is to betray an absolute lack of understanding of the Internet. Will the ombudsman be empowered to take action against violations? What will this action include? What do we even understand of violations?

As they say in the social media world: It’s complicated.

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