Let's be adults, let's talk about tackling porn | columns | Hindustan Times
Today in New Delhi, India
Feb 23, 2017-Thursday
-°C
New Delhi
  • Humidity
    -
  • Wind
    -

Let's be adults, let's talk about tackling porn

columns Updated: Dec 11, 2014 12:17 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Indiaspend.com
Samar Halarnkar

‘The sexual content that kids are accessing today… has put entire society in danger so also safety threats to public order in India, Petitioner most respectfully submits that most of the offences committed against women/girls/children are fuelled by pornography.

The worrying issue is the severity and the gravity of the images is increasing. It is a matter of serious concern that prepubescent children being raped…. Petitioner is shocked to read the internet pornography statistics, wherein most shocking data are given, wherein every second 5,000 porn sites were watched, since from 2005… it estimates about more than 20 crore porn video/porn clippings including child pornography, are freely available in Indian market.

This is an excerpt from a writ petition that Kamlesh Vaswani, a lawyer from Indore, filed before the Supreme Court of India in 2013. I am no lawyer, but in general the petition appears poorly drafted and written, makes sweeping, unsubstantiated generalisations and uses data from — wikipedia?

Thousands of petitions are filed in India’s courts, but Vaswani’s effort is important because it was the basis for a meeting on November 5, 2014 in New Delhi, chaired by India’s minister for communication and information technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad, and attended by 24 government officials and industry representatives. The officials came from the ministries of defence, home affairs, legal affairs, electronics, telecommunications, commerce, the Central Bureau of Investigation and Maharashtra’s anti-terror squad.

The ostensible reason for the meeting was to discuss how pornography — which Vaswani argues is a “moral cancer that is eating our entire society”, putting at risk India’s “peace of mind, health and wellness, happiness and human potential”— could be blocked. It can be done, of course, as China does with what is called the great firewall of China, an Internet filter that blocks public access to websites deemed not to be in their interest. In China a search for the word “democracy” or “persecution” leads to the message “page cannot be displayed”. India now appears to be on a similar path with words such as “dominatrix” or “pornography”— for starters.

As Nikhil Pahwa of Medianama.com, a site that tracks the digital media, recently observed, the November 5 meeting was focused on “not whether there should be a filter at all, but how such a filter should be implemented”. Indeed, like some others at the meeting, Kamlesh Bajaj, CEO of the Data Security Council of India, an independent organisation that monitors data protection, pointed to the “unintended consequences” of blocking websites. “However, the chairman stressed that larger issue of respecting cultural values of the country and sentiments of the Indian society need to be considered and all possible ways and means may have to be devised in this context,” the minutes noted.

This is where the government’s intentions become fuzzy and dodgy. Fuzzy because pornography, in whatever country, has always defied definition. Dodgy because “cultural values”— especially as we have lately seen in India — are a slippery slope to authoritarian behaviour.

There are some aspects to pornography that are unexceptionable, such as child porn, the involvement of children in sex videos or images. Most countries in the West do not ban porn, but they do ban child porn, although it still slips between the electronic cracks of the Internet.

There are three well-worn questions around banning porn in general:

One, how do you define porn?

Two, is porn responsible for rape and violence against women?

Three, can you really stop the flow of porn?

The answer to the last question comes from Pahwa, in an earlier post. He writes: “There’s too much of it, in too many places, and there will always be workarounds.”

The answer to two in Vaswani’s opinion: “Petitioner strongly believes that most of the crimes against women/girls/children like gang rape and sexual assault are definitely fuelled by watching pornograph (sic).”

Intuitive as Vaswani’s contention might appear, the effects of porn have been inconclusively debated for decades. “Evidence for a causal relationship between exposure to pornography and sexual aggression is slim and may, at certain times, have been exaggerated by politicians, pressure groups and some social scientists,” says a 2009 study in the journal Aggression and Violent Behavior. It continues: “Victimisation rates for rape in the United States demonstrate an inverse relationship between pornography consumption and rape rates. Data from other nations have suggested similar relationships.”

The answer to the first question is the most difficult, as it has always been in any country. As the Internet Service Providers’ Association of India, one of the respondents to Vaswani’s petition, observed in its reply to the Supreme Court: “One man’s pornography is another man’s high art.”

It isn’t as if watching porn is illegal in India. Watching porn is legal. Only the production, distribution and sharing of porn is illegal. This is an important legal distinction. Vaswani’s goal is to break down that distinction and make everything about porn, from its possession to its viewing, against the law.

With epochal change upon Indian society, it is time for a scientific discussion around and public consultation about pornography and obscenity, much as the US did with two federal commissions on the subject in 1970 and 1986. However, the results in that country were inconclusive and the judicial commitment to free speech is so strong, that, as Rosemary Tong, a writer, put it, “the court will not ban depictions of the sexual abuse of women as it has the yelling of ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre”.

India need not, necessarily, follow what another country does, but we must publicly discuss what millions — myself included — with access to a computer or cellphone do in private — watch porn.

Samar Halarnkar is editor, Indiaspend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit

The views expressed by the author are personal

Tata Tea’s Anthem of apathy
Partnered feature