The internet produces pornography that is new, strange and unprecedented. How can you regulate it?
We have shared it with our friends. We have watched it with our lovers. We have discussed it with our children and talked about it with our partners. It is in our bedrooms, hidden in sock drawers. It is in our laptops, in a folder marked “Miscellaneous”. It is in our cellphones and tablets, protected under passwords. It is the biggest reason why people have learned to clean their browsing history and cookies from their browsers. Whether we go into surreptitious shops to buy unmarked CDs or trawl through Torrent and user-generated content sites in the quest of a video, there is no denying the fact that it has become a part of our multimedia life. Even in countries like India, where consumption and distribution of pornography are punished by law, we know that pornography is rampant. With the rise of the digital technologies of easy copy and sharing, and the internet which facilitates amateur production and anonymous distribution, pornography has escaped the industrial market and become one of the most intimate and commonplace practices of the online world.
In fact, if Google trend results are to be believed, Indians are among the top 10 nationalities searching for pornography daily. Even a quick look at our internet history tells us that it has all been about porn. The morphed pictures of a naked Pooja Bhatt adorned the covers of Stardust in the late 1990s, warning us that the true potential of Photoshop had been realised. The extraordinary sensation of the Delhi Public School MMS case which captured two underage youngsters in a grainy sexcapade announced the arrival of user-generated porn in a big way. The demise of Savita Bhabhi — India’s first pornographic graphic novel — is still recent enough for us to remember that the history of the internet in India is book-ended by porn and censorship.
Recent discussions on pornography have been catalysed by a public interest litigation requesting for a ban on internet pornography filed in April by Kamlesh Vaswani. Whether Vaswani’s observations on what porn can make us do stem from his own personal epiphany or his self-appointed role as our moral compass is a discussion that merits its own special space. Similarly, a debate on the role, function, and use of pornography in a society is complex, rich and not for today.
Instead, I want to focus on the pre-Web imagination of porn that Vaswani and his endorsers are trying to impose upon the rest of us. There is a common misunderstanding that all porn is the same porn, no matter what the format, medium and aesthetics of representations. Or in other words, a homogenising presumption is that erotic fiction and fantasies, pictures of naked people in a magazine, adult films produced by entertainment houses, and user-generated videos on the internet are the same kind of porn. However, as historical legal debates and public discussions have shown us, what constitutes porn is specific to the technologies that produce it. There was a time when DH Lawrence’s iconic novel now taught in undergraduate university courses — Lady Chatterley’s Lover — was deemed pornographic and banned in India. In more recent times, the nation was in uproar at the Choli ke peeche song from Khalnayak which eventually won awards for its lyrics and choreography.
In all the controversy, there has so far been a “broadcast imagination” of how pornography gets produced, consumed and distributed. There is a very distinct separation of us versus them when it comes to pornography. They produce porn. They distribute porn. They push porn down our throats (that was probably a poor choice of words) by spamming us and buying Google adwords to infect our search results. We consume porn. And all we need to do is go and regulate, like we do with Bollywood, the central management and distribution mechanism so that the flow of pornography can be curbed. This is what I call a broadcast way of thinking, where the roles of the performers, producers, consumers and distributors of pornography are all distinct and can be regulated.
However, within the murky spaces of the World Wide Web, the scenario is quite different. Internet pornography is not the same as availability of pornography on the internet. True, the digital multimedia space of sharing and peer-2-peer distribution has made the internet the largest gateway to accessing pornographic objects which are produced through commercial production houses. However, the internet is not merely a way of getting access to existing older forms of porn. The internet also produces pornography that is new, strange, unprecedented and is an essential part of the everyday experience of being digitally connected and networked into sociality.
The recent controversies about the former congressman from New York, Anthony Weiner, sexting — sending inappropriate sexual messages through his cellphone — gives us some idea of what internet porn looks like. It is not just something captured on a phone-cam but interactive and collaboratively produced. Or as our own Porngate, where two cabinet ministers of the Karnataka legislative assembly were caught surfing some good old porn on their mobile devices while the legislature was in session, indicated, porn is not something confined to the privacy of our rooms. Naked flashmobs, young people experimenting with sexual identities in public, and sometimes bizarre videos of a bus-ride where the camera merely captures the banal and the everyday through a “pornographic gaze” are also a part of the digital porn landscape. The world of virtual reality and multiple online role-playing games offer simulated sexual experiences that allow for human, humanoid, and non-human avatars to engage in sexual activities in digital spaces. Peer-2-peer video chat platforms like Chatroulette, offer random encounters of the naked kind, where nothing is recorded but almost everything can be seen.
The list of pornography produced by the internet — as opposed to pornography made accessible through the internet — is huge. It doesn’t just hide in subcultural practices but resides on popular video-sharing sites like YouTube or Tumblr blogs. It vibrates in our cellphones as we connect to people far away from us, and pulsates on the glowing screens of our tablets as we get glimpses of random strangers and their intimate bodies and moments. An attempt to ban and censor this porn is going to be futile because it does not necessarily take the shape of a full narrative text which can be examined by others to judge its moral content. Any petition that tries to censor such activities is going to fall flat on its face because it fails to recognise that sexual expression, engagement and experimentation is a part of being human — and the ubiquitous presence of digital technologies in our life is going to make the internet a fair playground for activities which might seem pornographic in nature. In fact, trying to restrict and censor them, will only make our task of identifying harmful pornography — porn that involves minors, or hate speech or extreme acts of violence — so much more difficult because it will be pushed into the underbelly of the internet which is much larger than the searched and indexed World Wide Web.
Trying to suggest that internet pornography is an appendage which can be surgically removed from everyday cyberspace is to not understand the integral part that pornography and sexual interactions play in the development and the unfolding of the internet. The more fruitful efforts would be to try and perhaps create a guideline that helps promote healthy sexual interaction and alerts us to undesirable sexual expressions which reinforce misogyny, violence, hate speech and non-consensual invasions of bodies and privacy. This blanket ban on trying to sweep all internet porn under a carpet is not going to work — it will just show up as a big bump, in places we had not foreseen.
Nishant Shah is director, research, The Centre for Internet and Society