Like Your Porn? Now Is The Time To Jump To Its Defence

Perhaps you’ve heard that a new petition to the Rajya Sabha seeks to criminalise all viewing of porn. What other dangerous intrusions can this petition lead to?

In early July, acharya Vijayratna Sunder Suri, a Mumbai-based Jain priest, filed a petition to the Rajya Sabha “praying to put a check on cyber pornography by amending the IT Act 2000”. It was co-signed by the Congress MP Vijay Darda, who has been otherwise busy answering the CBI's questions about his involvement in the Coalgate scam. In its infinite patience, the Rajya Sabha Committee on Petitions has invited public opinion on the matter of whether viewing porn should be made a criminal act.

The petition has also been signed by Pratibha Naithani, a Mumbai-based professor and activist who has waged several battles against vulgarity in the name of women's rights. Infamous for introducing bowdlerised subtitling to English television shows, Naithani has been part of several recent censorship brigades, including the temporary bans on several channels including AXN in 2007.

Sunder Suri's petition evokes sharp deja vu given the recent efforts to ban or curb pornography in India, including Kamlesh Vaswani's April public interest litigation to the Supreme Court calling for a complete ban on porn. Vaswani calls it worse than the Nazi holocaust or a nuclear one.

At this point, you may be thinking: wait, if porn isn't already illegal, what are 'those kinds' of movies doing hidden in the back rooms of your local DVD rental joint? Currently, the IT Act criminalises only the distribution of pornography, which mostly affects cyber cafes, shops and cinema halls. The acharya's petition proposes to criminalise watching porn on mobile phones and personal computers, create a new Cyber Police Force (over and above the existing Cyber Police Cells) whose sole occupation will presumably be to hunt down lustful citizens and require all ISPs and intermediaries (such as large servers, search engines and web portals) to block pornographic content.

Couched in a language of familial morality, the petition states: “There is a horrible trend in USA which is called 'Fatherless America' or 'Motherless America'. This trend is related to those 'Orphaned' children whose father or mother though alive are addicted to Cyber Pornography and don't take any care of their children and the family.”

Leaving aside this distracting cartoon of the incessantly masturbating American parent, let's focus on something much more insidious – both the acharya and Vaswani also squarely blame porn for increasing sexual violence against women and children. How accurate is such a correlation?

Actually, research across the world points to the fact that there is no direct correlation between online pornography and offline violence. Statistics from countries such as the US, in fact, indicate quite the opposite. In a paper for Northwestern University, Anthony D'Amato demonstrates that between 1980 and 2000, states with the least access to Internet pornography experienced a 53% increase in incidences of rape, whereas those with the most access showed a 27% drop in the number of reported rapes. Similarly, a paper in the journal Violence Against Women states that a literature review of all research around the subject shows that there is no link between media images - of any kind, including pornography - and audience behaviour.

The Alternative Law Forum (ALF), a Bangalore-based lawyers' collective, recently posted a counter-petition on Change.org asking for the dismissal of the acharya's demands. Namita Malhotra of the ALF believes that the causality between sexual violence and pornography is virtually indemonstrable. Malhotra, who was been researching pornography and the law for some years, says, “Yes, there are certain harms that take place, especially in instances of specific pornography and women who have been abused in the making of [that] porn, but that cannot be dealt [with] by banning it. There is a coefficient being made between the phenomenon of pornography and the general existence of sexual violence. You can't  make these links between them just because the two exist.” And while some pornography may indeed be misogynist, violent and derogatory towards several of its subjects, that leaves it no worse than several other accepted forms of visual culture such as print ads, television shows and music videos.

Furthermore, a ban also becomes a question of free speech. Says Anja Kovacs, the founder and director of the New Delhi-based Internet Democracy Project, “Sexual expression is a part of free speech and the Internet does give space for people to experiment with these things. So that's another important avenue of expression that you're closing down. But the right to freedom of expression is also the right to receive information. And [with a ban], people can no longer make those choices [of what information to access] themselves.”

Speaking of statistics, the acharya's petition presents some pretty far-fetched ones. For example, it states that “Almost 70% of the traffic that passes through the gateways of [the] Internet is adult in nature”, while Malhotra disputes this to say that global figures are closer to 30 percent. The Association for Progressive Communications – an international organisation focusing on issues surrounding Internet rights – has statistics similar to Malhotra's, and says that only 4% of the most popular websites contain pornographic content. 

The fallout of such a ban, though, would be much more than just some fuzzy numbers. It would be constitutional rather than mathematical, since a ban would encroach on the average online citizen's right to privacy. Citing a Delhi High Court ruling, the ALF's letter to Members of Parliament states: “The way in which one gives expression to one's sexuality is at the core of private intimacy. If in expressing one's sexuality, one acts consensually and without harming the other, invasion of that precinct will be a breach of that privacy.” Section 66A of the IT Act already criminalises mobile phone messages considered to be 'annoying' or 'inconvenient', but a ban on viewing porn would require an even stricter system of surveillance.

In order for such a system to even begin to operate, the first hurdle (yet to be surmounted by anyone, anywhere) would be to formulate a single definition of pornography. Precedents in other countries have not been nearly as successful as the acharya's petition boldly claims. For example, a ban on some online content can be usually implemented through a blacklist of restricted sites. But in reality, there are always things that end up on such blacklists that don't fit the bill at all. Lessons from Denmark's child pornography ban indicate that numerous legitimate websites pertaining to sex and sexuality were blocked under the same law. Kovacs says, “The other option [apart from blacklists], if you want to be more comprehensive, is to filter keywords. But if that's the way you are going to do it, then you can be 100 percent sure that a large amount of material will get blocked, even if it doesn't actually fall in that category. There is no way to do this well.”

Thus in India, a ban on porn would further restrict access to the limited amount of available sex education. The acharya's petition talks about STDs and teenage pregnancies as a consequence of 'cyber porn addiction' but doesn't take into account the fact that such a ban would likely censor all websites providing information on sexual health, which would only increase rather than decrease these problems.

And who's going to do the dirty work anyway? Who can reliably sift through the numerous forms of sexual content on the Internet and decide what is and is not porn? What does and does not lead to rape? And once these esteemed, incorruptible individuals have been singled out, Kovacs asks, “Who will watch the watchdogs?”

While the Supreme Court and the Rajya Sabha deliberate over these matters of morality, censorship and surveillance, the onus is now on the public to create an alternative dialogue. The Rajya Sabha's Committee on Petitions has asked for public responses to the acharya's petition, which will then be read in conjuction with the anti-porn proposal before arriving at any decisions. However,  over and above the parliament and courts, a different sort of conversation around pornography needs to start taking place. Malhotra says, “These are not very strong petitions. [But] it's just that these things have been happening and there is no voice from anybody saying, 'We like our porn and we don't necessarily want to give it up.'”

Do you like your porn? Yes? Okay. Then let's start talking about it.

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