Goa-based author Richa Kaul Padte has taken India by storm with her debut book ‘Cyber Sexy- rethinking pornography’. A non-fiction description and account on porn and sexuality in India, it has brought to the fore facts about the consumption of porn in India by women and perceptions. Controversial yet personal, the contents of the book are ‘hot to handle’, especially in the Indian context where gender inequality and patriarchy affect and control women entirely; let alone their pleasures and sexual desires. NT BUZZ talks porn, sex and more with the author
Danuska Da Gama I NT BUZZ
As startling as it is with revelations, it is also very educative, especially in our country where sex education isn’t practical or is laced with religious ideologies that make one look down upon porn with guilt and sin. Don’t you think it is advisable to tell youngsters in high school that intercourse isn’t bad? They should be responsible for their acts, take precautions and most definitely have their partner’s consent instead of believing premarital sex is a mortal sin.
Sex and porn in India
India is the land of the Kamasutra. Erotica has been around for 3,000 years, but somehow the more we move forward, the more regressive we are becoming as a people. We object to freedom of sexuality, freedom of sexual expression through art, cinema, etc. It is rather suffocating as we still discuss sex life and porn in hushed whispers or close knit groups while our ancient temple architecture has walls showcasing kamasutra and love making.
A lot changed when the British came to India and with establishment of the Church conservative ideas shunning sex were advocated. “British imperialism brought in many sexually regressive ideas – the legal concept of obscenity, the criminalisation of queer desire, and in general a lot of sexually conservative Victorian morals. But I think above all what they reinforced to India’s ruling classes was the idea that sexual control was a means to control a population. And over time, Victorian morality combined with Brahmanical ideas of purity to implement more stringent standards of sexuality – not just for women, but for a range of minorities that the dominant power structure wanted to suppress.”
Perhaps what many don’t know is that female visitors to porn websites has increased the most in India, by 129 per cent. Yet we choose to believe or are in denial that porn and Indian women are poles apart. Look at the uproar over a masturbation scene in the latest Bollywood release ‘Veere di Wedding’. ‘Apna hath Jaganaath’ is commonly used among men for the same, but in the case of Swara Bhasker’s scene values, morals, family background and slut shaming come into the picture. It became a big deal because a woman was shown doing something that is normal, in a humorous manner
As much as the men in India want their women – sisters, daughter and wives – to be ideal in terms of values and morals, they don’t hesitate to look at other women as sexual objects or satisfy their desire or lust through porn. Speaking about this Padte says: “I don’t think satisfying your lust through porn means that you are looking at women as objects! But I know what you are saying about this wider duality – on the one hand Indian men want women to be chaste and pure, and on the other hand they also see women as the source of their arousal.”
She believes that here is where the danger lies because it creates a duality between those women who are ‘deserving’ of respect (mothers, wives, daughters) and those who aren’t (everyone else). “And obviously this is a lose-lose situation, because every woman is someone else’s daughter – but that doesn’t mean men will respect her. I think we need to work towards a society where women are respected, period. Not because they have earned that respect by being related to a man,” she says.
Let’s face it – India is the third-highest consumer of pornography. When Sunny Leone moved to India she became the most searched person on Google, only to be overtaken by Priya Prakash Varrier very recently. Although prostitution and filming and sharing of porn is illegal in India, it is thriving in full measure but we choose to ignore this fact. Padte tells us that when it comes to sex work it is the soliciting of clients that is illegal, not the work itself (though this does, in effect, make it illegal and dangerous for sex workers to connect with potential clients).
Empowerment and consent
Many have said that legalising prostitution could somewhere see a dip in sexual assaults and rapes in the country. While this has been a widely debated topic, Padte says that the rates of sexual assault and rape are slowly declining, not increasing. She says: “This has been happening across the world, not just in India. It’s just that the media coverage of crimes against women is increasing, and that more women feel empowered to report these crimes – the actual crimes themselves are not on the rise, it’s only public knowledge of them that’s increasing.”
Padte doesn’t think porn preferences are necessarily linked to gender. But the one thing she found while researching Cyber Sexy was that almost every woman refused to watch porn that seemed non-consensual. “But not many men I interviewed spoke about the idea of consent. I think that’s because as women we constantly face threats to our bodily and sexual autonomy, so what we seek out for pleasure has to be consensual for it to be arousing,” she says.
We’ve watched and read enough about how men love taking control of a woman’s body. Love making and foreplay are mere words in books like Mills and Boon and fantasies of women.
Speaking her mind, the author thinks that representations of sex in popular culture are male-focussed. Having said that, she also thinks that we shouldn’t associate ‘sex’ with men and ‘love making’ with women, “Because I think there’s this whole myth that women like things to be softer and suggestive, which isn’t always true. What women do want is for sex to be consensual, and also to be in the driver’s seat as much as men – women-led sex doesn’t mean its soft core, it just means that women’s desires and roles are front and centre.”
Women are their own enemies
Quite often we see women shaming their own gender. Moral policing, they believe is their birth right and they go to all extents to deceive or condemn women and girls from living the life they want. While mothers are quick to say that their parenting skills have been the best, what they fail to understand is that a woman – in any capacity should be given the freedom to live life, learn from mistakes and rise above them. They shouldn’t be taught to ‘please’ their men and do all it takes to save a marriage.
Explaining how all the above is deeply rooted in India because of the effects of patriarchy, Padte says: “The policing of women’s bodies and freedoms don’t only come from men, it comes from patriarchy as the governing system we live under. And because we all live within this system, these ideas live inside all of us. This means women who uphold patriarchal institutions and ideas may prevent other women from living with autonomy and freedom, and may shame them for their sexual choices.”
Sex and the cyber space
The internet has been a saviour to many in various ways. While for some it’s about getting easy access to information and knowledge, it also means that there is increased viewing of porn. Here people can do a lot without anyone else knowing.
For many youngsters with conservative parents, the internet has been a source of knowledge and pleasure. This can be a double-edged sword. Padte thinks the internet has opened up many sex educational spaces for young people. “But the problem is that they’re interacting with this content in a society where adults refuse to talk to them about sex. So they’re getting exposure to sex online, but they don’t have an open-minded offline context where they can ask questions about what they are seeing, and understand how it relates to their own lives,” she says. This she says means that there’s no adult telling them, for example: sex in real life doesn’t look like sex in mainstream porn. “I think in India we’ve always left kids to learn about sex on their own, and now everyone is suddenly worried because the internet is exposing them to it.”
She goes on to say that if parents don’t want their children learning about sex from the internet, then they have to teach them about it, because ultimately someone has to do it.
Today on the other hand there are many people, especially the youth who are very fearlessly open and candid when it comes to discussing their sex life, sexual preferences, sexuality, and porn preferences. “I think there are more people talking about these things, but these conversations aren’t as widespread as the illusion the internet creates. Internet access is still deeply unequal in India, and this inequality is happening along caste, class and gender lines. So while we certainly see more open discussions of sex online (which is amazing!), I think we still have a long way to go in terms of making these spaces accessible for more than just India’s privileged folks,” she says.
Cyber crime is a major problem in India, particularly in terms of sexual content and porn. The Ministry of Women and Child Development is in the process of developing an online Central Reporting Mechanism for cybercrimes so they can be registered anywhere anytime. This is being done because of the issue of cybercrime against women and children, particularly the elimination of online child sexual abuse material, rape imagery and other offensive material.
Efforts are being made in the direction of bringing the changes required in the legal framework, training and building capacities of police personnel and judiciary, and increasing awareness among public. Padte believes that India has good cyber security laws, but the trouble is with how they’re being used. She thinks the reason India isn’t properly criminalising cyber crimes when it comes to sexual content is because we are using obscenity laws to deal with them. “If we see all sexual content as obscene and therefore illegal, how will we tell the difference between when someone wanted to do something and when they were coerced into it? I think obscenity legislation is really holding us back when it comes to sexual rights – online and offline,” she reasons out.
Cyber Sexy- the book
In 2013 there were two proposed bans on viewing porn – one in the Supreme Court and the other in the Rajya Sabha. And what kept coming up in these petitions was the idea that women needed to be protected from porn. Padte tells us that this is neither a new idea nor an Indian idea. “All over the world, most sexual censorship has happened ‘for’ the supposed benefit of women,” and so she set out to write Cyber Sexy to challenge the idea that banning online porn would benefit women.
As Padte started interviewing people for the book she realised this was not just a women’s issue – this was something that affected everyone. “The right to sexual pleasure, online or offline, is a human right. So instead of writing a book about women and porn, I broadened my focus and wrote a book about rethinking pornography.”
Padte didn’t like the direction the porn debate was going in, with the proposed internet porn bans, and thought it was important to talk about real experiences online, which was her motivation for the book. And though many might think that the attention Padte or her book ‘Cyber Sexy’ is getting is because of the content – porn, it is indeed so as it is only when such topics are written about and focussed on that there seems to be some dialogue and awakening.
However, she believes the way we perceive sex can influence the way we approach porn. It also doesn’t have to be so, because it depends on the person and on the porn. “But more broadly speaking, if we have an open-minded, curious and thoughtful attitude towards sex in general, then we may approach porn from the same perspective. But if we’ve grown up thinking sex is shameful, scary or immoral, then it’s possible that we may bring the same approach to porn. And it works the other way too,” she says.
Which brings us to conclude as Padte says, if as women we have experienced or feared consent violations offline, then when we seek out consensual porn; whereas, because most men don’t face these threats offline, they may not actively seek out consensual porn online. “But you know, these really are generalisations, because I think a lot of this comes down to individual tastes, preferences and contexts.”