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Pornography, Freedom and Bondage

Mumbai, India.

The other day we were watching a fine contemplative film on humiliation, death and renewal against the backdrop of a crematorium. It was an afternoon show and as soon as the young woman on screen placed her lover’s hand on her breast, the man next to us started grunting. The lovers got into bed and he shouted, “Oye, aage badho! (hey, get on with it)”. Why would a lone man want to protest aloud about fictitious characters to strangers in the dark? Was he objecting to what he saw or was he merely moralising to scotch what might turn out to be his own natural response?

Two days ago, the Mumbai police knocked on doors, dragged out young couples, slapped some, made them call up their parents, asked them to pay a fine, and all this for checking into beach shacks and small hotel rooms consensually. They were charged with “indecent behaviour in public” when the space is private and they had paid to use it.

These two incidents show up the probity sham for what it is, for in both one can see the need for some sort of release.

Last week, the Indian government banned 857 adult websites. A couple of days later, the ban was reversed with only child porn coming under the lens. The government is suffering from the same syndrome as that man in the movie hall. It feels the need to assert its morality when it is afraid of being caught with its pants down.

Culture

Websites, films and books are easy targets to acquire a seraphic halo. Would they ban temples where the frescoes are in poses that celebrate sexuality?

Those opposing the ban too talk about freedom of expression and inevitably bring in the Kama Sutra as evidence of liberalism. This is a fallacious defence, for people do not riffle through the pages of this manual to relieve their sexual urges, although one does notice cigarette burn marks in orifices of temple statues, which is really about social perversion rather than hormones.

Besides, these texts were written in ancient times when tribalism was the only culture. The refinement of material aspects of life has led to a different sensibility. The sculptors of temples were not thinking about metaphors the way contemporary analysts do. Interestingly, the same analysts will see a centrefold differently, perhaps even with disgust over how gauche it is, even though a real woman or man has posed for it.

The need to sex things up in order to make an impact has resulted in the concern industry indulging in its own forms of exhibitionism, whether it is animal rights ads making curvy models wear animal skin or strategically placing vegetable florets around private parts, or even protestors walking around in undergarments to draw attention to their cause – do those gawking feel any empathy or are they only voyeurs?

Fantasy is a bourgeois concept that gains more sophistication with the social status of a person but it does not preclude a going down and dirtying of oneself. Ancient cultures reveled in orgiastic rites and 18th century England had its special editions of “voluptuous reading”.

But can pornography be absolved of its role in social debauchery?

Children

As a supporter of responsible access to and indulgence with pornography, I find my position get shaky when confronted with the abuse of children.

While social media has made young people post pictures of themselves and their friends – and the motives could vary from vicarious thrills, exhibitionism to revenge –it is often the market that abuses children. That market could constitute of people in positions of power.

There have been many cases of Indian children being used in such pornographic material. Tourists who hole up for months and pretend to run shelters lure poor kids with goodies or drugs. Juvenile homes become dens of exploitation.

The recent abuse scandal in Kasur, Pakistan, reveals how entrenched this is. 280 children were enslaved into performing in 400 videos; the CDs sell for less than a dollar each. For six years nobody got wind of it simply because the police and politicians ensured that business went on.

In 2010, the ruling Democratic Party of Japan had shockingly refused to make possession of child pornographic material a criminal offence on grounds of freedom of expression. In a disturbing incident, a mother had taken images of her infant son and sold them on the internet. What was she expressing? What about the infant’s freedom of expression, freedom to privacy? What about every child’s?

Around that time, an Indian army officer was arrested for uploading 157 videos of child porn; all the kids in it were Caucasian. The authorities, therefore, deduced that none of them was shot by him.

These are criminals who are in a manner of speaking killing the children, or at least their childhood. To call this pornography would be wrong.

The Indian government’s retreat using these instances to ban porn, therefore, does not fit in. We are a repressed society because we do not have a liberal porn culture. There is ignorance about the body and the consensuality between objects, as the consumer is one too before images that invoke his helplessness.

Women and Men

Feminism is often put to test when it comes to pornography. The pro-choice proponents who find it reprehensible use the objectification angle against it. When Sunny Leone, an Indian origin adult film actor, joined mainstream films she immediately became the poster girl of the wet dream not only due to her appeal (which is about as much as any other’s) but also because of her history. Taslima Nasreen, writer of frank memoirs who has no problems sharing her picture posing on a giant penile sculpture, was shocked: “Women’s half naked dirty dance became normal in Bollywood, the next step is to make a known porn-star enter TV and cinema.”

This is nothing more than entrenched hierarchy that assumes the tone of intellectual morality. For one who claims to have serious issues with objectification, she had once said that being called a “fallen woman” was an achievement, quite forgetting that this is how many societies view a porn star, who would not even have the luxury of political asylum.

It is notions such as these that objectify women and not pornography. Likewise, the accusation of creating a false body image might apply to mainstream advertising and cinema too, as well as the flashing red carpet images with their thigh bombing and safety pin cleavages. In fact, the several niche adult sites cater to many alternatives, including different body types.

It is ridiculous to suggest that such access to adult content alters relationships, for relationships are not only about sex. Just as dildos have not replaced men, it is unlikely that relief through images would make women redundant. Masturbation too relies on fantasy, and surely fantasy cannot be antiseptic.

Musician John Mayer had said in a Playboy interview, “When I watch porn, if it’s not hot enough, I’ll make up back stories in my mind, this is my problem now: Rather than meet somebody new, I would rather go home and replay the amazing experiences I’ve already had.”

This is not skewed priorities, but in some ways it freezes positive pleasure signals and memories like any other nostalgia. There is no escaping it and there is no reason to.

Socio-political titillation exploits, not the harmless pin-up that in fact could help in the seeking and finding of a sexual identity, as well as idealisation outside of the constricting hold of stratified roles.

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Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections

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