I’m convinced we’re having the wrong conversation around digital porn.
Late last year, the British government banned a bunch of sex acts online, including female ejaculation. Yes, female ejaculation. Talk about the imagined harms of porn. And strangulation, facesitting, fisting, some spanking, full bondage and restraint, plus abusive language during sex and depictions of non-consensual sex – all of which can be consensual representations, including, controversially, “rape scenes” that are enacted, although deeply discomfiting to view. (Think of rape scenes in mainstream movies to get what I mean; they’re enacted to look real.)
In India, both the legislature and the judiciary are considering bans on the consumption of online porn; one petition argues that porn increases violence against women without offering any evidence to that effect, another focuses on the “moral depravity and corruption” caused by porn. Do we seriously imagine that violence against women in India will go down by banning online porn? Talk about imagined harms again. And in Indonesia, LGBTIQ sites from the educational to the explicit are being banned in the name of porn, adversely affecting sexual expression and rights – and access to information vital to sexual health.
Porn. Panic. Ban. This pretty much seems like the current policy response to me.
Porn, women and feminism
Of course, as a woman, I’m bummed that so much online porn is about male pleasure rather than female. And that so much male pleasure comes at the cost of so much aggression on women, screen violence that’s presented as if this is what women want. (It’s the patriarchy, stupid. What was I thinking?) But I believe that the way to deal with this is the way we deal with other speech or expression, since porn is also sexual speech or expression. If we applied the free speech argument to porn, we wouldn’t ban porn. We’d fight porn with more porn, make more porn for women, counter-porn, more porn that makes us the subjects of our sexual journeys, pleasures and destinations. Flood the net with our kinda porn, properly SEO-ed so it’s number 1-10 on Google and Yahoo and Bing and DuckDuckGo.
More porn! It sounds both silly and illicit, almost illegal, every time I say it out loud. As if I’m preaching sedition, asking women to cross over to the male camp. As if vast quantities of women aren’t watching porn! As if porn is only a man-woman thing, not a woman-woman, man-man, etc-etc thing! But hey, watch erotic filmmaker Erika Lust talk about how it’s time for porn to change. Change. Not vanish. And think about it. Seriously. Think about how we try to change other media representations – through critique, debate, dialogue and alternative representations. Not through bans, right? What’s so unique about porn – another media representation – that it must be singled out for banning? Are we saying that naked bodies are inherently harmful? Or what?
And as we think about it, let’s think about how we want to signal our desires – as women. What terms should we use to describe porn that we enjoy, porn made for women? Should we call it porna: porn for women, as these filmmakers suggest? Or erotica, using the high art/low art divide so that we feel we’re above the fray? Or feminist porn, as others suggest, a political label for a primal urge? Or just let it namelessly meld into the deep blue? I recognise that we all get off on different things, and I apologise to everyone who gets turned on by the term “feminist porn”. But I have to say I find the term about as stimulating as a sleeping pill. Yawn. Can’t we find a better term to package our pleasures? And does everything in the world have to come with a feminist prefix to feel kosher or to signal its intentions, even where it doesn’t suit? Feminist coffee, anyone? Yawn.
Let’s talk about actual harms
If we want to change the conversation around porn, we need to start talking about its actual harms. We need to start talking about consent. We need to start talking about the consent of those who enact porn – if it’s given and respected, even to “rape porn”, dare we cavil? And we need to start talking of those who never dreamed they’d end up as digital porn – without their consent. Any image that turns into porn without consent can cause actual harm, not the imaginary variety – harm that wrecks lives, jobs, careers, relationships, self-image and identities. Harm that causes real damage, both on and offline. Harm that is harmful enough to be called out and punished as a crime.
Take two recent cases from South Asia. The first case is from Pakistan, where a young woman living in a remote village was gang raped by four men, one of whom recorded the rape on his phone – and then used it to blackmail her into silence while it was happening and after it had happened. When the footage of her rape spread from phone to phone, it was consumed as porn, with little effort to report this crime. Eventually, someone brought it to the attention of BBC Urdu’s social media unit, which reported it and the four were arrested for kidnap, rape and distributing porn. Ironically, they cooked their own goose, since the recorded rape turned into evidence against them.
The second case is from India. Here too, a young woman was raped, this time by five men, and the resulting video was shared via WhatsApp. It came to the attention of an activist who took the footage of the rapists (while keeping the woman’s identity hidden) and created an online campaign called #ShameTheRapists which got traction on both mainstream and social media. Although no one has been arrested so far, it has turned the tables, with the image of the rapists once again turning into vital evidence.
Both of these are cases of physical rape turned digital porn when filmed and shared, consent being violated thrice over in the bargain: one, in forcing sex without consent; two, in filming forced sex without consent; three, in circulating this clip without consent. When physical rape turns into digital porn we know one thing for sure: it’s time to start talking consent. It’s time to start talking harm.
As someone working at the cusp of gender, sexuality and digital rights, I have a million unanswered questions around this whole thing. How do we look at these violations of consent, or the relationship between representation and reality in the digital context? Are these crimes that are separate but related – or is it a digital extension of the same crime? If the physical crime is rape, how do we understand the digital crime? As violence? As privacy violation? As sexual harassment? Who do we hold culpable – the uploader, each person who forwards it? And how? How do we remove the added shame and stigma that these representations bring to bear on the stigma of rape? And how do we ensure justice for a woman who wants her digital images to be forgotten just as much as she wants her rapists jailed?
Another set of unanswered questions has to do with how we understand and punish crime. Pakistan is apparently considering a new cyber-crime act which will punish actual harms (privacy violations) and imagined harms (distributing sexually explicit material) and prescribe major punishments for minor offences. In India, Section 66E of the Information Act already punishes the publication or transmission of images of a private area of any person without his or her consent, but is rarely used. Many such cases seem to be filed under Section 67, which prohibits the publication of “obscene” images. How do we ensure we don’t end up with laws that mix up the consensual and the non-consensual (as often seems to be the case with moralistic laws dealing with sex or bodies)?
All sexually explicit material is not obscene, just as all naked bodies are not harmful. What is clearly harmful is publication and circulation without consent – be it in cases of rape or be it in cases of consensual sex which turn into “scandals” on circulation. Remember the Delhi MMS Scandal and the Karavali Scandal? Both cases of consensual sex + consensual filming turned digital porn without consent.
If we really want to have a meaningful conversation around porn, it’s time we stopped talking about its imagined harms. It’s time we started talking about actual harms. It’s time we started talking about the fault lines of consent.
Bishakha writes non-fiction, makes documentary films and runs Point of View, a non-profit that amplifies the voices of those silenced due to their gender or sexuality.