Female Internet Users in Mumbai Negotiate Intimacy and Harm

"The internet has its dangers but is not a dangerous place"


Current directions and recent actions in information and communications technology (ICT) law and policy reflect anxieties around cyberterrorism, resulting in greater regulation of cybercafes, a preoccupation with censoring “obscene” content and protection of children from online harm and sexual content. There are two problems with this: one, that these concerns are not derived from an evidence base and two, that the realities of women users and young people are notably absent. The EROTICS research in India aims to fill these gaps by documenting the experiences of internet use by middle-class women in urban India, and bring to the table their voices and concerns. In doing so, it contributes to build an evidence base that reflects the realities and concerns of users that can guide internet law and policy in India.

This study records how women and young people in particular - given their increasing use of the internet - access and use the internet in the following areas:

  • In their everyday lives, particularly in terms of social networking sites, blogging and online activism.
  • Sexual content, experiences and relationships.
  • How they negotiate its dangers and protect themselves.
  • What they think about content regulation.
  • Their strategies to keep children safe online.
  • And how the gendered politics of internet access impact on their lives.

A feminist approach guided the design and execution of the research.

The study comprised:

  • A detailed mapping of internet use and regulation in India.
  • A quantitative survey of 150 young people (120 women and a small control sample of 30 men, aged 18 to 25, mostly students) to assess broad trends and their access to and use of the internet.
  • And a qualitative study of the internet experiences of women users through in-depth interviews with 31 respondents. Those interviewed were 27 women and a small control sample of 4 men, aged18 to 54, all regular internet users including young people, students, housewives, professional/working women, bloggers, queer women, older women.

An effort was made to include disabled women but it was not possible to access disabled women internet users within the limitations of the research. In-depth interviews typically took 90 minutes and were conducted in public locations like coffee shops and cafes. In a few cases interviews were conducted in the homes of respondents if that was more convenient and secure. Given the limitations of time, scope and resources the study was conducted only in Mumbai, the city with the highest number of internet users in the country. The research was conducted from November to December 2009.

Pleasures and dangers

The survey results indicate that young people typically perceive the internet as essential to succeed in modern India due to its global reach and access to diverse forms of information. Respondents alluded to the two-sided nature of the internet, referring to both its pleasures and dangers. Internet addictions rated very highly as a cause for concern in this group, as well as not being able to trust strangers online and a concern for the safety of personal information online. Those surveyed do not face many restrictions in internet access, although young women do report infrastructural issues like poor connections and power failure, as well as feeling uncomfortable in cybercafes. Parental or spousal objections were also cited as a significant barrier in free and complete access to the internet. Women reported that access to sexual content online was “immoral” and “unhealthy”. Strikingly, survey respondents were cautious about responding to questions around sex and sexuality and very few reported they accessed the internet for anything related to sexuality. This is in direct contradiction with the results of the qualitative survey, and indicates that an inquiry into sexuality on the internet is likely to yield richer data when qualitative
methods are used.

The qualitative research through in-depth interviews with regular internet users resulted in rich and interesting data on the internet use by women. The sample of interviewees was primarily middle class, with most respondents (with the exception of students under 25) working outside the home. The sample had almost unrestricted access to the internet and faced few limitations. Social networking sites and online chatting are the most popular and regularly accessed online spaces, particularly by younger respondents. This sample does not routinely access cybercafes because they have personal internet access either at home or on their mobile phones. Women in this sample felt cybercafes are unpleasant spaces to be in, citing them as overcrowded, noisy, not private, populated by men surfing pornography and working class people. Women bloggers have a sustained relationship with the internet which offers them numerous opportunities for self expression, and allows them to challenge received ideas about what is appropriate for women to speak of. Queer identified respondents felt that the internet provides immeasurable freedoms - particularly under conditions of criminalisation and being closeted - to find partners, social networks and for activism.

Young women were vocal about the excitement in making friends with strangers online through chatting; and social networking sites allow them a certain freedom to mingle with the opposite sex and display themselves wearing “sexy” clothes – all of which are strictly regulated in their offline worlds. This gives them a sense of agency and thrill. However, this group of women is highly aware of having their online behaviour controlled by family members and other known people and report being cautious about how their online personas may have repercussions on their offline freedoms, particularly the freedom to access the internet. Family honour is at stake for women if knowledge of their online behaviour came to light.

However, women interviewed were fairly conservative on what they did online: flirting, romance, viewing “hot pictures” or “sexy videos”. Older women also access the internet through social networking sites, although more to re-establish contact with old friends rather than to make new ones. Access to dates and potential life partners were significant in the lives of some women who are using the internet. Access to pornography was not considered taboo in this sample. Respondents spoke about it casually, and it is seen as something that is for pleasure and to enhance an intimate relationship. Children’s access to sexual content on the internet however, was a cause for concern across the sample.

Negotiating risks

Regulation of online content was not perceived as being a viable or effective option because of the convergence of various media, and importantly, because adults recognized their right to access sexual content for their own pleasure. According to respondents, the sexual content accessed online is not restricted to a category called “pornography”. Moreover, respondents themselves produce sexualized imagery and speech to share online. Online dating and matrimonial sites were also very popular with young men and women. However, chatting through dedicated chat sites and on social networking sites was the most preferred option to find casual partners for online or offline romance. Women say that online harassment they face occurs mainly in chat forums when strangers pester them to talk or say inappropriate (sexual) things. Sometimes, strangers they meet online and have either casual, flirtatious or intimate friendships with threaten to blackmail them if they do not take these relationships further. Other forms of online harm women experience is when their email or social networking profiles are hacked into, phished and manipulated. Women are also extremely concerned about how their personal images on social networking sites can be used and manipulated. Often, male friends and acquaintances are responsible for this - when women post pictures that are “too sexy” online, their friends want to rein them in “for their own good”. In terms of strategies to be safe, women say they do not share personal or location data with strangers, and change their passwords regularly. When young women post sexy pictures of themselves they also internalize socially imposed limits to what is “appropriate” and devise methods for self-regulation to ensure that they do not get unwanted attention. In online chats, women also use aliases and fictitious names to protect their identities. Women who are confident of staying safe on the internet report that it is more important to be confident and to know how to take care of oneself online. The most frequently cited harmful content online were child pornography, anti-national and hate speech, and viruses.

Access by children and teenagers to the internet is a cause for concern because sexual content is so freely available. A less frequently mentioned but significant concern is that children could befriend adult strangers on social networking sites. Mothers in the sample tend to monitor their children’s internet use in a variety of ways such as using filtering software, password-protecting and monitoring internet access and browsing histories. Some are uncomfortable with their children visiting cybercafes. Some respondents also monitor younger brothers, sisters, cousins and so on. Most respondents believed that it was more important to talk to and educate children about the risks present online. However, with few resources and little guidance on how exactly to talk about sexual content and potential dangers on the internet, parents interviewed felt somewhat uncomfortable and limited in their approaches to keeping children safe online.

The people interviewed in the quantitative and qualitative studies were generally unaware of the laws and policies relating to the internet. There was little awareness of the IT act and the governmental role in regulation. Few favoured governmental control of the internet and the qualitative sample was generally against the idea of content filtering online. The internet undoubtedly allows women to find voice, agency and self expression through the internet, securing their sexuality rights and communication rights, but not without having to negotiate the offline controls and limitations that exist.

Read the full India country report:
India: Negotiating intimacy and harm: Female internet users in Mumbai
Manjima Bhattacharjya and Maya Indira Ganesh

Photo by EssG