Pornography degrades, subjugates and reinforces negative stereotypes about women which is why access to it must be made tougher

“Freedom without limits is just a word”

Terry Pratchett

Kamlesh Vaswani’s PIL seeking to ban the viewing of pornography and make it a non-bailable offence has raised eyebrows. Columnists and social media commentators have greeted the idea with shock, raising issues such as social liberty, sexual freedom, and the fact that the mere banning of pornography might not bring down the incidence of rape. On the surface of it, this sounds politically correct but the reality is much more complex.

Take two facts. First, the two men arrested for raping the five-year-old in Delhi were watching porn before they stepped out and abducted the girl. Second, Google Trends shows that in 2012, New Delhi recorded the highest percentage worldwide for the number of times the word ‘porn’ was searched online. And National Crime Records Bureau data for the same year show that 706 rapes were reported in Delhi, the highest in the last decade and more than double the number for 2002.

In the West

Too simplistic a correlation? Perhaps. But does that mean we can afford to ignore the parallel? The world over, governments and sociologists are struggling with the issue of untrammelled access to pornography and the alarming rise in incidents of violent rape and child abuse. In London, Prime Minister David Cameron is set to announce a government-backed code of conduct that will block pornography in public spaces such as cafes and railway stations where children are likely to be present.

Liberal Iceland’s existing laws banning pornography are similar to India’s — vague and rarely enforced. The government there is drafting a law, much to the horror of some of its wired and freethinking citizens, that seeks to ban pornography altogether to protect children from violent sexual imagery. A Guardian report quotes an Icelandic Interior Ministry spokesperson: “When a 12-year-old types ‘porn’ into Google, he or she is not going to find photos of naked women out on a country field, but very hardcore and brutal violence.”

The problem with pornography is just that. It is not so much about erotica, as its advocates will have us believe, as it is about extreme violence, degradation and subjugation of women, and the violation of children and teenagers. It extols rape, defilement and mutilation. Most dangerously, it mainstreams all of this and packages it as the “normal.” This is lethal in a place like India, where large numbers of people leapfrog from a state of total ignorance about even ordinary sex to direct exposure to vicious abuse.

Documenting abuse

As the pornography industry thrives by getting more extreme each day, sociologists have correspondingly begun to note that gang rapes have risen, the age of the rapists has fallen, and the violence is much more brutal today. One report quotes U.S. Department of Justice statistics that show the percentage of rapes involving two or more offenders increasing from seven per cent in 1994-1998 to 10 per cent in 2005-2010.

In last year’s Steubenville High School rape in Ohio, U.S., when a high schoolgirl was doped and repeatedly violated by her schoolmates, two other appalling facts emerged. One, the rapists uploaded photos of the acts on social media where it went viral; and second, students who witnessed the acts said they did not recognise the acts as rape. In the last few months, two teenagers, Rehtaeh Parsons and Audrey Potts, in the U.S. and Canada, respectively, have committed suicide after being gang-raped by 16- and 17-year-old boys who then posted the photos online. Let us not forget our own MMS scandals involving schoolchildren.

Blurring lines

This trend of online documentation of abuse follows closely on the footsteps of porn websites that actively encourage the posting of real-life pictures of girls caught unawares or of pictures taken of them with hidden cameras. In other words, the lines are already blurring between pornographic websites and social network websites. What was once an explicit image on a clandestine website could today be a picture of a classmate on Facebook.

It might be statistically impossible to directly link the viewing of pornography to rape, but it is undeniable that its mainstreaming is actively encouraging and endorsing a culture of abuse of women and children. Recent news reports, in fact, have quoted counsellors who say that obsessive porn viewing is today a leading cause of marital abuse and divorce in India.

The link between violence in films and the increased rate of violence in society is equally unverifiable, but it’s interesting that this medium has always been filtered by some form of certification. How then is a medium that is inherently much more dangerous left so unregulated?

The existing IT Act, which stipulates three years’ imprisonment for publishing and transmitting obscene material electronically, is followed more in the breach. Following the PIL, the Supreme Court has asked the Ministries of Information Technology, Information and Broadcasting, and Home Affairs to come up with some answers by April 29. Whether it is stricter policing and stiffer (and implemented) punishments, or some sort of technologically feasible filters, or steep levies on the viewing of such content, some adequate response is required, something that makes it more difficult to access porn than ticking a box that asks if you are 18.

Yes, freedoms are precious and worth fighting for, but just because some of our men are not mature enough to enjoy these freedoms responsibly, should our children and women be made to pay the price?

vaishna.r@thehindu.co.in

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