The dark side of pleasure

The recent >blocking of some pornographic websites by the government has set off some sharp criticism and mockery. Understandably, the unexpected and largely unexplained manner in which the step was taken was interpreted as one more instance of a conservative government seeking to impose its own version of morality on the people.

Like the ‘ >beef ban’, the ‘porn ban’ turned quickly into a slogan and symbol of oppression. Some observers went so far as to ask if the disappearance of pornography from the screens of Indian consumers would be followed by the disappearance of people too, on par with the actions of brutal and totalitarian governments elsewhere. 

Now that the ‘porn ban’ has been effectively withdrawn and freedom restored, it might be helpful to ask ourselves if there is something in our humanity that we have forgotten in our rush to defend a fundamentally exploitative practice. After all, we are not talking here about the government intruding into a form of pleasure that is without cost to others, but about product from an industry often associated with violence and coercion against women. The key question here is not whether certain kinds of pleasure are innately bad or ‘sinful’ but whether society can teach its members to reject forms of pleasure that arise from the exploitation and degradation of a section.

‘Consuming’ women

Coincidentally, in the case of both the controversial Indian bans, there is one important work that is relevant to the present-day debate — Carol J. Adams’  The Pornography of Meat. Ms. Adams shows us the striking parallels between the representational practices of carnivorousness and patriarchy in Western popular culture.

While the generalised practice of referring to women as ‘meat’ is bad enough, what pornography does is to magnify the process of viewing women not as humans but essentially as ‘cuts of meat.’ Through an extensive study of advertisements that present women’s bodies as ‘meat’ to be consumed by men, Ms. Adams reiterates the key concerns that should be informing many of our debates today: “How does some one become some thing? How does someone come to be viewed as an object, a product, as consumable? How does her use to another as this product, this consumable object, become more important than her own inherent value, her own complete and unique self?” 

The debate on animal subjectivity and suffering may still seem remote to too many self-assured ‘omnivores’ at the moment, but there should be no ambiguity at all on the morality of objectifying and ‘consuming’ women.

The irony is that often the same voices, who claim to speak for women when it comes to aspects like the debatable role of Rama in exiling Sita in the Ramayana, become oblivious to the real, ongoing, widespread brutality against women that exists in the culture industries today. After all, we seem to think nothing is wrong with Western cultural products that celebrate the denigration of women, like the >50 Shades novels and movies being dumped into our markets and minds, because to protest such things might be deemed conservative, puritanical, maybe even Hindutva. Yet, we welcome uncritically contrived and specious ‘analyses’ and documentaries about how our culture, religion and tradition is responsible for the suffering of women in India, because that seems to be the progressive thing to do. 

Critical reflection

The truth is that our critiques have not kept pace with the intensity and scale of the cultural changes brought about by new media technologies. We must recognise that we live in a world very different from that of >Kama Sutra or Khajuraho monuments — despite the desire of some scholars to view that world through such orientalistic fantasies about violence. We also need to understand that we are yet to decolonise ourselves from some of the basic myths acquired through colonial encounters on nature, human nature, sex and violence.

Our liberal education has, at best, taught us to note that present-day Indian conservatism on such matters is really a Victorian inheritance, and a distortion of ancient Indian sexuality. It might be so. But have our schools and colleges been encouraged to teach us that the overblown sexual world that exists in the media and Internet today is no simple fact of nature, that it is an enormously distorted and distorting political creation, a craven, cannibalistic, commercialised machine almost beyond control? 

We need to move beyond Kama Sutra and free speech talking-points and explore how we can offer a culturally rooted, yet universally ethical vision for young adults as they begin their journey into consuming pornographic entertainment. We need to find a way to tell them that these pictures you see are of real human beings, and some of them might even be dead now, or dying, given the brutal conditions many of those unknown millions unjustifiably face.

For our efforts, we might be deemed eccentrics and party-spoilers. True. But we cannot go on peddling platitudes, as we have been doing about sex — calling it a ‘need’ without balancing the right to pleasure with the duty to recognise and minimise pain. 

One way to do this perhaps, since precedent exists, is to respect freedom and allow individuals to go where they wish, but include statutory warnings on the perils of the pleasure industry they are seeking to indulge themselves in. That way, there is no absolute restriction on freedom to consume pornography, but there is at least a token investment to make consumers informed and, eventually, ethical agents. 

Language of dissent

Those who oppose pornography on religious or cultural grounds may not always have the rationale for their opposition. However, that cannot just be explained away as an innate antipathy to freedom. It is more because of their lack of education in reconciling traditional narratives on pleasure and duty with modern thinking. Secular critics of pornography would do well to recognise that a ‘Hindu stance’ against it comes from thoughts having greater depth than what the dichotomies of religion-modernity and oppression-freedom would allow.

Our religious thought is concerned deeply about freedom too, and not just in some metaphysical sense. What an enlightened Hindu — or a Jain or a Buddhist or any other spiritual practitioner — may be striving for when he or she talks of kama, in conjunction with dharma, is not the suppression of human emotions in the name of celibacy but positive restraint.

Freedom, in this worldview, is less about rules and regulations and more about cultivating a way of living that ensures freedom from unnecessary debt to others for what we have taken from them. And the debt that we accumulate, as individuals and as a society, for suffering of women around the world whose images adorn our private spaces, is enormous.

(Vamsee Juluri is a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco and the author of Rearming Hinduism.)

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Printable version | Apr 17, 2021 5:17:47 AM |

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