Society

Does blocking pornography curb the spread of violent imagery?

Passing the buck when it comes to restricting access to pornographic content is not something that Indians are unfamiliar with.

Passing the buck when it comes to restricting access to pornographic content is not something that Indians are unfamiliar with.  

The UK has postponed (yet again) its ‘porn block’ aimed at restricting adult-only access to minors. Meanwhile in India, Internet Service Providers have blocked access to over 800 websites with pornographic content. But experts suggest that these moves are cop outs and that sex education might be a better bet

Last year, the UK government announced that its hotly-debated porn ‘block’ would be enforced on April 1, 2019. Websites with pornographic content, it said, would be responsible for ensuring that all users accessing their material are above the age of 18. How they would verify the age was up to them to figure out, said the government, leaving tech companies in a lurch as they scrambled to come up with a workable solution.

Tech writer Rowland Manthorpe called the law (which has been postponed once again, probably because of implementation challenges) “one of the worst ideas ever” in an op-ed for WIRED magazine. Age verification systems are complicated, lead to data security concerns, skirt the boundaries of censorship, and can easily be bypassed using Virtual Private Networks (VPN), he pointed out.

Not their circus, not their monkey?

Passing the buck when it comes to restricting access to pornographic content is not something that Indians are unfamiliar with. Closer home, we have had a porn ‘block’ of our own since late last year, with this one restricting access to users of all ages. Even though viewing pornography is not illegal in the country, the move has made it significantly more difficult for viewers to access it online.

The latest development in the decades-long effort to quash access to pornography in the country came in October last year. The Uttarakhand High Court’s issued a directive to Internet Service Providers to block over 800 pornographic websites. It came in the aftermath of a gang rape of a female student in the State (attributed to the alleged perpetrators’ habit of watching porn). It’s a move that Apar Gupta, lawyer and executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) calls “illegal for several reasons”.

Making the viewing of pornography deliberately difficult to access, experts argue, is problematic. The move conflates the viewing of consensually-made pornography (a legal activity in India) with actually illegal activities like the creation and distribution of paedophilia and violence-based imagery. It is what Richa Kaul Padte, author of the 2018 book Cyber Sexy, calls an ‘elitist move’, citing how access can be secured by using a VPN. “But people who have access to VPNs and to that level of digital literacy are upper class, upper caste people,” she says. “For everyone else, the ban is impossible to circumvent. And I think this feeds into the idea that access to porn is bad for the masses, but not for the ruling classes.”

Freedom of the screen

Many anti-‘block’ advocates are clear that their call for the removal of regulations doesn’t mean that they condone all forms of pornography that exist today. The industry is not without its own issues, they admit. Rights for workers are not always clearly defined, and there are known cases of abuse and sexual violence. And for the viewer, excessive consumption of porn can be dangerous, especially if it reinforces male-centric narratives about sex and intimacy. Mahinder Watsa, the 96-year-old sexologist and sex advice columnist who has received a lot of hate (and a few lawsuits) for his progressive views on sex, advises moderation. “I try to tell my clients that if you’re addicted, your marriage can go on rocks.” But porn is also a prescription for some of his clients. “I recommend it to senior citizens whose spouses have passed away, because they are lonely, and it helps revive their desire levels.”

As a former porn addict, Aditya Gautam, author of last year’s book, Pornistan: How to survive the porn epidemic in India, knows first-hand how damaging the habit can be. He talks about how greater access to free porn on the Internet has created unrealistic sexual expectations for young men, and how pornography is often used as a proxy for sex education. “The younger the viewer of violent hardcore porn, the more likely he/she is to start acting those images out in real life,” says Gautam. “Their brain is not developed enough to distinguish reality from illusion.”

Mahinder Watsa, the 96-year-old sexpert who dishes out advice with a droll sense of humour, recommends moderation when it comes to pornography, but also believes it is a good tool to help people deal with loneliness-related intimacy issues

Mahinder Watsa, the 96-year-old sexpert who dishes out advice with a droll sense of humour, recommends moderation when it comes to pornography, but also believes it is a good tool to help people deal with loneliness-related intimacy issues   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

But he argues that sex education, and not censorship, is a more viable solution to many of these problems. “You can never really ban anything on the Internet,” he adds, citing China as an example where citizens are able to regularly bypass restrictions to access pornographic material.

Scaling the problem

Late last year, Divya Arya, women’s affairs journalist at the BBC, released a documentary about the dissemination of violent pornographic content through channels such as WhatsApp. One video in particular (of a gang rape of a girl in Jehanabad) prompted Arya to travel to various locations across the country, speaking with men to understand just why so much of the pornography they consume is so violent.

Today, she believes that the reason is a mix of “the absent and the present: the absence of healthy, open interaction amongst young men and women in a very conservative society (that now has access to a diverse online world).”

Social media has proliferated this trend by ‘growth-hacking’ the most problematic aspects of our virtual behaviour, making it very easy to share illegal material. With access to such violent imagery (and in the absence of sex education), consensual sex might look ‘vanilla’ to some, says Arya. And big tech, a key player in this game, has largely abdicated its responsibility.

“In the absence of an idea about what really meaningful sex can look like, the gap is being filled for many by violent portrayals of sexual interaction,” says Divya Arya, journalist at the BBC

“In the absence of an idea about what really meaningful sex can look like, the gap is being filled for many by violent portrayals of sexual interaction,” says Divya Arya, journalist at the BBC   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Late last year, Israel-based technology company, AntiToxin, published a study of public WhatsApp groups which revealed that paedophilic content was being widely circulated, with a significant number of accounts from India. “Facebook, unbeknownst to them, basically growth-hacked paedophilia,” says Roi Carthy, CMO of AntiToxin. “Apps like WhatsApp were not designed for child pornography, but when these things are designed to give you an endorphin rush, the same technique is going to work on other human dynamics such as paedophilia. He maintains that the online world’s “user as a commodity” model of business has made tech companies abdicate their responsibility.

A bad rap for porn

Couple this with the absence of nuanced regulation (that distinguishes between legal pornography and illegal content), and what we get is the proliferation of violent material, and a bad reputation for permissible porn.

The priority, says Apar Gupta of IFF, should be on catching creators of offensive material rather than prioritising censorship practices. “[Present-day regulations] are driven by notions of Indian values which are often not even ‘Indian’ but rather a colonial crime framed by the penal law of Victorian England,” he claims.

Roi Carthy, CMO at Israel-based start-up AntiToxin, believes that big tech has abdicated its responsibility towards maintaining safe environments on the Internet

Roi Carthy, CMO at Israel-based start-up AntiToxin, believes that big tech has abdicated its responsibility towards maintaining safe environments on the Internet   | Photo Credit: Arthur Fuhrer

The other problem with banning porn or censoring it is that it adds to the culture of shame surrounding sex, says academic and author Madhavi Menon. “No matter what we think of pornography, it is a very good indicator of the kinds of sexual fantasy, repression, expression and violence in a society,” she says. Talking about porn to a teenager would be the same as talking about sex, she believes. “It would be necessary to tell them that there is a large element of fantasy that attaches to sex, and that these fantasies cannot be exhausted by physical sexual acts. It would also be necessary to tell them that while violence can sometimes be exciting, it must never be at the consequence of impinging on someone else's desire.”

In her recently-released collection of essays, Philosophy, Pussycats, and Porn, adult film acress Stoya emphasises that pornography is not a ‘how-to’ sex education guide. It is largely an entertainment medium for adults, she asserts. “We can hide our heads in the sand, or we can — in addition to pushing for real lessons on sex for young people again — tackle the job of understanding the range of what porn is... and try to build a better industry and cultural understanding of sex. I choose to try,” she writes.

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Printable version | Jun 1, 2020 10:57:02 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/the-politics-of-porn/article26743883.ece

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