In many ways, India is a land of multiple contradictions. It is the land of Khajuraho, where sexually explicit carvings abound with joy. Yet, it is also a land where the mere mention of sex education in the classroom drives conservatives from all religious backgrounds to unite in protest. We worship at Kamakhya, honouring fertility, but often avoid open discussions on reproductive health. While we take pride in our association with the Kama Sutra — a text that explores the depths of love and intimacy — a simple on-screen kiss can spur hours of moral debate on social media. Our rich cultural tapestry acknowledges the significance of intimacy, but contemporary discourse frequently restricts its understanding.
The divide deepens when discussing the taboo subject of pornography. There is not just hypocrisy about porn, but downright denial. Many will tell you, emphatically and with great conviction, that it is the consumption of porn that is leading to moral decay and societal degradation. Yet a few years ago, MLAs were caught watching porn at work. If you ask people, they might outright deny ever consuming porn. However, they'll admit to having heard of others who have. Or they might concede to having indulged during their youth — but quickly clarify it wasn't “real” porn. It was those titillating Indian erotic novellas that were popularly known as “Mastram”. Yet, in the face of such widespread denial, data from a few years ago showed that India was among the top consumers of porn, as per reports by Pornhub. Yet despite this, consumption is cloaked in both secrecy and denial.
The question is simple — in a country where the production and dissemination of porn is illegal, can the consumption of porn be legal? Especially the consumption of porn on digital devices? This is an important question, because how do you receive the content on your phone without someone disseminating it? The Kerala High Court, however, offers an alternative perspective. Justice PV Kunhikrishnan recently ruled that privately viewing pornographic content, without public exhibition, doesn't breach obscenity laws (Section 292 of the IPC). This verdict arose from a case where a man was arrested for standing by the side of the road watching explicit videos.
The impact of porn on the viewer cannot be underestimated. People watch porn to get sexually sated. The chilling memory of the Nirbhaya case still haunts us. One of the factors, amongst the many that influenced the perpetrators, was their exposure to explicit content. It is believed that the four rapists of a vet in Hyderabad, who was then burnt alive, were also consumers of violent porn. In another case, four juveniles who consumed porn on their mobiles were arrested after they gang-raped a minor girl.
While it would be an oversimplification to blame porn alone for sexual crimes; the influence of violent, degrading, or non-consensual pornographic content on minds cannot be denied. Therein lies the danger: the easy availability of extremely violent types of porn that perpetuates stereotypes, glorifies violence, and normalises non-consensual acts., for young men to consume on the go, being labelled as their right to privacy.
When a man standing by the side of the road watches porn on his mobile phone, what is the lens with which he sees women who are passing by? When young men watch violent porn where a woman starts by saying no and then enjoys the act — what does this tell them about sex? In a country where you don’t have sex education, where the concept of consent is never taught — how do you allow for porn to be watched in public and justify that as “his privacy”? In the same judgement, the judge also highlighted the dangers of unsupervised mobile phone usage by minors, underscoring the potential consequences of unrestricted access to explicit content.
There needs to be clarity on whether consumption of porn on digital devices is legal or not. If it is legal, then there need to be strict filters on the kind of porn allowed. Violent porn, rape fantasies, nonconsensual porn need to be treated the same way as we do child porn — with extreme prejudice. It needs to be cracked down on, and those who consume, store and disseminate it must be brought to justice.
In the digital age, the line between personal privacy and public safety becomes blurred, especially with the ubiquity of smartphones. While the Constitution guarantees the right to personal liberty and freedom, these rights are always counterbalanced by the responsibility to ensure safety. A man’s need for lustful entertainment is not greater than a woman’s need for safety. If unchecked access to explicit content can potentially distort young minds, instil misogynistic attitudes, and even play a role in catalysing crimes, then it becomes imperative for policymakers, educators, and families to intervene.
There is a pressing need for comprehensive sex education in schools, encompassing discussions on consent, respect, and the potential impacts of porn. But, to do this, we — as a society — need to stop living in denial. We need to accept that there is not just porn, but lots of it, and it is possibly being consumed by our loved ones. And they need to be educated on the impact it can have. There's also a need for governments and service providers to adopt stringent measures, to prevent access to porn on mobile phones. There needs to be a crackdown on those who download and distribute this. This is not about individual rights being compromised. This is about ensuring women are not seen as the easily available vessels of lust by the consumers of porn. While one cannot curb individual choices, society must ensure that those choices are informed, safe, and do not jeopardise the fabric of safety for half the population.
The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology, and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty, and filmmaker