May 2013: Contesting the recent petition to punish the viewing of pornography, I explore its history and proliferation; and propose that the psychosocial solutions to the rape epidemic include creating a liberal society and the legalisation of the porn industry.
Recently, during the investigation after the rapists of the five-year-old in Delhi were captured, it emerged that the two accused had been drinking and watching porn before they decided to find this child to rape. It prompted Indore-based advocate Kamlesh Vaswani to file a writ petition in the Supreme Court seeking a change in internet laws that would make watching pornography a non-bailable offence. Porn’s roles in the rape and the subsequent petition have raised a whole host of questions about its sociocultural impact on society.
The History, Evolution & Nature of Pornography
Pornography is a Christian Western creation. Erotic paintings, sculpture, music and literature have been a part of ancient Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Greek and Roman civilisations, which associated sexual acts with supernatural forces, divinity and fertility. In India, the Kama Sutra, Tantrik practices and the Khajuraho temples were instructions on and depictions of an activity that was a part of mainstream life, religion and culture. However, with the advent of Christianity in the West, the Bacchanalian and Satyrical elements of Greek and Roman cultures, which celebrated the body and the fertility rituals from across Europe, were slowly relegated to the level of ‘pagan’ practices and banned by the Church.
The complicated relationship that dominant religion and culture today has with sex, sexuality and pornography can be traced to the birth of modern religions that virtually ‘outlawed’ sex. Judeo-Christian-Islamic religions believe in ultimate judgement and an absolute apocalypse, so sex for pleasure is considered morally wrong and a waste of precious time. The sexual repression born of this philosophy found expression in pornography.
Various technological inventions have allowed pornography to reach mass media and culture. The printing press, invented in 1440, allowed the mass production of pornographic literature. Photography began with the daguerreotype in 1839 and the calotype process, invented in 1841, made the mass production of nude portraits possible. Halftone printing, developed in 1880, caused the multiplication of pornographic magazines—that published nudes as ‘artistic’, ‘scientific’ or ‘naturist’ subjects—as it made the reproduction of photographs inexpensive. When moving pictures were invented in 1894, nudity and sex were standard fare, as evident in mainstream movies such as Traffic in Souls (America, 1913) and A Free Ride (America, 1915). The VCR brought pornography into the privacy of the home in 1972. And the technology boom since the 1980s has caused pornography’s rapid growth and evolution. Inexpensive recording equipment and the ability to manipulate images have both improved the quality of professionally produced pornography and increased the production of amateur pornography. The internet and mobile revolution has also been the ‘porn revolution’. With the anonymity it allows, not only can pornography—legal and illegal—be traded with relative security, it can be viewed and interacted with in complete privacy.
Criminologist Berl Kutchinsky believes that modern pornography originated in the 1650s with the appearance of three classic novels—La Puttana Errante (Italy), L'Ecole des Filles (France) and Satyra Sotadica (France).
To view pornography solely as a deviant expression would be a very limiting view. Pornography has been used as a powerful tool for political protest. During the Enlightenment (early 1700s) and around the Revolution (1789-1799), the French used pornography for political and social satire—attacking the Catholic Church and sexual repression, like Marquis de Sade’s work, published during and after the Revolution, arguably more provoking and rebellious than sexually arousing. French pornography had lost most of its political agenda by the 1920s. However, pornography continues to be used to satirise religion—particularly in strongly religious countries. Latin American pornography after World War II focused on defaming the Church. Through brutal depictions of humiliating sexual treatment meted out on women, it attacked the concept of the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception, which were the very basis of Roman Catholicism practiced in these countries.
A certain kind of ethos has produced a certain kind of pornography. Pornography is a reflection of and reaction to and against the moral and sexual mores of the time. And the more repressive the age, the greater the demand for pornography—the rigid bourgeois morality around the Victorian Era (1837-1901) caused the development of a thriving sexual sub-culture with much pornography and prostitution. Pornography usually merged the theme of man’s power over a woman’s virtue—the desire to defile and humiliate the ‘good (modest) woman’—with an atmosphere of feverish sensuality with emphasis on the preliminaries, such as in Raped on the Railway (1894) and Sadopaideia (1907).
The switch curled wickedly around her legs and between her thighs. After one or two cuts, which evidently reached the tenderest spots, she began to cry for mercy. Her legs swung out here and there trying to dodge the cuts, and ever and anon I had a glimpse of the little virginal crack and the soft fair hair just beginning to shield it. When her bottom began to show marks, I let her go... (Anonymous, Sadopaideia)
Pornography and society have a symbiotic relationship: pornography reflects and influences society, just as society reflects and influences it. According to social commentator Tina Lorenz, pornography has always been more interesting than sex to get to know a moment in history. At the end of World War I, sexually graphic and minimally plotted ‘stag films’—for men only—became popular. During World War II, ‘pinups’—erotic photographs soldiers pinned to their walls—objectified women’s bodies in fragmented ways: mostly legs in the 1940s and breasts in the 1950s. Playboy, the world’s most successful soft-core magazine, was launched in America in 1953, with a centrefold spread of Marilyn Monroe.
Social, economic and political factors converged to diminish sexual repression, prudery and the hold of religion on the Western youth in the 1960s. This freedom allowed sexual explicitness to enter literature, film and popular culture. Much pornography reflects the paradox of changing mores—the want for sexual liberation yet the need for possession and stability.
We made love as though it were the last time. I wanted to swallow her whole, to possess her fully and finally, and simultaneously to destroy her, to make it impossible for her ever to do this with anyone else. (Marco Vassi, The Gentle Degenerates, 1970)
In India, far before Savita Bhabhi, Desi Fantasy and poorly produced clips took the internet by storm, were stories by ‘Mast Ram’, a pseudonym adopted by writers of Hindi porn since the 1980s. Debonair, an adult magazine modelled on Playboy has been around since 1971; the titillating Crime & Detective, that sells upwards of two lakh copies a month, started in 1984.
In the Eye of the Storm
Pornography has faced censure, criticism and censorship for various reasons over the ages. Though governments and religious bodies down the ages always tried to clamp down on pornography, it is in the 18th century that this censorship gained ground. In the West, the latest anti-pornography movement, which focussed on the harms rather than the morals of pornography, started as a reaction against the violent sex films of the 1960s. The imagery and sadism of Blood Feast (America, 1963) and other sexploitation films are alarming, as blood rather than semen is the symbolic fluid of erotic expression. In the late 1960s, Germaine Greer started and edited Suck, a magazine that promoted ‘healthy’ pornography.
In India, the media and society’s eye has been trained on gender, sexuality and violence since the Delhi Rape in December last year. And this attack on pornography is the most recent fallout of the outrage, of a society seeking answers to the horrific demons it is creating. But is criminalising pornography the real answer?
What is pornography’s impact, and does it lead to violence?
No doubt, there are negative effects of pornography.
It has resulted in the sexualisation and pornophication of mass media: over the last century more urban, educated women the world over are taking control of their bodies and sexual identities. The destabilisation of traditional gender roles in mass media was at its peak in the 1990s, and women were beginning to be portrayed as powerful, intellectual, independent beings, comfortable with their bodies and sexuality. However, traditional gender definitions have resurfaced in mass media since the millennium, probably because pornography has gone mainstream, a phenomenon called ‘porn chic’ by British media researcher Brian McNair. Women in pornography are stereotypes—meek, subservient and sexual. At first glance, women showing their bodies and displaying their sexuality in every music video are indicators of great liberation. However, on deeper analysis, the display of the eroticised female body is no more than the objectification of women, catering to a phallic gaze. Owing to pornography, the representation of women is shrinking back into one of two traditional roles—the sexualised object of masculine desire and/or ‘the angel in the house’.
Women are frequently coerced in to the porn industry; and often made to perform painful sequences and positions. Pornography also provides an avenue to express hatred or anger against a particular woman or women in general, particularly when men feel powerless against or rejected by them. For instance, much pornography in the period leading up to the French Revolution targeted Marie Antoinette. When women were gaining economic and professional control while men fought in the World Wars, the depiction of women as passive and submissive increased in erotic movies. The misuse of technology, such as morphing and spy and phone cameras, has resulted in the violation of privacy and the sexual misrepresentation of celebrities and normal women alike. And when private sex acts are taped and circulated, inadvertently or not, the woman still bears the brunt of the censure.
But a debate rages on whether violent and/or non-violent pornography makes men sexually violent, with both camps presenting equally strong arguments and valid studies.
Anti-pornography feminists, conservatives, fundamentalist Christians, some psychologists and criminologists, and now Mr Vaswani believe that pornography can cause men to be violent towards women as it—
i) Causes objectifying and dehumanising of women and female sexuality
ii) Perpetuates rape myths
iii) Increases acceptance of interpersonal violence
iv) Propagates the belief in male dominance in intimate relationships
Dr Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin and groups like Anti-Porn Feminists and the Women Against Violence in Pornography believed pornography solidified a phallic patriarchal power. Most third-wave feminists disagree.
Colin and Damon Wilson believe that the steep increase in sex crimes in the 19th century can be directly linked to the development of the imagination and pornography. For some, normal sexual relations cannot satisfy the intense desire that reading pornography causes, leading them to seek more perverse, violent and fetishist sexual outlets.
[I]magination was pushing human beings towards the dividing line between the “permitted” and the “forbidden”. And—since forbiddenness (sic) is another name for criminality—towards the criminal. Since Victorian pornography, this criminal element has become all-important. Now it is a question of seeking out the forbidden for its own sake. (The Killers Among Us: Sex, Madness and Mass Murder, 1995)
However, other data shows that pornography and violence may have an inverse relationship. Countries like Denmark and Sweden, where pornography has been easily available, have a very low per capita crime rate, as does Japan, in spite of its very violent pornography (though great social factors may be at play there). The internet’s delivery of pornography to every doorstep may be the reason for the steep decline in sexual crimes in the United States since 1993.
In his 2007 essay ‘Rape, Porn and Criminality: Political Truth on Trial’, Anthony D’Amato of Northwestern University School of Law theorises:
[S]ome people watching pornography may “get it out of their system” and thus have no further desire to go out and actually try it. Another possibility might be labelled the “Victorian effect”: the more that people covered up their bodies with clothes in those days, the greater the mystery of what they looked like in the nude… But today, internet porn has thoroughly de-mystified sex.
While feminist icon Naomi Wolf’s essay ‘The Porn Myth’ focuses on the pressure pornography puts on ordinary women to measure up to porn stars in looks as well as sexual prowess, the basis of her argument is that pornography is, in fact, numbing the male libido in relation to real women.
It then boils down to the question—does pornography feed the imagination or satisfy it?
Over the ages, the dominant criticism of pornography has been on various grounds—it has been seen as obscene, immoral, irreligious and most recently, anti-feminist and violence-causing.
Pornography is a reaction against sexual repression. I believe that the sexual liberation, and the interest and studies about female sexuality that have been the result of pornography—along with other factors—are very important from a sociological point of view. Women have gained sexual rights and respect as a result of having independent sexual identities. The acknowledgement of female sexual needs has resulted in the expectation of fulfilment—women are allowed to express sexual dissatisfaction. A woman having sex is no longer seen as a deviation—as pornography brings sex into the open and ensures it gets talked about. Slowly but surely, pornography, in conjunction with other social, political and economic factors is helping remove the ‘good woman’/’bad woman’ judgemental distinction that women have had to live with as part of inherited Victorian social norms. With the birth control pill and legalised abortions, women can be untroubled by unwanted pregnancies. Virtuousness and acceptance are no longer at odds with sexuality.
If watching pornography can provide a sexual outlet and channelise the sexual impulses of men who might otherwise get sexually aggressive towards women, I see no reason why it should be banned or limited.
There are ways to justify and counter the negatives of pornography. For one, the industry should be legalised. While playing a part in pornographic films is a woman’s choice, stronger laws must be enforced regarding exploitation and sexual targeting. Women today must embrace—and indeed flaunt—their sexuality while portraying independence and strength and avoiding the media’s tendency to exploit female sexuality to cater to men.
The rise of pornography has increased the need for intense comprehensive sexuality education to counter the unreasonable expectations, depictions and myths that pornography propagates. It is also important to spread the message of safe sex. Most important is to create a strong culture where women are respected, as, far before these rape accused were exposed to porn, they were brought up in a culture of patriarchy and misogyny that allowed them to believe that women and their bodies are at the mercy of men and their wills.
Banning or limiting the consumption of pornography is not possible—Vaswani’s petition alleges that Indians have access to more than 200 million clips; and it is everywhere, on a majority of PCs and mobiles, across sociocultural barriers, in towns, cities and villages. Imagine a law and order situation if our courts and jails were stuffed full of every recreational porn user! Even if it was possible, I believe it’s unnecessary and will only lead to a murkier underground with more avenues for exploitation. Instead, even the creation and sale of pornography should be regularised and controlled by strong laws that keep its negatives at bay.
An edited version of this article appeared in Governance Now in May 2013.