Women’s rights and porn

Pierre Woodman filming porn in AustraliaPierre Woodman filming porn in Australia

Porn has come under extensive criticism from feminists as well. I find this scary. Accusations vary from porn resulting in rape to porn being born from an exploitation of women. I disagree with a lot of these accusations and agree with a few, but do not see blocking of porn as an answer. More importantly, I find it alarming that feminism can selectively abdicate interest in the agency of women.

Who decides whether and what porn should be banned?

A large part of the feminist view is that men deciding what harms women is a problem. A sizeable chunk of feminists also thinks porn should be banned because it harms women. Very few people actually ask porn watching women or performers. In my view, people who don’t want to watch porn are not required to watch it, just like people not interested in cricket are not forced to follow scores on cricket websites. Thus, there is little question of porn being imposed on people and the primary stakeholders would be producers, performers and viewers – mostly not consulted in deliberations on bans. Other stakeholders could be law enforcement, social workers and doctors working with the industry and so on. Few, if any women enjoy porn that is violent, but there are women viewers as well as performers who like rough sex porn. Our efforts to figure out a way to reduce the harms of porn don’t consult them. In my view not only is this authoritarian, bypassing stakeholders is unlikely to result in effective ways of dealing with the issue.

Can porn cause harm?

There is harm related to porn including addiction, unhealthy expectations about sex and violent or non-consensual sex. On the darker side is a sordid saga of drug abuse among porn performers, sexual abuse and allegedly, trafficking women to make porn, blackmail and more. Extreme and hardcore acts or object insertions can result in people injuring themselves. Those added to a rape can result in serious injury and worse. They can give men all sorts of misconceptions about what women like during sex. And this is “legal” porn (as in not depicting criminal acts) – not even necessarily violent porn. There is also little doubt that a lot of mainstream porn is too aggressive and disrespectful of women for women’s tastes.

So are many Bollywood films. I’d argue songs like “Khambe jaisi khadi hain” starring the conscience of the nation, Aamir Khan, with “heroes” pursuing reluctant actresses, heartily idolized by cheering and jeering mob of sidekicks have inspired more non-consensual  sexual pursuit of women than porn films ever will. Catcalls and whistles from the balcony during rape/molestation/erotic scenes are embarrassing cinema traditions. When the heroine can slap the hero for harassing her, and discover at the end of the film that she was wrong for misjudging him. I would argue that public figures and people in positions of authority that excuse rape and hold victims responsible for “asking for it” do more harm than porn. Because these are cultural influences, rather than private activities.

What are the things already being done about “bad” porn?

Association of Sites Advocating Child Protection, Internet Watch Foundation and FBI track and seize servers that run child pornography. Google does not want revenge porn to appear in search results. There are other initiatives by ordinary netizens like Anonymous who are relentless in their efforts in their pursuit of child abusers and child porn. Efforts like feminist porn, Porna porn or sex-positive porn are growing rapidly as more and more people turn toward more “real” depictions of sex rather than aggressive porn that “gets off” on humiliating women. Bishakha Datta puts it well in her fine article on the porn ban, “If we applied the free speech argument to porn, we wouldn’t ban porn. We’d fight porn with more porn, make more porn for women.” She is planning to create a porn-o-meter service to rate porn for being child, women and law friendly that depicts women enjoying and controlling the sexual action as well. Top rated videos of most popular sites are increasingly of the kind where women participate and enjoy the sex.

Above prejudices and ethics is hard business

A part of the problem is also the “quality”, as a pragmatic porn performer who does not want to be named, told me. If a director fails to convey pleasure and emotional connect it can look alarmingly indifferent to a woman’s pleasure. A woman’s pleasure can be more subtle to portray and capture than a man’s very visible orgasm. It is also no coincidence that most films with good production values and acting and direction also have sex that looks enjoyable for all participants.

While the audience was mostly men, this did not matter so much, but with the rise in viewership by women, this has started mattering. If women friendly porn has demand, it will be created. And it should be, because as Pu La Deshpande had said in his speech celebrating the 75th show of the outrageous Sangeet Vastraharan, “There is only one answer to inappropriate things and that is doing what is appropriate in an excellent manner.”

Here is Erika Lust, who makes porn videos talking about the need for porn to change.

Porn is hardly a new concern. Other countries already have laws that the biggest sites have to comply with to remain accessible to viewers in order to profit. Any porn site with noticeable viewership already explicitly requires performers to be of adult age and to sign consent forms. They remove reported criminal porn – because they are here to do business from the desires of people, not protect criminals at the cost of their own business and reputation. The question of why aggression with woman turns men on – whether as a fantasy or in real life is a question beyond the scope of this piece.

Does porn symbolize crimes against women?

Meena Kandasamy, a feminist has published an article in which she argues against the porn ban, yet declares porn to be against women’s rights (then why should it not be banned?)

I do think that the pornographic industry overwhelmingly represents NOT freedom but its opposite, the enslavement of women’s bodies, the casualisation of paedophilia, the trivialisation of rape, the culture of trophy videos of rape, and all this, on top of being one of the most exploitative global sex industries that has trafficking, forced prostitution, abuse and near-slavery ingrained in it.

I invite anyone to check out the top porn sites to see if pedophilia or rape is present at all (whether casualized, trivialized or in another form) let alone “overwhelmingly represents”. Women who participate willingly in BDSM cannot be considered to be “enslaved” beyond the sexual role play. I dare say that if the top visited sites don’t carry it, most porn viewers never come across it. If you specifically search for child or rape porn, you will find it regardless of blocks, because if there is something you can find on the internet, you can find it around a block as well.

Conditions of porn performers

There are porn performers who reach the top of name and fame as performers and go on to produce their own content and there are those that do a brief stint and reach a dead end – like the bulk of acting and modeling work. There are plenty of “stars” speaking candidly about the profession, including their sex lives on and off screen when their partner is also a co-star; interacting with fans in an extremely candid manner, including doing Reddit IAmAs, where anyone can ask them anything and answering questions on Quora. There are candid Reddit IAmAs of partners of porn performers who speak of dedication to their work and career; the “work” of porn and sex being different things and even being committed to monogamy off screen.

Technology is killing mainstream porn but empowering the talent. It cuts out the middle man and let’s almost anyone work from home. ~ Tory Lane

It is a career choice with its occupational hazards. Not all that different from a film star talking about how it isn’t all about glamour but days of slogging doing retakes after retakes.

A construction worker abuses her body for far less money and comfort. Do we call for bans on construction work or coal mines because workers fall to their die, get health problems or abuse their body beyond endurance for a pittance? Is it not supremely ironic that feminists who would otherwise object to a woman being measured by her vagina end up condemning entire professions chosen by women because the part of the body overworked is the vagina? Is being a woman all about being a vagina then, that breaking your back ferrying gravel and cement is no reason for a ban but a far less brutal life as a sex performer is? Or is it that there is nothing to be outraged about a woman’s sexuality unless she happens to earn from it?

This is not to say there is no ugly side. There are sex performers who get exploited, who face rude costars and suffer unpleasant sex from both the physical stress of postures for camera rather than comfort as well as brutal partners with usually larger than average penises. They speak of the abuse and humiliation of derogatory co-stars, being penetrated roughly, of drugs and exploiters. Why does the “victim” return to do another film? Performers make compromises they later regret because of the lure of money, like any of us. Women have had sex in ways that strips them of dignity for all kinds of reasons ranging from promotions to desperate attempts at preventing husbands from straying.

Defining the whole by a part

But more importantly, it is not so different from the million other people who “bitch” about their jobs, even as they continue to do them. Go to a corporate office, there will be bitter sense of victimization by colleagues and seniors considered to be manipulative, exploitative or otherwise unfair. Of bosses who will push employees beyond endurance to get the “work” done. Of work pressures that lead to suicides. Students commit suicide from exam pressures. Farmers commit suicide because they cannot afford to live. Bigggest common factor in cases of marital rape is marriage. Ban marriage? Every profession, occupation has a terrible side, but porn and prostitution appear to be two where a professional cannot talk about a bad day at work or problems they face without it becoming the “truth” of the industry.

What about the agency of women?

Whatever happened of the power of women to make choices including their own mistakes? If a woman chooses to wear skimpy clothes and walk on the streets of Delhi at midnight and gets raped, do we ask for roads to be closed to public after dark? If a porn performer faces abuse, why is it that instead of insisting that criminals be brought to book, we act like the ministers we condemn and condemn porn instead of the specific criminals? There is some preference within people to prevent porn, just like there is a preference to prevent women out on the streets among those who would deny them agency.

Concerns about Indian porn performers

That said, while I have no data, my perception is that the Indian porn performers do much worse than those in countries where it can be produced legally. I believe this is because performing contracts, mandatory health checks, legal status allow legal porn performers to build proper fan followings and improve  working conditions in ways that they find safe in ways Indian performers cannot. Indeed a lot of Indian porn I have seen appears to be little more than a shoot of a sexual encounter with a prostitute with little production values or direction beyond showing sex. If porn performing were legal in India, many prostitutes would be able to move out of prostitution and dictate who they would have sex with for an income and on what terms. They would be able to create and sell their own porn instead of being videotaped by profiteers who exploited them for their own profit. They would be able to choose producers who offered working conditions that did not exploit them.

What can the government do?

If we really want to do something about porn, in order to prevent exploitation of women, the need is not to ban it, but to legalize porn production so that working standards may be enforced, production companies can be formed and held accountable for the age and consent of performers in videos they produce and more. So that a porn performer may be able to file a case for rape just like any model can, if she gets forced to do things she has not agreed to do. I have often argued that instead of prudish bans on sex related activities like prostitution or porn, India needs to encourage a thriving sex industry that allows the government to crack down on exploitation and crime, because professionals will be interested in maintaining their licences to operate. Instead of fighting a token war against a tide of people interested in sex and profiteers thriving on exploiting women to provide it, the government can turn the bulk of consumers and providers on their side and really create conditions that deter crimes and exploitation.

If porn is legal, it will become easier to monitor human trafficking, because the larger production houses that earn the most will have a vested interest in remaining legal and focusing on the money and they will have a way to be legal. Smaller operators in turn will not be able to earn enough from meager revenues from marginalized visibility to make the risks of crime worthwhile. It may not stop crimes altogether, but it will most definitely help to make them unnecessary as well as serve as strong deterrent for the vast majority.

One strength the government has, is the same one it exploits when it profits from FDI. The size of India’s population is an asset when it comes to being a market. If the government can identify porn that encourages unhealthy attitudes about women and consent, it can pass a law requiring such content to carry disclaimers For example:

  • The following material is a fictional depiction of activities that are illegal in civilized countries – for enacted rape porn or “forced sex” etc
  • The actions depicted in this video can cause injury and are performed by practiced professionals. Don’t try them at home – for extreme insertion porn.
  • The women in this video have consented to participate in a fictional depiction of dominance over women. Such actions without consent are illegal worldwide. – for rough sex, domination, BDSM, etc

Given the size of India’s population, if sites that don’t comply are blocked, it will result in a competition for the market share and allow the government to actively combat harmful messages potentially conveyed by porn.

The need is to not measure porn by the ethical standards of prudes with malice toward the industry, but by the standards of those engaging with it.

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About the Author

Vidyut
Vidyut is a blogger on issues of National interest. Staunch advocate of rights, learning and freedoms. @Vidyut

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