Porn-ban? Keep your hands off our smut

Porn-ban? Keep your hands off our smut

By Bhanuj Kappal | 8 August, 2015

What a week it’s been for the Indian internet! Ever since rumours started on Saturday that the government had banned a number of popular porn sites, the internet became the site of the country’s latest political soap opera. It had everything — intrigue, suspense, despair, humour, flip-flops and a (kind of) happy ending. In the process, porn replaced the economy, executions and an opposition-less Lok Sabha as the main topic for discussion online. And we got treated to the sight of BJP spokesperson Shaina NC saying the following sentence live on national television: “Isn’t it absolutely the prerogative of the state to ensure that there is this kind of pornography which is available to young children and that too for free?”
She was trying to make a slightly different point, thankfully, but that didn’t stop our Twitter comedians from jumping on the statement like school kids who have just caught their teacher using a swear word. And alongside the jokes were the very earnest discussions. My social media timelines were flooded with people debating the merits of downloading vs streaming porn, being obnoxiously smug about their knowledge of proxies and VPNs, and jokingly sympathising with engineering students (who probably have terabytes of porn safely stashed away for just such a scenario). Support poured in from across the border, with Indians and Pakistanis bonding on YouTube comment threads over the shared experience of online censorship. A couple of philanthropist sorts even offered to pass on their porn collections, and I’ve learnt far more far more about the porn watching habits of friends, colleagues and strangers on the internet than I ever wished to. For example, did you know that Indians watch the most porn on Saturdays as opposed to Mondays globally? That’s just one of the many, slightly sad, insights on Indian porn-watching that I’ve picked up over the last few days. It’s been educational, and a little disturbing, in a wash-hands-after-shaking kind of way.

What set all of this off is the Department of Telecommunication’s order last Friday, asking ISPs to block 857 sites on the grounds of obscenity. This was likely prompted by a PIL in the Supreme Court filed by Indore-based advocate Kamlesh Vaswani, asking that pornography be banned in India. The Court itself declined to pass an interim order to block pornography websites in India, but that didn’t stop the DoT from jumping the gun. By Tuesday, the s**t had hit the fan and, after hurried consultations, the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (which abbreviates to DeitY, talk about delusions of grandeur) asked the DoT to lift the ban, except in the case of child pornography. However, the ban is effectively still in place as the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPAI) has written to the DoT saying its members will continue to block the sites till they receive clearer directions. Government sources have also talked about setting up a porn ombudsman (Gajendra Chauhan is already revising his CV), and the need to “respect the sentiments of society”, so don’t expect this issue to die out in a hurry. Better commentators than I have weighed in on the issue already, but here’s a few brief takeaways.

It’s been refreshing to see a slew of articles that highlight and explore women’s consumption of porn, belying the narrative that it only exists to satisfy patriarchal men. I’ll let you decide where you stand on the issue, but it’s good to see that we’ve started having these discussions.


One is that this government, much like the one before it, is much less liberal than we’d like on the issues of free speech and online censorship. It’s not hard to understand why our political class is so uncomfortable with the idea of a free, unregulated internet. So you can expect more attempts to restrict access to sites that the government deems obscene or against the interests of the nation or society. Not all of these will be as touchy an issue as the porn ban, so we need to be vigilant.
The second is that the ban led to important public conversations on the nature of pornography and why it should be defended beyond the generic free speech argument. This ties in with a debate that has been taking place in global feminist circles since the ’80s. One section considers all porn as oppressive and worthy of condemnation (aligning uncomfortably with social conservatives), while another section arguing that not all porn is sexist and that there is space for pornography that celebrates women’s sexual agency and subverts dominant narratives around sex. In India — a sexually conservative country that nevertheless is one of the world’s largest consumers of porn — public opinion on porn has been largely reactionary and hypocritical. We enjoy it in private but condemn it in public as “degrading to women”. So it’s been refreshing to see a slew of articles that highlight and explore women’s consumption of porn, belying the narrative that it only exists to satisfy patriarchal men. I’ll let you decide where you stand on the issue, but it’s good to see that we’ve started having these discussions, at least in the rarified atmosphere of Twitter and the online news media.
The third and most important takeaway is that no matter how politically or ideologically divided our nation has become, the Twittersphere can still come together when it comes to something that really matters to them. It seems nothing unites us like the threat of being deprived of our online masturbation aids. To (badly) paraphrase Braveheart, “They can take our civil freedoms, but they’ll never take our
wank banks!

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance music journalist who likes noise, punk rock and mutton biryani.

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