Banning porn is a tricky business

If the politics of a regulation society were a pie chart, the Modi government would split into three sections. The first part of the pie would display standard economics where licensing and corporate social responsibility would dominate. In the political domain, security and surveillance would allow little space for sustainability. In both of these areas, the metaphor is of the body politic. In the third domain, in areas of culture, the body is the central measure and metaphor. The body exudes sexuality, is sensuous and erotic. It needs to be disciplined, subject to forms of hygiene and punctuality.

Controlling and surveying the body requires a different set of tactics than the more abstract strategies for the economy or polity. What the body eats, consumes at the level of ideas is an extension of the materiality of the body. In this domain, censorship, ban and surveillance are three strategies of control and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has attempted to create a regular civics of the body. It has achieved this through the following steps: Civics has sought the hygienic body, the punctual body, the fasting body and the vegetarian body in a quick set of legislative moves. These have been more or less effective and have reflected the middle class’ general will.
Sex is more difficult to control, not just for the individual but for a government. The erotic, the sensual, the sexual, the pornographic often operated within the intimacy of the home or in grey areas which were often left unpatrolled. Sexuality, more than any other urge, allows for the creativity of deviancy. It invites incest, rape, perversions and because these are often backstage, they are difficult to map. Pornography raised similar problems, but in the digital age, the information revolution and the pornographic trade have been coterminous.

Pornography creates a parallel world of sexuality where the body loses out to the visuality of the image. Pornography invites the voyeur as vicarious spectator. He might, in fact, prefer engaging the image rather than the body where sex as a normal relationship might elude the consumer. There are domains of normalcy where porn is part of the inflated dream, a trigger to the everydayness of sexuality.

I remember as a teenager, Blitz would be popular for what was called its one-minute visuality. It was not the late Russi Karanjia’s politics or his stands on behalf of Palestine or the Shah of Iran that interested us. What drew people was the pin-up at the corner of the last page. This was seen as radical in an age where Femina and Filmfare were coy about the body.

The photograph was poor, grainy, but what camera could not do the imagination or the community provided. Today, the event looks silly and the excitement embarrassing. Next to today’s digital exploits, it sounds dumb. Yet, what one realises even more is that as one moved from voyeurism to an active sense of relationships, porn loses out. It is not porn we have to fight, but the idea of life and the city which makes sexuality less than fulfilling. Freedom and repression are opposite worlds and it is the roots of the permissible that democracy must work to encourage.

The imagination combines with the real to create a greater sense of the erotic from the humdrum. There is an even greater banalisation of porn, with pin-ups of stars and other women sold with the same zeal that one devotes to cinema or cricket. Porn summons the voyeur as consumer and the obsessive as collector. In fact, it is so banal today that I was stunned by two parallel events I saw while travelling on a plane. Passengers on both sides had their computers out.

I thought they would be watching film or the latest serials. The woman on my right, after requesting a Jain meal, put on the pictures of her guru and was virtually involved in a ritual of prayer. On the other hand was a burly man who was shuffling a voluptuous collection of pictures. One could almost sense that he wanted to mix the body parts and create his own preferred women. He was as content watching this array of pictures as a teen would be admiring cricketers Rahul Dravid or Sachin Tendulkar.

I sensed that none of the images he was fetishising could have been his wife. Yet the man looked normal, content and was possibly a good family man. I wonder if he was carrying a present for his wife. The question the event raises is whether we can criminalise or censor all forms of pornography. Does one have to criminalise all forms of porn? Should one allow a certain amount of fetishism to be normal? In fact, many of our top filmstars began in such movies before they became bigtime.

The question one must also ask is, where does one draw the line between the bit-girl, the cameo-queen and the pornstar? If consumerism is king, then pornography is more than a modest multi-billion dollar industry. Should one be tolerant of such an imagination or should one ban it? Should one decriminalise such activities? If sex workers can be made legal and regulated, can porn be legalised? Can decriminalisation, normalisation and regulation be a better strategy than the ban and other punitive strategies?

The question of paedophilia also has its own problems. As one reads history, one realises a lot of innocent people were harassed on the basis of a few childhood recollections and yet child trafficking and child porn are intimately connected and one has to draw some lines harder. What one misses is an articulation of principles or tactics.

Firstly, one has to recognise that not all difference is deviancy and, therefore, pathological. One has to allow for greys in a world of black and white, so the grey do not grow darker. Translated, a bit of release may be easier to control than repression. In this sense, freedom must allow for a wide range of the permissible, drawing the line on violence to the integrity of the body. As far as possible, one must increase the area of decriminalisation, and allow for the normalcy of various forms of sexual activity.

 

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