Rape of Reason? Little data to link porn with rape

While there should be zero tolerance in matters of child pornography and nabbing paedophiles, there is absolutely no causal ground to correlate porn with crime against women, say experts

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Pratap Vikram Singh | May 18, 2013




A recent public interest litigation (PIL) in the supreme court to make it illegal to watch porn, considering it as one of the factors which compel a man to rape, has stirred the age-old debate whether porn is harmless or not.

Kamlesh Vaswani, an Indore-based lawyer, in his petition dated April 15, contends: “Porn is always on demand and watching a brutal form of porn increases the viewer’s appetite for similar actions within society.” He urged the court that proactive steps are needed from the government to block all pornographic websites. He has appealed for modification of the internet laws to make watching pornography a non-bailable offence.

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According to the law of the land, as stated under the Indian penal code (IPC) and the IT Act, 2000, producing, disseminating and transmitting of porn is a criminal offence, punishable up to three years of imprisonment. Viewing porn, however, is not a criminal offence.

With computers, cell phones and the internet getting cheaper, accessing porn is a matter of a few punches on the keyboard for anyone. Even if there is no internet, one can easily find CD parlours selling porn videos for just '20. You get a variety of porn material, including the violent ones. Studies prove that a substantial part of the traffic on the internet relates to porn. 

The PIL follows an admission by an accused, arrested for allegedly raping a five-year-old girl in Delhi, that he watched porn on a cell phone before committing the offence.

There are more such cases, says Ranjana Kumari, director of Centre for Social Research. “Experientially, I can tell you that there is a definite link between watching porn and use of coercion and violence against women. I am not saying that viewing porn is the only reason for rape; it is one of the variables, however. In many cases, the rapists have been guided by porn,” says Kumari.

Citing evidence, she says, “In south Delhi alone, out of 90 rape cases, the culprit had seen porn before criminally assaulting a minor in many cases.”
However, many experts challenge the notion of a link between pornography and rape. The demand to ban online pornography to curtail crime against women, as contested in the PIL, is futile and misleading in the absence of any factual study, believe a group of experts.

While there should be zero-tolerance in matters of child pornography and nabbing paedophiles, and the agencies should work on making the internet safer for children, there is absolutely no causal ground for correlating pornography with crime against women, say experts.

“In the Indian context, this correlation is very difficult to make given the scant data on sex offenders. Very little research exists on the psyche of sex offenders. Also because there are too few convictions – 1 out of 500 cases in Delhi last year as you may know,” says Manjima Bhattacharjya, an independent researcher based in Mumbai. She has authored a report on “Negotiating intimacy and harm: Female internet users in Mumbai”.
Though the PIL cites pornography as a “moral cancer” and claims that “most offences are fuelled by pornography”, experts believe that it “grossly overestimates” the harm caused by porn.

“Given that barely 10 percent of the country has access to online porn, regularising it cannot be seriously thought of as a way of controlling sexual crimes. This preoccupation with porn also ignores or does no justice absolutely to the variety of sexual crimes in the country – caste-based sexual crimes or those in areas of armed conflict, for example,” says Bhattacharjya.

Kamini Jaiswal, a senior supreme court lawyer, says porn is a recent phenomenon but rape is age-old. She says to assume that a ban on porn will reduce the rate of crime against women is as naive as to assume that a ban on sale of liquor would lead to a change in drinking habit.

Kalpana Viswanath, a women’s rights activist based in Delhi, says considering a ban on online porn, without having a factual clarity on what exactly leads to violence against women, is a knee-jerk reaction.

Cyber law expert Pavan Duggal says governments in the West have tried and failed to curb pornography on the internet. Eventually they have narrowed down their focus on the biggest concern – child pornography. The Indian authorities, too, should focus on how to make children’s internet experience safer. He notes that the government should take a piecemeal approach towards dealing with the ill-effects of a certain type of content over the internet, rather than going all out to ban pornography, which is technically not possible.

He is also of the view that the decision whether porn should be banned, or if there should be a minimum age for viewing porn, is a matter to be discussed and debated by the legislature and not the judiciary.

Given the conservative nature of the Indian society, there has never been enough discussion over gender relations, healthy relations between two partners. In fact, the internet is the only place to access information on such matters. Also, it will be wrong to assume that only men, and not women, are inquisitive about sexual matters while using the internet.

Bhattacharjya says that the whole discourse is extremely male-centric, as if women do not watch porn. While doing her research, she figured out that every single woman user she interviewed had viewed porn on the internet at some point in time.

“It was seen to be part of the thrills of adolescence and part of their right to private sexual pleasure although concerns were voiced about certain violent forms of pornography and child porn. Their views challenge the basic notion that the internet is harmful because of the availability of pornography and thus needs to be regulated,” she says.

And just in case, experts say, even if there is a direct correlation, closing down web portals is impossible, given the availability of ‘mirror servers’ located abroad, where the law of the land does not apply.

Instead of trying to ban pornography, the focus should be on changing the patriarchal and misogynous nature of the Indian society. Equally important is to immediately deal with the uncertainty of conviction and impunity with which, say experts, sexual assault has taken place across age groups and classes over decades.

There is also need for “a healthy dialogue on sex, what healthy sexual relations between partners look like, conversations about women’s bodily autonomy and sexual rights and importantly masculinity that has taught our men to behave in certain ways,” concludes Bhattacharjya.

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