While researching my erotic novel Sita’s Curse, which explored the repressed sexual desires of Meera Patel, a 39- year-old housewife living in a dingy middle-class chawl in Mumbai who finds her mojo by having steamy cybersex with a younger Muslim man, I decided to conduct a poll of 30 women I knew intimately, settled across the world. They were asked the same questions, ranging from whether they were addicted to porn; masturbated regularly, or were told to touch themselves to arouse their partners; fancied BDSM, kinky threesomes or lesbian sex; if they’d pay to have sex with a gigolo; and so on. Also, most importantly, what part sex played in their lives: if married couples fantasised partner-swapping or took part in orgies; if single women purchased sex toys online or were hooked to vibrators or dildos; if they dug sex with married, older men or went on sex vacations, where the mantra was find, f***, forget.
After much prodding, the replies came in, at snail’s pace. Very few answered more than two questions; some did not spare me the lecture that I was frustrated, and that such a ‘bold’ questionnaire was out of line. The questions on masturbation and porn left most edgy, with self-pleasure considered dirty, derelict and dangerous. That, and the fear of being caught, given our cultural conditioning to be cagey about a woman and her privates. We can get stimulated watching a heroine gyrate on a 70 mm screen and download porn in Parliament, but even in the cloistered privacy of bedrooms, the darkness between a woman’s thighs is never her own. Her husband can ask her to bend over and force painful anal sex. And a woman’s virginity is held sacred and sold to generations of male ‘protectors’, sanctioned by law to literally rape their wives: her breasts, buttocks, vaginas—everything is another’s. A woman’s highest validation is in being a pleasure provider, never a seeker, who must be silenced and shamed.
One night, a friend, married after college, called from the US. “I only orgasm when I watch porn,” she confessed, almost apologetic. “I’m hooked. I even sex-chat, paying in dollars. I ensure my husband doesn’t find out. Ever since my second son, internet porn’s my lifeline. My husband is so obese and just doesn’t like things I like, like going down on me. And yet, I am supposed to give him a blowjob. He doesn’t even shave. Porn is liberating, especially since in Calcutta, we were banned from watching even Blue Lagoon. I dig African-American men. They have real big....”
Sixty per cent of the internet traffic from India is porn-based. And Pornhub has found 25 per cent viewership from women based in India.
In India, a country where women are serially raped, sex-trafficking is rampant and children are molested by fathers and school attendants, and where reproduction is something of a sport, there are laws criminalising online pornography. And yet, even as we squirm at even the mention of sex, pornography drives the web: India happens to have the third highest number of internet users globally (estimated to cross 300 million soon), and 60 per cent of the traffic is porn-based. Porn is also one of the most searched words on Google in India.
In our patriarchal pecking order—where female goddesses are worshipped and yet women are not permitted to cross into the sanctum sanctorum because they menstruate—the female voice and argument is absent, even in the debate on banning pornography. How we assume porn to be a guy thing, something that numerous jokes are based on—like drinking beer, watching sport and shagging! There’s a staunch lakshman rekha, with imputations on a woman’s ‘character’ if she watches porn: How her claim to Sitahood will be stained with the slut tag! Someone with gande soch, a horny, oversexed creature, who exposes too much, refuses to exist untouched, unfulfilled, and wanting to be desired selfishly, just for herself! Maybe she smokes heavily, drinks! Is an irresponsible parent, a divorcee or a spinster! Who are such women but an anomaly in Swachch Bharat!
These views prevail despite a November 2014 survey in a leading online magazine, based on data from Pornhub, claiming that the percentage of women from India watching adult videos on the site is 25 per cent, two per cent higher than the worldwide average. In Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, Gail Dines, an American academician, claims that pornography is much more than benign titillation—what people drool over could give us insights on women’s sexuality and male behavioural traits. And Nadine Strossen, a New York Law school professor, writing in 1995, says that “freedom of speech consistently has been the strongest weapon for countering misogynistic discrimination and violence, and freedom of sexually oriented expression is integrally connected with women’s freedom.” And yet, female pleasure is known always to exist with male approval! Why can’t the Supreme Court ban marital rape? Women cheating on their husbands are branded chudails or randis—witches or whores!—non-conformist, deranged!
Long before Sunny Leone took her place as the ultimate turn-on for a sexually repressed nation, her desi avatar, Savita Bhabhi, an Indian pornographic cartoon became an internet sensation. Our consciousness struggled to justify just why Bhabhi, a buxom, promiscuous housewife, ignored by her husband, engages in lusty sex outside marriage. It was ultimately banned by the government in 2009—a kind of official denial of such areas of behaviour as the cartoon explored! We seem to be forever in denial. Popular culture is allowed to make slanted inferences, like Didi tera dewar deewana, in the family entertainment space, but we are in denial of incest. Though it’s commonly speculated that even Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s first brush with romance was his older brother’s nubile wife, Kadambari Devi, who consumed opium and killed herself, when her dashing brother-in-law got married, and the affair became public knowledge. Tagore’s Noshto Neer, later adapted by Satyajit Ray into Charulata, dwelt on this fatal, fleeting attraction.
Did Savita Bhabhi blow the lid off the sorry state of Indian marriages? Did she expose, in a way, scores of desperate housewives who seduce salesmen, as also their younger brothers-in-law? Was Kadambari Devi any different? Will we ever accept that most women are queasy when it comes to talking frankly about sex? How mothers hide their sanitary napkins and rarely get intimate with their spouses in front of kids! In most Indian homes, the whole family sleeps together in one room. And for many Indians, porn practically functions as a necessary tool of sex education? The Podar Institute of Education, for instance, conducted a sex survey where out of 8,000 girls and women surveyed, 49 per cent learnt about sex after watching porn with friends. In porn videos—especially home-grown ones—we rarely see women calling the shots. Does that reflect the misogynistic nature of sexual transactions? Or is it a reflection of a woman’s place during sex?
If ‘couple porn’ is recommended by sex experts to heat up one’s dull sex life, then why the hypocrisy when it comes to women? Why not instead ban obscene, double-meaning lyrics in Bollywood item songs and double-meaning jokes on TV shows like Comedy Nights with Kapil, where women, and the transgender community, are routinely picked on? Our prime-time serials too, that revel in open sexual and emotional violence?
Why then, the winking, nudging tagline dekho magar dhyaan se?
(Sreemoyee Piu Kundu is a columnist who writes on gender issues.)