Opinion

Porn Out Of Purdah: Yes, Women Do Watch Porn, But....

What arouses women is body-positive feminist porn, not the kind that dehumanises women

Porn Out Of Purdah: Yes, Women Do Watch Porn, But....
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Yes, since you ask, women do masturbate and they do watch porn. Maybe you didn’t even ask. But think. Why? For the same reasons as men. It’s simple, easy, stimulating and quick. More so, they don’t have to fake an orgasm. Or worry about their dimpled thighs. According to recent surveys by popular website PornHub, nearly one-third of the porn-viewing audience is made up of women, and that share is increasing. India is not only the No. 4 country in watching porn, going by PornHub data, women are slowly bridging the gap here too—as many as 30 per cent of regular porn consumers in India are women, says a new study. But sadly, female pleasure is rarely discussed with men, and infrequently discussed among women.

“That figure of 30 per cent is among the ­highest in the world—with the exception of the mighty Brazilians and Filipinos, our women are watching more porn than anyone else,” says Meghna Pant, feminist writer from Mumbai. “And yet, I remember some erotica writers ­telling me that women from small towns thought the G-spot was short for Gold Spot and facials involved Veet bleach. They didn’t know what an orgasm was. Some of these women had been married for decades.” She feels it’s time we normalise the fact that women not only watch porn, but are often also turned off by it, even bored, because female pleasure or desire are completely disregarded in porn. Want ways to broaden the male mindset? Why not give a shot at improving porn for women?

It was just out of curiosity that film and theatre actress Aahana Kumra stepped into watching porn. “I remember I was in college, 16 then,” she recollects. “One of my girlfriends and I smuggled a CD from one of our male friends. My parents were going out somewhere…. But that first time, I found it disturbing. We had to shut it down immediately because we didn’t want to watch anymore. Honestly, it made me feel uncomfortable.” But when Kumra started travelling around the world, she started seeing new things, liberating sights. “I remember going to the Moulin Rouge in France…there were at least a hundred women on stage dancing naked. After the initial bit of shock, I realised they were just beautiful bodies. There was a touch of art to the sight. Again, when I went to Amsterdam, I saw women out there for sex. Porn is a huge, thriving industry, and India logs a very high consumption of it, just that we aren’t acknowledging it.”

Kumra feels she didn’t get much chance to watch porn probably because her group of friends was conservative. What about erotica? For her, the difference is merely that erotica is for the elite, while porn is for anybody and everybody. “Erotica is art, and I paid money to watch that art form in Moulin Rouge. If you can afford that kind of sexual spectatorship, it’s erotica. But if you’re just watching content ­online, that’s literally for everybody.” Thing is, it’s as easy for women to access porn as it is for men, and many women feel it’s just a choice whether they wish to consume it or not—what’s the harm, they ask, and how does it matter whether you like it or not.

All this, of course, runs up against that old question of female sexuality and its repression in India. The minute you broach the topic, ­people get uncomfortable—in an endlessly hypocritical way. Why go too far, just look at our films. It reduces women to doing item songs. Isn’t it weird how we often so openly ­celebrate those, but have a problem with women watching porn? “When my film Lipstick Under My Burkha was banned, I felt our society had a problem with women talking about sexual liberation through their own bodies,” says Kumra. “The way sex is represented in our films is very demeaning. Lots of OTT shows too have pornographic content. And we still don’t talk about sex! That puzzles me.”

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Especially because Indians come from a ­culture where women actually had equal agency. If you see our temple sculptures, we have women using objects that resemble sex toys. In the Kamasutra, the woman is also ­initiating certain positions where she is the ­recipient of pleasure, not just the provider. “We’ve had so many elements disrupting that liberated female agency, like the purdah ­system, the ‘andar mahal, bahar mahal’ ­system, the Victorian corset,” says Sreemoyee Piu Kundu, Calcutta-based erotica writer. “If we look back, Indian women never covered their breasts. They were completely regal in their ­female form and sensuality.”

There are of course caveats. Much of porn is male-oriented in a way suffused with power, often toxic power. Porn is the first exposure to sex for most Indian boys. And much of the toxic masculinity we see around us stems from men fantasising about certain porn movem­ents, activities and gestures. “Unfortunately, porn is mainly done from a masculine point of view,” says Kundu. “Most porn videos begin with the man getting a blow job, quickly ­progressing into anal sex and then ejaculating all over her face. These are the fantasies of most Indian men and this is why there’s so much infidelity and perversion; men don’t even have an idea about what women want, the concept of consent is not even taught. Otherwise, I don’t understand the whole hoopla around porn. If you see our sleazy, double-meaning Indian songs and OTT shows, we’re exposed to sex all the time. So why are we pretending porn doesn’t exist? Women too watch porn. I know friends who masturbate watching porn. It’s perfectly ­natural to view an externally stimulating form of sex visually. It’s just that our viewing of women as sex objects unfortunately stems from porn. The harshness of sex and dominance of men comes from porn. So does the idea that a woman has to go down on men.”

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Nandita Puri, Mumbai-based author and chairperson, Om Puri Foundation, offers the same qualified endorsement. “I don’t find porn inherently degrading. If the women who feature in porn choose of their own volition, I do not want to stand in judgement of them. But ours being a predominantly patriarchal society, it’s but ­natural that men will use women for their benefit. If it were the other way, it would be fine. We must understand, some 90 per cent of our rural women are repressed. The 10 per cent of ‘liberated’ urban women are also not truly liberated. As I always maintain, each to her own and that includes porn or erotica or whatever we may label it.”

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Mumbai-based journalist and author Anindita Ghose concurs, “Some kinds of porn are degrading for women, but to say porn ­itself is degrading to women is to say women are not sexual beings and have no agency in their sex lives. The problems of the porn ­industry—exploitation of actors, especially minors—are well known and need to be ­addressed. But if you’re asking about the ­morality of viewing porn, I have no problem with it so long as it does not engage in ­paedophilia or bestiality, as then you’re ­engaging with non-consenting parties.”

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What about erotica? Some women believe its treatment of sensuality, passion and ­desire are naturally bound up with equal ­participation and consent. It invests in ­atmospherics and build-up, rarely shows penetrative sex, and stimulates more senses than just the visual—it evokes an aura of ­mutuality in love-making. “As a proud author of Sita’s Curse, India’s first feminist erotica, I believe erotica goes beyond titillation or ­hedonism,” says Kundu. “We are the land of Kamasutra, of Khajuraho, with all those beautiful images of love-making. We actually taught the world what erotica is.”

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Some believe the erotica/porn distinction (and preferences) can vary on a subjective level. “Erotica done tastefully can be an art form,” says Swati Bhattacharya, communication leader from Delhi. But again, the ­‘aesthetics’ has to be a means to an end—India has to free itself from viewing the act of sex as essentially male-oriented. “Sex and sexuality go beyond just male orgasm. Society must recognise it. The mindset right now is all messed up,” Bhattacharya adds. Here, Kundu brings in the spillover to real life. “What I don’t like about porn is it ­encourages men to want kinky, violent, dirty sex, which they think is pleasurable to women. And when they are in a relationship, they don’t even feel the need to ask whether the woman is actually enjoying it or not. Honestly, I’m yet to see porn made from a woman’s pleasure point of view.”

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Women’s exposure to porn actually brings home the realisation of how male-driven it is—a lot of it also espouses rape fantasies, like the man choking the woman, or other forms of aggression. This moment of understanding, and their voicing of this fact, should itself be a step towards liberation—for the male. But how? “Pornography often shows women as props for men, which of course dehumanises women,” says Calcutta-based journalist Arshia Dhar. “The only way to battle this is to make more and more feminist porn.” The idea here is to see pornography as a ­transformative, sex-positive, empowering tool—as distinct from the often degrading porn spun out of the male gaze.

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There are many avenues through which people can consume sex-positive porn that’s respectful of women and focuses on the pleasure of both the parties involved. Now more and more female adult filmmakers—­pioneers in body-positive, feminist porn like Shine Louise Houston, Courtney Trouble, Tristan Taormino, Madison Young—are showing the way. “There are certain female porn actors I like. Tera Patrick is one of them,” says Ghose. “She has a way with the camera and I like her for the same reason I would like any actress. She’s a great perfor­mer. The audio is very important to me in pornography and Tera Patrick does that well.”

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Women watching porn, then, is naturally leading to a desire for women-oriented content—not the sort where there’s a lot of gagging, choking, slapping, pulling the woman by her hair, calling her bitch. This is thus related, in many ways, to how real-world relationships are evolving. “Indian porn often shows women in a regressive role, ­always having to give in to the demands of the man to make him happy. I don’t think contemporary women like such representation,” says Mumbai-based psychiatrist Dr Anjali Chhabria. “There needs to be equality in love-making too. A man needs to understand that he has to be giving too.”

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Of course, it’s hard to generalise for all of India—or limit the generalisation to India. While it’s true that much of our ‘tradition’ and ‘custom’ is in place specifically to control women’s sexuality and their agency at large, says Ghose, “whatever we think of as regressive beliefs ailing Indian women are also issues that ail society in general. Men being told that an aggressive, proactive ­attitude towards ‘submissive, sex-averse women’ is the norm harms men universally.” This is where the phenomenon of porn coming out of its purdah may have a healing role.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Porn Out Of Purdah")

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