Pornography and the Freedom of Expression


With the growth of censorship by the Indian State and more specifically Indian society, pornography has become a subject of conversation. Can it be used in place of sex education? Does the porn industry act as a cover for sex workers? Is it truly a space for free thought and art? In this article, we will be specifically looking at it as a form of sexual expression and also, the idea of censorship.

Before delving into pornography as a form of sexual expression, we must look at its impact on society, and especially women. According to Judith Butler, pornography is the depiction of all heterosexual relations in which all women are assumed to be only in coercive interactions with men. This concept is known as ‘Heterosexual Matrix’. The more widely known idea about pornography and society is ‘hegemonic masculinity’.

What is hegemonic masculinity? In gender studies, hegemonic masculinity is part of R. W. Connell’s gender order theory, which looks at and recognizes multiple forms of masculinity that vary across time, culture and the individual. Hegemonic masculinity is defined as a practice that legitimizes men’s dominant position in society and justifies the subordination of women and other marginalized ways of being a man. With pornography, this phenomenon can be rampantly seen especially in those films that fall under the purview of “free pornography”. These movies tend to fall under themes and sub-themes that end up promoting a toxic view of copulation. A power-relation, depicting Butler’s ideas of ‘Heterosexual Matrix’, is created.

In India, pornography is more than just hegemonic masculinity. From the classical texts to the modern internet, pornography, or rather, types of pornography have been used as a form of sexual expression, teaching patriarchal behaviour and as a form of sex education. However, it is not just limited to that. With the idea of pornography, comes the idea of censorship. One cannot be spoken about without the other. Censorship, in its very roots, comes from the idea of limiting freedom of expression. Hegemonic masculinity cannot be seen as a separate entity from censorship. It is rather just a cause of it.

But how does censorship relate to the idea of the heterosexual matrix? The misrepresented power relation is used as one of the reasons why pornography should be banned. Many of those who support the banning of pornography, use this power relation to justify the ban. According to them, this power relation plays its role in society by creating an imbalance between the desires and choices of men and women. This manifestation of this imbalance occurs in various ways. For example, the idea of consent is non-apparent in most of these pornographic films.

This offers a skewed perception of pleasure and sex, thereby teaching the youth that giving consent and in turn accepting consent is a choice, rather than a requirement. One of the most apparent (albeit extreme) manifestations of the prevalent culture of pornography is the act of rape. Many supporters of a ban on pornographic sites believe that by banning porn they are helping society as pornography results in a rise of rape statistics. However, this reasoning is used and held by only a small part of the anti-legalization sector of Indian society. Most of this section use reasons such as “it teaches the youth that sex is okay!” (god forbid) or the usual, “this goes against Indian culture”. Despite the legitimate concerns of the smaller section of the anti-legalization sector, the majority supports the ban for purposes that limit freedom of expression, and most importantly, sexual expression.

Censorship has always been used as a tool for oppression, and by banning pornography, it is once again being used as a tool, but this time, for sexual oppression. Instead of banning pornographic films, there should be an active change towards the rise of sex education and towards teaching the mass that consent a need rather than an option.

To say however, that no fault can be placed on the porn industry, would be a faulty argument. There must be an active change in the industry to create an art form that is equal, liberal, and shows the active need to change how we look at, perceive, and process sexual desire and need. In an interview with The Tab, Erika Lust, a “feminist porn director”, says that “there is much that is wrong with the porn industry – chiefly that it is misogynistic, exploitative and can be dangerous. It attracts vulnerable women (and men), some of whom are ruined by it.”

Filmmakers like Erika Lust are trying to change the hegemonic masculine form of pornography by normalizing the idea of consent, rather than the idea of non-consent being “sexy”. In the same interview, she talks about how she creates feminist porn.

“Feminist porn is explicit films made by people who have a problem with the mainstream porn industry and its way of making film.” Feminist porn aims to show women and men as sexual equals, and that sex is something you do together, not just something that a man does to a woman, and something women do for men.

“One common complaint about mainstream pornography is that it shows women as mere objects without feelings, power or desire of their own,” she continues, “catering to the fantasies of men. There is so much porn where women are insulted, humiliated and even assaulted. A lot of porn is misogynistic and proud of it, showing men as aggressive sex robots – which isn’t very healthy either.”

“It’s fully possible for a film to be both sexually explicit and present people as human beings who deserve to be treated with respect, even when they’re naked. It has nothing to do with what kind of sex is shown – it’s all about how the films are made.”

Pornography, that is, adult and consensual pornography is a form of liberation, and to say otherwise, would be to negate the impact it has had on our society. That being said, it not that all porn is a form of liberation. There are enough and more depictions in the porn industry that show women and men as violent, aggressive individuals, where sex is nothing more than an act depicting power or dominance of one sex over the other. Banning pornography will not result in any change in society. Rather, it is a better option to increase sex education, and to change the form of pornography that is currently circulated in the mainstream industry. Censorship has never helped society, but liberation and expression has. The porn industry must change, but so must our society. Patriarchal notions of desire, sex, women and life must be put to rest, and the freedom of expression is integral to this change.

Samragni Dasgupta is the Outreach Officer, Bangalore at One Future Collective.

Featured image: iPleaders

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