3 years

Society

Porn Busters

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The explosion of online smut and why some want it banned in India

FOR MANY YEARS, LONG BEFORE he installed a computer in his office, Kamlesh Vaswani would walk to nearby cyber cafés in a local market every few days, only to return disappointed. “Youths,” he says, recalling what he saw, “They were wasting themselves.”

Vaswani describes himself as a “small lawyer” in Indore. Having practised law for the last 15 years, he takes what he gets in a small city, he says. These are mostly civil cases of matrimonial and property disputes and bounced cheques. But he has always lived and conducted himself with a strict moral code, he adds.

Whenever he would visit a cyber café, either to consult cases or get copies of judgments, he would find the subjects of his observation—rows and rows of school and college-going male students—huddled around screens, sometimes hidden behind curtains and sometimes right in the open, watching porn. “And very young boys—sometimes just schoolboys. They would continue to watch porn, shamefully, even when adults like me walked in,” Vaswani says. He would complain to the cyber café owners and sometimes even pull up the offenders, but after a point, he found it futile.

Reading newspaper articles of sexual violence and rape, however, he arrived at a conclusion. This abundance of pornography was corrupting young minds and fuelling such violence. Things came to a head, he says, when he learnt about the infamous 2012 Delhi gang-rape case. “My wife told me ‘What is the point of being a lawyer and always talking about what is right and wrong when something like this can happen?’ She was correct. It could happen to anyone. I felt helpless. I needed to do something. Someone needed to,” he says.

Vaswani filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) asking for a ban on internet pornography. Since then, several people have joined in, either as intervenors or sometimes simply helping him build his case. “I started getting calls from across the country saying they want to support me. Some of them were suffering because their family members were addicted to it. And they wanted to become party to the case, to show just how serious this issue was,” he says.

These include two women, one from Kolkata in her twenties and another from Mumbai in her fifties, both of whom say their husbands are addicted to pornography and it is ruining their marriages. They have filed interventions of their own.

In 2015, as a result of this case, the Government banned public access in India to 857 porn websites, citing a need to protect public morality. The ban came under criticism and was revoked only days later.

But now the Uttarakhand High Court has ordered that the ban be re-imposed. This judicial decision was taken, according to media reports, because the culprits who had allegedly raped a minor girl in Dehradun had been watching porn before the assault. Several internet service providers have complied with the ban, blocking access to 827 websites.

Pornography consumption is changing rapidly in India. It once used to be expensive and difficult to procure. You needed to know a friend who stocked glossies or a video rental store for X-rated movies. You needed to get around myriad obstacles, from social taboos and strict regulation to the difficulties posed by supply restrictions, to get your fix.

But the smartphone boom and data price crash over the past few years have changed everything. This can be gauged from the annual reports brought out by Pornhub, considered the world’s most heavily visited adult website. For the past few years, India has constantly been featuring as one of the largest consumers of porn in these reports. Last year, it was the third biggest. This perhaps explains why Sunny Leone, an actor of Indian origin who no longer makes such adult entertainment, continues to rank as one of Pornhub’s most-searched-for pornstars.

Most porn on the internet is free and easy to find. And adult content in India is now invariably being viewed on mobile phones. According to Pornhub, mobile traffic to the website from India jumped 121 per cent between 2013 and 2017. This has happened, according to the website, because of ‘inexpensive and unlimited cellular plans’. According to Vidooly, a video viewership tracker, Indian viewing of adult content jumped 75 per cent in the second half of 2016-17. This is the period after Reliance Jio’s market entry resulted in aggressive telecom competition and lower prices for data plans. According to the Internet Trends Report by Kleiner Perkins, by March 2017, data consumption jumped to about 1.3 billion GB a month, up more than nine times from June in 2016, a part of which would no doubt be porn.

Every year, more and more Indians are logging on to the internet for the first time. Farid Ahsan, a co-founder of ShareChat, a popular social media platform in Hindi and other Indian languages that caters mostly to new internet users, told me once how many first-timers are often looking for porn and are often unsuccessful because they are new to this medium. So they do the next easiest thing. “They will go to a WhatsApp group and say, ‘Hot photo please bhejo.”’

The arrival of the personal computer in Indian households also gave a boost to pornography consumption. But the computer was usually in the family’s common area. The mobile device assures the consumer an entirely new level of privacy. Porn can be watched not just in the safety of a bedroom, it can be seen in the office, on a local train to work, or even at a playground. Content filters and porn blocks can easily be bypassed. The internet now panders to every type of sexual connoisseur. No kink is too obscure to have its own website.

The result of all this, unsurprisingly, is a new porn panic. The broader the access to it, the more determined are those who would play moral police to keep its proliferation under check.

Vijay Nath Mishra, a professor of neurology at Banaras Hindu University’s Institute of Medical Sciences and medical superintendent at Sir Sundarlal Hospital, has been watching Varanasi youths take to porn with dismay. “I have been feeling for a long time,” he says, “that I should do something about it.”

Last year, Mishra roped in an acquaintance, Ankit Srivastava, a web application developer who had recently relocated from Bengaluru to his hometown in Varanasi. After working together for about six months, they created an application that blocks porn sites. The application comes loaded with a list of several well-known porn sites that get blocked, but others can be added by the user.

“Our minds are like gardens. You can fill it with crap or you can grow the most beautiful flowers” - Atul Gupta, founder of the anti-porn website India Against Pornography

As internet filters go, this is like any other. But what is unusual about it is what happens when one attempts to reach a forbidden website. The chant ‘Har Har Mahadev’, an ode to Shiva, begins to play aloud if the user of the application has registered himself as a Hindu, or the azaan (Islamic call to prayer) if the user has registered himself as Muslim; and if the user is registered as ‘Other’, the user is directed to a collection of inspirational quotes from Mahatma Gandhi’s speeches. “The whole idea is people hear a bhajan or the call of God,” says Mishra. “It will be making them more resolute.”

According to him, the application is meant to be installed by adults as a net nanny, to restrict their children’s ability to view adult content online. But it can also be used by parents themselves to strengthen their own resolve. Since it was made available in November last year, according to Srivastava, it has been downloaded more than 5,000 times.

The website that hosts the application however, according to Mishra, is constantly hacked. For a few days, every month, it has to be put into repair mode. “I think we have made many enemies. Some virus or the other is constantly being sent,” he says.

The two are currently working on a mobile application for Android phones. Srivastava says they have realised porn is being consumed mostly on mobile phones right now. And unless their application is available on Android, all their efforts will be worthless.

“People say Varanasi is the spiritual capital. You should just come and see what the boys [here] are watching these days,” Mishra says.

It is perhaps foolhardy to believe access to porn can be curtailed. Internet blocks can be easily circumvented. Software filters on computers can be reconfigured. Most people calling for a ban are earnest do-gooders who have been left puzzled with the rapid speed at which the country is changing. They can’t quite seem to recognise the world they inhabit now. And they believe an old moral order can be restored.

Vaswani’s PIL was accepted in 2013. He began to draft the plea sometime in 2012 as he sat beside his ailing father, not taking up any new cases or even going to his office. He took over a month to complete over 200 pages of the plea. “Nothing can destroy a person, fizzle the mind, evaporate the future, eliminate potential or destroy society more efficiently than pornography,” says Vaswani.

THE CASE, HE SAYS, HAS CONSUMED him. He has made over 45 appearances so far, travelling from Indore to Delhi by train as many as 10 days before every hearing at the Supreme Court to prepare his arguments. He would sometimes stay with friends and sometimes with relatives in Delhi. Vaswani perhaps felt this case, his first PIL plea, would help his career. But in Indore, he says, work dried up. “They say, ‘He is always travelling to Delhi. He has no time to look at local cases’,” Vaswani says. He claims to now be in debt, and having had to sell his car and scooter to repay some of it. Two years ago, hoping to make a fresh start, he moved to Mumbai, where he lives in a rented apartment with a friend. The case however is still going on. The last hearing happened sometime last year.

“Nothing can destroy a person, fizzle the mind or eliminate potential more efficiently than pornography”- Kamlesh Vaswani, Indore-based lawyer who filed a PIL to have porn banned

Atul Gupta, a Noida-based tech professional who also teaches a course on hardware technology at IIT-Delhi, runs a website called India Against Pornography with the tagline ‘Porn Kills Love’. The website promotes a ban on pornography and puts out articles on how porn can be blocked on personal computers at home. For years, Gupta says, he has been talking about a ban on porn being brought in place, even at the risk of appearing a bore. Whenever racy content is shared on any WhatsApp or online group he is part of, he warns them to keep it clean or he will exit the group. For the last few years, many neighbours and friends have been using his help to set up internet filters for their own computers.

A few years ago, wanting to make a more meaningful contribution, Gupta reached out to Vaswani to help him in his case. “Kamlesh was legally sound. But he needed help in the tech aspect [of the case],” he says. He compiled, along with another infotech professional, a list of the 857 websites that needed to be blocked. “Our minds are like gardens. You can fill it with crap, or you can grow the most beautiful flowers,” he says. According to Gupta, there is enough research to support how dangerous porn is to society, and this makes a ban necessary.

Gupta points to a 2014 German study that had claimed watching porn can impact the size of the brain. The study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, on 64 healthy men with an average age of 29, had found that the more porn men reported watching, the less volume and activity they had in the regions of the brain—specifically the striatum—linked to reward processing and motivation. Men who spent more time watching porn tended to have a smaller amount of grey matter in the right striatum of the brain (the region near the front of the brain which is involved in the processing of rewards among other things). Avid porn viewers also showed less activation in their left striatum when they looked at racy images, and they appeared to have reduced connectivity between their right striatum and their left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

But like several other studies, whether or not porn is actually harmful remains unclear. As a Scientific American article highlighting the problems with the study mentions, ‘Brain changes aren’t limited to watching porn. Anything you do frequently, from smoking pot to playing a musical instrument... can change your brain. The bigger concern is whether it affects your functioning or causes distress.’ Also, as the article goes on, we don’t know whether porn shrinks our brain or whether our brain structures and connectivity predispose us to get more out of porn.

Watching porn has been linked to a multitude of problems, from the inability to form real-world relations and being able to enjoy sex to getting addicted to online smut. But for every study that finds issue with it, there’s another that clears its name. The effects of porn are difficult to study. Researchers must either rely on people self-reporting their habits or show pornography to them in unnatural lab settings.

Interestingly, it isn’t just parents or moral guardians who seem to worry about the ready availability of online smut. In some cases, the abundance of internet pornography seems to be overwhelming those dependent on it. And the remedy, if at all, seems to be located at the same place as the source of all pornographic evils—the internet. In the last few years, there have been several takers (or ‘Fapstronauts’) of the NoFap lifestyle. This is a large Reddit- based forum that has been growing over the years, where the community helps each member ‘fapstain’ or ‘reboot’ (in other words, abstain from pornography and masturbation). Members of this group offer support and advice to those keen to ‘take control over their lives’. And, according to them, ‘fapstaining’ promises such benefits as less social anxiety and ‘brain fog’, increased libido, more energy, and an increased motivation to go out and interact with the rest of the world.

Unsurprisingly, there seem to be many Indians who are now part of this group. The vast majority of them are of course anonymous, but some of them even put up video blogs of how they are faring with their ‘fapstinence’.

A 28-year-old infotech professional from Hyderabad who follows the advice claims to have benefitted from it. Requesting anonymity over the phone, he says, “It’s easier if you have alcohol addiction. You can say you are going to quit and go sober. You can say ‘one month of sobriety’ and celebrate. But with porn, you can’t do that. You can’t even talk about it.”

Internet pornography, he says, took over his life a few years ago after he graduated from college. “It wasn’t such a problem when I was in school and college. But later, when I began living alone, I became completely dependent on it,” he says. When he first heard of NoFap last year, he says, he thought it was bullshit. But he still gave it a go. “Till last year, I hardly used to go outside, I had major self-esteem issues, and I just used to feel very demotivated. Now, even though once in a while I relapse, I feel so much better,” he says. “People have even begun to say I look much better.”

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