The Pornification of New India
By Damayanti Datta for India Today
On February 7, three Karnataka ministers were captured on television poring over a phone screen, watching a woman in a petticoat gyrating wildly. They lost their jobs for watching pornography in the sacred precincts of the Legislative Assembly. The incident is a high-profile sample of a definitive reality: porn is pervasive through the Internet across India, easily and freely available, not just to leery politicians but to children and adults in millions of ordinary homes.
It is a sign of the times that the most famous international porn star has Indian roots and was on Indian television. Sunny Leone, 30, appeared on the reality show Big Boss 5 and has now launched a clothes-on Bollywood career. Her fake breasts, that won the 2010 fame Award for Favourite Breasts in Los Angeles, have brought her the honour of being named among the 50 Most Desirable Women by the nation’s biggest daily this month.
The organised $12 billion (Rs.60,000 crore) American adult entertainment industry, to which Leone belongs, has bred explicit images beyond the limits of imagination. And they are free. Fuelled by the Internet and facilitated by high-speed data service, pornography, born in dozens of studio lofts around the world, has entered teenagers’ mobile phones with the force and sweep of a dangerous flood. It threatens to swamp conventional notions of morality, raise tensions in bedrooms, lure children into a world they do not understand, and initiate a culture that threatens the mores of family life as we know it.
The writing is on the wall. Google Trends show the search volume index for the word ‘porn’ has doubled in India between 2010 and 2012. With instant Net connectivity and flexible payment options, online porn is increasingly affordable, accessible and acceptable. Seven Indian cities are among the top 10 in the world on porn search, reports Google Trends, 2011. One out of five mobile users in India wants adult content on his 3G-enabled phone, according to an 2011 IMRB Survey. Over 47 per cent students discuss porn every day, says a public school survey by Max Hospital in Delhi. Porn tops the list of cyber crimes in India, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.
Rape, penetration, oral, anal, lesbian, gay or group porn are yesterday’s news. There is now a hectic crossover of porn subcultures on the World Wide Web. Consider MILF (or Mothers I Like to F***) porn. “Check out the most notorious hot, mature moms going crazy and getting f****d by young studs,” invites one of the 40,600,000 MILF websites. “A hot and sexy bride is getting raped brutally,” says a ‘ravished bride’ porn site. There is ‘pregnant porn’ (“Are you ready to see these moms-to-be in action?). There is ‘incest porn’ that welcomes you to sites with “xxx videos full of mother and son, dad and daughter”. Child porn blends with ‘teen porn’, promising “fascinating porn actions starring our young models”.
New jargon and innovative formats, borrowed from foreign cultures, are trendy on the web. For the uninitiated, chikan (“to grope” in Japanese) porn is all about public molestation in trains. ‘Bukkake’ parties involve repeated ejaculation on a woman by several men. Shemale and futanari porn mean “live action” with transsexuals. Anime and manga refer to Japanese formats of sexually-explicit comics and animation. A new focus is the service sector, with “shy massage girls” seducing clients, doctors and “hot babes in nurse uniforms” getting wild. In ‘corporate porn’ “busty secretaries” go down on their knees to pleasure their boss.
Sunny Leone (or Karen Malhotra) takes credit for the ‘pornification’ of India. “My presence on Bigg Boss has empowered a lot of people to be open about their sexuality,” she tells India Today. One of the richest adult actresses in the industry, with her SunLust Pictures in Los Angeles reporting a top line of over $1 million (Rs.5 crore), she is now getting ready to debut in filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt’s Jism 2, playing a professional body double. The most-searched Google celebrity-powered by India, Bangladesh and Pakistan-she has 1,47,326 Twitter followers.
Leone’s success indicates the greater acceptability of porn in daily life. Internet is the new tool, exploding every embarrassing sexual adventure of public personalities and making every lurid detail an item of private consumption. Coming after the midwife Bhanwri Devi’s sex cds with Rajasthan politician Mahipal Maderna in November 2011, public reaction to the Karnataka fiasco has ranged from indignation to amusement, but not shock: if political parties engaged in a morality-in-politics war, social activist Anna Hazare demanded the ministers be sent to jail and media professional Pritish Nandy summed up Bollywood’s reaction by calling them the “3 idiots”.
“A porn star doesn’t automatically mean prostitute,” says Leone, now seeking respectability. She talks about her parents’ initial shock turning into respect, how they taught her to be a “good person”, years of hard work, restrained personal life, professionalism and lack of regrets. Like the girl-next-door, she tweets how she is learning Hindi, cooking sabzi and massaging hair oil. Her endeavour will not be too difficult. Young adults, who grew up with cable TV, DVD players and the Internet, have been exposed to much more adult material than their parents. As filmmaker Pooja Bhatt points out, “Young people don’t respond negatively to Sunny because they have already logged on to her website.”
She is not wrong. Even school students discuss porn. Dr Samir Parikh, chief psychiatrist, Max Healthcare, calls it “risky indulgences”. In a survey on 1,000 children from top public schools in Delhi in 2010, he found 47 per cent boys and 29 per cent girls visiting porn sites and talking about it in school. “I understand sexual inquisitiveness and peer pressure around sexuality, but pornography on the Internet is fake, unreal, often violent and downright perverted,” he says. “Moreover, a new technology in young hands could lead to irresponsible behaviour and ruin their lives.” He obviously has in mind the stream of MMS scandals that have hit campuses across the country since 2004, when two Class XI students of a school in Delhi created a sensation. In many of these cases, either one partner was not aware of being filmed or did not anticipate the videos would get circulated-as in May 2011 when JNU student Janardan Kumar, 22, made a video of the girl he was intimate with and used it to blackmail her after being rejected.
Campus porn is a thriving subterranean culture. Try talking to students in various campuses of Delhi: “Have you ever heard of MMS videos of students being circulated on the campus?”
Diksha Singh, 20: “Every couple of months there is a fresh case. It’s so common, I don’t even blink.”
Raghav Verma, 19: “All the time. It’s shocking to see a classmate’s intimate details on video camera.”
Mehak Suri, 18: “My ex-boyfriend tried that with me, and when it didn’t work he sent me threatening emails and messages.”
Amaira Kapoor, 20: “You will be surprised to know how many cases go unreported and unaccounted for.”
Sakshi Wakhlu, 21: “A year ago, one girl got high, went with a group of boys and had sex with them. The men came back and talked.”
The arrival of smartphones is changing the country’s porn landscape further. India has the lowest penetration of smartphones, 10 per cent, among the youth globally. But with email, social networking, chatting, messaging and gaming, it is a device every youth craves for. And now there are even porn applications. Imagine a ‘pocket’ girlfriend or boyfriend, who can strip, talk dirty, make sexual noises. “These are some of the ‘apps’ that can be downloaded on smartphones,” says Pranesh Prakash, programme manager with Bangalore-based think-tank Centre for Internet and Society. “App download data shows the popularity of sex-themed apps on smartphones, apart from the adults-only stores,” he says. Age restrictions for applications? Mostly a pop-up asking if one is over 17. With over 50 per cent of all Internet users in the country accessing the web via mobile phones already, as estimated by TRAI, smartphones are the future of anytime-anywhere porn.
The threshold of what can be called ‘pornography’ is shifting. Mainstream and hardcore entertainment are coming closer. The Dirty Picture, biopic of south siren Silk Smitha, raked in Rs.50 crore in its very first week in December 2011, with its noisy orgasms, titillating cleavage and fiery dialogues. It’s also hard to draw the line between porn and art in raunchy item numbers, from Sheila ki Jawani to Munni Badnam Hui. “What heroines do in films today is what vamps did yesterday,” says filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt. Some item numbers are more obscene than nudity, he feels. “People tell me, how can someone who made Saaransh, Arth and Zakhm, make films like Jism and Murder” he adds. “I say, get off the high horse.”
Kolkata certainly is getting off the high horse. A city with the least taste for pornography, going by India Today Sex Surveys, is also one of the top seekers of porn online, reports Google Trends. Leone’s CDs are bestsellers here. Teenage boys creep up and ask, “Sunny Leone ka CD chahiye?” (Want Sunny Leone’s CDs?), at Chandni Chowk market in central Kolkata, the city’s piracy hub. Step inside the dingy alleys between shops selling electronic goods, and piles of pirated blue film come out of hiding-Rs.120 for just a CD and Rs.250 for one with Leone on the cover. Ask too many questions and they show you the door. The police are their friends, although motorcycles stand ready for sudden crackdowns. “Sunny’s CD is selling like hot cakes, 200 a day,” says one. Leone is not pleased. “If you are stealing my movies in Kolkata, that is flipping horrible,” she has tweeted. But who cares? A 33-year-old customer puts away her CD in his plastic bag with quiet satisfaction. “I will have to watch when the wife is not looking,” he grins.
If a married man watches porn,is it considered cheating??
My husband secretly watches porn. Why are men like this? He knows I hate porn.
My husband watches porn alone. He refuses to watch it with me.
My husband watches porn very often. Should I be worried?
I feel insulted whenever my boyfriend watches porn.
There are 2,690,000 such postings on Google, from wives and girlfriends globally, on a range of sites on the web-health, marriage, empowerment, agony.
Watching porn alone is a rising trend among men, thanks to the Internet. Check out India Today Sex Surveys: in 2009, with video as the most popular porn format, just 10 per cent men out of 2,661 watched porn alone. This year, with smarter access and gadgets, it zoomed to 44 per cent. “It is usually a sign of cybersex addiction,” says Dr Vijay Nagaswami, Chennai-based expert on sexual psychotherapy. “Compulsive pornwatchers often become dysfunctional. They stay up late for online porn to get active on instant messengers, webcams, demand more private time, neglect family, work and normal sexual activity.”
Even five years back, it was difficult to get locals to dub foreign porn films in Gujarati. But now, mobile shop owners in Ahmedabad do brisk business in porn, supplying primarily to youngsters. They download content on hard discs and then transfer those to the memory cards of eager youngsters-Rs.100 to Rs.200 for a 30-minute film. “It’s good business. Sometimes I get more than six customers, all boys,” says Rajesh Patel, a porn-provider.
It’s good business in Chennai, too. In a small shop opposite the high court in Burma Bazaar, the hub of pirated movies in Chennai, Ramu is doing his puja. He throws flowers at the gods, and looks at his customer. “English, Tamil also.” His voice goes an octave lower, “Triple.” Who cares for storylines? Many of these films are shot in the city or taken off the Net. Ramu sells at least 100 discs a day, mostly to distributors. The CDs are mostly of Indian couples having sex, sometimes verging on rape. “This business can’t be hit by recession,” Ramu says. “People will always buy porn.”
The buzz is, although the Karnataka ministers claimed they were watching clips of a real-life gang-rape at a rave party, they were either watching Indonesian hardcore ‘abik’ porn or model Poonam Pandey’s YouTube video, Bathroom Secrets. But what do most Indians watch? Google Trends indicates that the average Indian pornwatcher opts for more tame keywords, ‘sex’ and ‘how to kiss’, the most. New research by computational neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam from Boston University, US, on a billion porn and erotic web searches across the world, shows that the five most popular porn sites for men are webcam or video sites featuring anonymous graphic sex, with a monthly traffic of 7-16 million visitors. For women, the most popular is the “erotic” site fanfiction.net, which gets over 1.5 million visitors a month and has more than two million stories, 50 per cent being “romance”.
How big is pornography in India? Of the 500 top Indian websites this month ranked by the leading global web information company Alexa, at least 24 are porn sites. Nearly a dozen porn sites are more popular than some leading news sites and that of the Bombay Stock Exchange. Leone, one of the top five global porn stars, says 80 per cent of her web traffic and 60 per cent of her “high six figures” revenue come from India. The content, she says, is “everything and above”. “I can sell anything you want as long as you have a credit card.”
The only other major-league porn actor of Indian origin in the US, Priya Anjali Rai, also says she has a lot of fans in India, but not many paying customers. Adopted from New Delhi by American parents and brought up in Arizona, Rai keeps her Indian name for her work: “That’s what makes me different from everybody else.” Both Leone and Rai insist they only do “vanilla” porn, “boy-girl stuff”. The US, specifically the Los Angeles area, has the biggest porn industry in the world, followed by London and Budapest, estimated between $4 billion (Rs.20,000 crore) and $15 billion (Rs.75,000 crore) annually. Top porn stars easily earn a quarter of a million dollars annually.
Those who think production and distribution of pornography in India are not allowed, think again. “A lot of amateur videos are being produced,” says Namita Malhotra, author of Porn: Law, Video and Technology. “They have been there for long. But now from print they have gone digital. Amateur videos are a new phenomenon,” says a lawyer associated with Alternative Law Forum in Bangalore. “It’s unorganised,” says a Bangalore-based photographer involved with the porn industry. There are a few big houses who run multi-crore businesses. The small players use small video cameras so that they can be seen on mobile phones. “Ever since the mms scandal, we make false scandal videos, called kaand,” the photographer says. “It’s normal sex. Not like those foreign videos where they use horses and 10 men at the same time.” Do they go online? Sometimes they are sold, but always with the permission of the model, “No force,” he insists. “The money is good, so that we don’t tell anyone.” His best moment? When a model asked him to shoot her in different ways, to try to create a scandal and get noticed.
Has the battle against porn been lost? Anti-porn feminists in the US have admitted defeat. India is not quite there. Despite the hyper-sexualised climate, ministers do get thrown out over porn. To cyber law expert and senior associate of SNG & Partners Rahul Sud, India is on the right track. “Personal consumption of porn has never been an offence,” he points out. “Child pornography, publishing and transmitting are.” Press Council of India Chairperson Justice Markandey Katju has rolled out the red carpet for Leone, but not before comparing her to history’s “fallen women”, Amrapali or Mary Magdalene.
Does Leone care? She is busy stretching, bending and sweating. Not in a girl-boy-girl orgy online but on a Bikram Yoga mat in Hollywood. “OMG, I’m so tired,” she tweets. She has the same vital statistics as Marilyn Monroe, 36-24-34, and she is determined to look her best for those semi-nude scenes in Jism 2. “We Indians are proud of you!,” tweets one of her admirers. “Thank you,” she tweets back. She has every reason to be grateful.
– With Indira Kannan, Nishat Bari, Kiran Tare, Gunjeet Sra, Shravya Jain, Avantika Sharma, Lakshmi Kumaraswami, Uday Mahurkar and Tithi Sarkar contributing.
Pakistanis for Peace Editor’s Note– The porn phenomena is not isolated to just India in the subcontinent. Across the border, Pakistan was recently ranked as first in the world in terms of pornographic Google searches. This is a result of two conservative societies where sex is a taboo. One can only hope that these ancient and slow changing cultures can adapt to the new realities regarding sex.