Desi Porn— the where and how of viewing mature content in India

In a 2018 report by Pornhub, India ranked third in a list of the world’s Top 20 Countries by percentage of traffic contributed to the website.

While porn sites are supposed to be banned in India, the lockdown imposed on account of Covid-19 also saw an increase in porn consumption across the nation, with many reporting the possibility of the Indian government having eased online restrictions on some sites to encourage people to stay indoors and maintain physical distancing. The Vice President of XHamster also revealed that traffic from India had increased in early February and ramped up in the last two weeks. A report by Times of India stated that during the initial months of lockdown, the average increase in porn-watching from India was 33%, three times that of the average rise worldwide which saw an increase of 10.5%.

While ISPs have been instructed to restrict access to adult sites in order to retain their licenses, OTT platforms do not seem to carry the same burden to censor content.

Platforms like Ullu, Kooku, DesiFlix, Hot Shots, Primeflix, Gup Chup, Flizmov and a host of others have proven to be a haven for erotic content with minimal membership or subscription fees for viewers. With Meerut alone contributing to roughly 50-75 films in multiple languages, the erotica industry in India continues to expand and thrive.

Shot mostly on DSLR cameras with sets ranging from hotel rooms to rented apartments, budding directors are able to create erotic content with budgets as low as Rs 1,25,000 to Rs 2,50,000 per episode, with popular themes including that of people being seduced by delivery persons or people reuniting with old lovers from college. 

With subscription prices as low as Rs 198 for a year or Rs 144 for six months, it’s no wonder these platforms are seeing a large growth in customers. Ullu offers titles like Call Centre, Kavita Bhabhi (one of the top five most watched web series during the lockdown), Mastram (which garnered several lakh views) Palang Tod, Taxi, Wife in a Metro, Charmsukh, Mona Home Delivery. Kooku offers a Rs 45 per month subscription and some steamy shows like Bhaiya Ki Biwi and Saheli. DesiFlix too has a plethora of such shows, including Shilajit, Love Exchange, Car Wash, Naked Bar, Trust Issues, Black Magic, and Uncut Version.

According to a 2020 piece on moneycontrol.com, people involved in such shoots in Meerut say there has been a huge increase in new sign-ups for such movies but the growth isn’t translating into huge cash for the actors. Their earnings are actually static, while schedules are physically exhausting because shoots happen throughout the week and extend up to 60 hours a week. The actors come primarily from Tier-II and Tier-III cities, and aim to work on larger projects in Bollywood someday.

Directors, writers and promoters of these films and the OTT platforms they stream on have also been quoted as stating that their work is not necessarily pornographic, but is a work of art with complex stories and characters and must be consumed and treated as such.

Which brings us to the question-- how ethical and compassionate is the process of creating and shooting erotic content when our process of consuming it relies more on finding legal and technical loopholes and less on ensuring that there are rules in place to hold all parties accountable for their role at each stage?

But before we dive into the ethics involved in the industry, where does Indian law even stand on pornography?

 

Laying down the law

The discourse around the legality of pornographic content in India has always been confusing, misguided and chaotic at best.

Here’s a quick timeline on the nation’s legal proceedings around the subject:


2013: Advocate Kamlesh Vaswani files Public Interest Litigation asking the court to ban porn websites in India, stating that porn “encourages violent acts and the exploitation of children” among other negative and harmful effects. In response, the government explained that adult websites had servers based outside India, making a complete ban almost impossible to implement.


July 2015: Supreme Court of India delivers statement about porn viewership; clarifies that watching porn indoors in the privacy of your own home is perfectly legal and not a criminal offence.


August 2015: Government of India bans access to 857 porn sites and instructs Department of Telecommunications to issue an order to Internet Service Providers to block access to those websites. This decision was then rescinded in the following week due to public outrage.


September 2018: Uttarakhand High Court re-appeals to the government to impose a ban on porn sites after a specific case of violence where suspects’ attributed their actions to pornography.


October 2018: Department of Telecommunications instructs 5 ISPs to ban 827 websites from their network.


As of 2021, this ban still stands. But it’s important to understand that no Indian law explicitly bans viewers from watching and consuming pornographic content. Here’s what does go against Indian law:

  1. The selling and distribution of pornographic material under Section 292.
  2. The distribution, sale, or circulation of obscene materials and the selling of pornographic content to any person under age 20 years under section 293 and IT Act - 67B.
  3. Child pornography under Section 67B of the IT Act, 2000.
  4. The manufacturing, publishing and distribution of pornography in India under section 292, 293.

With our laws outlined the way they are and the ban focussing only on access to porn sites, India’s relationship with pornography and erotic content is clearly far from over. Hell, it isn’t even well-defined.

While ISPs have been instructed to restrict access to adult sites, VPNs are not considered a criminal offence in India. Porn website proxies have also not been restricted by desi ISPs, making the same content accessible to viewers via just a few tech hacks with no legal consequences for the viewer unless the material itself violates laws that are set to protect minors.

If there is one thing we take away from all this, it’s that India’s porn and erotica industries are thriving. And the law? It still has a lot of catching up to do.

 

The ethics of jumping through legal loopholes

Across the globe, the discourse around pornography presents multiple perspectives. There’s the “porn hurts my sentiments and lowers our values as a society” stance, the “porn is liberating and a product of sexual autonomy” stance and a whole variety of opinions that fall between those two extremes.

But a country that still blushes at the thought of discussing sex with adult partners (never mind teaching consent to minors or explaining reproductive anatomy to 8th graders) can’t possibly be expected to responsibly navigate these conversations with absolute grasp on all nuances. When the law still believes that porn is less about ensuring that ethics are maintained for voyeurs, exhibitionists, actors and erotic content creators, and is instead more about protecting political, social and religious sentiments, can we really be expected to take responsibility of our thriving porn and erotica industry and protect its stakeholders?

Where legalising porn could have helped us establish committees to protect budding actors, hold crew members and directors accountable for any contract violations on set, and laws could protect viewers from damaging or violent themes in the media they consume, we are instead stuck with a system that chooses to pretend that porn is not a real thing. What we have is a system that wants to believe that banning porn was all we needed to protect our children, to raise kids who understand consent and boundaries, and don’t feel like their exploitation is expected. What we have instead, is a population ashamed of their desires and curiosities, kids who learn about sex and desire through porn that ranges between ethical to inethical (because nobody else will engage with them about pleasure-driven sex ed), and a flurry of questionable, unmonitored content circulating via whatsapp and other social media platforms and headlines about hidden cameras in rented properties and rooms.

If the discourse in India really is about protecting our children from bad messages, triggering content and potential factors that may encourage them to pursue acts of violence, who’s actually talking to them about the good stuff instead?

Are we raising kids who actually understand how human relationships and social interactions work, or are we merely teaching them how to hide their internet search history, how to use VPNs to access explicit content and not get caught, and how to mask their confusion and ignorance on sex and sexuality by overcompensating with arrogance and aggression?

It’s time our lawmakers and governments stop condescending to us about wanting to do what’s best for our women and children. If it really was about protecting identities who are more vulnerable in society, maybe those voices would have more of a role to play in shaping the law itself and there would be better systems in place to regulate the violence that these vulnerable identities face.

None of this sounds like safety or the protection of ethics and morality. It’s just denial.

And denial never helps anyone.

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