I first discovered porn as a 12-year-old, rummaging through my brother’s desk, possibly trying to find things which I could snitch to my mom about. The unassuming plastic covers gave away nothing about the contents of the CDs. But an intuition told me that this detective had finally struck gold.
What I discovered was lesbian porn. Two white women, having sexy times on a beach, their moans filling my head (and heart) with both thrill and dread. The all-girls Catholic school upbringing never made me realise that such a thing was even possible. We were never taught about sex, let alone allowing the possibility of unabashed displays of passion and desire between two women. Did it mean I could fall in love with my best friend?
I didn’t let that thought linger as I moved on to the other CDs which featured men and women shagging like there’s no tomorrow. Their private parts shot in extreme close-ups, almost normalising the process for a shy seventh grader who couldn’t remember the last time she spoke to a boy.
In her book, “Cyber Sexy”, Richa Kaul Padte describes a similar experience of coming across porn on her laptop which her housemate had borrowed, “…I opened it to discover Jackie and Michelle, gorgeous, topless, shaking their massive breasts at me… And I am equally sorry to confirm that, yes, ‘Big Tittied MILFs’ was my first encounter with porn.”
We live in a country where men and women are expected to bottle up their sexual desires, where porn was almost on the verge of being banned, where consent is exploited by spurned lovers, where CCTV cameras take advantage of the privacy of women in waiting rooms and where internet access is still few and far between. How do we then, even begin to recognise and claim that messy, unadulterated, fun part of ourselves which values intimacy and wants to channel their desires in a safe, non-judgemental space?
“Cyber Sexy”, which explores what it means to seek pleasure (in its varied forms) on the internet, starts by challenging the very definition of porn. It is derived from the word ‘prostitute’. Of course, any creative work, which challenges our so-called morality, must be warranting a comparison to a promiscuous woman. What business does a woman have thinking about sex, anyway?
But from fan-fiction to nudies, homemade videos, social networks to virtual reality platforms, Indians on the web are sharing content they have created and what they have liked. They are making choices and developing their preferences – they don’t care for a definition as long as they are able to access supportive spaces online.
For someone like me who operates in her own bubble of watching an occasional “Fifty Shades” movie and listening to her friend lament about her partner watching “too much” porn, this book was a revelation in so many ways. While researching for this book, Padte had at least 10 men confessing their fear of developing an addiction towards porn because they were watching it once or twice a day. She writes, “It is something they are learning from what they see and read and hear around them. From a global society that is collectively drawing arbitrary, alarmist lines around how much porn is too much, and then scaring everyone into thinking they are pervs.”
And she astutely observes that women don’t even have to worry about watching too much porn. With our low necklines and our bare backs and our short dresses, we are always on the verge of crossing the line. I’ll admit, I did have a seething anger against the pop music industry for fetishising young women and ensuring that what they wore in their music videos and live shows left very little to the imagination. What I conveniently didn’t realise was that this could also be an act of self-expression, of feeling empowered in the way these powerful ladies carried themselves in front of thousands.
Padte writes about rapper Nicki Minaj and her video “Anaconda” which her friend saw as porn and didn’t think was ‘acceptable for a music video’. “She is an extraordinary rapper but she also unsettles a lot of people. Not because she’s doing something new (even though in many ways she definitely is) but because she’s often doing what male rappers have always done: featuring women as super sexual.”
I read this book in the metro, on a flight, during a quick trip back home. With every page, I let loose the inhibition of reading about something which is essentially perceived as ‘taboo’ in a public place. In the penultimate chapter titled ‘Mass Intimacy’, the author regales in the glory of sweaty dance floors, theatres showing adult films (most of which have already shut down), the camming website Chaturbate (‘The act of chatting while you masturbate’) and virtual reality platforms. She asserts that a mass of people frighten those with power, and a sexual mass, ‘even more so’.
“The mass is about ‘undesriable’ groups coming to together, and as a result, their intimate unions are often seen as a threat to institutional power. And often, this power is trying to regulate and order sexuality as a means to regulate and order a population.”
So, the personal is indeed political. And in many ways, “Cyber Sexy” is a call to action. So that a breach of consent and the act of producing porn in an ethical manner, is not charged under the same obscenity clause. So that people get to have a say in what they want to watch and feel a sense of accountability in reporting instances that look like consent violations. So that everyone has the freedom of sexual expression, which could perhaps offend, but not harm anyone.
The book mentions the famous quote of American judge Potter Stewart, “I can’t define pornography, but I know it when I see it.”
Yes, you can’t and no you don’t. Padte leaves the reader with a sense of empathy and an understanding of human emotions – someone’s porn could be your erotica, their nude photo could just be perceived as a selfie. Desire can’t be contained in a box and locked away. It is sweating, heaving and thriving inside you. So…
“What ‘counts’ as porn? Screw them, you tell me.”