Of reading erotica and extended debates

So, basically, you’re reading porn?” More often than not, the question is followed by judgmental chuckle or shocked horror. For someone who is researching on erotic literature, one must simply get used to the idea that an encounter with prudishness coupled with shrewd hypocrisy is an everyday reality in our beloved country. On one hand would be those who would pronounce my shamelessness on having voluntarily chosen this topic, while on the other hand would be the same lot highly curious to know if erotica is really being written and is available for purchase.

As part of my research, I’m expected to do textual analysis of erotica and to do that, step one would be to read it. While my topic may sound exciting and interesting (it is, indeed), there are several challenges that I, as a [woman] researcher, face. Firstly, I can’t be reading erotica anywhere and everywhere, like any other piece of writing. It’s one thing to read Marquez’s Love in the time of cholera on a railway platform; it’s a whole other thing to read The Delta of Venus by Anais Nin in a local train, where people leer at the book cover that proudly flaunts the naked back of a lady. Much as we’d like to avoid saying it, we do judge people by what they are reading and books by their cover. It won’t be very “pleasant” and “decent” of me to be reading a book entitled that has the picture of a lady in a sari sans her blouse smoking away to glory, to begin with. Now, whether I read erotica for my own need for seeking pleasure or for a more “legitimate” purpose of researching extensively on it is, frankly, nobody’s business.

One of the many research questions that I’m looking at is the subtle line of difference between what gets constructed as erotica, and thus, by extension, aesthetically appealing and hence justified for consumption (at least by a certain section of society—the so-called “educated” ones) , and pornography casually and conveniently associated with something that is dirty, cheap and trash-worthy. Much has been written about feminist debates surrounding porn and how feminists stand completely divided on their stand, which itself has changed over a period of time. Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon are one of the most obvious and vocal voices of anti-porn feminists who recognize porn as an exploitative industry and categorize it essentially as demeaning to women and something that should most definitely be banned. Most common arguments against porn includes glorification of rape and sexual assault, objectification of women, catering to the male fantasy, degradation of women in their representation, child sexual abuse and perpetuation of serious misogyny.

The other side of the spectrum has feminists who rationalize pornography as a celebration of women’s sexuality and depart from the aforementioned views. They see it as a platform for feminist expression and advocate for what they call feminist porn (and they insist that the word is not an oxymoron). Ellen Willis who is credited for having coined the term sex-positive or pro-sex feminism argues that [feminist] porn gives an opportunity for women to explore their sexuality and provides that rare space to articulate and achieve those hushed sexual desires and fantasies. This feminist revisiting of porn is linked to the feminist critique of censorship and borrows from the basic notion of freedom of expression that ought to be encouraged and not protested against.

In the light of these historical arguments that are primarily American in their location, let’s place the recent verdict of the Supreme Court of India that has proposed a ban on pornography from the Internet, the argument being that it is one of the chief facilitators of increasing violence against women. Going by past events, common sense would tell us banning something simply ends up increasing its sale or productivity. Ban a book? People would be more than curious to [illegally] download its e-version. Ban a movie? It’s all set to become a box office hit. As far as banning pornography goes, it’s hardly possible for that to happen given the fact that it’s a large scale industry in itself and there are several ways of accessing porn.

A ban is essentially a curb on the freedom of expression; in this case, that of art and content. Feminist porn, as claimed by feminists who support pornography, seeks to revisit porn and the things that it is accused of. One of the reasons why I decided to research on erotica is because it is a genre of literature that was never taught or, rather, brushed aside. Much like any other genre, erotica, too, has a lot of scope for women’s writing. A similar case may be made for porn that isn’t demeaning to women but seeks to revisit and reclaim it as a medium of feminist expression. What porn (much like media ads on beauty products and cosmetics for both men and women) has done today is create unrealistic standards of fantasy, promoting objectification and perpetuating gender violence in this process. Feminist porn and photography seeks to correct this by “challenging dominant conceptions of sexuality and power”.

Let’s look at the audience that consumes porn—openly and/or clandestinely. India is deemed as a country of sexually frustrated men (a generalization that is used by some to justify increasing cases of rape and molestation). We even have ministers watching porn during the proceedings in the Parliament. But porn is also consumed by women, whether or not they may be sexually frustrated. Those who watch/read porn have their own set of reasons for doing so.  India Today sex survey claimed that in 2006, a large percentage of women emerged as viewers and the figures are only increasing over the years. The survey that also sought to understand the lives and minds of women in small town India reveals that at least 30 per cent of them has watched a porn film at some point and at least half of those saw one at least once every couple of months.

That porn is a medium of women’s exploitation is still an acceptable and factually correct argument. But I’m yet to understand how its ban would reduce violence against women. Do those who rape and molest do so after having watched a couple of graphic pornography and learned the tricks of the trade? Isn’t the problem more in the mindset of the person who commits a crime that is essentially about power and not sex?

Now, if you will excuse me, I have three volumes of erotica to finish before I end my day. Thank you.

Picture courtesy Google Images

Picture courtesy Google Images

This post was published in The Alternative, an e-magazine that strives to make social good an everyday practice 

6 thoughts on “Of reading erotica and extended debates

  1. It’s nice to see a woman standing up for erotica as literature and demarcating it from pornography. Deepa, you are not only a very incisive writer but an engaging one as well. Keep writing like this and I’ll keep reading.


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