A Supreme Court petition in 2013 by the Indore-based lawyer Kamlesh Vaswani to ban all porn websites led Richa Kaul Padte to delve into the history of porn in India. Her book Cyber Sexy: Rethinking Pornography is an account of her research—two surveys and several in-depth interviews—to understand Indian women’s experience of porn. Cyber Sexy covers an entire spectrum of online sex cultures, from Savita Bhabhi and women-centric erotica to homemade videos and porn-for-the-blind. In an interview, Padte speaks about legalising porn, feminist pornography and age-of-consent law.
You have talked about legalising professional porn in India. This can usher in a porn industry with regulations and standards. If pornography becomes a business, social norms about body types and gender hierarchies will be reinforced through market forces...
It is under this larger umbrella of decriminalisation that I talk about the scope to legalise professional, studio-shot porn.... Market forces will come into play as soon as there is an official industry. But, what also comes are things like unions, workers’ rights, industry-wide minimum wages, and so on. If we look at places that have robust porn industries—say, America or Spain—not only are there very active unions of porn performers and sex workers lobbying for their rights, but also there is tonnes of amazing, alternative, often feminist, porn coming out of these countries.... We are constantly seeing more diverse content across films, music, art and other forms of pop culture—including porn.
Internet has enabled countless Indian women to find avenues for sexual expression, where they create sexual content on their own terms. How much of this amateur stuff is feminist porn? What does feminist porn really mean in the Indian context today?
Feminist porn is typically defined not only by what we see on-screen (a range of body types or women taking the lead), but also by what happens off-screen—solid wages for everyone, a prioritisation of consent, and women and minorities directing films. Even removed from the context of this industry, women creating sexual content on their own terms can be a profoundly feminist act. I do not know if they would call it feminist porn, but it certainly is feminist. And maybe that is precisely what feminist porn means in a country that deems making porn illegal.
Your focus is on freedom of sexual representation. What are the other possible ways of looking at sexual openness in a society?
There are so many ways of looking at sexual openness, because it is a state of mind.... Ultimately, I think Cyber Sexy is less about sexual representation and more about the negotiation of sexuality in the digital world. But, since the digital world is perceived to be separate from us, these become questions of representation. But, I actually think they are questions of sexual freedom, because what we do on the internet is as a part of our lives as what we do in our bedrooms.
Given the conflict with age-of-consent law, how should an Indian policymaker think about underage consent?
I think it is important that we foreground the rights of young people to safely access sexual pleasure, instead of seeing sex as inherently corrupt. If we position all sex that happens under a certain age as illegal, and if we do not leave space for context or common sense, then we are left unable to distinguish between when a young person wanted to do something and when they were coerced into doing it. And, if we cannot make that distinction, then we are not protecting minors at all, which, surely, is the point of age-of-consent legislation in the first place.