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Choice and Sexuality in Cyberspace

Technology, so central to our lives, brings with it a range of issues around the exercise of choice and agency. There are different ways in which technology mediates sexuality. For instance, in India, online dating has moved from being the exception to becoming the norm, so much so that dating applications such as Bumble and Tindr are wooing customers in India through television advertisements.

For some, it is not dating apps, but online video chats that substitute for, or complement sex offline. For others, highly advanced technological inventions, including robots are key to sexual interactions, replacing humans. If you thought Joaquin Phoenix romancing his Siri-like application (brilliantly given a voice by Scarlett Johansson) in the movie Her was farfetched, what would you make of a Japanese man who decided to publicly wed the hologram of a popular Japanese anime character?

As we begin to grapple with these developments, we need to address the complex ethical, moral and legal issues that are bound to arise. One of the most important concerns is around the agency of those whose sexually explicit images have been circulated and exhibited online – a phenomenon that is normalised in a category of realistic pornography, where consumers prefer recordings rather than staged sex. How many of these videos are taken consensually is the question one is left pondering. The ease of recording and circulating videos allows for anyone with a smart phone to send sexually explicit material, and when these images are circulated without their consent, it can lead to potentially explosive situations.

In South Korea, thousands of women have been out in the streets protesting the use of molka or hidden/spy cameras that have resulted in pictures of women in toilets and changing rooms going up on platforms such as Tumblr and Twitter. The protesting women have held multiple marches with the banner “My Life is Not Your Porn”.

In India, the circulation and consumption of videos of sexual assault have become increasingly common. The Hyderabad based activist Sunitha Krishnan filed a case in the Indian Supreme Court, which ordered a CBI enquiry into these videos, resulting in the tracking down and arrest of some of the perpetrators. The blatant display of sexual violence, and the demand for these videos, which are often sold along with other videos and songs, make for a disturbing counterpoint to the ways in which these technologies have been used by sexual subcultures and those experimenting with their sexuality as means of sexual expression.

The author Richa Kaul Padte, in her recent book, Cyber Sexy: Rethinking Pornography[1], makes a strong case for technology as allowing for sexual subcultures, women, and others to experiment and subvert existing norms. For Padte, and others like the activist Bishakha Datta,[2]who have tracked this debate closely, consent is the key to differentiating between what is acceptable and what is not.

Consent, however, is not so straightforward in the digital world. With instances where data can be hacked into, and with deep fake technologies making it more difficult to distinguish between what is real and what is fake, we have a situation where it is difficult to completely anticipate the kinds of risks involved, and the ways in which sexually explicit material is used.

Consent, and the legal consequences that follow cannot deal with the millions of images, sites and group interactions we are talking about. The Indian Supreme Court’s attempts at regulating such material is an example of how attempts to regulate such material, though well-intentioned can lead to over-regulation, and can impact existing protections for political and other forms of speech. For instance, one of the suggestions that has been made in these hearings is that a sex offenders list be set up, a proposal that has much wider ramifications for the criminal justice system.

Legal and punitive measures cannot be the answer. What we need is an ethical framework that can form the basis of people’s actions. For such an ethical framework to develop, we need to talk about these different facets of sexuality, technology, and choice in schools, colleges, with young professionals, and with young people who are using smart phones and the Internet, in informal groups and settings. What we need is a practical guide, a roadmap for users to navigate, where the fearof punitive action is not the only reason determining their actions.

Complex questions including those of sex and commercial transactions, frameworks of shame, gendered access to pornography, and violent sexual imagery, need to be addressed without broad-brush generalisations or moral panic. Instead we have to recognise that sexually explicit images are a form of media production, which are in constant conversation with existing social and cultural values and gradations. It is only by engaging with these questions seriously and taking into account the complexity of these questions that we can evolve a combination of ethical, technological, legal and common-sense responses to the concerns around choice and sexuality that we are now faced with.

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[1]Richa Kaul Padte, Cyber Sexy: Rethinking Pornography, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 2018

[2]Bishakha Datta, Guavas and Genitals: A Research Study in Section 67 of the Information Technology Act, Point of View, Mumbai, India, https://itforchange.net/e-vaw/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/Smita_Vanniyar.pdf

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Article written by:

Siddharth Narrain is a lawyer by training, and works as a research associate at Sarai-CSDS, Delhi, on a project related to violence, social media, and the law. He has worked previously as a journalist, and on human rights legal research and advocacy.

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