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CategoriesIssue In FocusThe Internet and Sexuality

Ctr Alt Swipe Right: Sex, Sexuality and the Internet in India

John Perry Barlow, the cyber libertarian political activist, in his famous paper A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (1996) that declared the Internet to be a sovereign space not accountable to governments of countries, wrote, “Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.”

Barlow’s ideal of a completely sovereign Internet may not have turned out the way he imagined, but he would have approved of the way in which, in the realm of sexuality, the Internet has had enormous impact. So much so, that to posit the Internet‘and’ sexuality as separate domains makes less sense in a world where so much of our discussions around sex, sexuality and gender are entwined with technological developments, especially with the widespread use of mobile phone-enabled Internet and social media platforms.

The emergence of social media platforms (interactive online platforms that run on user-generated content like text posts, comments, images and videos), and the category of what writer and futurist Alvin Toffler termed ‘prosumers’, users of social media who don’t only use but also actively produce content, has changed the landscape of Internet use.

The ease with which users can upload content and actively participate on social media platforms has revolutionised the way we think about the Internet. Its impact on sexual practices, relationships, and the way we perceive sex cannot be overstated. Anyone familiar with the manner in which technology has begun to mediate the act of sex will instinctively get what I am trying to say. Today, sexting, the revealing selfie, dating apps, and differently gendered identities online, to name a few, have become integral to any discussion around sex and sexuality.

The promises of the Internet are, of course, highly contextual. The Internet will mean very different things to a person who has access to their own mobile phone in a city with a reliable and affordable broadband or WiFi connection, as compared to someone who does not have access to a reliable Internet connection or who is unable to go to a shop to exchange downloaded songs and clips through an SD card.

Internet use is also highly gendered, and chances are that if you are female in India you may not have your own mobile phone, or your use of the phone may be policed by your brother or by the social mores of the larger community.[1]

To those exploring and seeking out new worlds, the Internet has been able to grant them sexual identity and expression, the ability to meet people unbound by social mores (and sometimes inflected by these as well, like in Shaadi.com), to inquire into one’s deepest, quirkiest desires, the ability to form group identities (for instance, BDSM cultures in India) that are mostly underground, and so much more.

If you are looking to date someone, it is far more likely that you will meet him or her online than through social gatherings offline. Smartphone apps like Tinder and Grindr are now part and parcel of people’s lives in a way that one could not have imagined even a few years ago. These apps have changed the way we think of romance and dating, and while the Internet has heightened fears of distraction, obsessive use, and the rush to immediate gratification, it has expanded the idea of the immediate community we locate ourselves in.

The controversy over Facebook’s relatively recent real-name policy that renders ethnic minorities, abuse victims, the LGBTQIA community, and many more marginalised groups vulnerable, shows us how crucial social media platforms have become to sexual and gender identity, where users can exercise freedoms otherwise unavailable to them (such as, for instance, Facebook users who can register multiple gender identities).

Increasingly these platforms have come to serve a more public function, a far cry from the ‘tubes’ or pure intermediary status where these platforms claimed that they only transmitted or hosted material with no editorial functions. We know that these platforms actively remove, categorise, highlight, and choreograph information that we see or read online. Algorithms and artificial intelligence now determine much if what we see online[2], and help filter our access to knowledge online. As we recognise this change, we must demand more accountability and transparency from these platforms to ensure that we as users of these platforms are able to understand clearly what kind of material is being taken down, how these platforms interpret their guidelines and if they are enforcing these in predictable ways. For instance, the controversy over Facebook taking down images of breastfeeding babies, showed us that there has to be a human element that intervenes to ensure that when material is being restricted online, there is a clear logic to why it is being restricted, and that it does not lead to an over reach. At the same time we must not fall into the trap of asking for increased government regulation, as in many countries where governments are trying to restrict criticism of their policies or clamp down on dissent, it is these same social media platforms that offer an alternative source of information and news.

Along with the immense possibilities of the Internet, there are crucial debates to be had around online violence, trolling, and non-consensual circulation of material, much of which is gendered[3]. Women and transgender users are far more likely to face abuse, gendered insults and violent threats, often at the hands of organised trolls, where there is a concerted effort by persons of a specific political ideology or supporters of a political party that coordinate and attack persons online. The journalist Swati Chaturvedi’s recent book “I am a Troll” is one of the few journalistic accounts of how this works in India.[4]This is an issue that all Internet users must address through community-led initiatives, counter-messaging and organised support (where friends and supporters coordinate a response) for those at the receiving end of these threats.

In the case of India where I write this from, the law enforcement is far more likely to conflate gender-based threats and violence with pornography and obscenity, both tropes that governments have been obsessed with, and both often used to drive government regulation and policy making. For instance, in cases where a person circulates a woman’s image without her consent, there is a specific section of the Information Technology Act (section 66E) that deals with the violation of privacy. However, the police will often invoke section 67 which deals with obscenity, instead, in these cases. Obscenity and pornography are such subjective categories, and such fraught areas to try regulating, that they often lead to over-regulation, bans, and censorship (as we have seen in other media forms).

Right from the prosecution of a Mumbai bookseller for selling Lady Chatterley’s Lover, to the controversy over the song Choli ke Peeche, the attacks in cinema halls that screened the film Fire, to the uphill struggle to get a censor certificate for the much acclaimed film Lipstick under a Burkha, we have seen moral judgments, political posturing, and the overused claim of protecting “Indian culture” used to censor and harass artists using legal categories such as obscenity. Instead of our obsession with these categories, we would be far better off discussing issues such as online privacy, consent, the claim that there is a right to be forgotten[5], and organised trolling, misogyny and violent threats, all of which are emerging as crucial debates in the Internet sphere.

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[1]https://genderingsurveillance.internetdemocracy.in/phone_ban/

[2]https://cihr.eu/ethics-of-algorithms/

[3]http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-22378366

[4]http://www.business-standard.com/article/beyond-business/i-am-a-troll-inside-the-secret-world-of-bjp-s-digital-army-116122801182_1.html

[5]http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsereviewofbooks/2016/10/04/book-review-ctrl-z-the-right-to-be-forgotten-by-meg-leta-jones/

Cover Image: Photo: Reuters/Kacper Pempel

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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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