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Interview: Bishakha Datta on the Brave New (Digital) World

Bishakha Datta with short hair, wearing green earrings, and a brown top.

Bishakha Datta is an Indian filmmaker, activist and a former journalist. She runs Point of View, a Mumbai based non-profit, and supports and serves on the board of non-profit organizations, such as CREA, and the Wikimedia Foundation. Point of View set up the website in collaboration with CREA, creating a forum for information, discussion, expression and experience sharing, focusing on the sexuality of women with disabilities.

We e-interviewed Bishakha on the subject of technology and sexuality. She speaks her mind on matters of consent, gender and sexual rights, access, privacy and pornography in the digital age. 

Shikha Aleya: Please tell us a bit about your work and current areas of focus. 

Bishakha Datta: Ok, bringing out some of my avatars 🙂 I write, make films and run Point of View, a non-profit in Mumbai, and am involved with Wikipedia. These days, what’s top of my mind – and work – is how gender and sexuality reconfigure in the digital age. If we think of digital space as a ‘brave new world’ to use Aldous Huxley’s iconic phrase, how do we bring about a Brave New (Digital) World that all genders and sexualities can freely and safely navigate? That’s what I want to create. “I don’t want comfort,” wrote Huxley in 1932. “I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” That’s the world I want too…but how do we get there? (I’ll confess I considered deleting God, but then remembered we try to free expression, not kill it. 🙂

What else am I involved in these days? Ramping up our brave new work with women who are disabled. We started a site at three years back that’s reached almost 300,000 people. But given how complex sexuality is – how taboo, how silenced – we’re starting to build on-the-ground workshops for women with disabilities. And creating a supportive eco-system, so that women with disabilities can explore and express their sexual selves.

And yes, I’m taking Point of View, which was born 18 years back in the analog age into the digital age, now that we’re all grown up and legally adult.

SA: On Technology and Sexuality – what are your top of the mind thoughts about the connect between the two?

BD: Access. Privacy. Consent. Anonymity. Surveillance. These are some of the words that pop up when I think of tech and sex. Think of teenage girls whose parents monitor their ‘access’ to the cell phones that are lifelines to ‘fraandship’, romance etc. Access isn’t just about laying down fibre optic cables; it’s also about who gets to use technology, for what and on whose terms. Needless to say, sexuality is on parental watch lists – because it’s seen as Danger No. 1. That’s surveillance, right? And extending the same analogy, the cell phone may be one of the few private spaces for this teenage girl – unless her family starts snooping on her SMSes etc. Then, what happens to her right to privacy? Does it mean anything that she didn’t consent to parental monitoring? All these words are taking on different hues in the digital age.

SA: In your blog post, ‘Porn. Panic. Ban.’ on issues of censorship and changing the conversation around pornography, you have spoken about consent. Most conversations around porn tend to focus on the (real or imagined) impact on the consumer. One of the points you have raised is about the harm that comes through an image turning into digital porn without the consent of the person who is the subject. For example, when personal images end up being circulated for public consumption. How does one begin to address this? Is it then about porn or privacy?

BD: It’s about both: porn and privacy. And about consent, which underlies the right to privacy. Consent and privacy are joined at the hip, yin and yang, like twins separated at birth. So let’s start calling out non-consensual porn for what it is – a rights violation; that’s a beginning. Let’s start distinguishing between porn that is consensually produced and distributed as ‘ethical porn’ and that which is not consensually produced or distributed as ‘unethical porn’.  Let’s not label all porn as bad or evil or violent or whatever. Let’s start asking platforms that host porn – from PornHub to – to flag consent upfront. Let’s ask governments to use consent as the fault line to regulate ‘good’ and ‘bad’ porn from a rights perspective, to shortcut the discussion. Let’s not use morality as the marker, for god’s sake. Then we’ll get somewhere.

SA: Are we looking at articulating definitions of what constitutes criminal consumption of pornographic material? If we know the material was produced with consent from all quarters, it’s ok to view it and if we know it wasn’t, and we view it, then that should constitute a crime? 

BD: Because I know how difficult it is for most ordinary people to use the law in India, I rarely think of legal solutions as a first resort. So for me, the issue is not so much to define everything as criminal acts, but to start by defining them as harms. As violations of rights. So in my book, non-consensual porn is a problem. Something that causes enormous harm and violates rights.

Do we want to turn every harm into a crime? No. Do we want to criminalize consumption? No. Do we want to criminalize production and distribution of non-consensual porn? Grey area. Discussion needed. Before turning to the law as the sole arbiter, and again, let’s distinguish between civil and criminal offences here, let’s also think of where we want to get and how to get there. Hey, if we could fine sites that host non-consensual porn and get the images off without throwing people into jail, that would be my first option. If we could ensure that those who consume non-consensual porn are doing so knowingly, not unknowingly, that would be great. Meaning, those who don’t want to consume non-consensual porn can then go to other sites. If we could reduce traffic to non-consensual porn sites, how amazing would that be? And that’s not just revenge porn, but amateur porn and rape videos too.

Ultimately, porn is media. Like film. Like photography. Like books (textual porn). Do we really want to criminalize any form of media production, whether or not it involves naked bodies? That’s the larger unresolved question for me.

SA: Consent is a difficult issue. At the least, it is a concept that has room for changing one’s mind. A Yes can switch to a No in real time and both positions must be respected. Digital representation and distribution cannot be recalled. How do we begin to approach this?

BD: This is a real problem of the digital age. As Viktor Mayer Schonberger writes in Delete, for centuries human beings struggled to master memory – now that we are wrapped in the serpentine coils of digital memories, we need to start learning how to forget. We need to start thinking of how to recall some digital memories, like we recall defective cars and Maggi noodles. But which ones? Which memories should be recalled? Who decides? And what does this mean for free speech and expression?

Going beyond the philosophical to the practical, yes, I’m in favour of finding ways to recall representations that cause harm – using the five-part test laid out by Frank LaRue, former Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression: Legality. Legitimacy. Necessary. Proportionate. I forget the fifth. That lays down what’s not considered free speech – or considered hate speech.

SA: There is a common notion that pornography leads to sexual violence or an acceptance of sexual violence. Do you think this is true at any level? Since technology has made every subject more accessible to a vast population, how does one assess the reality of the effect or impact of porn on consumers?  Has such an assessment been done?

BD: We need to get into the whole fantasy-reality thing to discuss this meaningfully. Remember, porn is a form of media. Think of other media products; think of Bollywood films. Do those who see a rape in mainstream movies turn into rapists? No. But then you could argue that those rapes are not meant to arouse, while enacted rapes in porn are. True. But are the vast majority of viewers not able to distinguish between fantasy and reality? I think they are. Check out what these phone sex workers have to say about fulfilling fantasies – it’s obvious both they and their clients understand the difference between fantasy and reality. Similarly, in my book most viewers understand the distinction between violent sexual fantasies and violent real-life sex. And who’s to diss a man, woman or trans person who likes violent sex, in fantasy or in real-life? Or who consents to BDSM? Not I.

Remember: the relationship between representation and reality has always been a complex one – not a straight line linking ’cause’ and ‘effect’. It’s puerile to think of it like that, but it’s also ridiculous to think that there is no relationship between what you consume and what you do. But what is this relationship? And is it uniform? Of course, not. A million media studies have shown that different viewers have different reactions to the same media stimulus.

Does that mean there is no relationship between porn and sexual violence? There is, but it’s not necessarily a straight line. Neither is the relationship between porn and sexuality, between porn sex and real sex. We get some indications of this complex relationship from sites like Make Love, Not Porn, which deals with porn’s hyper-exaggerated sexualised bodies and sex by distinguishing between porn world and real world. Ditto with pornographer Erika Lust, who persuasively argues that it’s time for porn to change.

That, it is. The more diverse forms of sexual expression there are out there – not just for straight men, but for straight women, lesbian women, women with diverse sexual preferences, individuals with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and sexualities – the more we will be able to subvert porn that is downright patriarchal or sexist.

SA: In your experience, how has technology helped change things for those who are sexually marginalised?

BD: So switching rapidly from porn, digital space is a blessing when physical space is a curse. In other words, if you’re surrounded by people who don’t see that it’s your right to make your own sexual choices, don’t let you make them, and even try to force you to make other choices, you can turn to online spaces for support, conversation, sexual expression, and…sex. Check out Nadine Moawad’s superb essay on how the queer movement in Lebanon started online. Check out this piece on Queering The Internet in Indonesia. Check out Nadja Nadika’s essay on why she pays for ethical queer porn – online. And yes, let’s keep the Internet a space for all genders and sexualities to explore and enjoy.

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