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Pleasure and Danger: The role of mobile phones in the intimate lives of adolescent girls in a Mumbai slum

Photo of an Indian girl in a school uniform, carrying her schol bag on her shoulders. Her hair are neatly set in two braids, tied with a black ribbon.

“My brother does not want me to buy a mobile phone. He says that there are already three phones in the house: his mobile, their father’s mobile and a landline phone. He said that I want a phone for ‘personal’ calls.”

The remark about ‘personal’calls in the quote above by a 17-year-old girl living in a slum in Mumbai throws light on the anxiety surrounding mobile phones in poor urban communities. In his fascinating paper examining the effect of mobile phones on Indian society, Assa Doron (2012 ) notes that mobile phone communication technology has ushered in new possibilities of interaction between men and women, particularly within the non-literate socio-economically disadvantaged classes, whose access to other forms of communication, including letter writing and more recently the Internet, were and remain limited. He further notes the role of mobile phones in facilitating flirtations and courtships among young people in socio-economically disadvantaged classes.

In my doctoral study on youth sexuality in the slums of Mumbai, I found that parents attempted to uphold the norm of caste-endogamous marriages by controlling and monitoring the sexuality of their daughters.  This control was chiefly exercised through an unrelenting gaze on all post-pubertal girls in the slum area. In this context, mobile phones made it very easy for girls to start and sustain clandestine romantic relationships before marriage. As Aradhana (16 years) stated, “Most of my classmates have mobiles, they message, call their boyfriends. Their parents are working outside the whole day. Hence, when the parents are out, that is the time the girls talk and message their boyfriends. They tell their boyfriends about their parents’routine so they never call when parents are in the house. Till the girl sends a missed call, he would not call.” Girls in the slum area communicated with their boyfriends mainly through text messages instead of calls and kept their mobile phones on  ‘silent mode’ most of the time. Moreover, some parents did not even know that their daughters owned mobile phones. These girls had received mobile phones as gifts from their boyfriends.  Interestingly however, while mobile phones were helping girls from slums break free of parental and community control to explore love and intimacy before marriage, they were also serving as a tool to reinforce control and surveillance in relationships.  Girls spoke of instances when their boyfriends would call them several times during the day to enquire about their activities and whereabouts.

Mobile phones are also playing a crucial role in exposing young girls to pornography. In a study on youth sexuality in Mumbai before the era of mobile phone technology, Leena Abraham (2002) noted that while boys regularly visited video parlours (kiosks) to watch pornography, girls lacked physical access to video parlours and their home environment prevented them from watching these films. In present day Mumbai, girls have easy and cheap access to pornographic videos through mobile phones. Interestingly, none of the girls in the slums had pornographic pictures or videos on their own mobile phones. This is not surprising considering the constant and intense surveillance over girls in the area. Girls reported that they watched blue films on the phones of their boyfriends or other male friends. Teachers in my sample also confirmed that schoolboys watched pornographic videos along with girls in schools.

It could be argued that in the absence of formal sexuality education in Indian schools, pornographic videos are fulfilling an unmet need for information related to sex. Several girls unequivocally stated that they found “blue films useful because they provided knowledge about sex”. Moreover, the dominant discourse on sexuality focuses solely on the dangers of sex, with mothers and teachers constantly reminding girls to be cautious and guarded in the presence of boys and men. In this context, pornography opens the door to the many positive and pleasurable aspects of sex. It is mainly through pornography on mobile phones that girls are getting exposed to a discourse of sexual desire and pleasure.  Emphasising the positive role played by pornography in South Asia, Salman Rushdie in his essay titled ‘The east is blue’argues that a free and civilised society should be judged by its willingness to accept pornography. He says, “Pornography exists everywhere, of course, but when it comes into societies in which it’s difficult for young men and women to get together and do what young men and women often like doing, it satisfies a more general need.”

What is worrying, however, is that pornography is likely to strengthen harmful and regressive gender stereotypes. Feminists, especially radical feminists have long maintained that pornography perpetuates the gender stereotype of the ‘aggressive male’ and the ‘passive female’ in sexual relations. They argue that this stereotype plays an important role in normalising both physical and sexual abuse of women. Following Mackinnon (1984) and Banyard (2010), McLaughlin et al (2011) argue that pornography leads to men constructing who a man is, and how he should behave and treat women – which is often in dominant and brutal ways, based on the pornography they have watched . The converse may also be true, with girls/women behaving as they think is ‘expected’ based on pornography. In his study on Marathi pornographic literature, Apte (2004) found stories in which coercive and forceful sex was justified as something that women themselves wanted in order to heighten sexual pleasure. In my study, several girls reported that boys often forced their girlfriends to have sex with them after watching pornographic videos on their phones.

These findings call for an open and honest discussion with adolescents on the portrayal of gender-power relations in mainstream pornography.  In future, sexuality education in schools also needs to include a discussion on the difference between porn and real sex. Crucially, as most urban school children are exposed to pornography before they reach puberty, this discussion needs to begin early in primary schools.


Abraham, L. (2002) Bhai-behen, true love, time pass: friendships and sexual partnerships among youth in an Indian metropolis. Culture Health & Sexuality, 4 (3):337-353.

Apte, H. (2004) College Men, Sexual Knowledge and Pornography in Pune. In Verma, R.K., Pelto, P. & Schensul, S. (Eds.) Sexuality in the Time of AIDS, New Delhi: Sage.

Doron, A. (2012) Mobile Persons: Cell phones, Gender and the Self in North India. The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology, 13(5): 414-433.

McLaughlin, C., Swartz, S., Kiragu, S., Mohamed, M. & Walli, S. (2013) Old enough to know: Consulting children about sex and AIDS education in three African countries. London: HSRC Press

Sidharth, J. (2013). Love and longing in Mumbai slums: An exploration of the understanding and experience of sexuality among unmarried young women, 2013. Unpublished thesis, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.

Pic source: Creative Commons