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The right approach.
DUH

Banning porn won’t reduce rape in India. Punishing rapists will

By Girish Shahane

In March, India’s supreme court took notice  of a series of cases where groups of men had filmed themselves committing rape and shared those videos with friends, leading to the images becoming widely available.

The court asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to look into these incidents. Six months later, the premier investigating agency appears to have made little headway.

Perhaps to cover up its failure to prosecute the offenders, the agency offered a moral sermon in court last week. In an affidavit, the CBI claimed, “The sharp rise in rapes with the ubiquity of internet-enabled pornography, coupled with the forces of rapid urbanisation that lead to disconnected lives of youth have produced a complex social crisis in the country, [that] can be correlated to rampant proliferation of such crimes.”

The CBI’s answer to this crisis? To have agents stationed in the Indian offices of sites like YouTube and Facebook oversee all content. Unable to do the relatively simple job assigned to it, the CBI has drawn an incorrect inference about the causes of crime, and provided an unworkable solution that will erode free speech in the country further while doing nothing to lessen instances of rape.

Let me deal with the CBI’s fundamental misunderstanding first: The uploading of rape videos is not pornography, any more than a man recording himself killing another man and uploading the video to the web is the equivalent of Gabbar Singh shooting his henchmen after a bit of Russian roulette. Pornography is performance. Pornography is entertainment. The protagonists are actors.

Situations are staged and discussed in advance of filming. Some of them involve fantasies of dominance and non-consent, but these are performed by consenting adults. It is hardly unknown for women to enjoy such depictions. Rape is completely different. It is a terrible crime, the recording of which is evidence of that crime. Why do we not conflate murder in a movie with murder in real life, but invariably connect pornography to sexual violence? Why is porn dragged into every case in India that involves rape?

Cause and effect

To be fair, purveyors of screen violence have their detractors, too.

Directors like Quentin Tarantino are regularly hounded by questions about artistic responsibility and the effect of their films on impressionable minds. Well, I watched Reservoir Dogs when my mind was far more impressionable than it is today, and while I loved the film, it didn’t produce any desire within me to tie people up in chairs and slice their ears off.

While few critics of sexually explicit content have gone as far as the CBI in occluding the difference between screen rape and real rape, many have suggested that images of violent sex lead to sexual violence in society. Although such arguments come mainly from conservatives, there is a strong tradition of left-wing feminism that shares that view.

The relationship between screen violence and social violence, and between pornography and rape, have been studied for decades, and at the end of all that research there isn’t a shred of evidence in favour of the proposition that fiction and fantasy engender violence. At best, researchers have found increased levels of aggression or misogyny in subjects who had just watched scenes of murder or sexual violence, but never have such laboratory results been reflected in any real life situations.

Increasingly, there are arguments in exactly the opposite direction, claiming that the availability of pornography reduces the occurrence of rape. The most important fact backing this argument is that, even as porn has become ubiquitous, rape has become rarer in societies where data can be trusted. (In countries like India where rape often goes unreported and crime statistics are questionable it is impossible to know whether rapes are on the increase or decrease, though the police and media are convinced it is the former.)

Anthony D’Amato, in a research paper titled Porn Up, Rape Down, wrote:

 “The incidence of rape in the United States has declined 85% in the past 25 years while access to pornography has become freely available to teenagers and adults. The Nixon and Reagan Commissions tried to show that exposure to pornographic materials produced social violence. The reverse may be true: that pornography has reduced social violence.”

Violent crime as a whole has been falling for the last three decades in affluent democracies, but even considering the general decline in crime, the drop in sexual violence is astonishing. Correlation is not causation, which is why I hesitate to say that porn reduces rape. Nevertheless, such a strong inverse correlation between access to porn and instances of rape is surely significant. If lung cancer rates had kept dropping as cigarette use grew exponentially, it is unlikely we would have hypothesised that tobacco causes cancer.

Rape fetish

The most peculiar example of the absence of linkage between violent sexual fantasies and actual rape must be Japan.

That nation seems to have a rape fetish, something I first observed through disturbing art-house films involving bodily violation. Japan even produces video games, banned in the West, in which male characters stalk and rape a series of female victims. Despite this troublesome affinity for fictional sexual violence, Japan places at the very bottom when rates of rape are considered, at least among nations whose governments produce trustworthy data. It is essentially the safest nation in the world for women, give or take a Liechtenstein. Violent sexual assaults are over 25 times more common in Australia and the US than in Japan. So much for screen violence or video game violence leading to real violence.

I am not suggesting that the ubiquity of porn today causes no problems whatsoever. Nor that the porn industry is any more free of exploitation than other industries. There are also complex issues about female representation to be taken into account, especially in nations like India where the production of pornography is banned, but its consumption is common. I suspect that misunderstandings about white people, and white women in particular, fostered by Hollywood are being reinforced by pornography, and can precipitate sexual confusion and violence in rare cases.

Having said that, I am sick and tired of pornography and even Hindi film dance numbers being singled out as generators of rape. I wish moralistic cops and judges would pay more attention to data and less to their own prejudices. They might learn that the best way to reduce rape is to ensure perpetrators are punished.

The way to do it is to register cases promptly, sympathise with accusers, investigate thoroughly, and try the accused fairly and quickly. The way not to do it is to fail for months to arrest perpetrators who have incriminated themselves on camera, and then blame Google and WhatsApp.

This post first appeared on Scroll.in. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.