Late in the nineteenth century, a spectre was haunting Victorian-era Europe — and it wasn’t the prospect of violent revolution. In November 1882, speaking in Neuchatel, the moral campaigner Emile De Laveleye warned about "an inundation of immorality which is frightful; it might almost be called a species of contagious satyriasis, which infects alike our books, our journals, engravings, photographs, and extends from our fine art exhibits down to our allumette boxes. And the rising tide of pornography, if I may venture to use the word, threatens family life itself".
The Victorian world we imagine — strait-laced, god-fearing, family-centred — wasn’t the Victorian world that was. The Victorian world was, indeed, awash in pornography. The images and ideas that body of work contains helps us understand something important about it — and us Indians.
In both Victorian England and modern India, prudery and perversion are closely entwined. Looking at society’s secrets — the things it does not want to talk about — can help us understand its deepest fears and fantasies.
Drawing parallels between the two pruderies is interesting because India, as a former colony, not only retains certain Victorian-era laws, but has absorbed many of its moral codes, including a preoccupation with respectability and a penchant for censorship. Also, like Victorian England, modern India is at a juncture where it seeks to conquer the world, a pursuit in which cultural identity — including sexuality — plays an important role. Of course, while the dominant sexual fantasies of both cultures have elements in common, they also reflect distinct cultural moorings and realities.
Let’s first visit the Victorians, as famous for their prudery (there are accounts of table legs being covered lest they look too sexy) as they are notorious for their well-documented appetite for prostitutes and the coyly Frenchified le vice Anglais (erotic flogging) and le vice contre nature (buggery). While so-called Victorian sex experts like Dr William Acton concluded that women’s only passions were “home, children and domestic duties”, the erotic literature of the day brazenly challenged that assumption, albeit in perverse ways that catered to a male audience. Popular themes of erotic literature included virgins being forcibly deflowered and then developing an insatiable sexual appetite, or hapless young women being flagellated, their white buttocks squirming, until they eventually wielded the whip themselves, as in With Rod and Bum Or Sport in the West End of London: A True Tale by a Young Governess (1891). Sexual pleasure and painful punishment, thus, became conflated.
Moral guardians such as the Society for the Suppression of Vice worked hard to make sure women and other commoners were protected from the 'filth', but this was not so easily done with the proliferation of pornographic images in the 1890s, including on cheap postcards that made erotic and exotic imaginings accessible to the unlettered masses, right in the corner store at that. These postcards contained different types of images — but in most of them, women’s bodies were presented to cater to the male gaze. There were comical ones that served to act as levellers between high and low society (a lady’s buttocks exposed due to a gust of wind as she boats, a nun suggestively surveying sausages); 'domestic' ones that depicted women in various states of undress in their private chambers, seemingly unmindful of the voyeuristic pleasures they afforded; and finally, 'colonial' images of 'natives', either posed (think veils contrasted with bared breasts) or in their 'natural habitat'. These colonial images were categorised by Victorian purveyors as 'Arab types', 'Geisha types', and 'Haitian types'; interestingly, unlike other pornographic postcards, those of foreigners were considered legal and could be posted regardless of visible nipples or genitals.
Not all subjects of erotic images were anonymous — there were 'stars' too, generally theatre actresses. While most Victorian women were held to high standards of respectability in dress and comportment, the rules were different for actresses who were regarded as virtually inseparable from prostitutes. As for the men who flocked to lust at "the half-dress, the indecent attitudes and postures, the lascivious looks and embraces", as the Reverend SN Vernon put it? They were viewed as victims — theatre was an avenue for the "corruption and overthrow of the pure and innocent" and could even lead to death, ostensibly via masturbation or venereal disease. Even those who couldn’t afford West End tickets were afflicted, since illustrations and photos of actresses were widely available. Some merely suggested at imminent nudity — such as an actress at her dressing table — while others utilised theatrical settings to showcase pornography, such as a set showing a nude trapeze artist in 36 poses. The women of theatre at the time were in essence the 'item girls' of the day, desirable but ultimately unthreatening to the cultural order because of their otherness. In the words of a character from a raunchy 1901 novel called The Confessions of Nemesis Hunt: "[T]he men… wanted to laugh easily, and, above all, to see lots of pretty girls, and feel their old jocks stiffen.... c*nt, my dear Annesley, c*nt, and lots of it, is what the greater part of this blessed nation wants…"
The above observation notwithstanding, the Victorians regarded their (theoretically) unsullied bedrooms as pillars of the British Empire. When one of the first public debates on pornography erupted upon the publication of Sir Richard Burton’s sexually explicit translation of The Arabian Nights (1885), the reputation of the English imperial identity itself emerged as a central concern. Burton huffed and puffed about the 'covert licentiousness' and 'perfect hypocrisy' of English society, but also claimed that intimate knowledge of Arab sexual practices could further the cause of English imperialism in Muslim regions (with insights such as, "Debauched women prefer Negroes on account of the size of their parts"). His detractors, meanwhile, warned that nations where 'immorality reigns' were doomed to fall and railed against importing 'the gigantic muck heaps of other races'.
In Indian culture, too, the 'muck heaps' of other cultures are viewed with fear. Sexual 'purity' is celebrated as an outstanding attribute that must be protected at all costs — a job done by moral watchdogs such as the Censor Board and its banning of unsanskari smooches and 'contagious' sex scenes.
But if the Victorian commoners had postcards, we have cheap network connections, and we know our way around pesky porn bans. We may prize unruptured hymens, but according to Pornhub data from 2017, we are the fourth most voracious consumers of erotica in the world. Where we once had to satisfy ourselves with suggestive song sequences on movie screens, today we can Google feverishly for porn crossover star Sunny Leone — described by one Kannada group as an 'attack on our culture' — and gain access to her 'private' world.
But we do not always seek exotic 'others'. Gone are the Licence Raj days when copies of Playboy or Penthouse would be smuggled home from trips abroad. With globalisation has come localisation—we love shuddh desi porn. Unlike other countries that don’t seem to care where their smut comes from — most of our top 10 search terms feature the word 'Indian' (including Indian wife, Indian bhabhi, Indian aunty). This is not so surprising. Maybe we want to see our own kind having sex, because it seems so exotic in this land where only conjugal couplings (consensual or not) are deemed acceptable. Besides, people who look like us arguably make 'illicit' sex seem more accessible — many Indians perhaps feel intimidated by Whites and are possibly too racist to acknowledge desire for anyone significantly darker than themselves.
Unfortunately, there’s a bleaker side to 'Made in India porn'. Given that manufacturing pornography is illegal in India, much of the content is of the 'amateur' variety, and voyeuristic in the most literal sense of the word — a lot of the hits for 'desi porn' show grainy hidden camera footage of middle-aged women having 'mug baths' or desultory sex. Sometimes, the scene is a hotel room; the man looks knowingly at the camera, the woman doesn’t seem to know it’s there. Many women in Indian porn are not active, consenting participants — a point that Richa Kaul Padte makes in her book Cyber-Sexy: Rethinking Pornography. We like to consume women much as the Victorians did — as passive and frequently clueless objects of desire — but technology makes us more dangerous.
Our porn preferences also echo the age-old incestuous tropes found in films, folk songs and literature. Let’s face it, we’ve been nudge nudge wink wink about bhabhis and devars for as long as our epics dropped hints on the subject. Savita Bhabhi, the infamous pornographic cartoon icon may have been banned by the government, but there is abundant content packaged as 'horny bhabhi being ignited by young devar' or 'bhabhi-devar hidden sex'. Bhabhis and devars are irresistible to us because they signify the safety of familial belonging, yet are untainted by the taboo of being related by blood.
The reason why our preferences are so uniquely insular is likely a result of the strict restrictions placed on male-female interactions. Just as high taxes lead to evasionary actions, high social controls lead to distortions in sexual behaviours. Boys and girls from different households are rarely allowed to socialise in vast swathes of Indian society. Thus, sexual yearnings become located on persons of the opposite sex who are permissibly within touching distance. Besides, most youngsters are brought up with powerful ideas of purity and pollution. Consorting with someone from the wrong caste, community or dietary habits could be disastrous, so it makes more sense to restrict amorous explorations to the familiar.
So, are Indians and Victorians sexual outliers? Not in my opinion. Rigid rules and norms, which are often imposed as a form of social control, give rise to warped sexual expressions. As Indians embrace newer ideas of inclusion — regarding gender, class, caste, sexual orientation—and anachronistic Victorian laws are scrapped, it is more likely than not that the porn searches of the future will approach the global average in terms of trends. Perhaps by 2029, we’ll move on a bit from the omnipresent Indian bhabhi and see — as the England of today does — a little more 'romantic', 'lesbian' and 'outdoor' in the mix.
(Asavari Singh is a former journalist with a background in gender and psychology)
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Updated Date: Mar 25, 2019 12:12:48 IST