Centre for Internet & Society

The post deals with what has been written about Savita Bhabhi in an attempt to make sense of her peccadiloes and with the seeming futility of Porn studies located in America to our different reality. I take the liberty of exploring my own experiential account of pornography since I feel that in that account (mine and others) when done seriously, certain aspects of pornography emerge that address questions that are about cinema, images, sex, philosophy and how desire works. The title is mischeviously inspired from Dr. Pek Van Andel's recent video of MRI images of people having sex.

Jonathan James McCreadie Lillie in his article “Cyberporn, Sexuality and the Net Apparatus” while talking about academic engagement with pornography (by Kipnis, Hunt, Waugh, Kendrick) points to how they share “a common concern with analysing pornography within the various cultural constructs and social spaces in which it appears, and in which people encounter it”. He says that a new agenda for cyberporn research has to acknowledge that “people have produced pornography in many different forms for many different purposes, and the reasons why people use it or do not use it, and what meanings they make of it, are equally diverse”. (1)

 

Lillie points towards cyberporn reception studies – the home/office terminal as a site of cyberporn reception – as a possible starting point of further work on cyberporn. My interest is located in how does one understand your own consumption of internet porn, located as it is in the context that is not the global North and more specifically not male and not heterosexual. Attempting to do that through the readings in porn studies (Porn studies, edited by Linda Williams) (2), or specifically net porn studies (C’lick me – Net Porn Reader) (3), has not been entirely fruitful though what is talked about is highly interesting. One of the problems perhaps lies in what Lillie says about the need for analyzing pornography within the various cultural constructs and social spaces in which it appears, rather than separate or floating above them. The Internet does not entirely make protean beings (cyborgs?) of us after all, and the relevance of porn studies elsewhere can only be partially relevant to a study here.

 

[Curiously though the debates within feminism and the women’s movement around pornography in the global North – the familiar rhetoric of the causal links between pornography and violence, do have a resonance in similar debates in the women’s movement here. At a roundtable discussion on the role of media at the recent Courts of Women organized by Vimochana (4), many of the sentiments expressed by activists and organizations see a causal link between explicit sexual material, violence and its direct negative impact on morals, attitudes and behaviour of people.]

 

Linda Williams begins the volume on Porn Studies by stating that there has been a movement from the deadlock of pro-censorship and sex positive feminist discourse on pornography, to a stage where there is a veritable explosion of sexual material that is crying out for analysis, and that sexually explicit imagery is a fixture in popular culture today (obviously referring to America but to some extent true for other contexts as well). In some ways there is an attempt amongst academics, intellectuals, journalists and other writers here to make sense of the pornographic material that has crept into our media saturated cities. Many recent articles spawned by the ban on Savita Bhabhi attempt to understand the unleashing of desire around Savita Bhabhi (from a rock song to unashamed fandom) and to analyse the reasons for the ban or rather what makes Savita Bhabhi threatening.

 

Savita Bhabhi, the [porn] [toon] [star] 

Itty Abraham undertakes a fairly detailed analysis of what is happening in twelve episodes of Savita Bhabhi and perhaps unconvincingly places the crux of the story of Savita Bhabhi on her cuckolded husband, Ashok (5). He says “Their family life is relentless modern, nuclear, bourgeois, if also gendered in familiar ways. The couple eats together (and at the same time), they watch TV together in the evenings, and sleep in the same bed.” For Abraham, the comic is about “these new sexual possibilities.. that begin from a new kind of freedom to which the modern urban woman has access”. The article suggests that we seem to be faced with a choice between the free untrammeled Savita and her easy occupation of urban spaces protected by an aura of class and her husband Ashok who is the hard worker earning enough to keep alive her/our illusion of abundant urban neoliberal existence. Interestingly the article is not attempting to make a point about pornography in relation to ideas of culture, tradition, vulgarity or other familiar motifs in the debate on obscenity.

 

Shohini Ghosh’s article takes on the task to find out what precisely is so transgressive about Savita Bhabhi (6). Savita Bhabhi is poised between the family and husband and illegitimate desires (similar to themes in Charulata, Hum aapke hain kaun). She points that the pleasure of the comic is not just that there are hard core sexual scenes as much as that the husband or a similar character cannot look at what you look at. The Indian erotica (or pornographic text) scene too is replete with tales of incest and transgressions with domestic workers or servants|maids as they are called in the stories. Ghosh while acknowledging the harm-violence debate within feminism on pornography, states that she is anti-censorship – that although it is obvious that media, images have an impact (otherwise why would they be cause of study) there is no neat causal link between porn and sexual violence. She ends by saying that “pornography then is a phantasmatic arena. It does not reflect people’s ‘real’ sex lives so much as it articulates the desires and aspirations for imagined ones.”

 

Both articles make important linkages to other and pre-existing debates on neo-liberal agendas, occupation of urban spaces, feminism and obscenity. Ghosh seems to also be referring to a broader category of Indian porn and the problems posed by it. She also gestures towards the problems that might be posed if Savita Bhabhi were a real person and not a comic, but by and large most journalistic writing/analysis of Savita Bhabhi flattens out the field – asking questions as if comic characters were real persons, and not taking into account aesthetics, technology (mode of delivery) or where and how it is viewed (reception) by people. There is a difference in the way I respond to a comic about sex than to an MMS or hidden camera porn where I am aware of the ‘realness’ of atleast some aspects of the image I’m looking at.

 

The ‘realness’ raises certain dilemmas – the anxiety is not as severe and troubled as in the case of Mysore Mallige which is haunted by urban legends of the couples or only the woman committing suicide, forced marriage at a police station etc. Nonetheless to encounter the MMS video, when the woman is looking directly at the camera often so it does not seem like a hidden camera or non-consensual video, is to acknowledge the taking of pleasure at the expense of someone else which may or may not bother you, but does render the activity far more illicit and scary. My feeling of fear|anxiety|secrecy|aloneness when surfing pornography, whether in the office, home or anywhere where I can be discovered, is an added layer to the experience even if the various aspects of violation of privacy, vulnerability of the woman in the video or the existence of a pornography industry are not uppermost in the mind when actually viewing the clips. One of the few works done that do address this complicated set of affects that circulate and attach themselves to pornography is Bharath Murthy’s film on Mysore Mallige ( the next post will be on this film and interview with Bharath Murthy). (7)

 

This is why I would insist that the comic is a different space for a viewer – some things such as anxieties about who this person I’m looking at is and what happened to her do disappear, while others such as a comic is bright, colourful and highly visible on my computer screen (for instance) become more important. It is harder to hide surfing Savita Bhabhi in an office than reading erotica or even downloading and discreetly watching a small video.  The aspect of how Savita Bhabhi being a comic/drawn character changes how a viewer relates to the material is an area of study that needs to be looked at more closely, perhaps with the help of existing work that looks at the manga, anime, hentaii phenomenon in Japan and parts of South East Asia.

 

The makers of Savita Bhabhi were anonymous till the ban and after what seemed like a rather brief struggle with authority (SaveSavita campaign on twitter and a blog) they vacated the public scene. As a consequence of no real contest, the ban persists. But perhaps what is admirable is that many people have learnt to use tools that allow them to still view Savita (and to expose them here would be just foolhardy). In an interview online the makers of Savita Bhabhi state .. “For one, it (comic) is a unique medium in the context of Indian porn. We’ve had MMS’s, videos, stories, etc, but no porn comics. Also a comic allows us to explore the fantasy in a much more vivid way than any other medium.” This fantasy life however cannot be dismissed, as it is indeed very real, or as they say – “based on real life fantasies of our authors and fans. They are all something that a normal full blooded Indian male or female would be fantasizing about on their commute to work or a lazy evening at home.” In a short interview with the makers of the comic more recently and subsequent to the ban they said that probably it was Savita Bhabhi’s popularity that led to her downfall and that they set out to explore Indian sexuality, which “obviously is a big No”.

 

To return to Lillie’s call for a cyberporn reception studies perhaps it is time in relation to looking at such material that we step away, even if briefly, from these debates on feminism, vulgarity and obscenity in Indian culture and others. In an interview dated 5th September, 2009, Ratheesh Radhakrishnan says that what needs to be looked at when studying pornography, is not the questions of Indian culture, religion, roles of women and gender (as for questions related to obscenity) but the aesthetics of pornography. In his own work Radhakrishnan deals precisely with this question in relation to the category of ‘soft porn’ and how Shakeela becomes a star through soft porn cinema – a star not entirely governed by the narrative of the film but seemingly existing beyond the limit of the film itself. (8) By doing this, his work deals with the question of how desire works in such films, which perhaps is one of the more important question to ask about pornography. In the same interview, he states that there is “something that takes place between the text and the person watching” and that is what he is interested in.

 

Anti-porn

Radhakrishnan’s position is interesting in relation to this project as it opens up questions that are beyond the feminist deadlock on pornography and also goes beyond rhetoric of the liberating potential of the explosion of the polymorphous perverse online. The latter is where a lot of porn studies undertaken in the global North seems to get lost. The breathless recounting of the pornographic in the everyday, does not help since it becomes very obvious that any analysis would not be relevant to a vastly different context in India. (9)

 

Walter Metz in his article on Open Water (10) challenges the ethics of porn studies – though he acknowledges that pornography is more a symptom rather than a cause of anti-social behaviours that it is often linked to (violent rape, aggressive behaviour, sexism etc.), but still raises the question as to whether there are significant reasons to put the brakes on a rabid, radical celebration of the liberating potential of pornography. Metz talks about the need, within porn studies, to look at the positive and negative impact of pornography (possibly he would extend that to looking at violent martial arts film and other strands of cinema/new media).

 

Metz’s paper as such deals with Open Water as an anti-pornographic film (here referring to the generic practice of pornography rather than political positions) and this might be an interesting productive mode to understand the affect produced by pornography. Though Metz qualifies that he’s not using pornography as a genre, but rather “as a reading frame. If one keeps thinking about pornography while watching a non-pornographic film, what is the resulting interpretation?” Since I haven’t seen the film Open Water perhaps my interest in such an analysis is misfounded. Metz describes the frustration depicted in the film Open Water between the audience expectations for a reasonably good looking, tanned, blonde couple to get-it-on and what happens to their bodies instead in the open water of the sea and prey to sharks, is similar to the disjuncture that takes place in one of the films part of the Destricted project. (11)

 

Destricted is an interesting artistic|intellectual|new media|film experiments in the global North around pornography. It is a series of short films that resulted from an invitation to seven well known artists and filmmakers to try to respond to sex and especially the phenomenon of pornography in the contemporary. One of the films Death Valley by Sam Taylor-Wood borrows from the Biblical tale of Onan and places a man masturbating in the heaving, throbbing landscape of the Death Valley (the hottest place in the Western hemisphere where the earth’s crust is constantly changing and shifting). For precisely 7 minutes and 58 seconds, the protagonist of the film masturbates uncomfortably without reaching ejaculation and/or release. The painful un-release of this film, perhaps is meant to be juxtaposed with the assumed ease of pornography’s answer to desire. However peculiarly it actually is probably an accurate description of the experiential account of pornography – of looking, searching, finding, downloading on painfully low speeds, watching short clips that are blurred, shot only from one angle, badly drawn comics or looking at largely uninspiring material which is not acquired or found easily.

 

In some ways the experience of watching either of these films sounds similar to watching certain kinds of MMS video porn. For instance, one video was of a couple doing oral sex in a toilet cubicle. The angle of the camera was from the top and perhaps the intention behind this was to obscure the faces of the two persons, since only the top of their heads are visible. It did not seem like the couple were unaware of the video camera, as much as performing for it almost unwillingly and only if the anonymity was preserved. The video was low quality and highly blurred, to the point of any features being indistinct beyond blackness of hair (maybe) and generic skin tone which could be Indian, Iranian or generic South Asian. The resemblance to the Destricted video is because again of the time it takes to reach ejaculation – there is a painfully long uninspiring blowjob sequence. The video remains scary and leaves one with a feeling of claustrophobia, discomfort and peculiarly boredom or distance from what is happening. Yet perhaps it is here that the question of realness and the affect it produces enters again. The question that intrigues me is whether the affect produced by the video is because there are certain gestures of the woman that seem recognizable, because she seems like you (ethnically, racially ofcourse but also in sexual spaces she occupies and behaviour). After having accomplished the task of coaxing semen out of the uninspiring penis she is faced with, she folds her legs and speaks indistinctly. In that moment she seems uncomfortably familiar, like watching a friend having sex or maybe an aspect of yourself.

 

 It is perhaps interesting that it is amateur pornography these days that seems to inspire the most complicated set of affects (unlike the schooled|disciplined and predictable response to cinema) – shocked recognition of yourself and desire to see it again, titillation, boredom but yet unwilling to look away, love for celebrities, pleasure of viewing a body like yours and even sometimes a recognition that this is what you look like during sex, fear about your own privacy, disgust for what seems unacceptable and provokes the moral|visual|auditory sensibilities and contempt for the material and the people who possibly are genuinely engaged with it. The article on Pam and Tommy’s video in Porn Studies infact displays these varied affects and underlines William’s assertion that this bracket of material, behaviour and practices that get termed pornography/pornographic does indeed deserve analysis, otherwise a potentially unique and interesting way of understanding the contemporary would be lost for squeamishness. 

 

There are many aspects of the Minette Hillyer’s analysis (12) that are specifically relevant only to the American contexts – the notoriety of both the stars, the pre-existence and glorification of home videos in most families and the acknowledgement of amateur couple porn as even a healthy practice, perhaps suggested for couples with dull sex lives. In India, it was infact unknown people who were catapulted into the public eye with the circulation of their video, online and offline that was later titled Mysore Mallige ; not just the private spaces, holidays and fucking habits of already-celebrities like Pam and Tommy.

 

What might be relevant here from Hillyer’s analysis is the pre occupation with the realness of amateur pornography. The article follows the travels of the Pam and Tommy home video between different categories/genres, depending on different aspects of its realness. The video as such, contains scenes from the normal domestic lives of the stars and a eight minute sequence of sex in an almost fifty minute length video. So the questions of realness are answered not by the sex in the video, but the mundane recording of their lives, holidays, house and other details. This question of what exactly it is – home video or pornography (domestic/private or pornographic/public) is relevant to questions of legality (for damages upto 90 million dollars), how it circulates (a pornographic video of Pam and Tommy without the domestic padding perhaps would not be considered real and saleable) and genre which relates to some aspects of how people respond to the work.  Ever since the advent of (cheap) video technology, pornography is rendered less cinematic and more concerned with the presentational act (of sex) than its representation (ibid). With MMS videos and hidden camera porn, though questions may no longer be about representation, they are still complicated questions about the aesthetics, reception of pornography and our relation to the technology that delivers it and for me viewing pornography today as only presentational does not help to understand the affects that surround and attach to it. Perhaps many strands of what is explored in this article can be explored in relation to Mysore Mallige in the next blog post.

 

Just as I finish this piece, after an interview with Nishant Shah at Center for Internet and Society, another question enters the frame in relation to pleasure, moving it beyond those raised above. Is pleasure now a question that is less about finding the corporeal thrill through pornography online, as much as pleasure that comes from simulation and the added rush of simulating cities, lives, personalities online. And is that pleasure, pornographic?

 

 

End notes:

 

1. Jonathan James McCreadie Lillie, “Cyberporn, Sexuality, and the Net Apparatus”, Convergence 2004; 10; 43

 

2. Williams Linda (ed), Porn Studies, Duke University Press, London and Durham, 2004.

 

3. Katrien Jacobs, Marije Janssen, Matteo Pasquinelli (eds), C’lick Me: A Netporn Studies Reader, Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, 2007.

 

4. Courts of Women, Vimochana Bangalore, 27-29 July, 2009.

 

5. Itty Abraham, Sex in the Neo-liberal City: On Savita Bhabhi, Available at The Fish Pond at http://thefishpond.in/itty/2009/on-savita-bhabhi/#comments

 

6. Shohini Ghosh, The politics of porn, Himal South Asian Magazine, September 2009, Vol 22, No. 9.

 

7. Bharath Murthy (director), Mysore Mallige, 2007.

 

8. Ratheesh Radhakrishnan, “‘The Mis-en-scene of desire’: Stardom and the case of soft porn cinema in Kerala!” Unpublished work. Contact author for copy.

 

9. Bloomingdale's now sells Tom of Finland shirts and trousers, housewives celebrate their birthdays by piercing their geni- tals, college students dance naked instead of waiting tables to pay their tuition, and middle-level managers schedule a session with a dominatrix in their favorite dungeon after a game of racquetball at their regular health club. From Joseph W. Slade, Pornography and Sexual Representation: A Reference Guide, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001.

 

10. Walter Metz, “Shark Porn: Film Genre, Reception Studies, and Chris Kentis' Open Water” Film Criticism, March 22, 2007

 

11 Destricted: explicit films, Marina Abramovic, Matthew Barney, Marco Brambilla, Larry Clark, Gaspar Noé, Richard Prince, Sam Taylor Wood (directors), 2006.

 

12 Minnette Hillyer, “Sex in the suburban: Porn, Home movies and the Live Action Perofmance of Love in Pam and Tommy: Hardcore and uncensored”, Porn Studies, Duke University Press, London and Durham, 2004, p.50.

 

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