By Shehla Rashid Shora
The relationship between sexuality and censorship is an intricate, convoluted one. In our country, especially, discussions around sexuality evoke anxieties that probably no other topic could boast of stirring up.
Not all of these anxieties are unfounded. The Internet is evolving literally every day and it is easy to fall prey to online risks if one isn’t careful and aware of potential harm. While men and women both have fallen prey to online frauds, scams, etc. the risks assume a whole new dimension for women, children and sexual/gender minorities. These groups are seen as more vulnerable to online threats. The reactions to these anxieties, however, are usually impulsive and uninformed in nature.
Are these risks unavoidable? Can informed Internet contribute toward reducing these risks? Instead of advising women and children not to put themselves ‘out there’ on the Internet, can better awareness about Internet help them avoid these risks and use the Internet for their own advancement? These are some of the issues that Association for Progressive Communications (APC) deals with under the EROTICS project.
EROTICS, which stands for Exploratory Research on Sexuality and ITCs (same as ICTs), is a global project that attempts to explore how marginalized sections are using the Internet and the ICTs (Information and Communications Technologies) to assert their sexual rights. Very rarely, if ever, are women and other vulnerable groups consulted on policy decisions that could benefit them. Censorship as a knee-jerk response to threats faced by women and children often results in valuable information on sexuality and sexual health becoming inaccessible and, at times, it also restricts the sexual rights of women, gender/sexual minorities, physically challenged people and teenagers. Many teenagers in India will admit that they watched porn for information on sex, since sex education is missing. Facilitating evidence-based research for policy advocacy and informed Internet use is another goal of the EROTICS project.
The India chapter of EROTICS was organised in Delhi recently by the Internet Democracy Project in collaboration with South Africa based APC and Point of View, Mumbai. Among the many outstanding sessions was one where participants were asked to describe their negative experiences online. Dhruv Arora, who works to curb gender based violence, said that he had a disagreement with someone on the Internet who then found his father (through Dhruv’s Facebook profile) and sent him messages questioning his manhood for giving birth to a “mangina” (man + Vagina). While I do not think that there is anything offensive about the word “vagina”, what is indeed troublesome is the mentality from where such labeling originates – the assumption that a “vagina” is inferior to a “man”.
In India, if a daughter is too brave or too accomplished for her gender stereotype, she’s often called a “son” and that is supposed to be a compliment, an exalted state of being! Following the same logic, if a man speaks up for women, he is called a “vagina” so as to demean him. When Dhruv confronted the person, he shot back, “Don’t you know who I am? Isn’t this your phone number?” [with his correct phone number]. This example shows how “real” and how close to the offline world the Internet really is. The stereotypes that exist offline are simply reflected online.
A transgender woman described her horrible experience with online stalking which had very real and very dangerous consequences for her offline. A guy living in her area (who was also on Facebook) was very curious about her and was desperately trying to find out where she lived. He even approached a neighbourhood shop, where she would buy stuff, and asked them for her phone number. One night, while she was walking towards her home, the stalker suddenly showed up drunk with a few other friends and started harassing her. He asked her why she wouldn’t “look at him even though” she was “a transgender woman and all transgenders like boys” while holding her hand forcibly. Although the guy apologised after cops intervened, what happened to her troubles me at so many levels: She is a filmmaker and had given out her number to quite a few people. In another incident, a man called her up asking what her price is! She first tried to reason with him but to no avail. He kept insisting that “since she was a transgender and since she was into movies, she must be a prostitute, she must be having a price”.
The truth is that this does not happen to transgender women alone. It happens to many women. The very fact that you are a woman and that you are actively networking with people online or offline means, to many “real men”, that you must be soliciting, must be a slut, a prostitute! Another thing that troubles me is the sense of entitlement that the “real man” feels. Even if she were, for the sake of argument, a prostitute she would still have the right to turn down a man she doesn’t like. He seemed not to understand disinterest. Also, if a woman is using a technology (Facebook, phone) the assumption is that she is soliciting. All this troubles me a lot.
Yet another woman who works against street harassment described how a middle-aged man used to land up at meetings or events called by her, pretending to be a well-meaning, nice family man. But he turned out to be a creep who would watch her from a distance and then text her. Due to a few of such incidents, she stopped giving away exact location of meetings/events and asked people to RSVP by email or phone before showing up. The idea is that well-meaning people will find the exact location by calling her up and others will get lost! Another young woman who is working on sex education said that people landed up at her parents’ house with threats (because she was understood to be destroying Indian culture!). While technology may be liberating for women professionals, several men are still struggling to come to terms with the fact that women are using technology for the advancement of their own life and goals and not necessarily for soliciting or attracting men (which in its own right is okay but not necessarily the case).
There is no dearth of examples. The Internet Democracy Project has conducted a study that looks at women who are abused online for simply having an opinion. Being a sexual rights activist or someone with a strong identity politics seems to take this abuse to a whole new level. How, then, does one use the Internet without exposing oneself to physical harm?
It is both interesting and inspiring to see how sexual minorities and gender minorities (now also being called ‘Gender and Sexual Diversities’ or GSDs) are using the Internet and the ICTs to advocate for sexual citizenship- going from being ‘sexual strangers’ to ‘sexual citizens’. That the Internet facilitates sexual rights advocacy to this level underscores the need to protect this agency at all costs.
Originally published in The Alternative.