‘Does your mother know?’ Agency, risk and morality in the online lives of young women in Mumbai
Young adultsi comprise over one third of the nearly 57 million people who have ever used the internet in Indiaii and are also the fastest growing segment of internet users. Recent academic writing refers to this population as ‘digital natives’ – those ‘…significantly affected by the rise of Internet technologies; an emerging global population growing up with digital technologies central to everyday functioning...’ (Shah & Abraham 2009: 7), made possible through the liberalization of the economy in the 1990s.
This article is about middle-class women digital natives in Mumbai, the city with the highest internet use in India, and initial impressions of their online lives as drawn from interviews and survey data gathered for the ongoing EROTICS India research projectiii.
Exploring sexuality online
The women in this demographic are unique in this country, a generation for whom the internet is now a taken-for-granted, routine part of life ("like brushing my teeth"iv) and bordering on dependence for some ("even if I don’t want to go online, I have to, like it’s calling me").
Our surveyv of college-going women reveals that the use of social networking sites (SNS) has overtaken email as the most frequent online activity. Other popular activities include: email, chatting, ‘general surfing’, information searches for work/ projects and listening to and downloading music. The internet is accessed in homes, colleges, cybercafés and through PCs, laptops and mobile phones at any time of the day, (although almost half of those surveyed specified ‘night’ as their preferred time of internet activity).
Sexuality, relationships and intimacy form a significant aspect of young women’s lives on the internet, not in terms of accessing online porn, but through the medium of SNS and chatting. Getting onto SNS is essential for inclusion in peer groups ("now everyone is on Facebook, it’s a social stigma if you’re not"), many have had profiles on these sites since the ages of 14 or 15 years, moving from one SNS to the other depending on what’s popular ("I used to be on Orkut but now everyone is on FB, plus it has all the games").
While these profiles are at the outset about keeping in touch with friends and family, playing games, for leisure and fun, the interview narratives reveal that much of the excitement for young women lies in two key areas: the display of ‘hot’ pictures on SNS and flirtatious chatting with men they know and with strangers.
Taking control of online representation
A popular online pleasure is the potential to represent oneself as ‘sexy’ – a catchall word representing the continuum from ‘good’ to ‘attractive’ to ‘hot’. These are women who have come of age in a heightened image-culture driven by globalization and consumerism where "never has it been so legitimate (or so compelling) for women to be sexy" (Phadke 2005:68). Photographs of oneself in various clothes and personal styles create a lexicon of sensuality and self-expression. Some examples:
But I think for other things (internet) is exciting for women. Like for me, uploading sexy pics is very exciting. I like it. It makes you feel good. I realized that in pics I look hot. So mainly comments on the pics make me feel good about the way I look. Self image goes up. In some pics I have put up I am wearing a one-piece, and in some slim fit (jeans) and I know it, I am looking quite sexy and hot. Then when other people, especially guys, comment on it, you feel good. (Unnativi, 21 years)
I like to put up pics of myself and the comments. Guys who want to flirt write comments on some pictures. The sexiest picture I have put up on FB is of me in a towel! I got 60 comments. My sister took the picture and I uploaded it. She encouraged me saying it was looking really good. I took it off after a week when it was getting too much. (Shuchi, 24 years)
Similarly, chat functions on SNS provide the opportunity to chat anonymously and create versions of the self engaging in a range of online behaviours from friendship to casual flirtation, dating, to cyber-sex.
In gaming sites like Zapak also, you can chat with whoever is playing. Sometimes a chat box pops up and someone is asking ASL? (Age-Sex-Location)… it’s usually guys who want to chat with you, you may not know them and that’s the fun of it. I don’t always tell the truth. If the DP (display picture) is cute, if they seem interesting or genuine, I chat with them, sometimes flirt with them. Actually, lot of times flirt with them! I give my real age/sex usually. When I say I am 18 and female, it gets lot of attention. But I lie about my location. It used to be even more fun when I was 16 because I used to say ‘sweet sixteen’ and people used to love it. I have been chatting for few years now. (Punita, 18 years)
I chat quite regularly with guys. If you have a hot DP you attract attention, they ask: ‘you want to come for a blind date?’ These sites are basically dating and girlfriend-making sites. If it’s an unknown person, with no common friends, then you don’t usually give out personal details. I think its ok, its not dangerous, its FUN!!! (smiles) Chatting always has an intimate conversation. First question guys ask – are you single? Then (it) leads to other personal questions. Next time you are online then they will flirt with you. You know they will say, ‘wow you are looking nice in that picture, your dress is really hot, wow I love your long hair, you have a great smile…!’ You are not going to meet them anyway. You just talk and then say,chalo bye. If it gets too much then you just block the person. (Shuchi, 24 years)
Strikingly, the internet appears to allow these users opportunities to exercise agency. From a feminist perspective, sexy pictures and chatting give women a sense of mobility that does not always exist in the offline world, considering that young women face restrictions on what they can wear and who they may talk to on the street, at work and in college. Women seem to be using the internet to test the boundaries of these restrictions. Similarly chatting allows women to meet men beyond the restrictive gaze of family and society and find partners.
Women can bypass the ‘real’ public space – one that is predominantly threatening and rife with the threat of sexual harassment, where they are under surveillance, and have to negotiate intrusive stares and a discomfiting male gaze – and enter smoothly into an online ‘public’ space wearing what they want, at whatever time they want (especially at night, a time of restricted mobility for women), safely presenting themselves however they want. Yet here too there is risk, the second dominant thread that underlies the narratives.
Online harm is a realityvii and the young women we spoke to are well aware of this, from the manipulation of photographs, hacking of email accounts and SNS profiles, to unwanted attention in chat rooms or the persistent attention of men who send friendship requests in spite of being consistently ignored.
However, the risks that concern young women more are the ones that reach into the online world from the offline one. Considering that family honour is a valued concept for many women in India, the idea that "your mother knows you’re out" can be terrifying, given that in the offline world, young women continue to be policed by social norms about pre-marital dating and sex, and are expected to remain virginal and ‘good’ till they marry (even though the traditional definitions of ‘sex’ and ‘dating’ crumble somewhat in the virtual world.)
According to existing Indian laws on violence against womenviii, the perpetrator is rarely considered to be the enemy in your home. The discourse around dangers of the internet revolves around strangers who are online predators (Bianco and Mareno 2008). But what of the intrusions and omissions from people known to the women, sometimes intimately?
Fear emanates from the possibility of being betrayed by family members, boyfriends or others who could report online activities to family members and social acquaintances; and the fear of punishment when ‘someone finds out’: these seem to be generated by those closest.
If I could, I would put up my really sexy pics. My boyfriend doesn’t like showing these pictures to anyone else… he has all of them but he doesn’t like me to put them up. He thinks its not decent. I do put up some pics where I am looking good but not really sexy ones. Incase my boyfriend finds out. (Unnati, 21years)
My PC has currently gone bad so I have to share other laptops, so I have to be more careful now, because bada bhaiya (‘big brother’ referring to her 28 year old cousin who lives with them) is always watching and trying to find out what I am doing, so he can complain to my parents. It’s damn bugging. (Punita, 18 years)
My worst internet experience was when that guy was after me. I didn’t like it. I think it must be happening to many girls, maybe even worse than my case. I’m not sure what one can really do. Maybe the girl should tell her family and they can help her, but it depends on the family. They might just tell you to stop going on the internet and chatting. So then it’s better to keep quiet only and deal with it on your own. (Unnati, 21 years)
Yet, women find ways to manage the harms they may face from strangers and intimates. They were blasé about having at least two digital profiles – one for the family, and the other for friends – as routine ‘online identity management’, which includes dealing with harassment. And Unnati manages a sly manipulation of the boyfriend who doesn’t want her to post sexy pictures of herself on Facebook: ‘He is not my friend on Facebook. I told him my family members are there with me on Facebook and I don’t want them to know about him, so that’s why he is not there.’
While they acknowledge the risks, they also know that there are ways to protect themselves.
When that fake profile of mine was created by someone else.. that was very harassing. I usually don’t care about these things, but when strange guys call up and ask how much you are charging, it feels bad. I have a strong feeling it was someone from the area (where I live) who knew me personally. To be safe, you should secure your ID. Block users you don’t want. Don’t make random friendships. I don’t use my real name in chats. (Punita, 18 years)
I use the privacy settings that are there in FB or Orkut. I lock the DP also sometimes if it is a hot pic. Don’t be friends with strangers. Don’t tell real ID in chats, even age or location, you should not tell. If you are brave and don’t feel it will be dangerous, it is ok. I’m very happy. I can’t imagine without it. Life would be so boring without it. Just study study study. (Unnati, 21years)
Now girls also see porn, chat, download. Guys are more desperate to cross their limits than girls. There is freedom for guys on the internet but girls know where to stop. As long as you are clear where your limits are, there is no problem in the internet.(Shuchi, 24 years)
Eventually though, a universe of morality continues to temper the agency young women experience through these displays, with anxieties about Indian culture and notions of shame and honour being an overriding concern.
Young women have internalized the limits to looking sexy, which if crossed could result in stigma and restrictions. Evidence of this routinely pops up in interviews. When pictures are considered "too sexy" or when chatting "gets too much" young women are advised to stop chatting and remove the pictures, citing the reason: "it’s for your own good". It is this illogic that ultimately regulates what women do online.
Internet policy and lived realities: The need to narrow the gap
Viewing this research in light of internet policy in India, and particularly with respect to content regulation, raises some questions. The current approach to internet regulation in India tends towards measures which are broad, vague and indicative of increased state control.
For example, concerns around national security or the ‘interest of the sovereignty of the integrity of India’ seek to control access to information that could be considered defamatory, going against public decency and morality or as tantamount to contempt of courtix. The use of such information can be considered ‘cyber terrorism’.
The government’s anxieties also hover around sexual morality and Indian cultural values. The internet is a radically different medium, but the existing approach to policing it is reminiscent of how old media like cinema, radio, television and advertising have been policed, with an emphasis on maintaining specific ideas of Nation, State and National Culture. A ban on kissing in Indian cinema, strict rules for depiction of sexuality in print and electronic media, the inability to clearly define ‘obscenity’ and the emphasis on ‘development’ of the ‘masses’ through television in its early years, are just a few examples of this.
In the past few years some notable acts by the Indian government in relation to internet regulation have been: the blocking of a cartoon porn site called Savita Bhabhix; greater screening of cyber-café users and enhanced security measures inside cyber cafes; amendments to the existing Information Technology (IT) Actxi that specifically includes measures to address cyber securityxii; and most recently, a call from the Chief Justice of India for a complete ban on online pornographyxiii.
These trends do not mirror the primary concerns of the largest and fastest growing segment of internet usersxiv. Most young women interviewed in our study had not seen Savita Bhabhi, were not concerned with pornography and did not think it constituted online harm. As many as 67% of young men and women surveyed had not even heard of the IT Act.
What they believe is that the internet is a free space, an essential aspect of being young, and the potential it offers for ‘global connectivity’ is exciting to nearly everyone surveyed. 92% felt that it is possible to leverage this space with some awareness of the risks that exist online: the internet may have its dangers, but it is not a dangerous place. It also allows young people to significantly challenge social values that are restrictive and limiting in the present urban context.
Significantly, a rights-based approach is completely absent from current IT policy and the voice and agency of users, and their lived realities are absent. Security takes on a highly specific connotation, one that is relevant only to the notion of the ‘Indian state’, and is seen to be conflicted with personal privacy; there is little appreciation for other dimensions of what privacy might entail, that it may be different across age, class and gender, and that it does not necessarily threaten personal security.
Eventually, the amended IT Act and internet policy directions appear to be an exercise that serves to reinforce imaginary, imminent moral outrages and panics rather than to recognize the real security liabilities that users face. Research as we have presented here is an attempt to turn the gaze of policy outward, towards both the concerns as well as the exciting and momentous possibilities that the internet holds for young people.
Mabel Bianco and Andrea Marino (2008).EROTICS: An Exploratory Research on Sexuality and the Internet: A Policy Review. Association for Progressive Communications – Women’s Networking Support Program (APC WNSP). Accessed from http://genderit.org on April 30, 2009.
Nishant Shah and Sunil Abraham (2009) Digital Natives with a Cause? A Knowledge Survey and Framework. HIVOS Knowledge Series. Accessed 13 December 2009 from http://www.cis-india.org/
Internet and Mobile Association of India (2006). IAMAI’s Report 2006: Varied Activities of Women Online. Accessed 26 January 2010 from http://www.iamai.in/
Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (2009). The Indian Telecom Services Performance Indicators, April-June 2009. Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, New Delhi. www.trai.gov.in, last accessed on 15 January 2010.