“Where else would women go if not the internet?”

16 January 2014

Urban Indian women use the Internet to learn about sex and sexuality while negotiating the thin line between finding intimacy and encountering harm.

This is the sixth in a series of posts reporting on the day-long “Connect Your Rights!” meeting held in Mumbai in November 2013. The meeting explored topics such as tools to combat violence against women, pornography, sexuality, and freedoms and risks in the online world.

“Men learn to drive on their own, and confidently. Women, on the other hand, need to go to driving schools,” said Komal, 27, a recruitment consultant in an interview conducted as part of the EROTICS India study published in 2011. Komal (name changed) was drawing an analogy between a driving school and the Internet where women obtain education on sexuality. By contrast, men learn about sex on their own and use the Internet for pleasure.

In a society where there are many taboos and silence around sex and sexuality, the internet is a great boon, especially for women. A petition was made before the Rajya Sabha in 2008 by anti-obscenity activist Pratibha Naithani and others to oppose the decision of the Human Resource Development ministry to introduce a sex education programme in schools. The next year, a committee of the Rajya Sabha disapproved the move and directed the withdrawal of the programme on the grounds that premarital sex was “immoral, unethical and unhealthy”, and recommended that naturopathy and Ayurveda be taught instead. Additionally, twelve states in the country have banned sex education in state-run schools. “The government has used Indian culture and decency as a way to shoot down the proposal. There is no option other than going on the Internet, more so for women than for men,” said Manjima Bhattacharjya who conducted the EROTICS India research in 2009 along with Maya Indira Ganesh. The study comprised a quantitative survey and in-depth interviews of women Internet users living in Mumbai.

One of the findings of the study was that women use the internet as a gateway to information on sex and sexuality. They rely on it to learn about something as basic as contraception. A woman said in her interview that she and one of her friends learnt about the ill-effects of emergency contraception pills online. “A lot of people look online for these things, where else will they go? You can’t ask friends as they will spread it around. You don’t trust anybody in these things, and you have to think thousand times before asking. You don’t want others to know you want to know about these things,” she said. For young women like her, seeking information about sex before marriage is taboo. The only anonymous and safe place to do so is the internet.

At times, the women found themselves acting as intermediaries for those without access to the internet. Some of the respondents were asked by relatives to obtain information on contraception for them online. For homosexuals and gender minorities, the internet is practically the only source of information to talk about their identities, or to discover their identities. It is an important social tool for interacting with people who have similar sexual preferences, and also for activism.

Women are also consumers of pornography, the study found. “Narratives imply that the desire to watch pornography is both pleasurable and “natural”, an idea that emerges from an acceptance that sexual urges are also natural,” states the study. For women, pornography also acts as a form of sex education. Women do not want to discuss their consumption of porn in order to avoid being labelled “loose” or over-sexualised.

Another important finding of the study was that the Internet serves as a way of exploring intimacy, especially for the “digital natives”, who are young (aged 25 years or less) and have grown up with easy access to the internet. “Chatting or flirting online becomes an entry point for sexual pleasure for many girls and women,” said Bhattacharjya. By chatting, especially with strangers, they “create versions of themselves engaging in online behaviours ranging from friendship to casual flirtation, dating and cyber sex”.

Some of the women found love and intimacy online. A 35-year-old lonely housewife had an online relationship with a younger man living in her home state of Karnataka. In this instance, the internet was used to test boundaries and fill up a vacuum in a way that was forbidden by the restrictions and constraints of the offline space.

A liberating experience for girls and women belonging to conservative families was putting up “sexy” photos of themselves on social networking websites. “Putting up these photos gave them control on how they represent themselves,” said Bhattacharjya. The definition of “sexy”, of course, is subjective. But what is important is that they could represent themselves in ways they may not be permitted to in the offline world.

Aware of the possible dangers lurking online, women devised their own methods to deal with them. “Ethical hackers” were sought to retrieve access to hacked or compromised accounts. In many instances of online harassment, the culprit was a person known to them. “These women always felt the risks of the offline world and were constantly worried if someone found out about their online presence. They devised strategies to deal with it. For example, one woman had two Facebook accounts, one for her family and the other to connect with her friends. They did not want to be private about everything. They wanted to be private about some things to some people,” added Bhattacharjya.

The internet is therefore an integral part of women’s lives, especially for exploring their identities, sexuality or just to voice their views as bloggers or on the social media. The study shows that Internet rights cannot be divorced from women’s rights and sexuality rights. “We have to look at internet rights in continuation of the struggle for freedom of speech and expression and fight against censorship. We need to protect it,” concluded Bhattacharjya.

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