EROTICS research reveals contradictions between policy and experience in India
Since Indians first started going online in 1997, the Internet has been the subject of heated debate. Media portrayal of the net has often been critical, with cautionary tales of crime, indecency and paedophilia. According to the EROTICS report, the Indian media shifts between "extolling the virtues of networking in bringing people together and anxieties about it being a lair of sexual predators."
As a result, in much of Indian society there is a propensity to treat the Internet as something foreign and hostile. Fear is a "dominant feeling towards the internet, with people having heard of the dangers of sexual predators, addictions and access to pornography."
Owing to this feeling of skepticism and trepidation, government regulators have taken measures to protect the public from the perceived dangers of Internet activity. This has led to the largely arbitrary blocking of sexual content, including Savita Bhabhi -- the popular erotic webcomic.
More to the story
However, as the EROTICS report shows, despite fears that the Internet is a hotbed of immoral activity there is little evidence to suggest it is dangerous.
In fact, users' experiences online reveal a much more complex relationship between sexuality and the Internet. Contrary to popular opinions, it serves a critical function for curious Indians to learn about and explore their sexuality, without fear of public chastisement. Rather than a threat from which to be protected, the Internet is a source of empowerment -- especially for women.
Central to the value of the Internet is privacy. Indian society is notoriously conservative when it comes to sex before marriage. As the researchers note:
"Conventionally, 'good girls' in Indian society do not talk about, access or express things related to sexuality, and any deviation from this norm may bring censure, disapproval at the least and even violence."
The stigma surrounding sex before marriage reaches the highest levels of government, with the parliamentary committee on sex education denunciating it as "immoral, unethical and unhealthy."
Not surprisingly, this has led to significant gaps in Indians' knowledge about sex. The Internet thus serves an important role in sexual education, providing access to information about subjects which are still considered taboo in public life.
While searching for answers about sexual health, one woman expressed the importance of this kind of confidential knowledge-seeking:
"There are some things they don’t teach you about and which you need to ﬁnd out about...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."
Similarly, through Internet searches, a young man discovered how his own knowledge on sexual health was considerably lacking:
"‘There was also a project on HIV I did where I searched on the net. After getting the info, I realized we know nothing about HIV (from the sex education class).’"
Unfortunately, government policy does not recognise this value. Instead, it remains firmly entrenched in the view of the Internet as a threat. As the report notes:
"Colleges and schools often use ﬁltering software to prevent such searches on their systems, thereby precluding youth who rely on this access to the internet... [one respondent] recalls that he couldn’t do an Advertising course project on condoms because the word was blocked on search engines on college computers."
Reaching out through the web
But sex education is only part of the story. Users do much more than simply learn about their sexuality online. Many Indians, especially women, use social networking sites and chat rooms to meet and flirt with other young people.
This is no small thing in a society where public flirtation could easily be misconstrued as promiscuity.
The Internet empowers women in particular to explore and express their sexuality while affording them the anonymity and privacy that are essential to protecting their reputations offline. One woman shared the unique value of online flirtation:
"Chatting with strangers is a different feeling. It’s easier to disclose things to a person you don’t know and speak what’s on your mind. It’s a good release."
The effect is even more pronounced when considering the situation of LGBTI persons in India. They use the Internet to network, date and organise. As is the case in many countries where homosexuality is illegal or taboo, the Internet acts as a critical outlet for LGBTI persons to build online communities and liberation movements.
Says the EROTICS research team:
"The internet has enabled these groups to become visible, and led to the building of transnational movements for their rights."
Government should get out of the way
Given the richness of the experiences shared in the EROTICS report, the opportunities afforded by the Internet are too many and too valuable to be missed. Internet censorship in India is reflective of cultural bias, rather than an informed policy to protect Indian citizens. The report found "no evidence base of women's, especially young women's, experiences of harm on the internet."
This reinforces the position of many Indian bloggers, activists and entrepreneurs. Namely, that "the internet is a free space and that notions of regulation need to be nuanced beyond strict moral positions." Effective internet policy requires an evidence-based approach; one that reflects that actual experience of users instead of the personal values of individual policy-makers.