NEW DELHI, India — Call it India's other mobile revolution.
With sub-$100 smart phones hitting the market and savvy entrepreneurs hawking downloaded clips, once-innocent Indians are watching hard-core porn like never before.
That smut flood is sparking a serious debate about the impact on society.
“We're raising up an army of rapists in India by not warring against internet pornography,” Abishek Clifford, who runs a moral awareness program for Indian colleges called Rescue, told GlobalPost.
He's not the only one concerned.
Since the December gang rape of a Delhi student, who died from internal injuries sustained during the attack, the entire country has been wrestling with what many regard as a spike in sexual violence.
Although possessing or watching porn is permitted in India, distributing it is illegal. And now, the authorities are moving to crack down on web porn — even as in many other areas the country grows more liberal in its attitude toward sex.
Flood of free porn
Ancient India had no qualms about graphic depictions of sex. Consider the luxurious illustrations of the Kama Sutra, or the carvings on the 1,000-year-old temples of Khajuraho — which depict everything from threesomes to bestiality. But, until recently, modern India has been decidedly more prudish.
In the '80s and '90s, films with lascivious dialogue and a few shots of buxom women in wet saris were considered softcore porn. Bollywood didn't even dare show kissing until a few years back. And the country's first “real” porn star was a cartoon.
Now, suddenly, affordable smart phones have put hardcore porn in the palms of millions.
According to statistics from Manwin Holding, the Luxembourg-based owner of the world's largest free porn sites, YouPorn and Pornhub, India's 150 million-odd internet users visit those two sites alone at a clip of around 2 million hits per day. The presence of Indian-themed content (“naked desi babes in bath” is one of the few printable titles) and advertisements confirms that the multibillion dollar industry has taken note.
Meanwhile, reported incidents of rape have nearly doubled since 1995, when the internet first came to India, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. More recently, rape reports have spiked 12 percent since cheap smart phones hit the market two years ago, although it's impossible to parse how much of that increase stems from the greater willingness of victims to come forward.
To some, that correlation signals causality.
“Pornography is en masse perverting the lifestyles and behaviors of young people in India,” said Rescue's Clifford, citing Rescue surveys in which college students confessed that each week they watch an average of two hours of “violent porn.”
More porn, more rape?
The media and the authorities, too, have been quick to draw a connection between the increased availability of pornography and the apparent increase in sexual violence.
A recent article in India Today, a leading weekly magazine, drew attention to the prevalence of rape fantasy porn and other violent clips at local “download centers” — kiosks where entrepreneurs illegally load porn onto customers' thumb drives and memory chips. And it cited Google AdWords statistics to point out that “Mobile phones were used nearly 4.1 million times a month on average to search with the keyword 'rape' over the past year” and “search keywords included 'Indian girls raped', 'raping video', 'raping stories', 'raped in public', 'little girl raped', 'raping mom', 'father raping daughter' and 'raped to death'.”
In June, the department of telecommunications banned 39 websites, all hosted abroad, that allow users to share pornographic content.
And this month, a parliamentary committee was formed to explore ways to block internet pornography altogether in response to the latest of many petitions that have demanded a blanket ban.
But is the flood of smut really to blame for an epidemic of violent gang rapes?
If so, India may not exactly be an outlier.
The country's 4.1 million monthly searches for the keyword “rape” amounts to one search per month for every 30 internet users. In comparison, US mobile users also searched for “rape” an average of 4 million times per month last year, along with key phrases like “women getting raped,” “men being raped” and “kids being raped.” That's one search per month per 60 internet users.
For both countries, those figures include not only the apparently heinous phrases highlighted by India Today, but also every search for rape counseling, rape news reports, rape crisis centers and so on. In India's case, for instance, there were an average of around 100,000 searches for “raping video” (or one search per month for every 1500 internet users). The average was 246,000 searches for “Delhi gang rape” and 90,500 for “rape victims.”
Incidentally, Google indicates that it removes suspected “commercial” and child pornography from its products, and reports criminal activity to the authorities. A quick search suggests the rape-related search terms don't return graphic pictures and videos — although a disturbing proportion of the YouTube results for “rape” are clips from mainstream Indian movies.
After years of debate, academics and psychologists both in India and abroad are still at odds over whether pornography turns men into rapists. Bangalore-based neuroscientist Sai Gaddam, co-author of “A Billion Wicked Thoughts,” argues that there is precious little data to support most of the claims about the disastrous impact of ubiquitous web porn.
“We found that they're inversely correlated,” Gaddam told GlobalPost. “The more easily available pornography is, the less the incidence of sexual crimes.”
Still, nobody contends that the proliferation of smart phone smut is improving men's attitudes toward women.