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Mainstream, VOL LII No 1, December 28, 2013 - ANNUAL 2013

Semiotics of Pornographic Violence

Sunday 29 December 2013, by Kamalakanta Roul

The serial child rape cases in Delhi as well as in other parts of India have raised a serious debate over the role of pornography in generating violence. The accused of Gandhi Nagar and Badarpur child rape cases disclosed that they had watched pornographic film before they sexually assaulted the girl. It evoked intellectuals to argue that pornography incites rape and violence against women in India.

In Western society pornography is a subject of implicit controversy. A section of feminists urge that pornography is the result and cause of sex inequality, the objectification of women, and violence against women. For others, pornography promotes freedom of speech and any censorship undermines its value. On the other hand, Indian feminists are silent over the issue. Probably some of them are still confused over the emerging trend of Indian pornographic culture although they criticise item songs of Indian movies as vulgar and obscene.

In the entire controversy the Indian state is silent and has become a mute spectator to it. An attempt has been made here to understand the contemporary nature of pornography in the context of gender equality which floods into India from foreign countries. It has also been argued that most of the porn film has sufficient materials in them for provoking violence and rape but it is not the only cause of the phenomenon.

The Indian society still considers watching pornography as a bad practice which degrades the individuals’ personality and tarnishes their image. However, there is a natural inquisitiveness among the Indian teenagers to know about the body of their opposite sex. Sometimes pornography has been misunderstood in many ways. Intellectuals compare pornography
with obscenity and erotica. Nevertheless, pornography is totally different from these two terms. It refers to the content of performance in the reel, real or in still photos. Bernard Williams (1981) defines pornography as a representation of sexual activity that is intended to arouse. Pornography should act as an activity within a limited sphere without making any injury to civic life. It provides sexual learning to adults being a part of sex education for their pleasure. It has, no doubt, greater role in the sexual life of couples. It stimulates for romance and determines consensual choice-based sexual pleasure. But the contemporary porn films throng into more violent scenes and inhuman shots. Consequently, the consumerism of pornography is increasing everyday in Indian urban as well as semi-urban life. But neither the state nor the producers of porn films has the sense for focusing over its gender-equality and aesthetics parts. Basically, the present forms of porn films are gender-biased and violent and the government is displaying full policy-paralysis towards it.

Nature of Pornography

Contemporary porn films are made on the patriarchal ideology that only emphasises malehood and masculinity. The women performers are always projected as sex objects for male consumption. It (the ideology) valorises and romanticises male vigour and virility while portraying women performers as tools for sex. The scenes and episodes disregard the subjective presence of women performers. These justify female submission and male domination over their body.

Andrea Dworkin (1981) argues that pornography plays the role in perpetuating sexual hierarchy and violence. Catharine A. Mackinnon (1987) responded to her by saying that pornography makes hierarchy sex and calls that ‘the truth about sex’ is nothing but just a mirror of reality. Through this process, pornography constructs what a woman is as also what men want from sex. Ann Garry (1978) added to their arguments by saying that pornography as a degradation of human beings lies in the fact that it is reductionist. Reductionist refers to the sense of depiction of female body in a limited manner. There is a commonality between these feminist scholars that porn film focuses on three parts of female body: mouth, rectum and vagina.

Rae Langton (1993) raises the issue of women trafficking in pornography. She says pornography is for the purpose of sexual regulation of women. Moreover, the major concern is violent speech and languages used for violent action in porn films by male performers. Such uses of words (used in porn films) are to signify aggressive male sexual actions on the female body.

It is the language which silences women by emphasising that they are inferior to men and meant for their sexual pleasure. Women are not allowed to speak freely. For free expression they need to have equality which is incompatible in porn industry.

On the contrary, some feminists justify that pornography should be protected as a part of freedom of speech while referring to J.S. Mill (1996) who argues that freedom of speech is essential to progress. Nadine Strossen (2000) and Alison Assiter (1989) defend pornography through the liberal justification of the free speech of Mill. The feminist admirers of pornography see pornography as political that it sexualises the political domination of women in a patriarchal culture. Imposing censorship on it may encourage a tyrannical government and undermine individual freedom.

Depicting Violence 

Porn industries turn to be more violent in foreign countries. Hard core sex scenes are depicted through multiple means. Women are forced to do more explicitly violent porn films in unnatural ways. Sometimes teenage girls and women are also forced to have sex with animals. The female performers are being tied up, cut up, mutilated, bruised or physically hurt, raped, penetrated by objects or animals. Women are subjected to injury, torture, bleeding which are portrayed in pornography movies. Women are also coerced into appearing in pornography.

MacKinnon is of the view that pornography depicts women as enjoying abuse or humiliation and also reflects the real abuse that women experience in everyday life. The story of Linda Lovelace who appears in the best-selling pornographic film Deep Throat is very well known. According to her, she was trapped and brutally coerced into appearing in this and other similar forms of films. She suffered rape and torture from the man who incarcerated her and made the films. The porn websites also play a very objectionable role in this regard. These encourage ‘the posting of real-life pictures of girls caught unawares or of pictures taken of them with hidden cameras’. (The Hindu, April 29, 2013, p. 9)

In fact, the UK Government proposed a new law to make the possession of ‘severely violent’ pornography illegal in 2006. The proposed legislation admitted the fact that internet makes severely violent materials which are commonly available.

Feminists are engaged in the debate on the question of violence depicted in pornography. Catriona McKinnon (2008) says that the connection between pornography and violence is perhaps the most controversial aspect of the feminist debate. Many feminists argue that most of the pornography is not violent. Further, they say objections to violent pornography are misleading it.

After the child rape in Delhi, a hot debate is underway on the question of whether the porn film provokes its male audience to commit acts of sexual violence! The two incidents of Delhi are suggesting that the porn film incites violence. The accused of the Gandhi Nagar child rape admitted that they were drunk and watched blue films before raping the girl child. Similarly, the accused of the Badarpur rape disclosed the same fact before the Juvenile Justice Board.

In addition, Dworkin and MacKinnon (1997) drafted a Civil Rights Ordinance in 1980 where they have quoted few similar cases in two ways of studies: anecdotal and experimental. Certainly, it wouldn’t be the only cause for rape but it is a cause nonetheless. There are several factors responsible for rapes that need to be researched. Susan Brownmiller (1977) states that from pre-historic times to the present, rape has played a crucial role. It is nothing more or less than a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.

Indian Society and Pornography 

Civil society members are connecting porno-graphy directly with rape after the Delhi child rape cases. Social scientists are drawing parallel lines of relations between rape, violence and pornography. Activists too have started blaming pornography for the recent emerging trend of rape. NCW member Nirmala Samant Prabha-valkar’s questioning of the exciting item songs in Indian movies is a case in point. The pornography market in Palika Bazar was vandalised by some NGO activists a few days ago. Litigation has already been filed in the court to ban pornography in India. On the other hand, almost all urban, semi-urban as well as some of the rural areas are having devout consumers of pornography. It cannot be regulated by litigation or vandalism. But it requires partial ban and should operate within a regulatory mechanisms. Feminist activist Bijayalaxmi Nanda says pornography is more often economic rather than political. The pornography markets flourish with the demand of porn films, that is, completely based on the equation of demand and supply. So it is very difficult to ban pornography absolutely.

The Indian state is a mute spectator to the entire process as well as events of pornography and rape. There is no proper legislation or Act to regulate illegal making of porn films. The vulnerable and marginalised girls are its victims. Most of the porn CDs is available in the pirated version. Neither is there any proper state regulatory mechanism nor any proposal for revenue collections. Incidentally, minor boys are getting every scope to access it.

Every measure must be taken by the state to keep the porn market away from minor children following the footsteps of the US. Keeping an eye over the growing trend of pornography the government should take the initiative to set up a formal industry for its production. A wide campaign for fostering consciousness regarding the regulatory use of porn films would automatically help in reducing porn related violence. Ms Nanda says male participation in the campaign of regulatory use of pornography would be more effective to control rape.

Value-based ethical teaching and sex education in schools can help the process in a more effective way. We must recognise that violent pornography and its reproduction will only thrive so long as we deny that good pornography has a healthy function in education and keeping our moral codes intact. Parents should also feel free to discuss sex related queries of their teenage children.

However, the effort to connect porn with rape is contestable. The real cause thrives under the cloak of the masculine nature of patriarchy. 


Assiter, A. (1989): Pornography, Feminism and the Individual (London: Pluto Press).

Brownmiller, S. (1977): Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

Dworkin, A. (1981): Pornography: Men Possessing Women (New York/London: The Women’s Press).

Garry, A. (1978): ‘Pornography and Respect for Women’, Social Theory and Practice, Vol. IV, pp. 395-421.

Langton, Rae (1993): ‘Speech Acts and Unspeakable Acts’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 22(4), pp. 293-330.

MacKinnon, C.A. (1987): Feminism Unmodified (Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press).

MacKinnon, C.A. and Dworkin, A. (1997): In Harm’s Way: The Pornography Civil Rights Hearings (Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press).

Mill, J.S. (1996): On Liberty and Subjection of Women (Ware: Wordsworth).

MaKinnon, C. (2008): Issues in Political Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Strossen, N. (2000): Defending Pornography: Free Speech, Sex and the Fight for Women’s Rights (New York: New York University Press).

Williams, B. (1981): Obscenity and Film Censorship: An Abridgement of the Williams Report (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

The Hindu, April 29, 2013, p. 9.

Kamalakanta Roul teaches Political Science in Miranda House, University of Delhi. He can be contacted at

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