The monoculture globalization of Pornography

The process of globalisation that has been sweeping the world during the last two decades has many facets, both obvious and otherwise. Professional politicians and the mainstream media have projected this process as an 'inevitable' step forward in human history, and one without alternative. A deeper look at the goings-on will, however, make it clear that what is being sold as 'globalisation' in countries like India is in fact a very truncated version of the advancements and changes that are possible elsewhere in the world. Whether willingly or hesitantly, many in Southasia accept all the social and cultural trends that the market and media dump on us as part of this 'inevitable' step 'forward'. As the assumption has spread that this form of globalisation offers humanity its only choice to shape its future, a monoculture has swelled across the developing world, with active support from the market system. As an extension of the colonial and feudal mindsets of the Indian middle and upper-middle classes, this monoculture is accepted and glorified as a package deal of development and modernisation.

This 'modernisation' is identified with quick middle-level prosperity — made possible by economic liberalisation — through opportunities such as Business Process Outsourcing (BPO). It includes accepting new urban consumption patterns, such as the idea that eating junk food is proof of modern living. A stroll through India's versions of Silicon Valley, Bangalore's Brigade Road or Hyderabad's Banjara Hills, will bring one close to the new consumption trends of this BPO-based culture. Interestingly, in essence this new monoculture is not that different from the trends of the last several centuries. After all, the new chrome-and-glass style continues to cater to the age-old sari-gold-cosmetics fetish of the middle-class woman. Meanwhile, thanks to the power of advertising, men get engrossed in their technological fetish for the newly marketed models of foreign vehicles. The Southasian male's interest in these automobiles very much resembles the interests of zamindars under the East India Company — more than 200 years ago — in the latest gizmo from Europe. The affluence of the zamindars, too, was based on BPOs. The East India Company headquarters in London outsourced the tax collecting responsibilities in parts of India to the zamindars; the history of colonisation in Southasia would also expose many other such outsourcing processes.

The prosperity of the few that BPO-based development allows is a mixed blessing at best, for it comes at a cost to both the individual and the society at large. At the individual level, it is long hours of hard work that provide upwardly-mobile youths with a salary far larger than the prevailing rates outside the BPO system. At the social level, the monoculture of globalisation transforms middle-class young adults into an insulated minority of consumers whose movements get conditioned by the media and market. These young men and women are largely cutoff from the 'other India', which is not sustained by Business Process Outsourcing and where the functional law of the land may not be the same as what is written in the law books. While this is a contemporary process of immense significance, social study and analysis of it have unfortunately remained neglected, both in Southasia and the larger developing world.

Entertainment supermarket

Probably by design, many significant aspects of the industrialised world are missing from how the mass-market media represents the new global culture to the developing world. Indeed, one must remember Rajni Kothari's caveat in Growing Amnesia that "liberalisation should not be confused with liberty or liberation". In the West, the basic values that shape civil society are found in the governance at sub-national and local levels. The judicial system does retain a great deal of independence and is not generally perceived by the common people to be linked to political interests and governmental processes. The citizens are deeply sensitive about the sanctity of democratic governance and freedom of expression. In a majority of cases, corruption gets both detected and punished. The emerging monoculture of globalisation in Southasia marches to the dictates of material consumption; these spirits of creative enquiry, empathy for representational politics, and fearlessness against corruption are conspicuous by their absence. These values too should have transferred, had the process of globalisation been truly empowering. Instead, the world of celluloid and media have taken over almost the entire space for the growth of mass culture.

When one comes right down to it, globalisation as it is being peddled in our region seems to be fixated on the production, marketing and consumption of a variety of entertainment related products. Now, in the supermarket of electronic entertainment, there is something on offer around-the-clock: sports, cartoons, looks into your future from astro-palmists, wrestling by Occidental hunks, provocative fashion shows by Western European 'beauties', and much, much more. Even when one wants to idle away some time by flicking on the television, the entertainment supermarket will not leave you alone. It always has something to sell, and the choice is deliriously wide.

At a far end of this variety is content supposedly meant for adult entertainment – either implicit or explicit porn products. In the era of globalisation, the global entertainment market has found an enormous potential in pornography; bared flesh remains the single most lucrative sector of Internet commerce. Meanwhile, our media is busily projecting the consumption of porn products as an essential indicator of a developed culture. As culture commentator Nikhat Kazmi writes in The Times of India, it is "easy to understand why India is having a porn revolution now. It is just catching up with the world in its obsession with all things triple X. New porn videos, new porn MMS clips and new porn Internet films of Indian celebs should not be a cause for alarm. Because even as India is doing it now, the rest of the world has been there, done that years ago."

Thanks to such open support from the media, the market share of porn products has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years. With the evaporation of the stigma on being a consumer of sleaze, the production and sale of this group of products is growing exponentially. Technology has helped tremendously by increasing access to such products. Thanks to MMS, it is now available even on the screen of one's mobile phone. The more open segments of the media, like newspapers, are then used to publish below-the-radar announcements for porn products – by reporting sensational 'news items' on the 'involvement' of well-known actors (or their look-alikes) in the making of porn films and products. We are then expected to accept trends allowing open media references to porn products as another 'inevitable' aspect of globalisation.

Until recently, the porn industry which used the most modern means of media had largely been based in the industrialised countries. Says one report, "In the US, porn is a legalised industry where the backstreet sex shops and dirty old men in macs have been replaced by hi-tech studios which churn out almost 11,000 titles every year." In tune with this rapidly spreading monoculture of globalisation in India, the organisational framework for the production, marketing and consumption of a variety of porn products has changed. Today, we have gone from small scale production to the present stage of high-technology-based manufacture aimed at the global market.

It is said that the size of the online porn industry is at least USD 57 billion. As reported in The Times of India, 12 percent of all websites are pornographic in nature. The largest number of India's Internet porn consumers is 12-17 years old – which makes sense, for one can begin to access such material as soon as one knows how to operate a computer mouse. According to gender, 20 per cent of men and 13 per cent of women who use a computer at work are said to be viewing pornography on the Net.

Inevitability of it all

The attraction of Indian males (and doubtless some females) towards voyeuristic escapades is established whenever a hard-core porn film featuring a Mexican woman named Loly (who resembles the Indian cine star Mallika Sherawat) makes waves through MMS in India. There is always a dramatic increase in the service load when a particular MMS clip involving celebrity look-alikes are placed on the Net. While of course Western-sourced pornography has always been available in Southasia, it is the volume of trade and the broader class spectrum catered to today that is remarkable.

The porn industry is more or less a product of the overall industrial economy, and modern information technology has provided cheap and effective avenues for its marketing and distribution. Whether we like it or not, the size of the porn economy in India is growing and we are becoming increasingly supine in front of the porno society, even tiny tots are not immune from the solicitations. There are versions of computer games where players can enter into alleyways to pick up girls and have 'interactive' sex with them by tapping at the keyboard.

The way things are going, India is bound not just to remain a consumer of Western-produced pornography – it is also well on its way to being a major producer. Before long, porn products from India will be competing in the international market for a greater market share. With all the prurience attached to glamour on the screen, the lure of money will attract youth – even those who are not celebrity lookalikes – to aspire to porn stardom. In a country (and region) where trafficking in women continues to take place on a massive scale, the next step is to use video and technology to widen one's pornographic reach and market. In the globalised economy, such trends will get sanctified as 'business is business'. As with all the cultural invasions of the past half-century – as can be seen by the docility with which we have accepted the arrival of hard porn on our computer screens via the Internet – this evolution and localisation of pornography will also be accepted as 'inevitable'.

Society's dangerous acceptance of whatever the market dumps on it as being simply 'part of the modernisation process' reflects our own deplorable cultural standards. The cultures of human societies have never evolved along such 'inevitable' pre-determined paths in the past; the power of the media today, however, does create the situation for such 'inevitability'. Though the history of pornography in Southasia is not recorded, it surely was not widely prevalent – and let us not confuse pornography with the Kamasutra. In centuries of our literary history, there is no reference to pornographic writing having been available to the larger public.

The decline in the understanding of relationships in the modern era has gradually degraded the role of 'sex'. Over time, the vital natural urge has been denied its due importance in open discourse, which has left the young adult Indian of today lacking a mature understanding of sexuality as an essential ingredient of human life. In most educated and middle-class families of India, the ceremony of marriage is taken as a 'certificate' for having sex with one's married partner. In these arranged nuptials – which happen by the millions every month – the relationship of love is ignored and allowed to grow only as the conjugal life progresses, if at all. The importance of relationships is thus marginalised, and sex is accepted as being exclusively dependent on marriage. It is this restrictive and secretive social approach to sex that makes good customers of young people for pornography – and which could in the wrong circumstances lead to heinous forms of depravity. This is seen in criminal distortions such as rape, whose dramatically rising incidence throughout the country can be linked to circumstances in which on-screen lasciviousness is coupled with repression in real life – circumstances that have become an all too regular occurrence.

A mature openness

Which brings us face-to-face with the challenge of what to do! The cultural lethargy with which Southasia as a whole has welcomed globalisation is ironic, given the confident heritage to which we are heirs. We need to make room for our own innovative contributions to the shaping of globalisation – and we need to be able to make it acceptable to others. Indeed, many observers are feeling that whether it is in Europe or Japan or China or the Arab countries, in black Africa or the Latin world, or in our own region of Southasia, the gifts of the 'inevitable' globalisation – as sold with the help of mass media's growing grip on the public mind – are becoming unsustainable. In spite of the awesome reach of modern communications technology, a decline of this process is already visible. In the face of that deterioration, however, the fear is that worried media conglomerates will trigger off even more aggressive marketing of entertainment – including porn products – as cultural sedatives.

At a time when no-holds-barred pornography is already available to the public across the class spectrum, it is time for us to stop this headlong rush into the market of sex and to make a controlled descent. In its most unprocessed form, you can see pornography's classless reach in the discreetly curtained Internet cubicles in small towns all over Southasia, where young men get a taste of the raw porn of their choice. We have not even begun to recognise the chasm that such individuals are forced to bridge in their young lives, and this is repeated tens of millions of times across the Subcontinent every day.

Some could say that the easy availability of pornography through the videotape, television screen and computer is like a splash of cold water, forcing society to emerge from its lethargy and confront our sexuality. This could be the experience that forces us to revert to a mature openness with regard to sexuality, romance and relationships, which have been trivialized by centuries of what may be called 'Southasian middle-class morality'. Indeed, this is a distinct possibility: human societies are forward-looking by instinct and culture does not evolve through a technological process. Just as the BPO-sponsored affluence of the mechanised life is increasingly failing to satisfy the creative urge of the young people, society as a whole will seek a response to the arrival of explicit pornography in our midst.

This rapid spread of pornography through new media is not something of which we need necessarily to be afraid. Continuation of our own cultural lethargy, which makes this expansion so easy, is what should be seen as the real problem. Advice to the young to be 'good boys' and 'good girls' will not provide the solution. The race for the collective human imagination between the market-based media and creativity-based cultural transformation is becoming more and more intense everyday. This is due primarily to the fact that social and economic advancement cannot be separated from cultural leadership and creativity. When we start to look around with self-confidence, the emptiness of the emerging monoculture of globalisation in the developing world – being filled by cricket today and porn products tomorrow – can indeed be replaced by a new social culture of a globalised world.

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Himal Southasian