The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Sex, technology and the Great Indian Value System

So once again the Great Indian Value System has triumphed over sex, mobile phones, the internet and any or all possible combinations of the three. Almost everyone involved even tangentially in the MMS-pornographic-image story has been arrested, the concerned students suspended, and hopefully, a total ban is on the way on mobile phones, CDs, floppy disks and the internet in schools.

Mobile phones. Keep track of the real issue here.

Susan Sontag wrote recently about a public debate in the United States of America over the iconic image of a young American soldier in the rubble that was Fallujah, face etched with fatigue, smoking a reflective cigarette. The outrage, the anguish that poured into the newspapers had to do with ' the devastation of innocent lives, the horrors of war' The cigarette. It was the cigarette, stupid. Do we want our children associating heroism with the killer weed' What if they die of cancer before they can destroy a single town'

Cigarettes, mobile phones ' yes, stay focused.

What is involved in the MMS incident' Two things. Control of sexuality and control of technology.

The first really does put our knickers in a twist (so to speak...) Sex only at the right time, in the right way, in the right place, with the right gender and species, in the right relationship. The network of controls this entails ' it's never going to work. That's why the anxiety, of course, the continual gnawing anxiety manifested in rules, laws, the relentless infantilization of young adults.

The hypocrisy of the youth-criterion when it comes to sex is appalling. For instance, under existing laws on rape, if a man has sex with his wife, provided she is not below 15 years of age, her lack of consent is immaterial. This, despite the fact that the legal age of consent for women is 18. So a young woman of 15-18 is a child who cannot have even consensual sex outside marriage, but within marriage she is perpetually a consenting adult who can never claim rape by her husband.

The students in the MMS incident are constantly referred to as 'school-children' though they are both almost 18, at least. They may have had 'sex-education' in school ' thanks to AIDS, at least it's possible to talk openly about sex today. (What is the health of a society in which one can say 'Thanks to AIDS...') But the problem is not that they did not know about sex. The problem is that they did. We are simply unable to deal with the fact that sexual desire is part (albeit only one part) of being human. When we cannot discuss sex at all with our children except at best, in unrealistic, moralistic or euphemistic terms, then talking about what constitutes responsible behaviour in sexual relations is impossible. For certainly, in this incident, the circulation of the pictures, presumably without the consent of the girl, is seriously irresponsible.

Just as children learn, as they grow, to eat judiciously and healthily, they have to learn how to enjoy sex responsibly and without guilt. That's not simply 'sex education'. That's rethinking entirely what we understand by 'society'. And it can lead to the fundamental restructuring of institutions like marriage and property. Because notions of lineage and descent, on which property arrangements rest, will not survive rule-breaking sex. But surely, at least some of us believe that existing institutions of marriage and property can do with some restructuring'

The moral panic generated in school administrations by this incident has led to a harsh policing of the most innocent of physical contact between friends of whatever sex. A stern public announcement recently at the Sports Day of a Delhi school decreed, 'No hugging'.

Just for the record, I am not advocating public fornication all day long. All I am saying (though I know it is a lot to say) is that sex should be governed by minimal rules of etiquette that make social interaction possible, following the same kind of logic that underlies traffic rules, for example. Although I am also sympathetic to an argument along the lines that traffic rules are made necessary by particular urbanization patterns that are ultimately unsustainable. In a world that is radically restructured so that it is both ecologically sustainable as well as equitable, perhaps traffic rules would be fewer, non-existent, unrecognizably different'

As to control of technology, you may think that the question is ' how much' The short answer is ' it doesn't matter, because you really can't. Yes, India is scurrying to meet WTO requirements and has in place an Information Technology Act to regulate cyberspace. Section 80 of this act, which was widely protested against at the time, allows a police officer to enter a public place and search and arrest, without warrant, a person suspected of 'being about to commit any offence'. The police raids of cyber-cafes in Aligarh in the wake of the MMS incident, where they 'caught' girls using the internet (kalyug indeed) is thus perfectly within the law. All manner of offences could have been 'about to be committed' in those dens of vice. The government is also actively pushing intellectual property rights regulations, leading to tragically absurd situations like police raids on medical students' hostels to root out photocopies of expensive books! (Ironically, Eric Hobsbawm, whose life has spanned most of the 20th century, notes with optimism in his autobiography the emergence of photocopying technology that enriched the lives of scholars by making accessible books they could not afford to buy.)

No new technology emerges that is not, within a short period, caught between the desire for limitless profit on the one hand and the desire for absolute control on the other. But the point is, human ingenuity and human need are such that the potential of new technologies to improve lives, in however small a way, always does escape. It filters creatively through the interstices and gaps of the control networks of both capital and state, into the grey zones of pirate economies, into the virtual spaces of the web. Remember that the internet was invented by the US defence systems to facilitate American Cold-War designs. Today, the internet may be the only space which the Americans cannot control.

The point at which both these anxieties of control ' of sex and of technology ' converge is pornography. Feminists have long debated pornography ' is it simply 'violence against women' that must be stopped' Or is pornography produced by context, so that for instance, sexually explicit material for sex education can appear pornographic in another context' Since an exact definition of pornography can never be reached, anything and everything can fall into its legal definition, curbing creative and political expression, even curiosity itself.

We need to be suspicious of the fact that the most patriarchal of societies and the most oppressive of states would agree on this issue. Indeed, prevailing anti-pornography positions are largely patriarchal, anti-feminist, and deny female desire. These notions are as oppressive as some kinds of pornography and the coercion of women into the pornography industry undoubtedly are.

A final thought. In the MMS incident, a parade of male actors has emerged ' the student, his possible accomplices, the man who put the CD on the web, the CEO of Visible in the clip, unlike the boy, but voiceless in the whole series of narratives, is the female student involved. Who is she' Victim' Desiring subject' It seems the plot of the story can proceed without our ever hearing what she has to say. What a surprise!

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