Porn. Panic. Ban A conversation about sexual expression, pornography, sexual exploitation, consent

Point of View and the Internet Democracy Project are organising a conference in order to hold and facilitate an informed conversation on sexual expression, pornography, sexual exploitation and consent. This conference is a first attempt to have an in-depth civil society conversation – among activists, lawyers, researchers working on either gender, sexuality or internet rights, or at their intersections. It will take place on 28-29 October in Delhi.


We believe it is the right time to have a national conversation on these related issues given recent and emerging policy trends.

  • The Indian government, which blocked 857 porn sites in early August, is currently considering two petitions to ban online porn. The last Supreme Court hearing on this took place on 10 August.

  • The legal definition of ‘sexual exploitation’ may be expanded to include sexualized images of women offline and online and to re-interpret sexual trafficking. The Supreme Court has asked the Indian government to detail its stand on this by 13 October.

  • In 2013, a parliamentary committee discussed the need to enlarge the scope of the Indecent Representation Act, 1986 to bring new forms of communication like the internet and mobile etc within the ambit of the Act.

As gender, sexuality or digital rights activists, many of us have been discussing these related issues in smaller groups. Some of us have made submissions to the Rajya Sabha against banning online pornography. Some of us are conducting research to better understand these issues.

But we have yet to have a cross-movement dialogue around these issues. We have yet to develop a collective voice that articulates our realities, positions and concerns. We may aspire to change the conversation around these issues, but our voice is missing, invisible or not adequately heard in the public, policy and legal discourses surrounding them.

This conference is a first attempt to have an indepth civil society conversation – among activists, lawyers, researchers working on either gender, sexuality or internet rights, or at their intersections.


Day 1 – Wednesday, 28th October 2015

9-9.30               Who Why What Why now? (Introductions, Objectives, Agenda)

9.30-10.30        Keynote: Porn Again! The Thrills and Threats of a Fugitive Genre

                           Shohini Ghosh, Sajjad Zaheer Professor of Media

                           AJK Mass Communication Research Center, Jamia Millia Islamia

10.30-11           Tea & coffee

11-12                ‘Memory dekhna hai kya?’: Sexual Expression in the Digital Age

                        Panel (30 minutes – 5 minutes each)

                        Shals Mahajan, LABIA, queer feminist & writer

                        Prabha Nagaraja, TARSHI, sexual and reproductive rights activist

                        Nidhi Goyal, POV/CREA, gender & disability rights activist

                        Meena Seshu, SANGRAM, sex workers’ rights activist

                        Avantika Mehta, The Hindustan Times, journalist

                        Jaya Sharma, Kinky Collective, queer feminist & BDSM community member


12-1.15            The Legit and the Illegit: The Contours of Sexual Expression

                        Panel (35 minutes – 7 minutes each)

                         Kalki Subramaniam, Sahodari, on transbodies, programmed images, sexual exploitation

                          Nayantara Ranganathan, Internet Democracy Project, on private censorship

                          Smita Vanniyar, Point of View, on how platforms treat sex ex as gendered

                          Siddharth Narain, SARAI, on online hate speech related to gender/sexuality

                          Rohini Lakshane, Centre for Internet & Society, on amateur porn


1.15-2.15           Lunch

2.15-3               The Faultlines of Consent

                         Real Net Natives, a 15-minute video by Aritra Bhattacharya for CCDS

                         A Short History of Consent, a 10-minute visual walkthrough by Bishakha Datta, POV


 3-3.30               The Imagined, the Perceived and the Real: Where is the harm?

                           Group work (30 minutes)

3.30-4               Tea & coffee (in groups, if needed)

4-4.45               Report back (30 minutes) Discussion

4.45-5.30        Sexual Expression in the Law: What does it mean?

                         MS Nappinai, Technology Law Forum/Supreme Court Bar Association

                         Responses: Namita Malhotra, Alternative Law Forum/Amba Salelkar, Equal Centre for Promotion of Social Justice

 Day 2 – Thursday, 29th October 2015

9-9.30           Recap refresh: key points from yesterday, flagging unfinished agendas    

9.30-10.15    Keynote: Digital Manipulation: Selves, Selfies and Sunny Leone

                      Paromita Vohra, ParoDevi Pictures, filmmaker, writer and columnist


10.15-11       Children, Sexuality, Abuse and Expression

                    Panel (30 minutes – 15 minutes each)

                    Vidya Reddy, Tulir Centre for the Prevention & Healing of Child Sexual Abuse

                    Anuja Gupta, RAHI Foundation


11-11.30        Tea & coffee

11.30-1.30    Laws, Lives and Expression

                    Panel (15-20 minutes per speaker with questions after each)

                    Anja Kovacs, Internet Democracy Project, on summary of objections to porn ban

                    Debarati Halder, CCVCC, on Indecent Representation of Women Act

                    Aarthi Pai, CASAM, on bid to define sexual exploitation

                    Flavia Agnes, Majlis, on related legislative and judicial patterns

1.30-2.30      Lunch

2.30-3          Video: It’s Time For Porn To Change (TEDx Talk by Erika Lust, 12 mins)

                      Video: Krutch (Experimental short film by Clark Matthews, 4 minutes

                      Video: Make Love, Not Porn (TEDx Talk by Cindy Gallop, 4 minutes

3-3.45          Defrocking the Law

                    Namita Malhotra, ALF, on defining/understanding obscenity – 5 minutes

                    The Prurient, the Explicit, and the Private

                    An exploratory study on Section 67, 67A and 66E of the IT Act – 20 minutes

                    Bishakha Datta, Jasmine Lovely George, Smita Vanniyar, Arpita Bhagat (P


3.30-4           Tea & coffee

4-4.45           Group work on key takeaways/principles

4.45-5           Report back

5-5.30           Next steps, way forward, wrap up


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When rural journalism went online

Something like a computer, I never thought I could learn it. Now I can use the computer and the Internet. I can send emails too.

Kavita, Khabar Lahariya journalist

Growing up in a largely urban setting, I took the use of technology for granted. Whether it was the use of mobile phones, computers or the Internet. Being part of the ICT training team for the Khabar Lahariya journalists changed this. Interacting with this inspiring, motivated group of rural journalists over a course of four Internet training workshops has been an intensely engaging experience. These women come from marginalized communities and have the fire to learn new technologies and new media to develop their skills of journalism.

Internet basics:


The first workshop, held in Lucknow in August 2012, focused on introducing the journalists to the Internet. Vidyut Kale, resource person for the workshop took sessions to help the journalists understand the concept of the Internet as an online space. The team discussed issues that they faced when investigating a story and learnt news ways of tackling problems by using the online media. They were taught about the RTI (Right to Information) and how they can file an RTI online to get information. The journalists were also introduced to several useful governmental websites that they could use for scouting for information online and using authentic data to support their stories. By running through such resources, the journalists shared several issues they were facing and how they might be able to solve them using these mediums.

One of the most interesting breakthroughs during this workshop was the introduction of Twitter as an effective social media tool. The journalists learnt how to create a Twitter account and tips on how to use it. Khabar Lahariya got a new Twitter account. I saw them pick it up quickly and apply the learnings by creating their own accounts and exploring ways of composing tweets, looking for people to follow and adding photographs.

This workshop, with a balance of theory and practice proved to be a great start to understand the medium of the Internet, its features, its uses and possibilities. Along with this possibility, came the discussion of a website for Khabar Lahariya. If the journalists were running a successful weekly newspaper in the villages, then why not share it with the rest of the world? They keenly discussed the need for a website and how important it was for them to create an identity online with their work. They saw it as the perfect opportunity to share their newspaper with a wider audience and create a credible online presence. Through these facilitations, I realized how infectious the high levels of motivation and determination of the journalists was and I found myself looking forward to the next workshop.

Getting their hands dirty:


Winter of 2012 saw the Khabar Lahariya journalists gather again at Lucknow for the next level of learning the Internet. I was very excited to see all of them again, and was keen to help them learn new skills and get familiar with online media. Vidyut Kale ensured that the journalists got hands-on training, where they learnt how to use Google and source copyright free images from the Internet. It wasn’t just about typing any word or group of words to find information on Google, but typing the right combination of words that would help them get the answers that they were looking for. Running through several examples through exercises where they had to find information about a particular film star or an issue, they understood the knack of typing the right keywords to get specific answers. Another challenge that the journalists had to overcome was that of language. Since the Internet largely works on the usage of English keywords which they were not very familiar with, they were taught how to type in Hindi, and translate it if need be to get information.

Image sourcing was another important topic that was covered, where I too learnt how critical it is to use only copyright free images when sourcing them from the Internet. The dangers of using copyrighted images were highlighted and websites where images with the Creative Commons (CC) license such as Wikimedia Commons and Flikr were demonstrated. If they couldn’t find relevant pictures from these sources, then it was important to seek permission from the photographer. Getting pictures online that one can use wasn’t an easy task after all.

The team also shortlisted templates for their website and discussed the features they’d like to have. They also discussed what language it should be in, the various sections, the look and feel of an online edition and content that the website should carry. I saw the website slowly taking shape in the minds of the journalists as they imagined a new identity on the web and laid out their ideas of what they’d like the world to see. They were keen on creating a unique identity online that highlighted rural journalism and the fact that it’s run by rural women.

Mumbai Madness:


It was Mumbai calling in February 2013 for the journalists for their third meeting together. This time, it was not only the workshop participants who took trains to reach the city of dreams, but the whole Khabar Lahariya team who arrived with eager eyes, inquisitive minds and ready smiles. 40 journalists, along with the resource team from Delhi had a Mumbai exposure visit that gave them a taste of the city. For some, it was their first time to a city. From taking the local trains, buses and auto rickshaws to visit colleges and city newspaper offices to interacting with journalists in Mumbai and sharing their work, the KL journalists got a complete Mumbai package.

The biggest highlight of this trip was the launch of the Khabar Lahariya website. This event saw several key journalists from mainstream media interact with the Khabar Lahariya journalists. Experiences were shared, questions raised and issues resolved. I got to spend some of the most memorable times with these admirable women and was moved by their indomitable spirit and quest to learn and constantly explore new avenues.

The ICT workshop participants stayed for a few days longer, while the others bid goodbye, teary eyed, as they left Mumbai that grew fond of them over just a span of few days. The workshop then took off from where it left last time, and the journalists got an opportunity to work in a computer lab for their practicals. This turned out to be a unique and rare chance to be part of a lab setting, which is impossible to find in the rural interiors. They strengthened their skills of sourcing information online, image search and social media. It was time to know all these skills thoroughly as their website was launched, and the online edition of Khabar Lahariya was not just an imagination, but a reality.

Website takeover

It was back to Lucknow for the fourth workshop in the sweltering heat of June 2013. With the website up and running, it was time for the journalists to take over the task of uploading their news online and in the process also learn ways of selecting news that is relevant and interesting to an international audience. It was an intensive training where the journalists learnt how to pick their best stories for each of their news sections from their respective districts and make judgments of why one story weighed better and should go online than another.

Learning the backend of the website was a big step forward for them because in a way it was about taking ownership of the online edition and updating the news site themselves. Finding copyright free images for each of the selected stories was even more crucial as the news was all going online. They understood the importance of thoroughly checking all information, spellings, grammar, photographs and authenticity, as unlike a hardcopy of the newspaper, online publishing meant permanency and hence greater responsibility to a much larger audience. By the end of the workshop, the journalists had published the latest edition online, having mastered the backend. It was a big achievement for all of them and a matter of great pride to be able to handle the updating themselves!

For me, it was simply wonderful to grow with these women, share their anxieties, discover the fascinating world of the Internet, learn new skills, teach, demonstrate, discuss, share, laugh and enjoy the joys of technology. The internet opened a new world for these women, who saw it as much an exciting space to develop their quest for knowledge and information as it was in their own fight to break barriers and create waves in a grassroots media revolution.

Zulfiya Hamzaki


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Deconstructing sexuality, gender and rights

The strong emotions it undoubtedly arouses gives to the world of sexuality a seismic sensitivity making it a transmission belt for a wide variety of needs and desires: for love and anger, tenderness and aggression, intimacy and adventure, romance and predatoriness, pleasure and pain, empathy and power. We experience sex very subjectively. – Jeffrey Weeks (The languages of sex)

The Sexuality, Gencreader and Rights Institute (SGRI) organized by CREA at Khandala was a week long engagement that introduced me to the fundamentals of understanding the concepts of sexuality and gender. It brought out a great deal of introspection, questioning and challenging of the ways in which we perceive these words and how we define them according to what we deem is ‘culturally appropriate’ or ‘morally sound’.

Carole Vance, one of the resource persons at the institute boggled our mind with an exercise that we thought would be pretty simple to handle. If we had to explain to someone from outside our planet the answer to “What is Sexuality?” what would we say? How would we explain what it means to someone who has absolutely no idea of the word? After many attempts at trying to explain the term to this imaginary Martian from outer space, I realized how difficult it really is to define the term and come to a definite answer, because anything I thought had a cultural implication or was bound to some normative understanding of it. If we tried to explain it in terms of the body, then is it in reference to the two widely accepted sexes of male and female? Is it only limited to the body, or is it influenced by the ways in which we perceive sexual interests? After a lot of discussion on how it could be explained, I understood sexuality to mean, in its simplest terms, a body of practices that are erotic.

A Belgian film that was screened, “Ma Vie en Rose” (My life in Pink) beautifully explored the theme of socialization and the role it played in assigning gender roles to a child. The film made me think about the burden of expectation that family and society binds upon its children to conform to what are traditionally ‘male’ and ‘female’ roles and how anything outside these categories was unacceptable. While a boy is supposed to have masculine qualities, a girl should have feminine qualities. How about a boy who wants to dress up like a girl? Or is interested in other boys? Can a child be forced to play an assigned role? Who assigns these roles and how do they get formed?

One of the oldest models that defined these terms relied on the biology of sex of a person as the foundation that determined sex roles. That is, the reproductive capacity of a male or female was the basis of qualities that men and women must have. From there came the ideas of aggression, physical power, intellectual ability, temperament, work and numerous other factors that were meant to be for men and the opposite for women. The terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ were used to describe these interests, and those who did not conform to these practices were gender non-conformists.

Sex is an either/or phenomenon – appealing or appalling, rarely in between. – Murray S. Davis

I learnt about the concepts of sexual hierarchy (borrowed from Marx’s idea of the class hierarchy), sexual legitimacy, sexual dissidence and erotic justice. There was an interesting exercise that we did in groups, where each group had to make a pyramid that showed sexual legitimacy in a sexual hierarchy. The most sexually legitimate behaviours are the ones that generally fall topmost in the sexual hierarchy, as they are the ones that are widely accepted by social and cultural norms. The ones believed to be deviant/non-conformist would fall bottommost in the hierarchy. So just like how we divide our society based on class and caste, so do we in terms of sexual practices. What is also interesting to know is that erotic life is entitled to erotic justice, but who decides what justice means especially when one rejects sexual legitimacy?

The institute also touched upon issues of representation of suffering through images, and more specifically sexual suffering. What are the issues that come into play when we speak of what needs to be shown and what shouldn’t? Can the representation of sexual suffering be seen as sexy or voyeuristic? How is it sensationalized in order to fulfil a commercial interest?

Continuing on the idea of representation, Shohini Ghosh took us through Bombay cinema and pointed out interesting techniques used in filmmaking that smuggled transgressive ideas into the big screen. These include the dream and song sequences that conveniently hide the ‘realism’ in the film, yet utilize such techniques that are out of the main narrative text as subtexts. She brought to our notice the various layers hidden in the agenda of certain Bollywood films and how every viewer interprets meanings subjectively. I saw how some of our films were cleverly structured to hide sexual subversion overtly, but nevertheless found a place on the screen.

The institute covered a wide range of other topics. These included topics like consent, social purity, violence, intersex, same-sex love, sex work, sexuality and disability, pleasure, censorship, children and representation, human rights, section 377, the Justice Verma Committee and advocacy. It gave me a diverse understanding of a wide range of critical issues that revolve around these topics. More than providing answers, it raised many questions in my mind. I realized how important it is to question and not accept what society gives us, and be open to interpretations, perceptions, arguments, challenges and disagreements.

Our sexuality permeates every sphere of our lives, and our cultures determine its shades of tolerance and acceptance. It’s a never-ending process of struggle and claim to rights that will go on for generations and evolve and change the more we investigate, examine, study and observe. I want to end with a quote from one of the readings that was given to us, which sums up the heart of most debates on sexuality.

No matter how sex is played out with what gender, power is the heart, not just the beast of all sexual inquiry. – Amber Hollibaugh (Desire for the Future: Radical hope in Passion and Pleasure)

By Zulfiya Hamzaki



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Sexuality and the Internet: a five country perspective

This blog post is tenth in a series of ten blog posts to report on the EROTICS India workshop, recently concluded in Delhi. All the blog posts in this series are written by Richa Kaul Padte, the official rapporteur at the workshop.

‘The Internet is an unregulated space where you can connect to other people…It is a new frontier, it is a new imagination that makes things possible…It is this space that is so central to our existence and being.’ – Jac sm Kee, APC Women

How does the relationship between sexuality and the Internet play out in different countries? What does this mean for sexual rights? The EROTICS research looks at different aspects of Internet use in five countries through the lens of sexuality. Here are some snippets:

Lebanon. When the blog Gay Lebanon was launched, it was more than just a blog – it was what the queer community pinpoints as the start of a sexual rights movement in the country; the first time a group of queer people were ‘out’, online.  Self-declared as the first and only LGBT networking site in the Middle East, Gay Lebanon is a virtual queer community free from the prejudice of the offline world. As the LGBT movement moves more offline, the queer feminist movement in Lebanon also sees the internet as a key site to document and articulate their politics. Says Jac sm Kee from APC Women, ‘The researchers saw the [] blog as so much more than just a place to share news…It is a place to reclaim the language that has been colonised…It is archival and…it is claiming the capacity and space to self represent.’

South Africa. Gender DynamiX, an online hub for trans people in South Africa, is the first African website dedicated solely to the transgender community. With its mission as working to envision a society where everyone can express their gender free from fear, Gender DynamiX is a virtual space for trans people across the African continent. From comparing doctors and medical procedures to finding opportunities to rehearse new gender roles, the website provides a space for information, conversation and creating relationships.

Brazil. What is the queer community up to online in Brazil? One interesting if controversial discourse is around the “boi lover” movement, which acts as a space that reframes the conversations around men who have sex with boys – a topic normally shrouded in criminality and guilt. It builds a rare counter discourse on the issue, and creates a space for people to engage in different types of conversation on the topic. This is especially important since a blanket assumption of pedophilia is often used as justification for widening censorship and regulation of the internet. The Internet is also a space for heterosexual Brazilians to advocate for queer rights, which is something Orkut sees a lot of.

United States. You might initially think of America as a space of unrestricted and free sexual expression, but with an abstinence-only sex education policy in most schools, opportunities to learn about sex are pretty limited. The Internet provides mediums – including pornography – for young people to find ways to learn about sex that the country’s approach to sexual health makes it difficult to access otherwise.

India. What are women doing online in Bombay city? Turns out it’s a lot, from chatting to blogging to posting ‘sexy’ pictures of themselves on Facebook to looking for prospective partners. Young girls whose social interactions are cut off at the end of the school day now get together in chat rooms at 11 pm. Matrimonial sites offer a mix between the old and the new, allowing young people to experiment with choosing their own partners – with families still reading the computer screen over their shoulders, of course. We all use the Internet differently, and usage is, of course, gendered.

Perspectives and initiatives from different countries that provide critical information, contest norms and allow people to form new relationships, show us that the Internet isn’t just a tool, but that it’s really critical in advancing sexual citizenship. Typically, if you’re heterosexual, able bodied and male the chances are that you’re also the most privileged, and the Internet acts as a space for people with less privilege to challenge this structure – to claim sexual citizenship And what happens online, remember, can never quite be separated from the offline world. Jac says, ‘The online world is located in the physical world we share, but it also troubles the physical world we share.’ As non-privileged sexualities (which can be anything including gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, or even just being a woman) find ways to articulate themselves online, they reverberate offline too – in different ways, and across the world.

To learn more about the EROTICS global research, check out the findings here.


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‘Choli ke peeche kya hai?’: censorship and pornography

This blog post is ninth in a series of ten blog posts to report on the EROTICS India workshop, recently concluded in Delhi. All the blog posts in this series are written by Richa Kaul Padte, the official rapporteur at the workshop.


Banned: advertisements promoting sex-selection on Google, Microsoft Bing and Yahoo.

 Banned: searches from India with the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexual’ on Microsoft Bing.

 Banned: porn cartoon Savita Bhabhi, depicting the sexual exploits of a married Indian woman.

 The discourse of censorship is well-known to most people, as India’s right-wing moral brigades routinely flock to the streets to prevent everything from item numbers in Bollywood films to sex education posters in trains to the greeting-card shop Archies (for its ‘promotion’ of Valentine’s Day) from going ahead. But what does this mean for freedom of speech and expression in the country? And more specifically, given that the bans most frequently pertain to sex, and more specifically, female sexuality, what does this mean for women?

Article 19 of the Indian Constitution guarantees citizens the freedom of speech and expression as a fundamental right. This is immediately followed by Article 19 (2), a clause common to most countries, listing reasonable restrictions under which speech or expression may be banned. However, what these restrictions are and in whose favour they are made are growing issues.

With ever-increasing bans on ‘indecent’ or ‘obscene’ material – both online and offline – India has a rich history of censorship that has been ongoing throughout the decades. Remember choli ke peeche kya hai (a hit Bollywood song with its central lyrics translating to ‘What’s behind the blouse?’)? What about the depiction of lesbian sexuality in the movie Fire? Cases where sexually explicit material has been tried by the courts aren’t confined to cinema. World renowned artist MF Hussain, for example, came under trial for depiction of nude goddesses in his paintings. As early as the 1940s, writers, film-makers and artists have been slapped with charges of ‘obscenity’. And obscenity, more often than not, has had to do with the depiction of the female body, and female sexuality. Today, the digital age frequently sees cases pertaining to inappropriate content on the Internet, which can range from the morphing of imagery to illicit videography to even a woman’s profile picture of herself. Again, the representation of women is at the heart of the matter.

And what about pornography? What’s clear is that there’s always been a lot of porn in circulation in India – during and pre-dating this drive towards censorship. And when it comes to women not only being represented, but consuming, these images, texts and videos, the age of the Internet has created a definite shift. Before the digital era, pornography was consumed in highly gendered spaces such as blue cinema halls, which were frequented only by men. Today, the Internet means that many more people have access to pornography, which includes women. And under Indian law, it is only the distribution of pornography that is illegal, which given the global nature of the billion dollar industry, means that it’s hard to trace who’s distributing what. The converse side of this is, of course, that porn is now the pleasure of the digital elite who have access to the Internet, whereas blue cinema hall owners run the risk of arrest and are rapidly decreasing in their numbers.

 So where do real-rather-than-represented women come into the picture? What is offensive to us as women? Is it the depiction of nudity and sexuality? Or the portrayal of women in stereotypical, submissive or housewife-type roles? The feminist movement is divided in thought, and in fact, many of the existing laws surrounding obscenity and indecency have been created with the backing of feminists who feel that excessive representation of sex and violence leads to increased levels of violence against women. Others, however, don’t believe this correlation is real, and that censorship of sexuality is in fact more harmful to women’s rights than it is empowering.

In the context of these varying opinions, some questions to ask ourselves are: in whose interests are these bans being made? When Savita Bhabhi (read and adored by women across the country) is banned but other pornography isn’t, who are these laws protecting – women, or regressive notions of ‘Indian Culture’? How much freedom of expression do women really have in any case? And who is consuming these ‘indecent’ representations?Don’t women, too, enjoy depictions of sex and sexuality? Or the opportunity to represent themselves as ‘sexy’ (

Censorship, including under the Information Technology Act, is often seen to be in the interests of women’s protection. But whether or not a clamp-down on depictions of sexuality is helpful for advancing women’s rights within a wider sexually repressive context is something that feminists and activists must engage with. Furthermore, if the Internet affords women new opportunities to play with the offline boundaries of sex and sexuality, what effects do laws that seek to restrict these actions have on women’s sexual autonomy?

Look out for the next blog post further exploring the idea of what sexual citizenship means and how it plays out in different parts of the world. And many thanks to Maya Ganesh and Manjima Bhattacharjya for their presentations at the workshop, which form part of this post.


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Gendered Abuse Online

This blog post is eighth in a series of ten blog posts to report on the EROTICS India workshop, recently concluded in Delhi. All the blog posts in this series are written by Richa Kaul Padte, the official rapporteur at the workshop.

So you’ve got proper online security ( ), strong passwords ( ), and great software all good to go. But are there other kinds of threats you may face online? What about abuse, verbal violence and harassment that no firewall or plug-in can prevent?

‘I faced sexual harassment and it was published in [a prominent newspaper], and then it was put up on the Internet. But the kinds of comments that went around Facebook – all kinds of judgements passed upon me. Like, “How can it happen to a man?” or “This person will never do it.” [It’s this] kind of character assassination that takes place.’

‘Ever since we started advocating for sexually education stuff…on our website, I get death threats saying that we are spoiling Indian culture. I keep ignoring, but I wonder if there is a time one should turn around and say something.’

‘I had made a poster about something to do with feminism, and a guy was having an argument with me online about it. He found my father’s account on Facebook and messaged him questioning his manhood because he gave birth to a ‘mangina’… I did try to speak to him, but he replied with my [phone] number – I hadn’t put it up anywhere – and asked, “Do you know who I am?” I stopped replying to him, because I thought the more I do that, the angrier he’s going to get.’

Often we believe that the Internet is a democratic space where people are finally free to live without the constraints of their real lives. And in many cases this is true. The Internet has allowed communication and the sharing of information on unprecedented levels, and has afforded many opportunities to experiment with fluid identities, meet new people, and create alternative personas. However, what is happening online is still very much rooted in the offline world, including prejudices. As the examples from participants above illustrate, gender based abuse faced by women, sexual minorities and gender rights activists online often mirrors experiences in the offline world.

When a woman steps out into the street, gender-based harassment appears to be part and parcel of that experience. Because she is in a public space – a space that isn’t meant to be hers. London-based journalist Laurie Penny writes, ‘A woman’s opinion is the mini-skirt of the Internet.’ If women wearing revealing clothing on the streets are seen as ‘asking for it’ – ‘it’ being the range of harassment and violence they may face – similarly, it seems that just using your voice as a woman in the virtual world (also a public space), is ‘asking’ for the abuse you receive. Your voice is gendered, and your gender is unwelcome.

Gender based abuse online often targets the most visible marker of gender – the female body. As a result, women face a lot of abuse dealing with images, including instances of images being circulated without permission, photographs being morphed, or con-consensual sexual videography.

In a research study comprising 17 in-depth interviews with women across the country, the Internet Democracy Project explores experiences of verbal abuse women face online, and their strategies for dealing with it. Abuse women face includes being made to feel uncomfortable or inadequate in male-dominated spaces such as technology forums, threats of violence, threats against family members or children, harassing mentions of sex, and rape threats. These threats are largely designed to silence women; to tell them that they’re in a space that isn’t theirs. The strategies women adopt for dealing with the abuse vary from person to person, and depending on how severely the incident is perceived. Strategies can include ignoring it, blocking the abuser, reporting the abuser, taking them on directly, or as a last resort, going to the police. Some women may even close down their accounts or pages as a response to the threats, and go entirely offline.

Like with street sexual harassment, however, ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away. Says one woman, ‘Don’t let it stand. That is your dignity at stake. It is like dealing with street harassment. You walk on the street, someone whistles at you, you put your head down, you walk a little bit faster, you cross that patch, you move on. Second day. Third day. Eventually the space on the street you can walk on keeps shrinking, shrinking, and eventually you are just off the street. It’s your street. On the road, fighting off the bad guy is full of risks. On the Internet, it is not that risky. There is absolutely no excuse for not doing it.’ While it may not always be as easy as this woman makes it out to be, people are fighting back in unique and often coordinated ways. One example of a collective fight back against sexism online is the development of the Twitter hashtag #MisogynyAlert, where people who face or witness sexist abuse on Twitter can collectively respond to the perpetrator and help create a more gender-equal environment online.

For more information on the Internet Democracy Project’s work around gender and online abuse, visit their website.




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Wearing a Digital Condom: Staying Safe Online

This blog post is seventh in a series of ten blog posts to report on the EROTICS India workshop, recently concluded in Delhi. All the blog posts in this series are written by Richa Kaul Padte, the official rapporteur at the workshop.

Web browsers. One of the fastest ways to spread viruses is through a web browser, and to prevent this from happening, make sure your browser is as secure as possible. Mozilla Firefox is recommended by many people because it has the most security options, but Google Chrome lovers, fear not – Chrome and Opera both have similar options in their Settings page (And if you’re still on Internet Explorer, well, it’s really time to move on). So once you’ve decided on your browser – or switched to a different one – you can find plug-ins (also called add-ons or extensions, depending on the browser you are using), which are basically features that will work with your browser. Some useful plug-ins to have for your Firefox browser are Ad-Block Plus, No Script, and Better Privacy (these all have Chrome equivalents).

You can also go into the Settings page of your web browser and make sure things like password storing, for example, are turned off.  If you want to check whether a website is safe or not, you can run it through scanners on, or If you want to check the reputation of a website, use or


Finally, visit this secure browsing hands-on guide from Security in a Box for more information and help on securing your web browser, a list of plug-ins, and the safest Settings options for you.

 https. Did you know that the ‘s’ in ‘https’ stands for ‘secure’? When email travels from your computer to the intended recipient, it is in plain text, and the Internet is an open network. So in theory, anyone could read it, if they had the right software. What ‘https’ does is encrypt your data through a code that no one else can read. This works for more than just email, and when you see ‘https’ before a url, it signifies that your computer has opened a secure connection to the website you are accessing. If you go back to your plug-ins and extensions page, you can install one called Https Everywhere, which means that wherever possible, your browser will automatically open a secure connection.

Webmail. Have you thought much about the security features on the email you use? Gmail, one of the most popular email providers, is also owned by Google – a huge company making lots of money, by using your information and selling it on to advertisers of other companies. They also don’t place a lot of emphasis on security measures around their email systems. First off, this is not a cause to panic, or immediately leave Gmail, but just something to keep in mind, particularly if you have a lot of sensitive data in your email. For example, if you work with vulnerable people or on politically contentious topics, Gmail may not necessarily be the best place to have these conversations.

An alternative webmail provider designed by activists is, which provides free email to activists across the world. They take great care to protect the information stored on their servers, and unlike Google, have no commercial interests that might someday conflict with their policies. One setback is that given that they are a small, independent group, their storage space is rather limited. But since most people have more than one email account, you could consider using Riseup for your more sensitive data. To learn more about Riseup and whether it’s a good option for you, visit the Riseup page on the Security in a Box website.

Folder/Document Encryption. What sensitive data do you keep about you or your community, and what would people have access to if your computer, laptop or mobile phone was stolen? Notes from casework? Contact numbers? Is there some stuff in there that absolutely must be protected at any cost? You can do this easily by encrypting the documents or folders that have information you want hide. Like we saw in the case of passwords (, encrypting something means that it is protected by a puzzle that can be solved only if you know all the clues. TrueCrypt is a software programme that hides your sensitive data and makes it look like an ordinary file. It’s like having a cupboard in your house that doesn’t look like one. So an entire folder (or more) can be turned into a file that looks like an image, document or video file that can’t be opened unless you have the password. If anyone tries to open the file, they’ll get an error message – for example, it may say the file is corrupted. But when you run it through the TrueCrypt programme (to which only you have the password), it will turn into the volume of things it actually contains – only for your eyes. For help installing and using TrueCrypt, check out the Security in a Box guide.

For more information on staying safe online, visit Security in a Box, a tool-kit designed by the Tactical Technology Collective and Front Line Defenders.


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Passwords: Your First Line of Defence

This blog post is sixth in a series of ten blog posts to report on the EROTICS India workshop, recently concluded in Delhi. All the blog posts in this series are written by Richa Kaul Padte, the official rapporteur at the workshop.

 A password is your first line of defence – for your computer, email, and information. So firstly, make sure your computer is password protected (under the ‘admin’ account option), so your prying brother doesn’t get his hands on that flyer for the new weekly queer event. Or those letters from your lover. And if you really want to keep your information safe, you don’t just need a password, but you need a really good one.

Think about your current passwords. Did you use the name of your first pet (that your friends, neighbours and parents’ colleagues used to come and play with)? Does your web browser store your passwords? Does anyone else know your password (including your really amazing boyfriend because you’ll be together forever and there’s ‘nothing to hide’ anyway)? If you answered yes to any of these questions, your password is not able to defend you very well!

To protect your information and yourself, make sure you develop a strong password, and never, ever tell anyone what it is. If a colleague needs something from your account, for example, you can set up a system whereby they can go into your email for a set period of time, for which they don’t need your password. Your really, really strong password, which will:

Be long.

Have upper and lower case letters.

Have symbols and numbers.

Not be made up of identifiable dictionary words.

Not be easily linked to you (like the name of your friend/pet/house).

Be different for each of your accounts.

Be changed regularly.


Why, you ask?

If someone wants to get into your account or your computer, they’ll most likely use a password-cracker programme, which will run through all the possible options of what the password can be. The more you mix it up, replacing letters with numbers or adding symbols, the longer it will take for the programme to break in. And if it’s really strong, it may take them a few lifetimes to figure it out!


Some email systems have a 2-step verification process to log in – your password and your phone number – which means that unless someone has both your password and your phone, they won’t actually be able to get into your email. Gmail is one email provider that gives you this option. But before selecting it (or deciding whether you should un-select it), consider the fact that when you give Google your phone number, it is the only thing that connects your email – and the information, messages and people stored inside – to who you are in real life. Because don’t forget, your mobile phone requires real-name registration, including your home address and proof of identification. If providing this clear link (to a large global company) between what your email says and who you are makes you uncomfortable, then you may want to rethink this option. Have you heard the saying, ‘If it’s free, you’re the product’? Google is making a lot of money out of us, so you might not want to throw in your personal details for not-so-good measure. But also keep in mind that what you do online can almost always be traced back to you through your IP address, so not giving Google your mobile number doesn’t mean that you can be incognito on the web.

Another sure-fire (as sure-fire as anything can be) way of having a really strong password and a safe place to keep it is to use KeePass. KeePass is a programme you can install on your computer that allows you to create long, strong passwords without having to remember them, and gives you a secure database in which to store them. To do this, it encrypts your passwords. Encryption is basically a coding system that can’t be solved that easily without knowing the clues to the puzzle. KeePass encodes your passwords so that hackers cannot read them, but you can. To understand how this works, here’s a simple exercise:

  1. Think of a passphrase.

So we’ll use ‘Rightherewaitingforyou’

 2. Replace second character with a number, starting from 1.


 3. Now, replace every third character with an alphabet, starting from ‘a’.


 So we started off with a simple phrase from a song made up of common dictionary words. And we ended up with, well, nothing remotely understandable. Each step we took (replacing the characters according to a certain pattern) formed a certain algorithm. And unless you know what it is, you can’t figure out what the password is. So even if someone knows Richard Marx is your favourite singer, to get from step 3 to step 1 could take a password-cracker programme years longer than the hacker is interested in your data. One function of KeePass is that it generates passwords for you from different, long and complicated algorithms, making your first line of defence as strong as it can be.

With so many different passwords, what you are going to need is a safe place to put them. And a piece of paper in your sock drawer does not count. What KeePass also offers is a place to safely store all the complicated passwords it has created for you (or your existing passwords). It is protected by a ‘master password’, which is in fact, the only complicated password you ever need to remember. Once you’ve got that down, the rest are all safe and protected for your eyes only. You can store KeePass on your computer or carry it on a memory stick, but don’t forget to back up the database, because like anything else, something can always go wrong. It can initially seem like it’s taking a lot of time to use, because every time you need to log into something you will have to open the programme, but if you’re serious about keeping your information safe from prying eyes, it’s only a matter of changing your habits slightly.

For more help installing and using KeePass, check out this guide on the Security in a Box website from the Tactical Technology Collective and Front Line Defenders.

Or visit the KeePass website to download it for free onto your computer.




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Security Risks Online: How Much Information Do You Give Away?

This blog post is fifth in a series of ten blog posts to report on the EROTICS India workshop, recently concluded in Delhi. All the blog posts in this series are written by Richa Kaul Padte, the official rapporteur at the workshop.

‘If you want to protect yourself then the devil really is in your details’ – Jac sm Kee, APC Women

Imagine the life of an Indian gender or sexuality rights activist. What work do they do? Who do they interact with? What threats do they face? Here are some snapshots (created by participants):

31-year old Savita lives in Agra and works on issues relating to the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act (PWDVA) and interacts with the government, the police, lawyers, Muslim women’s groups, and sexuality rights groups. She faces threats from khap panchayat leaders, her natal family, and the police. Some of her biggest fears are her husband leaving her, her woman lover leaving her, violence at home, and stalking.

This nameless, gender-unspecified queer activist lives in a small, semi-urban location, where the queer community meets in secret. This person faces difficulties using public transport and finding housing, faces constant pressure to marry, and fears that their family will learn of their gender or sexual identity.

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Tia is 28 and lives in a big city with some friends, where she works against sexual harassment and for gender sensitization. She fears for her personal safety while travelling, and some of the threats she receives are from the police, online abuse on her blog, and stalking by the families of survivors.


Because they work with vulnerable groups or are from marginalized sexual orientations or gender identities themselves, gender rights activists face many threats to their personal safety. These threats can range from very personal to those made by large institutions. And the more someone knows about you, the easier it is to threaten you. Where you work. How you travel there. A home address. A contact list of phone numbers. Whether it’s hiding one’s sexual orientation from family members, fearing violence from the police, or fears of stalking, the data about ourselves that is available to others can be used to attack us. But just how much of our personal information is out there?

Check out‘s ‘Trace My Shadow’, which is an interactive visualization of how much of your data is available; how much of a trace you leave behind. From purchasing a certain computer to registering for a mobile phone to buying something online, various things that are a part of our daily lives are leaving behind a trail of information – leading right to us. We do many of these things without thinking about them, but the threats they post to our safety and security can be very real indeed.

For example, says Jac sm Kee from APC Women, ‘We often use our cell phones to take photos, and with that [comes] geo-locations that place where you are. So if you are already being threatened’ this is potentially dangerous. ‘When you get your phone or computer, it comes with everything turned on’, but by building awareness about what the security risks are, you know what you can do to prevent or minimize that risk. My Shadow provides various tool kits and guides to teach you where your data is unprotected, and how to minimize risks where possible. The way we handle our personal information is key to protecting ourselves and those we work with – and being aware of just how much is out there is the first step to making sure no one gets their hands on it.

One of the major places where we end up disclosing data about ourselves is on social networking sites. So take a moment to think about what sort of information about you is available on Facebook, for example. From contact details to addresses to relationship statuses to your sexual orientation, there’s a lot of stuff out there – stuff that you may not want everyone to see. And because social networks do what they say on the tin – they are networks of people you are connected to – it means that without proper security, it’s not only you, but also those around you, who are at risk. One way to minimise this risk is to create strong passwords – even for organizational accounts – that no one else has access to. Next, look at your friends list, and think about your relationships with these people. How many of them do you want seeing everything you do online? Facebook allows you to create different lists for different people, and for each list you can specify exactly what is okay and not okay for them to see. You can also limit who can see your activity log, past posts, and photographs. This may take some time to set up, since you’ll have the change the settings for each person, but if you are serious about keeping your personal information personal, it is worth it. Check out these security guides for Facebook, Twitter and other social networks by the Tactical Technology Collective.

Stay tuned for the next two blog posts for more concrete tips and tactics for your digital security.

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Mechanics and Governance of the Internet

This blog post is fourth in a series of ten blog posts to report on the EROTICS India workshop, recently concluded in Delhi. All the blog posts in this series are written by Richa Kaul Padte, the official rapporteur at the workshop.

‘It’s like a library’

‘But it’s not organised – it’s chaotic. That’s just the impression you get’

‘An electromagnetic web of information’

‘It’s the tech equivalent of a collective consciousness’

‘It’s basically you connecting to a larger network. Computers connected throughout the world’

The Internet is an important part of many of our daily lives, work and activism- but how many of us actually understand what it is?

The Internet works through networking, so imagine networking as a game. If you get two or more people to agree, you can play. The rules of this game are called Internet protocols, which allow information to go from one place to another according to a shared agreement between all the key players.

So how does the information know where to go? Says Jac sm Kee from APC Women, ‘Think about it like this: you are writing an email, which is basically a letter. So think about post. What do you need? An address. On the Internet, the IP is the address. Your device has an address, and the device you are sending it to needs an address.’ In this way, with a unique address for each device, emails and information that are broken up into several components on their way to their destination can be correctly reassembled and received without getting lost.

Does your IP address mean whatever you do online can always be traced? In a word, yes. But that’s not cause for panic, says Maya Ganesh from the Tactical Technology Collective. ‘Think of a computer and phone in terms of what they do. They record information and they share information…All of this is about sharing information…The chances are that it will always be possible to find you. That’s the nature of the Internet, and it’s also what’s fabulous about the Internet. And it’s not a reason to get paranoid.’


Beyond mechanics, questions around who governs the Internet are key to contextualizing the struggle for rights – including sexuality rights – online. Since its inception, the people who have used and shaped the Internet have changed across the decades. Here’s a rough chronology:

1960s: the military

1970/80s: the academic community

1991: common people, now known as ‘users’

Late 90s: banks first, seeing the potential for investment; then the entertainment industry, and in particular, Hollywood

Early to mid-2000s: the State, who finally recognised the power of this platform and wanted in on it

Each group of people – or stakeholders -continues to play a role in how the Internet is run or governed. The development of the Internet also demonstrates an innovation in the way global governance works, because given all the players involved, no single party can claim to control the Internet entirely.

However, all the stakeholders don’t necessarily get along. As states tried to exercise more control over the Internet, civil society (comprising human rights activists, members of the academia, and technical communities) as well as some in the private sector, pushed back. This input by civil society also first introduced human rights into the conversation around Internet governance.

2013-02-25 11.22.54

Today, the Internet Governance Forum(IGF) is a global platform that facilitates conversations between different stakeholders on issues related to the Internet and how it is governed. Amongst them is the opportunity to talk about rights online. While it doesn’t make decisions, the IGF acts as a soft influential space, and allows rights activists to engage with many key players, including ‘Internet giants’ like Google and Facebook. Speaking at one of the IGF sessions, the UN Special Rapporteur strongly advocated for human rights online, saying that just because the medium is different doesn’t mean that the rights change. He also subsequently wrote a report on the Freedom of Expression and Opinion for the Human Rights Commission with a focus on the Internet.

One of the biggest issues affecting Internet governance is intermediary liability, which means that intermediaries, rather than governments, are responsible for what happens online. While intermediaries originally just meant Internet Service Providers (ISPs), they now also include Internet portals, software, and games providers, including social media networks, chat rooms, and so on. Says Jac, ‘Intermediary liability means that there are layers, and the buck can always be passed.  [Ultimately], who really governs the Internet?’

This is an important question for sexual rights activists and the work they do. For example, when websites with information around sexual health and sexual rights get blocked, it can be difficult to pinpoint who the correct person to engage with is. Is it the government enforcing particular laws; is it the ISP for installing filtering software; is it a search engine company like Microsoft Bing or Yahoo! (both of whom block ‘sex’-related searches in India); or is it Facebook taking down content because it apparently violates their policies? It can be extremely difficult to tell.

Similarly, when sexual rights activists face threats online – from being harassed, to being stalked, to violations of privacy – who can we turn to for redress, justice, and action? If it’s the courts, are the laws strong enough? If it’s the intermediaries, what are the principles behind their policies? Who are they accountable to? These questions are also reasons why sexual rights activists need to engage with and influence how the Internet is governed, so that conversations around human rights and the Internet include the struggles, concerns and advancements of sexual rights activism. This is also one aspect of what EROTICS India is all about.

To learn more about – or get involved in – Internet governance, visit The Diplo Foundation’s website.

To find out more about Internet governance and policies from a gendered perspective, visit the APC GenderIT website.


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