“He will kill you.” Her daughter’s words had jolted her. Lying in the hospital two years ago, with a broken hand recently operated on, Lata Agarwal (name changed) was compelled to rethink the 33 years she had given to her marriage. None of what her daughter said was new to Agarwal — she had been aware of the danger in continuing to live with her husband, a violent man addicted to pornography. This was the fourth time the abusive relationship had landed her in hospital. She had believed she ought to save the marriage for the sake of her children. But her daughter told her she had done more damage. “I had spent all my energies trying to deal with my marriage, with no time left to focus on them. They had grown up without me,” she says.
Seated in a coffee shop in a Mumbai suburb, Agarwal looks like any professional woman in her 50s. She is tall, and the slim trousers she has paired with a blue shirt adds to her height. Throughout the conversation, her body language is confident, her voice steady, even when she speaks of her abuse. She says she has regained her confidence since she separated from her husband two years ago. In this time, the 56-year-old has trained as a counsellor for women facing domestic abuse, completed a postgraduate diploma in business management, and gone to court against what she believes ruined her life — pornography.
Earlier this year, Agarwal filed a petition in the Supreme Court, in support of a petition filed four years ago by Indore-based lawyer Kamlesh Vaswani, asking for restrictions on pornographic websites. “Porn destroyed my life. Through the women I meet as a counsellor, I have come to realise I am not alone. This is very common. It needs addressing so that more women and families don’t suffer like me,” she says.
Agarwal meanders while recounting the complicated story of how she — an educated and once financially independent woman — got here. Education, she says with a cynical laugh, is of little help “if one is plain foolish”. “Look at me. A chemical engineer from Roorkee College of Engineering, which is today an IIT. What did I do with my life?” It took immense effort for her to speak up and share her story. “It meant revisiting the pain and humiliation of over three decades…” she says, glancing at her wrist that bears the scars of surgery, “But I will try.”
The sexual abuse began early, Agarwal says, thinking back to 1985, the year of her marriage. “I was initially surprised that my husband would find the need to flip through Playboy magazines every day, or watch a porn movie. I asked a few friends and was told it’s common for men to do that, so I kept quiet,” she says. But when some months later, the sexual demands made by her husband escalated, she was taken aback.
“He wanted more sex and he wanted things acted out that I wasn’t comfortable with,” she says. Initially, she made some compromises, played along. But over time, his sexual appetite increased. Each refusal was met with physical abuse, often in an intoxicated state. The assaults persisted outside the bedroom as well. “A disagreement, something not done to his liking, any protest, led to a slap, tugging at my hair, throwing things around,” she says.
Agarwal knew she ought to protest, but hadn’t she also grown up around violence? “I had watched my mother suffer abuse at the hands of my father. Patriarchy seemed common, even normal, in the small town in Uttar Pradesh where I was born and brought up,” she says. A bright student, she scored well throughout school, but while her father often discussed a possible career in engineering for her brothers, her future was never considered.
One day, a friend of her brother was visiting and he had a spare application form for the Roorkee College of Engineering. She sent her application through him. In a few weeks, she received an acceptance letter from the college, but her father refused to let her join. “My elder sister is 16 years older. Her husband insisted that I study. My traditional father, unable to refuse his son-in-law, was left with no choice,” she says.
It was after college, in the initial months of working, that Agarwal met Amit through common friends. He was charming and persistent. But she was hesitant to marry at all, after having seen her mother suffer. Eventually, she agreed. After a brief courtship, they made their love official, and got married. Everything seemed normal and happy, he was attentive and caring, and the first few weeks passed blissfully.
Her son was six when she first attempted suicide.
Amit had already made her quit her job at a prominent company within months of their marriage. “His porn addiction and what was going on within the walls of our bedroom was too embarrassing to discuss with anyone,” she says. She had no financial backup, no support from her parents, and her in-laws insisted that she needed to be a coy, subservient wife and do more to not attract his wrath.
When she woke up in the hospital after the first attempt, her in-laws coerced her into telling the police that it was an accident. She had consumed poison by mistake.
A daughter was born soon after, yet another attempt to make the husband “fall in line”, as suggested by well-wishers. But what followed instead was more emotional abuse. “It was clear that he was now seeking pleasure outside the marriage. When my house help complained that he had made a move on her, I dismissed it. Surely, he wouldn’t fancy her,” she says. Only years later, the whispers of acquaintances and relatives confirmed the allegation.
In a hall in Delhi’s Vasant Vihar neighbourhood, a bunch of men meet every Monday evening. While the India chapter of Sex Addicts Anonymous has seen close to 200 participants from all over India in the two years since it started, only close to 15 have been regular. Sameer Dhar (name changed), who started the India chapter, explains that sex and porn addiction cannot be cured, only managed. “It’s a long, long process, and a tough one to manage because it’s an extension of an otherwise normal human instinct,” he says. People rarely understand the shame and the loneliness that the addict undergoes, he says. As his regular family life begins to deteriorate, an addict is plunged into isolation.
Quoting from the 12-step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous, Dhar says, milder substances like beer are considered the gateway to addiction. “Similarly, in most cases, it begins with watching soft pornography and goes on to its more violent or explicit versions, which one then attempts to emulate in the bedroom,” says Dhar, who believes that porn glorifies the objectification, subjugation and exploitation of women.
Rajat Mehta (name changed)’s addiction started when he was all of 10, more as a reward mechanism — he would masturbate when he did something good. “Later, porn affected my perception of what sex in real life might be. It is a distorted view. What you see in porn is not real, especially the women. So when you see real women, you may not be attracted. What you want is the photoshopped image of the websites. If your wife is loving or caring, she might agree to certain things, but she won’t be happy about it. You force these things on her because you are in a position of power. What you’re left with is resentment and anger,” says Mehta, now in his 60s. When his wife refused, he resorted to paid sex. Mehta would live with the condition for five decades before seeking help. “After retirement, I didn’t have the money to pay for sex and my health was suffering. That’s what pushed me to join SAA,” he says.
Mumbai-based sexologist Rajan Bhonsle cites the example of a young lawyer, now in rehab. “He inherited a law firm and was doing very well. But he was addicted to the extent that he would skip hearings and meetings, and spend time in a library, watching porn on his phone or laptop. This continued till he lost out on business and his relationship with his wife began to deteriorate,” he says.
Porn or sex addiction is often tied up with other substance abuse, such as alcohol or drugs. The tendency to inflict sexual and physical violence on partners is common in addicts, says Bhonsle.
After the December 16 gangrape of a 23-year-old in Delhi, Vaswani had moved the Supreme Court asking it to block porn websites. The accused had reportedly watched porn for hours before they assaulted the woman with unspeakable brutality. “I decided to support him because I know how long and continuous exposure to porn can alter a person,” says Agarwal. While the petition supports Vaswani’s argument, Agarwal is not seeking any relief.
In 2015, Vaswani succeeded in getting the apex court to pass an interim order blocking 857 porn websites. The order was revoked after five days. A 16-year-old from Kota has also filed an additional petition, citing cases of his friends addicted to porn. Now Vaswani awaits the execution of the final order, passed in February last year, which was in their favour. “A lobby of telecom companies benefit from pornography viewing,” says Vaswani, who points out that it is a crime under Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code.
Not everyone believes that banning porn is a solution. “I’d say no,” says a recovering addict and a member of SAA. “A ban won’t help at all. Look at how they try to curb alcohol sale. Similarly, it’s not going to change anything,” he says.
Those who oppose a ban on porn argue that it is dangerous to allow the law/state into the bedroom. Bhonsle, who consults in sex and porn addiction cases, points out that triggers are everywhere, including item numbers and pop-up windows while browsing on a completely innocent subject. “Porn has been around even before internet came about. And those who desired it managed to source it back then too,” he says. He agrees, however, that the easy availability via the internet makes it worse.
According to lawyer Nandita Saikia, if the dissemination of pornography is to be legal, there are questions about how that legality should be structured so that it does not become legal to disseminate explicit content which has been either filmed or disseminated without the consent of those who feature in it.
“There are, in theory, already safeguards in place relating to child pornography, but there are no safeguards worth mentioning targeting non-consensual adult pornography, whether in terms of revenge porn (with disgruntled former partners disseminating explicit images), trophy porn (with rapists filming and disseminating rape), or other forms of non-consensual porn,” she writes in a blog. Saikia also points out that the talk about pornography in Indian public discourse revolves around the consumers. “There is almost no recognition worth mentioning of the rights of those who appear in pornography.”
Agarwal and Vaswani argue that even if a ban has no major upside, it may curb the frequency with which people are turning into addicts. “It’s freely available now, children have access to it. By not banning it, we are making more children vulnerable to the addiction,” says Agarwal. Dhar supports the view as most cases of sex and porn addiction begin at an early age.
Years passed, the children grew up but Amit’s sexual escapades became more rampant. He was no longer trying to hide his liaisons. He broke her hand once because she was trying to stop him from forcing himself on her. Soon after, he threatened divorce. “The police had landed up at our house and this time, too, I had covered up for him. He then proposed that I allow the other woman to come home freely, let them use our bedroom. He thought I would not refuse because I loved him too much,” she says . To his surprise, she drew a line and said no.
For a month after he left her, Agarwal could not sleep. She says she still misses him. “It was 33 years of marriage, after all, which gave me two beautiful children. We haven’t had a single meal together as a family in the last two years,” she says.
Instead, she focussed her energies on moving on and rebuilding her life. Divorce isn’t an option, she says, because the legal system takes years to resolve domestic abuse cases. “The wife in such cases is mostly bereft of a support system nor is she financially independent to pay the lawyers,” she says. Alongside counselling, Agarwal has taken up a job with an NGO in the women’s health sector and is working towards financial independence as well as a “meaningful life”. She is no longer on anti-depressants.
It is the damage to her bond with her children that rankles. Both in their 20s, they are unaware of the father’s addiction. While the son knows of the petition she has filed, the daughter believes that the separation was the result of his philandering ways. “She grudges me for not being an attentive mother while he blames me for announcing that my husband is a porn addict, something he believes I have done out of spite. My son doesn’t talk to me anymore although we live in the same house. I am waiting for the day he will be willing to listen to me with an open mind,”she says.
Let’s Talk About (Too Much) Sex
Sex addiction is defined as sexually compulsive behaviour, uncontrollable even though the individual knows it has negative consequences. American psychologist Patrick Carnes, who coined the term ‘sex addiction’, said that if you’re spending over 14 hours a week doing something sexual or quasi-sexual, like cruising the internet for porn or cruising the streets looking for a particular type of prostitute, you are in the addictive range. Excessive viewing of porn is often one of the symptoms of sex addiction, but can be an independent problem as well.
* In India, cases of sex/ porn addiction are mostly dealt with by sexologists.
* There are limited but growing avenues to address the malaise. In Bangalore, NIMHANS’s internet de-addiction centre also addresses porn addiction.
* The India chapter of Sex Addicts Anonymous started in 2014 in Delhi and is looking to expand. It can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
– With inputs from Asad Ali