Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Decency trumps birth control, safe sex

Given India's population surge, greater awareness is more urgently needed than debating questions of decency

The government, in an advisory issued by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry on Monday, strictly asked TV channels not to air advertisements selling and promoting condoms during prime time. The advisory invoked Rule 7 (7) and Rule 7 (8) of the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994, banning an “advertisement which endangers the safety of children or create in them any interest in unhealthy practices or shows them begging or in an undignified or indecent manner.” It further states: “.. All TV channels are hereby advised not to telecast the advertisements of condoms which are for a particular age group and could be indecent/inappropriate for viewing by children. Indecent, vulgar, suggestive, repulsive or offensive themes or treatment shall be avoided in all advertisements."
The development reportedly follows a request made by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) earlier this month to the I&B ministry to take a call on such ads and their telecast timing. Consequently, the ministry swiftly responded: “It has been brought to the notice of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting that some channels carry advertisements of condoms repeatedly which are alleged to be indecent especially for children. Such advertisements may be telecast between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. to avoid exposure of such material to children."
Population control and safe sex are an undeniable goal of the country teeming with hyperactive youth. A recent Times of India article quotes research published in The Lancet, a respected scientific journal, that claims that 1.6 crore abortions take place in India annually, with 81% carried out at homes, mostly with the help of off-the-counter pills. Take another example: In September, a new condom advertisement, released just before the Hindu festival Navratri, drew protests from a Surat-based group. The ad, featuring Sunny Leone, was displayed on hoardings and carried a message in Gujarati “play but with love” that obviously hinted at the nine-nights long dancing festival. Of course, cultural pride was at loggerheads with the messaging and a city-based group Hindu Yuva Vahini staged a protest; the particular ad was soon pulled back. So what next is on the cards - surrogate advertising for condoms? 
Coming back to the advisory, if the issue was to "safeguard" children from indecent exposure, there is an ocean of information out there, other than television, which can evade all types of censorship unless a blanket ban and trip back to the pre-Internet era is on mind. These are the perils of having being technologically advanced and culturally adapted. Why just target condom commercials? Because they deal with the very pertinent aspect of pleasure and reproduction - and because discussing the same is still not considered kosher? Well, here's some news - advertisements of many other products are sensual in nature and put women as the object of desire even though what they are attempting to sell is a far take from something pretty useful as condoms - chocolates, mango juices, ice creams, deodorants, perfumes, underwear, soft drinks, even inverters and cement(!). 
Given the examples above, the government's move, in targeting condom ads alone, is questionable. On the other hand, if it were to perform a sweeping censorship of whatever is deemed "indecent" based on its mysterious, subjective standards - and factor in the brutal crimes reported 24/7 from all parts of the country - we might have a drastically limited list of things to see on television. It is a rather ambiguous process of determining what is "decent."
India's population surge, spike in sexual assaults and child abuse cannot be denied. Greater awareness is more urgently required than debating questions of decency. Of course, a prime-time ban is not a solution. But, let's move away from the ban a bit and focus on the ads by themselves. Here's the thing, if we leave aside the moral-policing laced decision, and consider the type of advertisements that exist on Indian television - it is undeniable that most commercials in general - and condom advertising in particular - has focussed just on erotica and sensuality. The same issues and flip sides that are raised now to reject the ban, unfortunately, they aren't sufficiently raised by the commercials either.
When it comes to condom ads, there are hardly any glimpses of responsible messaging that promote the responsibility, safety and birth-control aspects. The need for being more open, by portraying women as choice-makers is also lacking. While contraceptive ads do picture coy women intent on respectful family planning, condoms have culturally and commercially been assigned a strictly male domain. This, when the product is by far the only popular scientific way to safeguard both partners from sexually transmitted diseases. Women are vulnerable from a health stand-point if they were only to rely on contraceptives. But, how many women do actually go and purchase a pack on their own. That would be too "indecent" even if it were at the cost of their well-being.
The idea of "decency" is in play with the notion that it is alright, even macho, if men get into a pharmacy to buy a pack of condoms. But, more often than not there are scandalised judgements if a woman does so. A YouTube video captured the comments and discussions that followed a woman's attempt to buy condoms. The sexist comments, which bring up the question of decency time and again in the conversation, completely overlook that fact that sex involves two people and both have equal rights to ensure their safety. 

- First published in The Goan Everyday