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Why Sunny Leone Can Probably Never Be An ‘Honourable’ Woman

Can any female porn star?

20/06/2017 9:01 AM IST | Updated 20/06/2017 1:07 PM IST
Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Every time Sunny Leone is interviewed by anybody at all for anything at all she is asked about her past. The line of questioning that's loaded with an overbearing moral undertone ranges from feverishly curious to offensively personal. In a recent interview Sunny Leone was asked by interviewer Bhupendra Chaubey what her biggest regret was. She answered that she couldn't be beside her mother when she passed away. Chaubey dismissed her response only to pose the question repeatedly in different ways. If I were to turn the clock back, would you still do what you did? Will I become morally corrupted because I am interviewing you? Despite her being entirely unapologetic, it seems that interviewers often seek to elicit responses of shame, guilt, repentance and admittance to "dishonourable" professional choices.

An honourable man protects, provides, defends the honour of his women, but a woman's honour is entirely based on her sexual reputation...

Culturally, only a conjugal couple, a heterosexual one at that, are the true custodians of sex. All other kinds of sexual desires are entirely deviant. Within this normative, unilateral narrative that exists today, only a morally upright person can be an honourable person. Merriam Webster defines the word moral as "concerning or relating to what is right and wrong in human behaviour," yet somewhere along the way the concept has become irretrievably entwined with sexual conduct, but not in a gender-just manner.

While honour is the conjoined twin of morality, the notions of honour for men and women are defined differently. Over the years feminist scholarship has argued that for the man honour is often constructed as a catalogue of many, usually heroic, deeds. An honourable man protects, provides, defends the honour of his women, but a woman's honour is entirely based on her sexual reputation and an imposed sexual conduct that restricts her mobility and polices her every move. A man must defend his honour, a woman must preserve hers. It is quite simply that. Mediatised representations portray honourable men as people who keep their word, command respect, deliver promises against all odds. According to our movies petty thieves and seasoned criminals can still be honourable people owing to their gallant efforts for some larger cause, a greater good, but a dancing girl wearing a sequinned bodice is almost always dishonourable.

Social anthropologist Julian Pitt-Rivers defines honour, apart from other things as, "one's estimation of one's own worth, one's claim to pride and one's right to pride." It is this "right to pride" that always comes under attack whenever Sunny Leone is interviewed According to the grand narrative, adult stars cannot be honourable people because they must not feel proud, they have no right to feel pride.

According to the grand narrative, adult stars cannot be honourable people because they must not feel proud, they have no right to feel pride.

The honour of a man remains untarnished despite his sexual reputation. From Salman Khan to John Mayer to Jack Nicholson, all of them have waxed eloquent about their sexual exploits in mainstream media. Jack Nicholson, for example, has claimed to have slept with more than 2000 women, boasting, "Their mothers... some of them with their mothers." Can a woman today, anywhere in the world, get away with the advertisement of her sexual life in such high-decibel terms? A man's sexual exploits are not detrimental in the construction of his masculine honour. For a woman, on the other hand, honour is singularly, specifically and entirely about chastity and sexual reputation. On account of its historical construction, the social code of female honour is overwhelmingly seen in sexual terms.

When Sunny Leone entered the Bigg Boss house in 2011 her identity as an adult star, a successful one at that, was concealed. While it may be incorrect to make a sweeping generalisation, one can say with some certainty that both male and female porn stars often resort to concealing their identities at some point of time or the other. However, the consequences faced by women when their identity is revealed maybe much greater than when a man's identity is revealed. Since sex in most societies is a taboo topic, identity concealment is seen as necessary to live an "ordinary" life devoid of excess scrutiny. Everybody is presumed to be honourable until seemingly dishonourable choices or conduct are revealed.

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Pornography vs. prostitution

"Porn star doesn't automatically mean prostitute," Sunny famously said in an interview to the Times of India soon after her stint on reality TV show Bigg Boss ended.

For conservatives around the world both occupations are viewed through a moral lens and therefore no great distinction is made between the two. Both professions are seen as diabolical and a source of moral corruption of society.

[W]hat needs scrutiny is this: what does it actually and possibly mean for a porn star to assert that she is not a prostitute?

Conservative government and policymakers around the world view pornography as a threat to family and tradition and approve of the argument that pornography is a cause of sexual violence. Some even consider prostitution to be the lesser of the two evils given that there is no record of the activity and that it happens in a very private sphere that people might remain oblivious to. With the rise of technology, pornography has the dubious distinction of being "a Google search away."

In the 70s and 80s, when the sex wars intensified in the United States, there were attempts made by many sections of the conservative population with support from the Republicans to ban pornography and shut down the industry by persecuting those involved in the production of adult films and charging them under anti-prostitution laws.

The issue came to the forefront when criminal prosecution was initiated against Harold Freeman, a producer of adult films in California on the basis that he was procuring people "for the purpose of prostitution;" he was also charged with pimping.

Freeman was initially convicted and even lost on appeal. However, the Supreme Court of California, the last court of resort for courts within California, overturned the conviction by making a distinction that he did not hire the actors to gratify him. The verdict is considered a landmark verdict because it distinguished between someone who accepts money to perform sexual services (prostitution) and someone who is "merely portraying a sexual relationship on-screen as part of their acting performance." The court further noted that although male and female actors were hired to perform sexually explicit content the criminal charges were brought about solely based on the conduct of female actors and therefore were biased in nature. This judgement probably also grounds the discussions around why pornography is legal in a lot more countries than prostitution, which is routinely criminalised.

[I]t is perhaps her steady marriage that brings about [Leone's] overall acceptance... patriarchal Indian society often looks to male members of the family for permission and approval of feminine behaviour.

Legality apart, however, what needs scrutiny is this: what does it actually and possibly mean for a porn star to assert that she is not a prostitute? What does it mean for India's most searched celebrity (in 2016), ahead of even Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who stokes Indian imagination like none other in recent times, to make this distinction in public? Is there a sense of conceit?

This clear demarcation between private sexual behaviour and professional sexual activity is peculiar to pornographic stars because of the divide provided by the on-camera-off-camera nature of their work. This divide enables pornographic stars to access institutions like marriage that is perhaps not as easily available to prostitutes.

Sunny Leone's marriage to Daniel Weber has been a topic of much deliberation and has generated a lot of curiosity. It may well be worth wondering if it is perhaps her steady marriage that brings about her overall acceptance despite the many backlashes she faces for her past and the many brickbats she faces for her choice of films in Bollywood films. This is backed by the argument that patriarchal Indian society often looks to male members of the family for permission and approval of feminine behaviour. This approval then becomes a sort of finality and a "should be enough for everybody" because it privileges male authorisation of female conduct and performance in public. The terms of conversation is based on the following lines: As long as her husband has allowed her to do what she wants, what is anybody else's problem? Sunny and her husband attend all events together and the media often reports about the success story of their togetherness. Coupled with the fact that since her entry into Bollywood there has been no whiff of a romantic linkup with any of her co-stars, she cruises along from one film to another, albeit typecast in sexually explicit roles.

Can there be another, broader definition of feminine honour that looks beyond a woman's sexuality?

As a feminist project, if one were to divorce feminine honour from sexual reputation, destroy the moral lens and look at a former pornographic performer like Sunny Leone through her own eyes, where she sees herself as simply an adult entertainment professional, then why can't adult stars be honourable people? Only a feminist project might be able to bring about this divorce and in most other contests, the marriage between feminine honour and sexual reputation will continue

Can there be another, broader definition of feminine honour that looks beyond a woman's sexuality? The answer to that might bring us to another roadblock: essentialist, traditional gender roles that construct, through a patriarchal lens, the values of a "good" woman who by extension becomes honourable only if she serves her husband and family with devotion, because it is her moral duty. However, if one were to add sexual agency to this, the "good" woman might be constructed as a devious and unchaste Adarsh Liberal despite dutiful behaviour in the household.

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