One would expect Sunny Leone’s adult film career to spark controversy in India. The Indo-Canadian Penthouse Pet has won multiple awards for her porn performances, including the 2010 AVN Award for best all-girl group sex scene.
But it’s Leone’s appearance in a relatively tame condom commercial that has Indian politicians accusing her of acting “shabby,” “ugly,” and “immoral” to “sexually provoke” men. One outraged politician even claimed Leone’s participation in the advertisement, which has been airing since late last year, will cause “incidents of rape [to] increase.”
In the 2014 commercial for Manforce condoms, the gorgeous Leone, who has been starring in mainstream Bollywood films in recent years, scampers across a beach in a bikini with a sheer cover-up while an equally hot shirtless guy playfully follows her. The final few moments of the 30-second commercial feature Leone, still in the cover-up, lying on the sand running her fingers through it.
At best, the ad is a less sexually ecstatic version of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, which did spark controversy—three decades ago. From the way some Indian politicians have reacted to the condom ad, though, you would think it was more graphic than her scenes with James Deen.
But far more disturbing than the accusations that Leone’s Manforce commercial is sexually graphic is the claim that it is sexually provocative to the point it may cause men to attack women.
This height of sexual provocativeness does not exist—it operates on the false premise that women cause their own rapes. Yet multiple Indian politicians, and even some who seek to protect women, have attacked Leone and the ad.
“It is such a dirty and horrific advertisement that develops your sexuality and destroys your sensibility,” said Atul Kamar Anjan, senior leader of the Communist Party of India, at a rally Tuesday in Uttar Pradesh.
“If such advertisements for condoms appear in the country’s TV channels and newspapers, then incidents of rape will increase. It needs to be stopped,” Anjan told the crowd.
To add insult to injury, in the same tirade, Anjan brought up Leone’s “dirty films” and said that “after watching just two minutes, I kept vomiting.” Sure you did, Anjan.
But the Communist Party leader was far from the only prominent figure to air his victim-blaming views. Even more disturbingly, the former chairwoman for the Delhi Commission for Women, Barkha Singh, echoed Anjan’s sentiments.
“The shabby, ugly, or immoral way the actress seduces or sexually provokes a man in the advertisement to use condoms is nothing but serving immorality and bad practice,” Singh said, calling for the commercial to be removed from the airwaves.
“It sounds ridiculous that on one hand the so-called leaders of our country and ruling party talk about women’s safety and security, whereas on the other hand make women an object of display and sex through advertisements which are highly uncalled for,” she added.
While her point about female sexual objectification is slightly more nuanced and enlightened than Anjan’s, the two appear to share a core belief that sexual assault can be provoked or incited by an expression of female sexuality. Both imply that women can somehow be the cause of their rapes—a notion as misguided as it is abhorrent.
“To some extent, [Anjan’s] critique was an issue of taste, propriety, but then he made an incorrect and wrong-focused argument that the way a woman dresses factors into rape,” Dr. Patricia Morris, president of Women Thrive Worldwide, a global women’s advocacy nonprofit, told The Daily Beast. “We know that’s not the case. Rape is a crime of power and control.”
Leone does not appear to have gotten too caught up in the fray, possibly because she appears to be on a safari vacation with her husband, Daniel Weber, according to her tweets. Still, she did post a response of sorts via Twitter.
“Sad when people of power waste their time and energy on me, instead of focusing on helping those in need!!!!! #SHAME #EPICFAIL,” Leone tweeted on Thursday.
Anjan has since issued the epitome of the sorry-not-sorry apology.
“I apologize, but I don’t stand for such ads,” he was quoted as saying in The Times of India on Thursday. The politician also told the paper that “Sunny Leone’s condom advertisements are vulgar” and that he still opposes them.
A number of activists in India and around the globe have roundly denounced Anjan’s remarks.
“Comrade—rape is caused by men’s sense of entitlement and lack of concern for women’s autonomy and consent. Not by pornography, naked women, or any other ‘provocation,’” Kavita Krishnan, a fellow Communist Party member and secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, said in response to Anjan’s remarks on Facebook:
Still, there is something both galling and sad that the idea that women provoke rape is very much alive in certain circles in India—especially when one considers the attention and outrage sexual assaults there have garnered in recent years. Perhaps the most infamous example was in December 2012, when 23-year-old Jyoti Singh was gang-raped and killed on a bus.
While the gruesome attack made headlines around the world, it only focused our attention on the crisis of India’s rape culture for a moment. Just a few months ago, Neesha Arter lamented in an article on The Daily Beast that “the awareness and attention the national and international media has allotted to India’s rape epidemic is not enough to prompt true progress...one might assume the problem lessened over time, but the reality remains the same.”
As unfortunate evidence of Arter’s assessment, two women in India were ordered to be gang-raped just last month because their brother eloped with a married woman of a higher caste.
Morris said she was not necessarily surprised that the idea that women are responsible for their own rapes is still widespread in India. At the same time, she cautioned against assuming that the U.S. and other parts of the Western world are free of such ignorance.
“That perspective is actually still present in some portions of society in the U.S,” she said. “I don’t think it’s simply endemic to India. Because there is a lot more dialogue and discussion in the U.S., especially with things like Take Back the Night [the nonprofit group and event held to raise awareness about sexual violence], there is more of an awareness and an outcry. If a politician in the U.S. made those remarks, there would be more of a cost.” But cost doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t quietly—or not so quietly—espouse those beliefs.
Still, raising awareness may be the first step toward changing the centuries-old, if not millennia-old, belief that women can provoke, and thus be held responsible for, the sexual assault perpetrated against them. Perhaps once politicians realize that such a belief is not “politically correct,” they will eventually understand how truly horrendous and ignorant their victim-blaming attitude is.
“People need to understand the consequences of these beliefs,” Morris said. “With victims and survivors of sexual violence, so much has been covered up. As a result, half the time, people don’t even know what they’re talking about. It’s like they’re living in some fantasy world and don’t know what it’s really like for women and men around the world.”