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We Need to Talk About Ethical Porn

Many people argue in favor of “ethical porn” that allegedly guarantees performers’ consent, fair pay, and enjoyment. But is ethical porn really exploitation-free?

By September 21, 2022No Comments

In a world where many people seek to buy fair-trade chocolate and coffee, check if animals were treated humanely before being butchered for meat, and advocate for less consumption of fast fashion, the concept of “ethical porn” can seem really appealing.

But is it truly possible?

It’s becoming less of a secret that the mainstream porn industry has a history of exploitation. For that reason, many people argue in favor of “ethical porn” that allegedly guarantees performers’ consent, fair pay, and enjoyment. But is ethical porn really exploitation-free?

Related: How Ethical Is “Ethical Porn,” Really?

The reality is, porn sites can source their content two different ways (and sometimes a combination of the two): from user-generated content, or professional porn productions that include amateur and self-generated content.

In all of these cases, there can be serious issues concerning ethics and consent. No, not always, but the issue is more pervasive than you might expect. Let’s discuss.

BHW - General

The porn industry profits from abuse

First, let’s talk about why there are calls in the first place for accountability in the porn industry.

Porn is a powerful, multi-billion dollar industry. Three porn sites—XVideos, XNXX, and Pornhub—all rank among the top 20 most-visited websites in the world.Similarweb. (2021). Top websites ranking. Retrieved from https://www.similarweb.com/top-websites/Copy  The unfortunate truth is that the porn industry has an extensive history of profiting from nonconsensual content and abuse, often ignoring victims’ pleas to remove abusive content from popular sites.Kristof, N. (2021). Why do we let corporations profit from rape videos? New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/16/opinion/sunday/companies-online-rape-videos.htmlCopy Kristof, N. (2020). The children of Pornhub. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/04/opinion/sunday/pornhub-rape-trafficking.htmlCopy 

Related: Would AI-Generated Nudes Solve the Ethical Problems of Porn Sites?

And while Pornhub has received the most scrutiny as of late, it’s important to remember that virtually every major porn site has had issues with nonconsensual content and abuse.Kristof, N. (2021). Why do we let corporations profit from rape videos? New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/16/opinion/sunday/companies-online-rape-videos.htmlCopy Burgess, M. (2020). Deepfake porn is now mainstream. and major sites are cashing in. Retrieved from https://www.wired.co.uk/article/deepfake-porn-websites-videos-lawCopy Kristof, N. (2020). The children of Pornhub. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/04/opinion/sunday/pornhub-rape-trafficking.htmlCopy Meineck, S., & Alfering, Y. (2020). We went undercover in xHamster's unpaid content moderation team. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en/article/akdzdp/inside-xhamsters-unpaid-content-moderation-teamCopy 

Also, mainstream porn performers can be abused or taken advantage of in the industry with their abusers facing little to no repercussions. As more people begin to recognize the exploitative nature of the porn industry, however, many are calling for greater accountability and transparency.Kristof, N. (2020). The children of Pornhub. New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/04/opinion/sunday/pornhub-rape-trafficking.htmlCopy Reynolds, C. (2021). Survivors, NGOs call for criminal investigation of porn giant MindGeek. CBC News. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/calls-for-criminal-investigation-mindgeek-1.5937117Copy 

But is there a viable way to completely guarantee that the porn you’re watching is truly consensual and abuse-free?

Mainstream content, mainstream problems

Isn’t content created by official porn production companies and uploaded to well-known, mainstream sites more reliably consensual?

In an effort to brand content as “ethical porn” and soothe consumers’ worries about nonconsensual content—and absolve the producers of liability—some porn production companies film “exit interviews” where the performers confirm whether they consented to everything that was filmed. But even these supposed confirmations of consent have proven to be deeply problematic.

While exit interviews are presumably filmed after production has wrapped up, they are often filmed before the performers are paid. Even if they’ve already been paid, the guarantee that they’ll be booked for future jobs in the industry often depends on not “being difficult” or not saying something they experienced was abusive, since production companies cannot use the footage if a performer states they were assaulted or abused.

With their paychecks and careers hanging over the performers’ heads, and surrounded by a production crew and possibly the individual who assaulted them, it is not uncommon for porn performers to lie in their exit interviews. As one performer put it, “I was severely abused on set a few times… and had to say on camera at the end [that] I was fine. In fact, one time I said, ‘no, I am not okay,’ and they screamed at me that I couldn’t say that and get paid.”Fight the New Drug. (2021). Not all porn is consensual. Don’t believe it? just ask these performers.. Retrieved from https://fightthenewdrug.org/these-performers-expose-abuse-consent-issues-on-porn-set/Copy 

Related: If the Porn Industry was Ethical, Would that Make Porn Healthy to Watch?

One common argument in defense of porn is that professional performers are all “consenting adults” who “love their jobs.” But unfortunately, that is virtually impossible to guarantee.

In the porn industry, the lines between abuse and consent are so blurred, that there’s no viable way to tell the difference. Performers can be coerced into participating and into lying about their experiences on set, and consumers wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell the difference even if they were watching something nonconsensual.

Is it any wonder that if a performer has already been abused or pushed too far during filming, they might be afraid of inciting further abuse or industry scorn by speaking out?

Then, of course, there’s the issue of the freedom to revoke consent even if it’s already been given.

Related: Would “Exploitation-Free” Porn Be Harm-Free for Consumers?

Another performer described her experience of being whipped and caned for 35 minutes on set, saying, “I’ve never received a beating like that before in my life… I have permanent scars up and down the backs of my thighs. It was all things that I had consented to, but I didn’t know quite the brutality of what was about to happen to me until I was in it.”Conger, K. (2013 ). Gag order: Sex workers allege mistreatment at kink.com. SF Weekly. Retrieved from https://www.sfweekly.com/news/gag-order-sex-workers-allege-mistreatment-at-kink-com/Copy 

Did you catch what she said there? “It was all things that I had consented to.” That’s the problem with treating consent like it’s “all-or-nothing.” She consented to do X. She didn’t consent to do X, Y, and Z.

This is important: true and valid consent can be withdrawn at any moment, yet many performers are required to sign contracts prior to the actual shooting, making it incredibly difficult to revoke consent even if the situation becomes uncomfortable or dangerous.

Related: How Porn Can Fuel Sex Trafficking

Is a “yes” truly valid if “no” is not a safe option? The fact that they won’t be paid or their industry reputation will be damaged if they do revoke consent in the middle of a scene is an element of coercion that invalidates their consent in the first place, and could even be legally defined as a form of sex trafficking in some cases.

Get The Facts

Unfortunately, abuse in the porn industry is incredibly pervasive. And when you look closely, you find that there is virtually no formal system for reporting and addressing that abuse in a way that holds abusers accountable while keeping performers safe.

Consider the real experiences of Alia who was a popular, award-winning mainstream performer in porn. She never did what she would describe “fringe” or “fetish” work, and yet, she experienced trafficking and exploitation without recognizing that’s what it was.

Those who do publicly report or speak out about abuse in the industry are often blacklisted, threatened, dismissed, or further abused.Lange, A. (2018). This woman says authorities doubted her sexual assault claim because she does porn. Buzzfeed News. Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/arianelange/nikki-benz-porn-defamation-lawsuit-metoo#.ldPVz1Yg0YCopy Clark-Flory, T. (2018). Porn actors Leigh Raven and Riley Nixon allege abuse, violence, and boundary violation on set. Jezebel. Retrieved from https://jezebel.com/porn-actors-leigh-raven-and-riley-nixon-allege-abuse-v-1823677195Copy  Plus, many performers struggle to find work outside of the porn industry due to the stigma of being a former porn performer. Performers are punished inside and out of the industry, the accused perpetrators walk free, and the cycle continues.

Of course, we’re not claiming that all porn contains abuse or nonconsensual content. But in order for consumers to make informed decisions regarding porn, we think it’s important to point out that some pornographic content isn’t consensual—and it’s virtually impossible to guarantee which is which. There have been many cases of nonconsensual content featured on the same pages of consensual content.

Related: If a Porn Performer is Abused During a Scene, Where Do They Report It?

Non-mainstream alternatives, are they better?

Many pro-porn advocates who recognize the harms and damages of the mainstream porn industry and mainstream sites now advocate for porn consumers to get their content from alternative sites that put more control in content creators’ hands.

But no site is perfect, unfortunately, and even many non-mainstream porn platforms still can have underage or abusive content. Sites that feature self-created content are not absolved of ethical issues.

One example of a non-mainstream site that many porn advocates tout as a solution to the issues of nonconsensual content is OnlyFans. And while OnlyFans theoretically takes more precautions than many other sites, it is still not exempt from these issues.

Related: Not All Porn is Consensual. Don’t Believe It? Just Ask These Performers.

For example, despite being advertised as an ethical alternative to porn tube sites, OnlyFans has also been found to host child sexual abuse material and nonconsensual content.Titheradge, N., & Croxford, R. (2021). The children selling explicit videos on OnlyFans. BBC News Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-57255983Copy 

OnlyFans claims to have a robust system for preventing abusive content, including verifying content creators’ age, yet an investigation by the BBC reveals that OnlyFans’ age verification process has not been able to efficiently prevent child pornography from being uploaded to the site.de Gallier, T. (2020). The hidden danger of selling nudes online. BBC News. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/bbcthree/article/5e7dad06-c48d-4509-b3e4-6a7a2783ce30Copy 

Store - Trafficking

Many underage creators have been found to use fake identification to create an account on OnlyFans, with one 14-year-old even using her grandmother’s passport.Titheradge, N., & Croxford, R. (2021). The children selling explicit videos on OnlyFans. BBC News Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-57255983Copy  And regardless, OnlyFans does not require uploaders to verify the age or consent of all participants—only the account owner—which means that nonconsensual content can be easily uploaded to the platform.OnlyFans. Account approval/account application requirements. Retrieved from https://onlyfans.com/help/3/18/73Copy 

Now, maybe you’re thinking, Well that’s not the porn sites’ fault! They can’t monitor everything uploaded to their sites! But Pornhub, for example, has repeatedly stated, “Upon upload, every video and photo… is reviewed manually by a large and extensive team of moderators looking for illegal content”.Pornhub. (2020). Answers to community questions. Retrieved from https://www.pornhub.com/blog/10012Copy 

If a site that hosts and profits from pornographic content cannot be 100% certain every single piece of content is consensual and non-exploitative, they can very easily be complicit in profiting from and perpetuating abuse, trafficking, and exploitation.

Related: How Porn Performers Can be Sex Trafficked Without Realizing It

Of course, it can be difficult for anyone to determine whether a performer is 17 or 18, and whether they’re acting the part or whether the abuse is real. But this statement from Pornhub is particularly concerning considering that there have been reports of child sexual abuse involving small children—in some cases, toddlers still wearing diapers—being uploaded to porn sites and monetized with ads.Gorman, G. (2020). Child abuse victim says porn website Pornhub profited from her child rape. News.Com.Au. Retrieved from https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/real-life/news-life/child-abuse-victim-says-porn-website-pornhub-profited-from-her-child-rape/news-story/7e3880aa4a94504acea7675bb8112cffCopy 

Even sites that claim to be “by women, for women” and an ethical source of content cannot follow through with guaranteeing their videos are exploitation-free.

One example of a site that is rising in popularity is Bellesa.co, a brand that focuses on women’s pleasure and sexual empowerment and a more ethical alternative to mainstream porn sites.

Related: How Does the Porn Industry Make Its Money Today?

Sounds like a solution to the ethical porn site dilemma, right? But in the footer of the Bellesa.co site—their main porn site interface—they have a link to this disclaimer (link trigger warning) that was changed November 2021, but it initially said what the screenshot shows below:

“Bellesa does not create, produce or direct any of the content found on the Website. As a platform that displays video content hosted on third-party websites, we instruct our users to only upload content that features performers who are at least 18 years of age. While we do our very best to ensure that uploaders comply with these terms of service, due to the overwhelming volume of content uploaded, we cannot guarantee a rate of compliance of 100%.”

Bellesa-films

October 2021 screenshot from Bellesa.co’s site

Not even “ethical” sites allegedly by women and for women can 100% guarantee consensual, exploitation-free content.

And besides, whether monitoring content is truly effective or not, there’s also the problem of cost. Consider the issues with moderation that Sarah Ditum poses for The Guardian. She’s referring to OnlyFans, but the same concept applies to any for-profit porn site that seeks to moderate content:

“Moderation, especially pre-moderating all content, which is the only way to ensure nothing criminal slips through, is expensive. (It’s also traumatic for the moderators, who have to see all the terrible things that the rest of the world needs protecting from.) Using moderation to clamp down on users who make money would eat into profits even further. Platforms that host user-generated content of any kind are inevitably caught between the demands of decency and profit. When the content involved is porn, however, the push to extremity and the proximity to illegal activity make the tensions especially keen.”

Related: Does the Porn Industry Have Ethical Business Practices?

What are the implications of that? The fact is, the vast, vast majority of people who regularly consume porn are logging onto free-to-view sites that do not prioritize moderation, safety, and rooting out exploitation. The largest, most popular sites are also those that make the most money from views, clicks, and downloads. Moderation is not a profitable venture, and it is not often exhaustively utilized on popular porn sites.

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The unfortunate fact

So, how can you know whether the porn you’re watching is truly consensual? Well, the unfortunate reality is that in the porn industry, there is no guarantee.

It is virtually impossible to know whether any particular content is consensual, ethical, or even legal. At the end of the day, is it worth it? Is it worth contributing to the demand that keeps afloat an industry that profits from nonconsensual content?

Is it worth the possibility of contributing to someone’s exploitation or re-traumatization?

Related: Is It Healthier or More Ethical to Watch Porn if You Pay For It?

But even if consent in porn could be fully guaranteed, that wouldn’t make porn harm-free. There are hundreds and hundreds of peer-reviewed studies that show how porn can play a role in relationship issues, poorer mental health, normalizing sexual violence.

So while the concept of ethical porn may be well-intentioned, unfortunately, there is still no way to guarantee that it’s truly exploitation-free. And regardless, porn can still have serious negative effects on the consumer and their relationships. Is watching worth it?

For the sake of victims and consumers alike, it’s time to stop the demand.

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