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Producing “Ethical Porn” Is Impossible, Here’s Why

It’s harder than ever to deny that pornography use, given its addictive, misogynistic, and violent nature, has a range of negative impacts on consumers.

By December 15, 2020No Comments
The following article was originally posted on The Ethics Centre’s blog, a nonprofit dedicated to navigating the complexity and uncertainty of difficult ethical issues. It has been reposted with permission. Links added by FTND.

By Dr. Emma Wood

Would violence-free, non-misogynist, and fairly-paid porn be possible? Would the porn be ethical, or are there other concerns?

It’s hard to separate violence and sex in lots of today’s internet pornography. Easily accessible content includes simulated rape, women being slapped, punched and subject to multitudes of misogynistic insults.

It’s also harder than ever to deny that pornography use, given its addictive, misogynistic, and violent nature, has a range of negative impacts on consumers. First exposure to internet porn in Western countries takes place before puberty for a significant fraction of children today.  A disturbingly high proportion of teenage boys and young men today believe rape myths as a result of porn exposure. Plus there is evidence suggesting exposure to violent, X-rated material leads to a dramatic increase in perpetration of sexual violence.

It is also difficult to deny that the practices of the porn industry are exploitative to performers themselves. Stories such as the Netflix documentary Hot Girls Wanted depict cases of female performers agreeing to shoot a scene involving a particular act, only to be coerced on the spot by the producers into a more hard-core scene not previously agreed to. Anecdotes suggest this isn’t a rare experience for performers.

While these facts about disturbing content and exploitative practices lead some people to believe looking at porn is unethical or anti-feminist, it prompts others to ask whether there could be such a thing as ethical porn. Are the only objections to pornography on a case by case basis – considering violent content, exploitation or particular genres of pornography? Or is there some deeper fact about porn—any porn—that renders it ethically not okay?

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

People Are Not Products - Black

Suppose that this were the kind of porn commonly found online:

  • Depicted realistic, consensual, non-misogynistic, and safe sex – condoms and all.
  • Was free of exploitation (unrealistic, but let’s imagine).
  • Performers fully and properly consented to everything filmed.
  • Regulation ensured only people who were educated, had other employment options were allowed to perform.
  • Performers did not have a history of sexual abuse or underage porn exposure.
  • Pristine sexual health was a prerequisite for becoming a porn performer.
  • The porn industry cut any ties they are alleged to have with sex trafficking and similarly exploitative activity.

If all this came true, would there be any legitimate ethical objections to the production and consumption of pornography?

Before we can answer questions about the ethics of porn we need to address fundamental questions about the ethics of sex.

One question is this: is sex simply another bodily pleasure among others, like getting a massage, or do sex acts have deeper significance?  Philosopher Anne Barnhill describes sexual intercourse as a type of body-language. She thinks when you have sex with a person, you are not just going through physically pleasurable motions, you are being expressive and therefore expressing something to another person.

RelatedWhy Porn Sex & Real Sex Are Two Very Different Things

If you have sex with someone you care for deeply, this loving attitude is expressed through the body language of sex. But using the expressive act of sex only for pleasure with a person you care very little about can express a range of harmful or hurtful attitudes. It can send the message that the other person is simply an object to be used for your own personal pleasure.

Even if not, the messages can be confusing. The body language of tender kissing, close bodily contact and caresses say one thing to a relationally committed sexual partner, while the fact that one has few emotional strings attached to them—especially if this casualness is stated beforehand—says another.

We know that such mixed messages are often emotionally painful. The human brain is flooded with oxytocin—the same bonding chemical responsible for attaching mothers to their children—when humans have sex.  There is a biological basis to the claim that “casual sex” is a contradiction in terms. Sex bonds people to each other, whether we want this to happen or not. It is a profound and relationally significant act.

Let’s bring these ideas about the specialness of sex back to the discussion about porn. If the above ideas about sex are accurate, then it’s doubtful that sex is something that people in a casual or even non-existent relationship should be paid for. So long as there are ethical problems with casual sex itself, there will be ethical problems with watching filmed casual sex. And that’s in addition to the health problems associated with watching filmed casual sex.

Click here to read all of Dr. Emma Wood’s blog on the Ethics Centre’s blog.
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Brain Heart World

Addressing one hypothetical avenue of ethical porn

We think Dr. Wood has a  very significant point. Even if porn were to be produced in a most ethically sound manner (which isn’t entirely possible), there are still issues with what the product itself is selling.

Some people might chime in at this point and say, “But there is porn that exists of real couples that isn’t in the industry and doesn’t have those issues Dr. Wood mentioned!” On the surface, this might be a way to consume porn ethically, if a couple created it and uploaded it themselves. But there’s no airtight way to know if a video was consensually uploaded to a porn platform, even if the sex depicted is consensual. Even still, there are deep issues with this type of porn, too.

Related: Even If All Porn Was Consensual, Would There Be Any Issue With Watching It?

Consider this true story emailed to Fight the New Drug:

“There is something I want to stress. My ex-husband and I hurt countless people with the pornography we made together. How do I know? Daily, we were flooded with messages from fans, telling us they wished their spouse could be more like one of us. Telling us they idolized our relationship or wished their significant other was so open to ‘adventurous sex’ and exhibitionism.

To this day, I have guilt knowing that I never responded to ANY of those people with the truth. I made pornography because I thought my only worth was how I looked and how well I sexually performed. I cried almost every night of that marriage, full of guilt, and wishing I could have love worth being proud of. I wanted my husband to love me, but I didn’t know how to love because of porn. I never told those fans that I hated porn. I hated that I couldn’t stop watching it, I hated feeling like I needed to be the women I saw on those videos, and honestly, I hated my ex-husband for not wanting better for his wife.

I cannot blame him for what I did to our marriage, but I can say that while making porn, I was deeply miserable and insecure. It’s ironic that they say only insecure women are against porn, when from my experience, insecure women create, promote, and allow it.”

Even viewing the kind of porn described above requires no relational effort, and carries no risk of rejection.

Stop The Demand - Denim

Exploitation-free porn is not harm-free

Even if there was a way to tell that everything you clicked on was exploitation-free, there are still harmful effects pornography leaves on the consumer’s brain and relationships that make porn a public health issue for our society.

Study after study has shown that contrary to popular belief, porn is bad news for long term relationships. It negatively affects satisfaction within the relationship and ultimately can lead a person to withdraw from a loved one.

Related: Does Porn With Your Partner Help Your Relationship In The Long-Run?

Back in 2012, a study reported that individuals who didn’t consume porn had higher relationship quality on every measure, including commitment, compared with those who consumed explicit material in private.

newer study published in 2017 examined the impact of couples where one partner consumes more porn than the other, which is a pretty common pattern. The researchers concluded, “greater discrepancies between partners in pornography use were related to less relationship satisfaction, less stability, less positive communication, and more relational aggression.”

And these are issues research has shown to have an impact over the long run.

In one of the few studies to follow married couples and their pornography consumption for several years, researchers found that porn did in fact harm relationship quality and satisfaction. The researchers concluded:

“In general, married persons who more frequently viewed pornography in 2006 reported significantly lower levels of marital quality in 2012… Pornography’s effect was not simply a proxy for dissatisfaction with sex life or marital decision-making in 2006. In terms of substantive influence, the frequency of pornography use in 2006 was the second strongest predictor of marital quality in 2012.”

In other words, how often a partner (specifically, husbands in this study) consumed porn negatively affected the relationship quality, and even more interesting, the study discussed that porn was not a cover-up for some other marital issue. It was the source of the problem.

Related: 30 National Surveys Reveal Porn Consumption Is Associated With Poorer Relationship Quality

Relationship experts, Doctors John and Julie Gottman, explain it this way:

“When watching pornography the user is in total control of the sexual experience, in contrast to normal sex in which people are sharing control with the partner. Thus a porn user may form the unrealistic expectation that sex will be under only one person’s control… the relationship goal of intimate connection is confounded and ultimately lost.”

The truth is, in healthy relationships, you can’t have it both ways. Studies show consumers can’t perpetually have the instant gratification of thousands of virtual sex partners and a satisfying long-term relationship.

See how porn can be harmful, even in a hypothetical world of “exploitation-free” porn?

Fortify

The bottom line

This may or may not be surprising, but exploitation-free, ethical porn is a fantasy, just like what’s on screen in porn videos.

It is near impossible to know if what a consumer is watching was created in a legitimate, safe, completely consensual environment. There is no way to tell if the performers on screen are there on their own will, or if they were forced or coerced into taking part in the film—even consent talks and exit interviews can sometimes be lies.

This sounds extreme, we know, given that there are a number of outspoken and enthusiastic porn performers who share their work and love for the industry all over social media and the internet at large. But the reality is that it can be impossible to distinguish between a willing performer and a coerced performer.

RelatedInside The Industry: Performers Speak Out On Trafficking And Exploitation In Porn

If you don’t believe us—or the many studies and personal accounts—believe this: pornography, no matter how “ethical” you believe it to be, is still harmful, and a public health issue. No amount of “exploitation-free” porn can erase the facts.

About the Author

Dr. Emma Wood is a research associate at the Institute for Ethics & Society at the University of Notre Dame, Australia. Her research interests include metaethics, applied ethics, and philosophy of religion.

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