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

By July 25, 2017 December 13th, 2018 No 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.

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.

RelatedAmateur Porn Stars Use Anonymous App To Share Dark Secrets

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?

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.

RelatedWhy Porn Is The Opposite Of Sexy

So what should we say about porn made by adults in a loving relationship, as much ‘amateur’ (unpaid) pornography is?  Suppose we have a film made by a married couple who simply want to film and show realistic sex.  Could consumption of such material pass as ethical?

Click here to read all of Dr. Emma Wood’s blog on the Ethics Centre’s blog.
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Why This Matters

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.

Consider this true story, recently 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.

Absence Of Consideration

Porn can prevent totally capable people of taking on the challenge to build and maintain a meaningful relationship with another person, and have a three-dimensional sexuality. It doesn’t demand consideration of another person’s sexual boundaries, or sexual preferences.

Because porn carries a the reward of repeated moments of instant gratification with little effort input, consuming it has the potential to lengthen an adolescence stage, without pushing the user to enter into complicated a sexual relationship. Having a healthy, adult relationship requires a lot of communication and effort, but results in character-building.

RelatedWhy People Use Porn As An Escape From Reality

Based on this line of thinking, there is still something totally damaging about the consumption of porn, even if it were produced “ethically.”

Even apart from the harm to a porn user’s brain, their relationships, and the world around them, porn remains unethical in its very nature. It turns sex, a deeply profound expression of our humanity, into something that is completely disposable and two-dimensional. Fighting against porn means fighting for love, and fighting for real relationships.

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