- Emma Louise Alvarez
Can Ethical Pornography Exist?
© Illustration by INJECTION - Alicia Lupieri
The answer is more complex than might be expected.
To understand the depth of this argument, it is important to acknowledge the conflicting views of the different definitions of pornography and the views associated with each.
Pornography can be understood as explicit sexual material with a goal to evoke an erotic response.
Radical feminists may define pornography as the graphic form of women’s subordination and inequality. One of the main reasons given for the impossibility of ethical pornography existing, is that it is rooted in and perpetuates a culture of violence.
A seeming juxtaposition therefore is the term ‘feminist pornography,’ which aims to focus explicitly on women’s desires and sexuality. Critics of ethical porn argue that violence against women is still prevalent in ‘feminist pornography,’ and ultimately still contributes to the eroticizing and normalizing of violence in sex.
After a recent interview with an adult art-house performer, it is also important to acknowledge the distinction between adult art-house films and pornography: in this context, pornography is understood as ‘mainstream’ (violent) pornography, where adult art-house films are more abstract with a greater creative distance between performers and the camera and audience.
Mainstream pornography can be understood as porn that is easily accessible, not transparent in how it is produced, and focuses on the aestheticism and eroticism of the performance.
Mainstream pornography has grown into a capitalist monster, where the belly of the beast is about the ethics, safety and consent of its various performers. But if we dismantle and strip this monster, does it become possible for ethical and safe porn to exist?
Danny Wylde is an American writer and filmmaker, and former pornographic actor and comments on one of the biggest focal points in the debate on ethical pornography:
“Look, it’s exploitative in the fact that it’s a capitalist industry and it exploits labour and so forth. But are people here against their will? I don’t think that’s true.”
It is firstly important to consider the different definitions or ‘strands’ of porn: adult-art house performers, and feminist pornography directors may stand in a very different position than actors who appear in ‘mainstream’ porn.
Nonetheless, the assumption that no self-respecting individual would work in the sex industry if they had no other choice deserves to be challenged.
If sex work is recognized as VALID work, then pornography performers deserve the same respect in regards to their autonomy and choices.
CrashPadSeries.com is a queer porn site where the premise is that there is an apartment with cameras set up inside, and if you have a key, you are welcome to rendezvous there for wild sex. The website boasts that they cast ‘real life’ couples who identify as dykes and lesbians, femme, masculine of center (boi, stud, tomboy, AG, and butch) and can be cis or trans women, trans men, people of color, people of size, older queers, and people with disabilities (including neurodivergent). The website also explains that performers choose what they want to do on camera. It’s likely that this can include things like role-play, with onscreen check-ins and communication, strap-ons, kink and BDSM, orgasms and aftercare.
Here is an example of porn where the focus is not on the aesthetic or erotic image, where performers are their own directors, and where diversity and communication are placed at the centre of pleasure. I would argue that that is the key difference between ethical and non-ethical porn.
Another distinction I feel I should make, as it has garnered recent momentum on Instagram, pertains to the classification of consensual-sex. There is no such thing as non-consensual sex. Non-consensual sex is rape. Let that be clear.
Therefore, if pornography pertains to various explicit sexual acts, then consent should be at the forefront of communication. If it is not, then it teeters towards sexual assault and is another matter altogether.
That being said, non-ethical porn presents a myriad of other (ethical) complications: a lack of communication and transparency, with a focus on the aesthetics and financials of the industry, can have a devastating effect on the safety and wellbeing of the performers.
There are many horror stories that testify to the abuse that happens both on and off set that performers are subjected to on a regular basis. Wylde reveals that he had to retire as a performer in porn due to priapism, caused by persistent use of erectile drugs. The porn industry does not cover health insurance. And while Wylde was not actively told to take performance enhancing drugs, he explains that it was a part of “status quo.”
There are many more such stories.
This is where performers-as-their-own-directors is an inherently important aspect of ethical porn. They are directly in control of their actions and can continuously redefine what it is they are comfortable and uncomfortable with.
Being both a director and performer yields other benefits too: to be in charge of your own sexual fantasies and to be able to enact them in a safe and controlled environment. People’s individual sexual fantasies can be as different as their thumb prints.
What happens when porn is democratized?
There suddenly exists many, many categories that can serve as different avenues to explore different aspects of sexual pleasure.
An aspect of this could include BDSM, domination and subordination. It may or not involve whips. I bring this up, because “rough sex,” is also sex. It does not mean it promotes violence, it merely means that in a safe and consensual environment it can be fun to explore “rough sex” - another valid avenue of sexual pleasure.
I am not here to shame or judge you of whatever your sexual fantasies are. I only advocate that if you wish to include pornographic stimulation in your foreplay, to do your research. Look into the transparency, ethics, communication and production of the pornographic material. Have fun but stay informed.