Porn is a controversial topic. As it exists today, it sits at a crossroads between a whole lot of notions: sexual liberty, capitalism, patriarchy and artistic expression. To discuss it, we must first establish what pornography is.
If porn is in the eye of the beholder, anything can be porn, depending on your cultural and personal background. For the sake of argument, I’ll call porn whatever has been made to sexually arouse a person – even if it is yourself.
I first want to tackle the notion of sexual liberty. I believe that no sex act in which all participants involved have given their enthusiastic consent (and are mentally capable of doing so) is immoral. This includes making pornography. As such, porn, in itself and of itself, is not immoral.
Pornography that has been produced with reluctant or unwilling participants, however, clearly would not be ethically sound. I’ll get back to that idea in another section.
A male industry through and through
It’s not surprising that the porn industry is controlled mostly by men and that their target audience is also (heterosexual) men. While there is a huge variety in porn – in terms of female body type alone, much more variety than on catwalks and fashion ads – almost all of it follows the idea that men are dominant, somewhat dim aggressors and that women merely exist to satisfy the urges of said men, either passively or faux-passively (by taking precisely the type of initiative in line with dominant male expectations).
It’s not enough to say that porn should be more diverse and cater to a more differentiated audience, especially not because we’re talking about an industry worth billions that is influencing the way a lot of people – and especially young men – see sex. If you’re only exposed to a certain type of fictitious sexuality, it’s a pity for the development of sexual imagination, and might even leave some people feel left out, weird or unwanted.
The early bird catches the worm
As a personal aside, I discovered porn at the ripe age of 9. Because I’d been given good sex ed by my parents and later, at school, I was always able to discern between fact and fiction, and somehow knew that porn was a glorified way of depicting sex, just like action movies were glorifying violence that was in no way glorious in real life.
Pornography probably influenced a number of desires that I developed in later life, but some porn did absolutely nothing for me – even as a teenager, porn where the female actresses looked miserable, fearful or bored turned me off, and so did the stuff that was clearly created by malevolent misogynists such as the infamous Max Hardcore.
No automatic slippery slope
The plural of anecdotes is not data, obviously, but I wanted to break out this personal story to demonstrate that early access to pornographic material is not a slippery slope (pun not intended) to creating a sex addict, rapist or someone who can only get off when someone has been reduced to a piece of meat. Even before I discovered feminism, enthusiastic consent has always been a huge deal to me.
Context is important. I can imagine that if you grow up as a boy without any reliable sex education, in an environment that more aggressively pushes negative images and ideas about women (unsurprisingly, lack of sex ed and misogyny nearly always go hand in hand!), porn could become a nefarious influence. The consequences may be far-reaching.
Do we need gatekeepers?
Especially for vulnerable young people with untreated mental problems, the exabytes of free porn on the Internet are problematic. But, so are the violent movies and video games, the pop culture that equals status to how much money you have, or the authority figures that surround them that are nearly always men.
Age ratings clearly aren’t helping. You click away that warning on a porn site, and off you go. Even if those websites adopted a reliable age identification system (which would be problematic in itself, given the uneasy status of some sexual minorities and proclivities even in the West), there would still be file sharing networks. In addition, restricting access to something makes it more desirable to a segment of the population.
There's no right to porn, but if we're going to have porn, then...
To forbid certain types of extreme pornography because it is consumed by violent and unstable individuals to ‘charge themselves up’ prior to committing atrocities is a seductive idea, but I think it misses a beat. It’s precisely the type of logic that has haunted violent video games. These media (alone) do not create criminals. Besides, there is plenty of mainstream media that is very violent.
While I agree that pornography that simulates rape, for instance, or BDSM pornography, operates in a potential minefield, I also agree that people who are into BDSM and people who like rapeplay should, in principle, be treated no different from people with vanilla tastes and desires when it comes down to porn.
More extreme needs more safeguards
Obviously, just like a healthy BDSM relationship is navigated by means of open conversations, boundaries and exchange of ideas (and the more extreme, the more important it gets), its porn mirrors should be subject to the same kinds of safeguards.
I would also like to note that not everything of this sort should be lumped together. While the mainstream media thoughtlessly accepted ’50 Shades of Gray’ as a novel about BDSM, the BDSM community hated it because it depicted a lot of practices and situations that were dangerous and abusive.
In concluding, my point in this section is: people do not automatically have a right to pornography, but if pornography is legal, anything that can plausibly occur in a sexual relationship where all parties consent, should be able to be made. Anything else is no better than kinkshaming.
You may not like the idea of people enjoying pissing on each other. But if you don’t personally have a problem that people do it in their bedrooms, you would be hypocritical to say that you don’t think that kind of porn should be made.
Porn and exploitation
People sometimes draw parallels between prostitution and porn, or say they’re the same: it’s paying someone to perform sexual or intimate acts. I do feel there is a difference between the two, because by the same token, you could also call mainstream actors in romantic movies prostitutes.
There is of course another similarity that binds both professions. Porn actors are often treated in less than stellar ways, to say the least, and ex-stars regularly speak out about abusive practices in the industry. The picture is more nuanced than a blanket “everyone who participates in porn is exploited” as there are plenty of counter-examples, too, but defenders of porn seem all too eager to bring these up to dismiss legitimate and troublesome stories from within the industry.
Capitalism and patriarchy: still best buddies
Casting porn performers as victims, always, is riding roughshod over a legitimate desire for sexual self-expression. Some may enter the industry because they want to (though may end up wanting to get out because of the reality on the ground). However, that doesn’t take away the legitimate criticism that almost all pornography is an expression of an enduring culture of misogyny. One might also argue that the good aspects, such as the greater variety in types of women that perform, are merely an unintended consequence of pornography’s capitalist setup, i.e. it’s a good thing to cover as many niches as possible.
At the end of the day, the patriarchal overtones still trump the capitalist drive behind pornography. If porn really wanted to serve all possible audiences, it would focus way more on women as consumers and agents. In that respect, the porn world again shares a parallel with the world of gaming, where women have long been a sizable minority among consumers, but rarely among the creators or those who control the levers of power.
Art and freedom of speech
Pornography has existed for as long as people were able to depict sex. There are penises on Greek vases, the walls of Pompeii are littered with dirty talk, and the Canterbury Tales include libidinous adultery and fart fetishes. This in itself is no argument for its continued existence, but it goes to show that involving sex in self-expression might well be one of our enduring instincts as a species. In fact, we owe it to our ancestors’ sex drive that we are alive at all.
Like I said that restricting certain kinds of pornography that doesn’t already violate the informed consent of the performers is unlikely to change the demand for it, censoring it entirely – which is a position only a handful take, but might be a logical conclusion – is doomed to fail as well. Whether we like it or not, porn matters to people. It’s part of who they are. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t change anything about it.
Pornography has increasingly become mainstream. Some lament this. I don’t. I actually think it should become even more mainstream, because it will encourage frank and mature discussion about how we want our porn to be. There’s no shame in consuming porn or performing in it, just like there should be no shame about liking whatever you like doing with your partner(s) in an atmosphere of consent.
Why not include pornography in sex ed? Talk about its history – in production as well as reception – and how it takes its cues from dominant culture, either by reinforcing existing values (such as patriarchy) or existing as a force of taboo by subverting these values (e.g. the huge popularity of gay porn in areas where homosexuality is not accepted), and in turn influencing how we think about sexuality. Analyse it. Discuss it. Let’s not pretend teenagers don’t know what it is or how to find it.
Cast the net wide
That I feel porn should be discussed in sex education classes ties in with a broader discussion on gender that is now largely absent from the classroom. History classes sometimes focus on the plight of women in times past, but often treat feminism as a relic of times where women were ‘truly’ oppressed, as if they face no ‘real’ difficulties right now.
It’s good to teach kids about the danger of STDs or how sex works in a biological sense, but there ought to be more discussions about consent, too. One may argue that discussion about things like these start at home, but many homes don’t provide that sort of atmosphere. After all, if the task of education is to prepare young people to be an educated and responsible citizen, then gender and sex are definitely a part of that responsibility to themselves and others around them.
Change from within
Education probably isn’t enough. There’s a basket of measures that could be considered for the porn industry as well: quality assurance labels, audits and quota to diversify the type of porn that is being made as well as who makes it. Mandatory warning messages that contextualize the more extreme porn to the viewer are also a good idea – such things already exist, kind of, but they could be made mandatory.
The point is here not to censor pornography, but to diversify it and assure that it is safe. This can be regulated just like any other business. This, and not treating it as if it is somehow a shameful pastime to consume it or to make it, would already go a long way on setting its course straight.
At the core
I’ve seen few issues that are more divisive than pornography in socially progressive circles, feminist discussion groups and among allies. The problem is this: the rhetoric of those who argue against porn or want to restrict it dangerously sounds like the language of reactionaries who, for one reason or another, can’t bear the idea of sexual expressions that are alien to them. Conversely, the argumentation of the pro-porn camp is all too familiar to those against it; insisting on the positive side of the narrative sounds like people who used to argue that women were perfectly happy as homemakers. Some undoubtedly were and still are, but many more had no choice.
A last word of warning: sexual liberation should not be flown as a flag for those who merely wish to continue the status quo of the patriarchy and appropriate ‘freedom as expression’ to perpetuate an aggressively misogynist culture of rape. Neither, however, should feminism be abused by closeted cultural conservatives who want to constrain expressions of human sexuality and introduce a new form of hypocrisy that we are still fighting to subdue.
Do you think there are sexual acts that do not violate the principle of informed and/or enthusiastic consent that are nonetheless immoral? Do you think pornography – media created to sexually arouse its consumers – should be forbidden?
If you answered no to both, that means you accept that – at least in an ideal world – there is room for pornography that caters to all tastes that abide by the consent principle, providing the material itself also abided by these rules. That still leaves us with a whole hot mess to disentangle if we truly want to move towards a culture where we can enjoy pornography without shame and the people who make it are neither so aggressively focused on one particular side of sexuality, nor vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Therefore, I’d propose the following action points, though I suppose more might be included:
- Stricter business accountability, auditing and controls
- Unionization along the lines of the Hollywood Screen Actors’ Guild
- Compulsory signatures on script to prevent ‘sudden changes’ during filming
- Discuss pornography during sex education
- Gender discussion as an integral part of sex education
- Boards of industry networks need to contain at least 50% actors, chosen by actors
- Subsidies for pornographers who want to deviate from the male-centric pornography
- Discuss consent and kink during sex ed and how it differs from abuse and exploitation
- Introduce a license for pornographers that they may lose if they violate certain principles
- Extreme porn needs both warning and quality labels, and additional licenses to make