Ethical Porn: What Makes it Different?

by Christopher J.

January 14, 2024

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For many Americans, watching porn as part of their sex lives ranges from guilty pleasure to dangerous obsession. And it would be a fantastical understatement to claim that viewing porn is not uncommon or rare.

“Pornography use is not limited by demographics; it is used by many people of varying ages, races, genders, and sexual orientations around the United States,” explains one Ballard Brief about pornography use among young adults in the America. “Because of this, the percentages of pornography users in the United States look different in every study. But to give a general idea, one study shows that 58% of Americans have watched pornography at least once in their lifetime, and 27% watched it in the past month.43 Another says that 1 out of 3 Americans seek porn at least monthly.

In addition to that guilty pleasure factor, there are significant questions about how actors in pornography are abused or exploited. So much so that about a decade ago, with the emergence of the short-lived Ethical Porn Coalition website, the term “ethical porn” was coined. The concept was defined as “adult content that is consensual and transparent, is created in an environment that emphasizes safety and respect, and does not contribute to wider social inequalities via troublesome post-production marketing.”

The concept has continued to grow and evolve, with proponents on both sides of the steamy X-rated ravine. Ten years later, though, the question lingers: Is “ethical porn” the ultimate oxymoron?

Both sides of the coin

On the pro side, one therapist at the Center for Growth, Tonya, acknowledges that there is no consensus regarding what comprises ethical porn. However, she finds an easier approach to defining it is to explore some of the common elements attributed to genre.

First and foremost, all of the actors must be consensual participants of at least 18 years of age whose judgment is not impaired by drugs or alcohol.

“They are not forced directly (e.g., physical threats of abuse, sex trafficking) or indirectly (e.g., mental health, substance addiction or financial distress),” she continues. “There are prophylactics (because STI status can’t be guaranteed to be 100% accurate at the time of filming due to challenges with testing windows and results, informed consent about STI risk is compromised unless prophylactics are used).”

Additionally, actors are treated with respect, fairly compensated, and perform under reasonable work conditions, meaning no 10-hour-a-day, 5-day shoots. Finally, the Center’s therapist says, productions must adhere to medical safety standards that include STI testing, bondage best practices, and the actors’ sexual boundaries are protected. In other words, actors are not pressured to perform anal or other sexual acts they are not comfortable doing.

Tonya also provides a brief list of sites that the Center for Growth’s sex therapists believe provide ethical porn options. Their list includes a diverse variety of content, including Literotica.com (free, erotic stories submitted by users), Sweetsinner.com (mainstream, cis-gender/heterosexual films), Kink.com (BDSM, fetishes and other kinky sex), and Pinklabel.tv (gender queer and fluid sexuality films).

Writing for Men’s Health, Gigi Engle offers a set of ethical porn sites and says of this approach, also referred to as “feminist porn,” that “this (somewhat) newly emerging market is stripping away the seediness of pornography while allowing it to retain its sexiness. You might be making smut—and certain segments of society might hate that—but that doesn’t mean you’re not accountable for making films that offer fair wages and safe working conditions to actors, and that display a range of body types and sex acts that center around non-male, non-heteronormative pleasure.”

In discussing the characteristics of ethical porn with Women’s Health, clinical sexologist and sex therapist Gloria Brame, Ph.D. talked about the importance of inclusivity in the range of actors and the choice to depart from the old porn approach that only employed “people who looked like models and set unrealistic standards on how sex partners should look.”

“Importantly, ethical porn cares about women,” she observes. “It’s not all created for men to watch. This means more positive female characters, more realistic experiences that don’t rely on clichés—like that pizza delivery guy getting seduced everywhere he goes—and sometimes genuine intimacy that helps viewers relate more to the actors and events.”

Still, despite all of the proponents and advocates for ethical porn, the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, an important voice in the anti-pornography camp, clearly isn’t buying into the concept at all. They vehemently believe that “ethical” porn is definitely an oxymoron. In one article on NCOSE’s website from February 2022, they provide four reasons why so-called ethical pornography is a myth.

Among their reasons for their stance, their experts state that consumers of “ethical” porn aren’t immune to effects of addiction* and tolerance, and the brain’s ability to say “no” to other material is impaired. Moreover, they believe that the chances of supplanting mainstream pornography are slim.

*Note that pornography addiction is NOT considered a real, true addiction or any kind of psychological disorder according to most psychologists, psychiatrists, and the DSM-5. No matter how it’s made, porn is also not considered addictive, though consuming porn in excess can verge into unhealthy territory, especially if it starts to affect your relationship or other areas of your life. Read more about that from Business Insider here.

“It’s not surprising that a survey of 434 men who engaged in online sexual activities, 99% reported viewing Internet pornography and 49% reported searching for sexual content or being involved in online sexual activities that were previously uninteresting to them or that they considered disgusting,” the article says. “So-called ethical pornography is a mere drop in a vast ocean of violent, abusive, and extreme pornography that already exists.”

As with all forms of sexuality, sexual preferences and practices, the continuum of choices is vast and broad. While incorporating pornography into your activities alone or with a partner is a completely subjective matter, awareness of producing, purchasing and viewing publications, online sites or films that take an “ethical” approach has at least raised awareness in America and worldwide about the frequent abuses of porn performers.

Ultimately, porn, like human sexual desires, will likely never disappear entirely. But it’s important for people who enjoy it to at least evaluate the sources and types of pornography that you are buying and viewing.

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