New Internationalist

Can porn be ethical?

March 2014

Porn performer and lecturer Kitty Stryker and feminist writer and activist Louise Pennington go head to head.

Every month we invite two experts to debate, and then invite you to join the conversation online.

Kitty

I’m a 30-year-old erotic performer who has done various types of sex work and sex-work activism, including pornography. Part of my personal brand is that the work I do is socially conscious, ethical both in the performance and the production, based in genuine chemistry and consensual, negotiated sex. I care deeply about working with companies that reflect a diverse, trans-inclusive, body-positive cast, which I am able to manifest because I live in the San Francisco area. Even so, I am not dependent on porn for my living, I am white and cisgendered – so I have intersections of privilege there as well.

YES: Kitty Stryker is a queer porn performer and lecturer on sex work, consent culture, and intersectionality in sex-positive spaces. Her written work can currently be found in Hot and Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Love, Life and Fashion, and Johns, Marks, Tricks and Chickenhawks.

I fundamentally believe that ethical pornography is a possibility, simply because I do not believe the inherent act of filming a sex act is ethical or non-ethical. I believe that ethical porn is a spectrum of behaviour that treats performers as workers and as humans, both on set and within the marketing. I’ve personally created work that I would point to as examples of ethical porn, and am lucky to have worked with companies that hold themselves to that standard. I think that we’re seeing the results of how queer porn often joins politics to their pornography in the mainstream, with safer sex being depicted more often, racism being challenged and various big companies focusing on ‘real chemistry’ in their pairings – though we still have a long way to go before that’s the norm.

Louise

I am a radical feminist. I believe that the root of women’s oppression lies in male violence, control and exploitation of female sexuality and reproduction. This is seen in the heteronormative practice of marriage that constructs women and children as possessions of men, and within a rape culture that privileges the practice of PIV [penis-in-vagina] sex and the male orgasm, and fetishizes the idea of consent while invalidating the actual practice therein.

NO: Louise Pennington is a feminist writer and activist who blogs at My Elegant Gathering of White Snows and the Huffington Post. She is the founder of the website A Room of Our Own, and is senior contributor for the Ending Victimisation and Blame campaign.

In our current capitalist-patriarchy, the production of ethical pornography still helps to maintain male control of women’s sexuality and the privileging of the male orgasm. The current movement towards the production of ethical pornography is a positive attempt to deal with the consequences of the ubiquity and mainstreaming of violent ‘gonzo’ porn and the production and distribution of images of abuse taken without consent, including that of children and the current rise in ‘revenge porn’.

In theory, the filming of a sex act is neither inherently ethical nor non-ethical; however, it is not possible to have ethical pornography in our capitalist-patriarchal culture, where women are still constructed as a sex class while the vast majority of the pornography industry, including the supposed free online porn, is owned by a very small group of companies. Ethical porn is not a separate economic entity distinct from the power of mainstream violent, racist, homophobic and misogynist pornography.

In a post-patriarchal, post-white supremacist world where poverty does not dictate the ‘choices’ of individuals, it may be possible to make ethical pornography. We simply are not in that position yet.

Kitty

I actually very much agree with you that we live within the confines of a capitalist-patriarchy, and that pornography is not outside of or above the institutionalized oppression that it requires/supports. I would want to make sure to recognize multiple gender expressions, as it isn’t just cisgendered women who are oppressed: transwomen also suffer, particularly transwomen of colour, who are murdered at disproportionate rates. 

With that in mind, I think it’s also very important to acknowledge that the adult industry is the only industry where femme, female-identified employees make consistently more than male-identified employees. As a woman without a degree, or as a transwoman, porn is often the only industry where class mobility may be achieved; a fact that needs to be dealt with in order to pave the way both for financial equality and ethical pornography.

Filming a sex act is neither ethical nor non-ethical. Ethical porn is a spectrum of behaviour that treats performers as workers and as humans, both on set and within the marketing – Kitty

Most major porn companies are owned by white cisgendered straight men; this stands in the way of ethically produced pornography. I agree that’s problematic, and that representation and marginalized voices being brought to the centre is incredibly important for an ethical workplace. I just don’t agree that the issue is with pornography: the issue is with capitalist-patriarchy.

I work for one porn company where the CEO is a butch plus-sized woman of colour. The other has a genderqueer plus-sized femme CEO. I believe that their awareness of how the personal is political helps them maintain a socially conscious set, where safer sex preferences are respected and encouraged; where diversity is prioritized and at the forefront; where sex acts are negotiated fully between the performers, and where everyone is paid the same amount, whatever their gender identity. Without heteronormativity being demanded or expected, PIV sex is no longer seen as ‘normal’ or required, the focus instead being on the pleasure of the performers rather than a ‘money shot’.

Louise

We absolutely need to recognize the myriad ways in which the capitalist-patriarchy institutionalizes oppression and how this affects individuals as well as women, and other groups, as a class. Radical feminism theory does recognize multiple oppressions, although it has not always been perfect in practice.

In a post-patriarchal, post-white supremacist world where poverty does not dictate the ‘choices’ of individuals, it may be possible to make ethical pornography. We simply are not in that position yet - Louise

I disagree that we need to recognize multiple gender expressions. Instead, I believe that gender is a reductive, heteronormative construction which forces people into stereotyped roles; the existence of multiple gender expressions only increases the number of roles, rather than eradicating a concept which is harmful to all. But, equally, I do not see how recognizing multiple gender roles requires the production of ethical pornography. I would suggest that the two issues are distinct and that the inclusion is unhelpful, as it is about the reality of male violence rather than whether or not ethical pornography can be produced within the confines of a capitalist-patriarchy.

The fact that pornography, and also the modelling industry, are the only two industries where women out-earn men is not sufficient to compensate for the harm that the pornography industry causes.

Kitty

While I agree that male violence is an issue, I feel very strongly that transwomen are women and as a culture we need to respect that. One of the reasons I like queer/feminist porn is that it’s often critical of mainstream expressions of sexuality, seeking to offer other possibilities to a culture starved for something beyond slender white cisgendered women, headless non-erotic cisgendered men, and penetrative, often formulaic, sex.

Gender roles are often challenged or thrown out entirely in queer or feminist porn. Much of this porn is also, if anything, anti-reproductive, because safer sex is highlighted and encouraged, genitalia often aren’t the focus of shots, and other sexual expressions (particularly oral sex on women and vibrator use) are often in play. I don’t believe male-identified people are inherently violent, or that women are inherently passive – these are learned behaviours, and part of where they’re learned is in porn. If we can disrupt that, isn’t that a positive thing?

I’m excited about the way the internet has influenced financial possibilities for porn performers, allowing us to make money on royalties rather than a flat fee, which is the industry standard. I think that helps create a platform for performers and consumers to create/seek out ethical content – in fact, independent porn companies are exploring the possibility of an ethical stamp that websites could get that would suggest the workers had agency and the workplace was ethically maintained.

Protests against ethical porn aren’t, in my opinion, really about the ethics of porn, but how ethical employment itself can be under a capitalistic patriarchy.

I believe porn can be created within – while also against – capitalism and patriarchy, thanks to independent porn companies and performers being supported in fighting sexism, body hatred, racism, homophobia and transphobia through their work, their word usage, and the bodies they show.

When workers can create their own workplace standards so that they feel safe and comfortable, and can directly sell their product to consumers, then I think ethical work can be a reality, erotic or otherwise.

Louise

I’m confused as to why you are conflating the issue of male violence and transwomen. In this context, I think the issue is a red herring, as is the issue of whether or not male violence is a product of culture or biology. The fact is, we live in a culture dominated by male violence – through physical, sexual and emotional violence, but also through economic violence: state-sanctioned poverty, on which the effects on specific individuals are multiplied through the intersecting oppressions of race, sex, sexuality and faith.

Mainstream pornography both maintains and creates violent masculinity: it objectifies women’s bodies; it sexualizes the bodies of people of colour, denying them humanity. It also (re)creates hegemonic, violent heteronormativity, in which consent is considered mandatory but does not exist in reality.

Does ethical pornography actually challenge hegemonic violent masculinity and the objectification and abuse of women in mainstream pornography? It does question the construction of consent within a capitalist-patriarchy, which is a positive step. I am just not sure that it is a step far enough.

‘Free’ porn sites still financially support the mainstream by encouraging click baits. Ethical porn companies still use similar distribution sites to mainstream pornography and, as such, they are economically tied together.

I don’t believe that filming consensual sex is inherently unethical. But I do not believe it is possible to create and distribute pornography within a capitalist-patriarchy which does not help maintain hegemonic, violent masculinity, even if its intention is to critique it. I question how we define consent in a society where women are constructed as a sex class, and whether consent can really be given when poverty is an issue. I do not believe that we can fight sexism, body-shaming, racism or poverty through the medium of pornography. To effect change truly, we must dismantle both capitalist and patriarchal structures. Ensuring that a small cadre of performers is paid appropriately will not effect sufficient change to protect all workers, whatever the industry. That is what we must aim for: nothing less than the creation of a new society, where men and women are truly equal and not just under the pretence of law.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 470 This feature was published in the March 2014 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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  1. #1 Annika 21 Feb 14

    Pornography is like all art forms - simply a way of communicating and arousing certain reactions. In all forms of media, you will find that the people in charge are the ones who get to project their personal ideals. The more diversity we have, the better chance of equal representation. Pornography is any kind of art, be in drawing, photo, or video, that is intended to be erotic. Eroticism in itself is not immoral, it is a beautiful part of most people's lives. It is not something we should feel the need to hide in a closet. We should be free to express our passions, and we need more female directors, photographers, artists, to represent the diverse world of female sexuality.

  2. #2 Matt in London 22 Feb 14

    I had to look for ’queer porn’ on the web to find out what it was about - namely (if Wikipedia is telling me the truth):

    ’Queer pornography is the representation of sexual intercourse between people of various gender identities and sexual orientations with the primary goal of sexual arousal in its audience. Besides simple arousal, queer porn works to have authentic representations and to respect the sexual orientations, gender identities and desires of the performers in it. [...]’

    Bearing that in mind, Kitty's point of view made more sense. One thing that may not be clear on first reading: can we consider porn as ’ethical’ when the performers are all treated with due respect? Or does that have to include the ’message’ passed on as the final product? For example, to take a corporate analogy: Atos is treating its employees well (as far as I know), but its business involves bringing untold hardships upon disabled people in the name of profitability. Can Atos be seen as ’ethical’? No, probably not. Likewise, a charity who works towards a good cause but treats its staff and associates like dung will have trouble to qualify as ’ethical’.

    So I guess that ethical porn would be a mix between good working conditions for staff & performers, and an ethical outcome in terms of end product (as stated by Kitty when she mentions about ’independent porn companies and performers being supported in fighting sexism, body hatred, racism, homophobia and transphobia through their work, their word usage, and the bodies they show’). Once under this assumption, I found it easier to understand Kitty's point of view and to agree with her. There is an incredible variety of porn available out there, and if such ’ethical’ choice (whether queer porn or respectful mainstream one - yes it exists, check French producer John B. Root's few but intense movies for example) becomes more visible and more accepted, the whole society can benefit from it.

    From Louise's input, the only interesting thing I found (after going through the usual rad-fem ’men are the source of all evil’ rhetoric which doesn't bring much to the debate) is her conclusion: ’[...] we must aim for: nothing less than the creation of a new society, where men and women are truly equal and not just under the pretence of law.’ Indeed we must, but that will come through positive initiatives, respecting others' freedom of choice and working all together, including white cisgendered ’control-freak’ men :) who would certainly be more involved in aiming toward that goal without the unnecessary scapegoating.

  3. #3 capetoste 03 Mar 14

    Can film making be ethical? If yes, then leaving the influence of porn into the hands of violent patriarchs is a ’loose-loose non-strategy’. It's like avoiding to look into the atom while Hitler is running for it! Kitty is a fighter, she acts now to change the world, Louise is a talker who rises the stake so high that action will always be impossible. Kitty sees reality for what it is and what could become thanks to ethical actions. Louise excludes everyone from her feminist paradise because no one reaches her Manichean standards of morale. Kitty aspiration is to be a decent human being, Louise aspiration is to be God in a monotheistic, theocratic world.

  4. #4 L.B.B. 26 Mar 14

    [I believe that the root of women’s oppression lies in male violence, control and exploitation of female sexuality and reproduction. This is seen in the heteronormative practice of marriage that constructs women and children as possessions of men]

    As a man who suffered domestic abuse within a marriage at the hands of my former partner, I find this comment both reductive and offensive. I know from experience that the idea that just one gender suffers from blanket oppression is sophomoric at best - wilfully ignorant at worst.

    May I politely suggest that Ms Pennington do more research and broaden her weltanschauung a bit? As things stand, it seems to me that she bears a distinct resemblance to the oppressors with whom she so loudly claims to be in combat.

  5. #5 Susan B Journey 09 May 14

    I will boycott porn for the rest of my life. I have on occasion clicked onto sites where it became abundantly clear to me that we are all about one or two clicks away from: child porn, under-aged teen porn, mentally-disabled porn, etc. In other words, we are all one or two clicks away from supporting and enabling RAPE. I will have nothing to with it from now until I die. Never again. The harm it does FAR outweighs any ’fun’. I can easily have an orgasm without it but even if I couldn't, I couldn't bear to support rape with my clicks. Absolutely NOT.

  6. #6 AntiPLondon 23 Aug 14

    ’femme, female-identified employees make consistently more than male-identified employees.’

    It's a shame to see Kitty STILL offering up this tired old canard, but at least she's modified it a bit by saying 'employees', and thereby acknowledging that most porn production is controlled by men (but she fails to actively acknowledge that the real money in the porn industry is behind the camera, in production and distribution).

    Women porn performers in het porn make more than men because they are not doing the same job as the men, they are the ones being subjected to sexual violence, not the men, that's why women are paid more.

    Even though the women porn performers are paid more, it is still not a well-paid job or a long term career for the vast majority of women. In LA, most women do not last six months, and they have to engage in prostitution as well as pornography to survive financially.

    Also drug and alcohol abuse on set is common (it's the only way to survive the filming), and women are exposed to a range of STIs, as well as the possibility of physical injury from the violent sex acts they have to submit to.

    Plus, once their porn 'careers' are over, they have even fewer employment options than when they went in, with a gap in their CV, and the constant threat of their porn career being found out.

    ’I am not dependent on porn for my living.’

    Exactly, Kitty can play at being an 'alt porn star' in her spare time, her experiences bear no meaningful relation to those of the vast majority of women in the porn industry.

    The porn industry is not the way it is, for real, in the real world, by accident, this is what the commodification of sexuality under white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy looks like, and the tiny volume of 'ethical' porn (and lots of 'alt' porn looks exactly the same as regular porn, just with more piercings and tattoos) out there isn't going to change anything.

    http://antipornfeminists.wordpress.com/

  7. #7 Emm 11 Sep 15

    So we both agree that porn is neither ethical nor unethical and yet the show must go on. What are we talking about really and what's the whole point/value of ethics. As a society we have decided that porn is shameful i.e you wouldn't want your children watching it. While simultaneously maintaining a false consciousness which maintains that we respect people's 'free' choice, but only when its compatible with our own perspective of course.
    Pornography is not a tool of some sort or an inanimate object which can merely exist undefined... It's a human behaviour which means we have to decide whether or not it's something we want or need in our society with respect of the issues which it affects both directly and indirectly.
    There is a reason why prostitution is an ancient profession, possibly in existence before the Capitalist-Patriarchal complex if such a time ever was. Maybe the two are inextricably linked in the same way that chicks come from eggs in which case the solution should be to rid ourselves of sex as a reproductive means and or source of pleasure altogether.

  8. #8 JasonStone 03 Nov 15

    I've asked myself this same question and written a brief article about it on medium.com. It it I recommend a set of reforms that a voluntary industry association might require of its members in exchange for the right to advertise their membership in the community. Similar to the ’ethical stamp’ that Kitty mentions in the article. Perhaps one such organization could be named the ’Ethical Pornography Association’ or EPA.

    I also briefly explore some ideas about how actual photography differs from ancient erotic art - mainly in terms of anonymity and intended purpose - and how technology may enable contemporary erotic art resemble ancient erotic art in terms of anonymity and public acceptability.

    https:[email protected]/ethical-pornography-f5fbc875a01c

    I'm a heterosexual male that is a lifelong virgin - mostly due to mental illness. My liberal ideals lead me to believe that we should create the means for humans to cope with their reoccurring desires and needs in ethical, effective ways. Traditional cultures have not offered us a solution to sexuality. Although some members of traditional societies do well, many, if not most, suffer greatly and sexuality is often used as a means to label those who are not accepted by authoritarian cultures as ’unethical’ for having normal desires that they are denied the natural expression of.

    I hope liberals will devise means for placing the control of an individual's sexual needs under their own control. Relationships may even improve since they would be more likely to be initiated out of a genuine desire for companionship instead being expressions of sexual desperation.

  9. #9 JasonStone 03 Nov 15

    There were some problems with the paragraph just before the link. Please replace it with:

    ’I also briefly explore some ideas about how contemporary photography differs from ancient erotic art - mainly in terms of anonymity and intended purpose - and how technology may enable contemporary erotic art to resemble ancient erotic art in terms of anonymity and public acceptability.’

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This article was originally published in issue 470

New Internationalist Magazine issue 470
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