Makers of So-Called Ethical Porn Hope to Clean Up the Industry



“Ethical porn” is a term that’s been bandied about for some time both in and around the adult industry. A counterpoint to the view that all porn is misogynistic and exploitative, it’s shorthand for smut created in a generally non-shitty manner. But poke that definition and you’ll find there’s no consensus on what “ethical porn” actually entails. Everyone surrounding the issue has an opinion, and none of them are the same. As a result, this spring a group of porn wonks and professionals launched ethical.porn, a platform they hope can push back on certain definitions of ethics in porn and put industry voices front and center on the topic.

Some history: the phrase “ethical porn” bubbled up organically about a decade ago in discussions on sex positive and feminist blogs, as digital denizens tried to puzzle out for themselves what kind of porn, if any, could be consumed guilt-free. It didn’t proliferate as a distinct term until 2012, when it broke into thinkpieces, drawing a critical mass of attention by about 2014.

Former dominatrix cum adult industry journalist Nichi Hodgson tried to nail down the term’s meaning when she created the Ethical Porn Partnership in 2013, which aimed to give ethical certification stamps to studios that complied with a firm set of guidelines they would develop. But the EPP has yet to issue those guidelines—and has largely been silent for almost two years.

So today you can find adult performers and producers in the media talking about ethicality as a mix of safe workplace conditions, respect for consent and performer comfort, transparency, and fair pay. But you can also find academics and cultural critics arguing porn is only ethical when it doesn’t depict rapey scenarios, builds consent into narratives; expressly rejects the demeaning tone and cinematic language of traditional porn; or consciously features a diversity of human bodies and sexual experiences rather than catering to accepted male American cultural fantasies.

Enter the ethical.porn crew. They take umbrage at definitions that would restrict the type of acts or scenes in porn. Critics who believe so-called ethical porn isn’t quite ethical enough, the site’s curators wrote me in an email, are oftentimes “trying to define or describe ‘correct’ forms of sexual expression. They rely on limited and fairly repressive ideas about what sex ‘should’ be.” The ethical.porn curators believe these definitions come down hard on taboo fantasies or rough sex, which might look demeaning, but can be done safely and happily by consenting actors. “What the final scene looks like is a poor judge for the behind the scenes ethics,” said Jiz Lee, a performer-producer at the queer, feminist Pink and White studios and an ethical.porn contributor.

They also aren’t too jazzed that industry outsiders have authored some of the most prominent definitions of ethical porn in recent years. Case-in-point: Last year’s landmark Ethical Porn for Dicks: A Man’s Guide to Responsible Viewing Pleasure, was written by David Ley, a psychologist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and is focused on consumer experiences.

“Too often in porn, the only voices which carry weight are those outside the industry,” said Lee. “Namely therapists, authors, and academics who haven’t worked in the industry.”

Ethical.porn sets out a few broad boundaries for ethical content: consent, transparency, safety, and compliance with the few industry standards that already do exist, like Adult Performer Advocacy Committee’s Model Bill of Rights, Free Speech Coalition’s Code of Ethics, and Performer Availability Screening Service system. But beyond that they take pains to note they’re not an authoritative industry voice—not even a single voice. They’re a platform to explore ethicality.

And there’s much to explore. While the industry largely asserts its safety protocols are robust and has opposed condom usage regulations as fiscally and physically impractical, some insiders think ethical porn requires rubbers or other stricter and more enforceable health guarantees. The right level of compensation and control over content is hotly debated too, the ethical.porn team acknowledged in another recent email. Then there’s the question of just how much of the behind-the-scenes artifice of porn’s fantasies should be laid bare in the name of transparency.

Consent is an especially thorny issue. Even studios that plan out scenes with performers and pride themselves on checking in throughout and giving talent the option to stop a shoot at will, like kink.com, come under fire from performers who claim things went way too far, perhaps because they felt coerced into something by forces off set or pursued something they weren’t actually prepared for and didn’t feel totally free or comfortable to stop. As anti-porn feminist Gail Dines points out, society acknowledges there’s more to consent than just saying yes to any one act at a given moment.

Dines believes true, ethical consent would entail making sure performers aren’t under any economic or social coercion, fully understand the risks and liabilities of adult work, and accept that what they shoot will always exist in the ether, potentially affecting their lives forever. Few in porn will admit there’s as much risk and darkness in the industry as Dines asserts, but several performers do believe there needs to be more meaningful consent. And some argue real consent requires performers have a hand in envisioning and producing a scene, rather than just tacitly agreeing to act out someone else’s fantasy.

In theory, ethical.porn could become a valuable forum for the industry to hash out what the agreeable but malleable boundaries of ethicality mean. Outsiders reading the content available on the site could get a better sense of how far the industry actually pushes itself on ethics now and how that accords with their values as viewers.

Skeptics like Dines, though, read “ethical porn” as a marketing effort designed by PR teams to help consumers stop worrying and embrace smut—and to pay for it rather than get it from a tube, as most voices on ethical.porn insist consumers must support ethical content. In her eyes, the industry is such an interlinked mess that even its most independent, high minded enterprises feed into a corrupt system that cannot be adequately regulated or reformed to be truly ethical. She reads this new site as an effort “to gaslight people” into embracing a shallow ethicality built around porn.

Industry wonks and insiders often write Dines’s ilk off as ignorant of actual dynamics at work in porn, cherry-picking negative tales to prove an ideology. Dines, in turn, argues the folks behind the site or contributing to it are at best ignorant of the wider social systems porn operates in and the rigor of ethical debate in other industries. “Our hope is that these people can now choose to learn about other considerations shaping oppositional positions,” the ethical.porn team wrote to me when I put these criticisms past them. “Or at least be confident enough in their own viewpoints to allow others to have theirs.”

Whether or not “ethical porn” is a well-meaning attempt to help police an industry that doesn’t always consider its actor’s physical or mental safety or a loophole designed to assuage guilt in precious viewers may be up for debate. But what’s not is that the site is a repository of industry understandings of ethicality and a recognition that those understandings are diverse and squishy. That’s a resource of value to everyone, from Dines to casual consumers. For those viewers, it may force some serious thought on the difference between our ethics and the ethics of what we consume; it could force us to be more critical of and nuanced on porn production systems, just as we increasingly are of other industries like jewelry, agriculture, or meat.

“There’s a lack of what I call porn literacy that hinders consumer and media dialogue about porn,” says Lee. “Projects like [ethical.porn] serve to fill the gaps and expand our knowledge base.”

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.

Mark Hay



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