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What Does Ethical Porn Means For Feminists? By Julia Margo, Co-founder Hot Octopuss

Personal ethics are everyday values in action, not a lofty idea that you rarely put into practice. They’re the answer to Socrates’ age old question “How should one live?”. But can ethics be applied to something as morally complex as pornography? For groups like the religious right or far left radical feminists, there’s no wiggle room at all; porn itself is unethical by nature.

But even if you disagree – which presumably, the bulk of consumers must –  most proud feminists know all too well that supporting equality for women doesn’t immediately remove your darkest desires – even the desire to watch the kind of sex where women don’t appear to be enjoying much equality at all.

What then, are ethics when applied to porn for feminists? And if traditional pornography, made by men, for men and viewed through the male gaze, feels intrinsically anti-feminist for that very reason, is there an objectively ethical way to enjoy being a cheeky voyeur? The answer is a tentative yes – if you’re prepared to apply your own standards of right and wrong, not only to what you’re watching but to the humanity of those performing. Here’s how:

Pay for your pleasure

Online porn websites get 450 million hits a month – more than digital giants like Netflix, Amazon and Twitter combined. With so much of it free, it’s almost anathema to suggest paying for porn again like people did back in the day. And naturally, the bigger video hosting platforms don’t want you subscribing to your favourite performers directly – advertising on free sites is where they make the bulk of their revenue.

But in an industry that’s notorious for paying its performers poorly, paying for pleasure seems like the right thing to do. While the amateur and pro industry hooks young, naive and foolish women into exploitative contracts that leave them with no profit for their considerable labours, other platforms like OnlyFans put content creators firmly in control of their content. So follow your favourite performer, and pay them directly for their content – which you can then enjoy guilt free.

Change up your gaze 

The traditional porn industry, run by men, for men, making films through the male gaze, is nothing new. And nobody’s saying it’s unethical in and of itself. However, with online porn ostensibly the new sex education for young people, it feels urgent to create other options that don’t include a passive woman just taking it. Feminist porn directors like Erika Lust and Shine Louise Houston have blazed a trail, writing and filming from and for the female point of view.

But it isn’t just about through whose eyes we’re observing. Ethical porn also has an implicit obligation to move away from the automatic, graphic, and utterly emotionless mechanism of hardcore porn with requisite hard bodies – if, that is,  the goal is to create something that won’t affect the way young people view intimacy when they finally get to try it in real life (and that probably should  be the goal). So, try searching for porn that includes diversity of body types, skin colours, and sexualities, as well as diversity of gaze.

Get your house in order

If you’re determined to watch only feminist porn, there are plenty of trailblazing producers like Erika Lust or Tristan Taormino, who create female-led porn that doesn’t leave you hating yourself, with realistic characters and ethical production practices.

However, if you’re fishing in another sexy pond entirely, one that has little interest in storyline, that doesn’t immediately disqualify you from doing the right thing. It’s perfectly acceptable to be a feminist and watch male-gaze pornography – if you’re certain that performers are paid properly, their boundaries respected on set when they’re doing such vulnerable work, and their consent always asked for and received – especially with the more hardcore sub genres like BDSM.

And yes, it’s hard to find a company that conveys these simple work ethics to their consumers – but not impossible! For example, BDSM specialist Kink.com interviews performers before and after a scene, to reiterate enthusiastic consent. If you want to discover which production companies and platforms treat performers properly, follow your favourite stars on social media – and ask. Alternatively, if the idea of that much research is a mood killer, check out the comprehensive list of ethical porn makers from the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health.

Approach taboo with caution

Porn advocates insist porn is just fantasy – and indeed, that’s the only thing it should be. And inside a fantasy, one should theoretically be able to explore taboo topics like rape, incest, gang bangs and more. But when PornHub were called out in a 2020 New York Times piece by Nicholas Kristof  for continuing to allow real rape and non consensual violent abuse videos to remain on the site, despite the repeated please of victims to remove them, a moral chasm opened up. Can you enjoy taboo guilt-free – or is there always a question mark hanging over it?

The answer is unsatisfyingly grey. Within an industry based upon sexual fantasy, the blurred lines become even blurrier – which is why several attempts have been made by the UK government to regulate the more extreme porn genres. But it’s impossible to regulate an industry that by nature, is so excluded from normal profit revenues, it has little incentive to regulate itself.

Which is why ethics in porn, must ultimately lie with viewers themselves.

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