Pornography: Ethically Sustainable?

By Evelyn Gonzalez '18
Feminism Columnist

Sex and sexuality in general play an interesting role in society. They are, all at once, topics of taboo and yet as a society we are often inundated with images and conversations surrounding these subjects. Nowhere is this more true than with the multi-million dollar pornography industry.

Feminists have been long engaged with the issue of pornography. As with most arguments there seem to be two camps: those who label themselves as anti-porn feminists and those who fall under the label of pro-porn feminists. According to a Ms. Magazine article written by Simone Levine, anti-porn feminists feel that:

The effects of porn stretch beyond whatever actors do or say and have a far broader impact than simple titillation. It unfortunately contributes to misconceptions about sex. Porn also contributes to already dangerous ideas about the role of women during heterosexual sex. [It] sexualizes young women and contributes to the fetishization of racial minorities, intersex, and trans individuals. Ultimately pornography is an apparatus of the patriarchy because of the way it is aimed at male consumers.

Porn in these cases is particularly problematic. At the end of the day, most pornography exists as a business utilized for profit. As companies that are out for capitalistic gain, pornography companies often ignore the rights and safety of the workers in favor of acquiring more proceeds. These businesses are difficult to regulate, because of ease of access and the wide variety of definitions of what is considered ethical or moral,  which means they can often get away with not mandating STD testing, condoms or consent.

Besides that, these companies, amateur as some of them are, often feel the need to out-compete one another, which means an increase in the extremeness of the films and images that adds to its violent aspect. It is perfectly normal to have preferences in the form of kinks and fetishes. However, there is a difference between becoming sexually aroused by feet (podophilia) and being sexually aroused by illegal acts like rape, pedophilia and incest, which often become normalized through the continued immersion and repetition of these acts on screen and in photographs.

We also have to think about the impact that these images have on the minds of individuals since accessing pornography on the web is faster and easier than ever. Those who have access to porn, and especially those who are not familiar with actual sex, internalize these often violent images and begin to have unrealistic ideas about bodies and the act of sexual intercourse. If individuals are constantly presented with these images, it is very easy for them to become desensitized to forms of violence.

Anti-porn feminists provide valid points on the current state of pornography. On the other side of the debate, pro-porn feminists agree that:

The problems within pornography stem from larger patriarchal frameworks, so while the industry may require drastic improvement, pornography cannot be blamed for sexism and violence — particularly when there are institutionalized policies that repeatedly shame and debase the female body.

Pornography is often considered a site of freedom where individuals who wish to do so can explore their bodies and interests. It can also open up communication, not just between partners who want to examine their own sex or intimacy pursuits, but also among individuals who are interested in finding out about new experiences. Even though porn often has a homogenous assortment of people in films (i.e. thin and white)  it can also help individuals interact with one another along similar interests, since they might see something that they thought they were alone in liking. In this way porn can build communities and start to open up more conversations surrounding these topics.

I think it’s important to realize that neither side of the discussion wishes to eradicate pornography as a whole. The way I see this argument is that two sects of feminists are essentially fighting for different sides of the same coin. Anti-porn feminists address the “freedom from” aspect of porn that was missing from the industry which included freedom from discrimination, violence, degradation etc.. The pro-porn feminists on the other hand address the “freedom to” aspect that involved freedom to explore sexualites and interests without shame.  

Pornography cannot continue to exist in its current state, but in principle it has the potential to provide an outlet for sexual freedom and education. Currently, there are some companies that have started to come out with “feminist porn.” One such website entitled Bright Desire “celebrates all that’s good about sex – intimacy, pleasure, laughter, connection, fantasy and fun.” They state that their “porn is produced ethically – [they] collaborate with [their] performers, pay them properly and treat them with respect.” Pornography is not inherently problematic, but the ways in which it is produced and sold need to change in order for pornography to become a more ethically sustainable source of pleasure.