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The complicated ethics of porn consumption

The adult film industry’s relation to women lags a good hundred years behind the rest of society.

August 15, 2018

8:23 AM

15 August 2018

8:23 AM

I don’t know about you, but I always feel quite an urgent rush of guilt immediately after I’ve closed the browser page of whatever filth I happened to be surfing at the time. This might have something to do with the psychological phenomenon known as ‘post-coital tristesse’, which has been known to leave certain men and women weeping into their pillow cases. But I don’t think so.

No, my guilt more likely springs from an uncomfortable awareness (conveniently overborn during the throes of passion) that the very vast majority of pornographic material is irredeemably immoral. Which I don’t mean in a prudish sense. What I mean is that porn, to its core, makes a mockery of modern feminist values.

A porn scene is a little like a horse race: for the entertainment of an assembled audience, a man pounds against the perspiring flesh of the creature beneath him in order to get himself across a finish line. The spectators watching in the stands don’t really care if the horse likes having its backside whipped, less so if it’s having a good time or not. They’re just there to enjoy the sport, the exhilaration of a flutter, the horse run ragged.

The one who is most critical to the whole enterprise is the one who is the most exploited and who has the least say. The horse and the female performer are both dispensable instruments of entertainment in industries built around the atavistic impulses of men. And it’s pretty much always been that way, from the depictions of underage girls in shunga woodblock pictures, to the moving, ululating images of today.

Pornhub, however, has claimed 2017 to be the year in which women take the reins for themselves. Drawing a comparison between female performers in porn and anti-sexual harassment activists, the company’s director of Sexual Wellness, Dr Laurie Betito, commented: ‘From the #MeToo movement to prominent females the likes of Hillary Clinton and Nikki Haley on the world stage, women are feeling more empowered and they have found their voice. This is a sign of things to come.’

A statement not dissimilar to the one put out on this website last week by Yasmeena Ali, a British-Afghan woman who fled from her conservative Islamic upbringing to become an adult-film star. Working in porn, says Ali, is liberating, going on to compare those ‘misguided feminists speaking out against sex work’ to the Taliban, both prudish and puritanical in their demands for women to ‘cover up’.

I’ve certainly never thought myself much similar to the Taliban and I’m afraid I don’t think Ms Ali is not going to convince me that I am. Being a feminist and enjoying sex are not mutually exclusive. Ali might well be one of the lucky female performers who works with more ‘female-friendly’ producers. But for most actresses, the work is not female-friendly at all.

As one small-time female porn performer told me, ‘this is an industry built around men’s desires and [as an actress] you’re always going to be a slave to that’. The female performer is not an active producer in porn, but the product itself, served up for consumption by a predominantly male audience. With hardcore material so ubiquitous across the internet, what now cuts it for consumers looking for a quick thrill is becoming ever more extreme, which, in turn, translates into actresses having to undergo evermore brutal and humiliating acts in order to get cast.

Most mainstream pornography now bears very little resemblance to ordinary homespun shagging. One-on-one vaginal intercourse, devoid of any kind of fetish motivation, is increasingly rare. Now there has to be a hook to a scene, and nine times out of ten, that hook will involve the female performer doing something that she probably wouldn’t do if she wasn’t getting paid a lot of money for it.

Porn’s relation to women lags a good hundred years behind the rest of society. It’s a world in which women are entirely subservient to men. Normal, metropolitan men, who love their girlfriends and their mums, and give their seat up to elderly ladies on the train, go home at night and jack off to the most abominably chauvinistic material there is going. How do you reconcile that with a society which is supposedly moving towards full equality of the sexes?

The good news is that there is a burgeoning ethical scene, primarily produced by women.

Websites like Make Love Not Porn and actresses like Stoya are creating videos which reflect far more normal sexual relations between two equal people. The problem is that though most of this material exists behind paywalls, making ethical porn a little like organic food – good for the world, bad for your wallet.

Still, it’s a move in the right direction and maybe one day the ethical wave will flow over into the mainstream – at which point, hopefully, I will find my burning guilt a little lessened.


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