Some thoughts on “ethical porn”

Every once in a while someone on the Internet brings up “ethical porn.” This is a concept that sounds pretty good—lots of porn may be abusive, but let’s just look at the ethical kind, and then we’re okay, right? If only.

The word pornography means the graphic depiction of whores. Whores are promiscuous women. We know exactly how patriarchy, particularly porn culture, has defined the whore. She is a woman who always wants sex, she wants it in the way that gets men off, she exists to be used for men’s sexual pleasure, and she loves this role. This, of course, does not describe any real woman. Women are fully human persons with our own personalities and our own wants and needs—we are not living sex dolls. Women who play the part of the “whore” are acting out a role, like an actress on a stage. The script was written by men. Men use their power over women to create situations where women must act out this role (physical force, emotional coercion, financial coercion, etc.)

It is inherently misogynistic to depict women as whores. To depict female persons as if they are nothing but objects for men’s sexual use is to dehumanize us. It is anti-woman propaganda. There is no way that misogynist propaganda can be “ethical.”

Pornography celebrates men’s status above women and it eroticizes our subordination. There is no “ethical” way to celebrate one sex having power over the other. The power relation is unethical.

So if it’s unethical to depict women as whores, the next question is: can we depict sexual acts without presenting women as whores? Just present women as equal participants and sexual agents in their own right? I say we can. I’ve seen pictures of sexual acts drawn by women where the images simply contains two humans who are female who are enjoying each other’s bodies. Nobody is depicted as a sexual object for someone else to use. Totally ethical. (I’m talking about drawings here, and it will be different when we’re talking about real people’s photos.) However, the idea of “feminist porn” that sex-pozzies speak of is not a solution to the multi-billion dollar pornography industry that sells images of rape. “Feminist porn” is actually a contradiction because pornography is the graphic depiction of whores and it is inherently anti-feminist to depict women as whores. I’d say there is such a thing as feminist images that celebrate women’s sexuality, but we wouldn’t call them porn, because that’s not what they are.

When we’re talking about the pornography business, ethical images of human females in positions of equality are not going to sell. The images that men want to watch are the ones that present men in total control of women’s bodies and lustfully displaying their dominance over us. Pornography sells because of the high it gives to misogynistic men. To introduce a few ethical images of female nudes to the industry will not change its main theme. The main theme of pornography is men is positions of relative power using women who are smaller, younger, and weaker in ways that degrade us. If one farm goes fair-trade, that doesn’t make the whole food industry pay fair wages, and if one porn site is “ethical,” that doesn’t make the whole industry stop trafficking and tricking women into performing sex acts they do not want on camera.

There is also the issue of copyright. Once a company pays a woman for her nude photos, the company “owns” the photos and have the legal right to sell them forever. This means that a woman who might enjoy doing porn at 18 and changes her mind at 19 has no ability to remove her photos from the Internet. The continued selling of her photos against her will is sexual harassment and is a violation.

Let’s talk about what an “ethical” image might be. If a woman takes a picture of herself nude because it turns her on to do so and shares the image with her lover, this could be ethical. I have no doubt a woman could consent to this. Now the thing about consent is that the person in question should be fully informed of what she’s consenting to, and her consent does not last forever. If consent can be freely given then it can be freely taken away. So if the lover in question says he is the only one looking at the image but really he shares it with his friends or uploads it to the Internet, then he is not being ethical. If she only agreed to him seeing the image, then he has no right to let anyone else look at it and if he gives the image file to other people he is violating her. Also, consent to a particular act on a particular day does not mean consent to further acts on further days. If she consents to him looking at nude photos of her while they are dating, that doesn’t give him permission to look at nude photos of her after they break up. It does not give him permission to store her photos on his computer forever. If men respected women, they would delete all nude photos after a break-up, because she is no longer his lover and that chapter of their lives is behind them.

In theory, it is ethical for lovers to share their nude photos. Since the parties know each other and neither one of them is a company that claims to hold copyright over the photos, consent can be freely given and taken away at a later date, and the photos deleted upon request. This should be fine, except we don’t live in an ideal world. Men do not respect women, they do not delete nudes after a break-up, they do upload their girlfriend’s images onto the Internet, and sometimes if they’re really angry and misogynist they send her nudes to her family and employers just to humiliate her.

Here’s my idea of nude photos that would be truly ethical. If there was a file type that the creator could fully control, then it could be consensual. This imaginary file type is a file that has restrictions on who can see it and where it can be stored and viewed. The creator of the file decides who can view the file and if anyone else tries to open it, it just won’t open. If someone tries to save it or upload it onto a forbidden platform, it won’t work. So the creator of the file can prevent anyone from sharing it anywhere that is not authorized, and prevent unauthorized people from viewing it. Also, since consent can be withdrawn after it is given, the original creator of the file can delete the file remotely no matter where it is stored. So if an ex-girlfriend doesn’t want her ex-boyfriend seeing the file any more, she can delete it from her computer and it disappears from his, too. This file type doesn’t exist, of course, it is only theoretical. We don’t have the technology or the culture to create sexual photos that are truly ethical. Sometimes nude images shared between lovers are truly consensual, but you never know what will happen to that file somewhere down the road.

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