The Ethics of Porn

English: Porn star Cytherea at XRCO Awards in ...

“No porno has ever lost money”, or so said a running friend of mine when he quoted one of his economic professors. This was some years ago and it appears that it is no longer true. Ironically, porn has been a victim of the internet. Much as video killed the radio star, the internet has killed the porn star.

At this point, most folks are probably thinking “that cannot be true! Far from killing porn, the internet is for porn.” This is both true and not true: the internet did kill porn. But the internet is also for porn. Fortunately, this is not some sort of Schrodinger’s Porn in which the porn is neither alive nor dead until it is observed. Rather, the situation can easily be explained without any odd quantum physics.

While I am sure that the readers of this blog have never witnessed this in person, the internet tubes are jammed with porn. Because of this, the traditional porn industry (like the newspaper industry) is in hard times (which is surely the name of a porno). After all, when people can get their porn anonymously and  for free (or at least very cheaply) on the web, they are unlikely to buy the traditional porn movies. As such, it is no surprise that the traditional porn industry has gone from a money making giant to being in its death spiral. As such, the internet has killed (traditional) porn, while the internet is most definitely for porn. Interestingly enough, this decline of the traditional porn industry does raise some ethical concerns.

One point of concern is one that arises whenever an industry is in a death spiral, namely a concern for the people who work in that industry. While some porn stars have been able to achieve success outside of porn, the fall of the traditional porn industry will leave most of the performers in a rather hard situation (which, I am sure, is also the name of a porno). To be specific, many of them will have no qualifications beyond having sex on camera and will have little in the ways of savings and opportunities. While some will be able to switch careers, some will not. As such, it seems worth being concerned about these people.

One obvious reply is that this sort of industry death is just the way of things and economic causalities are inevitable. After all, the rise of the steam engine, electricity and so on killed many industries and the internet is just the most recent example of a economic re-definer. As such, while the economic woes of the folks in porn  is regrettable, we have no special obligation to support those who elected to enter a dying industry. They can, of course, avail themselves of the usual support offered to the unemployed and they can attempt find employment elsewhere.

A second reply is that the death of the porn industry can be seen as a good thing. After all, feminists have long argued that the typical porn is demeaning and harmful and thus morally wrong. Religious groups and moral conservatives have also argued against porn because of its corrupting influence (often unconsciously duplicating Plato’s classic arguments for banning the corrupting influence of art from the ideal state). Thus, the death of porn is a good thing.

The rather obvious reply is that the death of the porn industry is not the death of porn. As noted above, porn is thriving on the internet. To use an analogy, the state of porn is somewhat like the state of newspapers: while the traditional professional industry is dying, the amateurs are flooding the web with words and porn.

Given this fact, it might be expected that those who worked in the professional porn industry can flock to the electronic frontier and make a living in web porn. After all, if Facebook can rake in billions allowing people to post about eating a bagel and to share cat photos, surely something like F@ckbook could be created to provide a home for porn performers.

The obvious reply to this is that the people using Facebook do not make money and presumably the porn performers on F@ckbook would be in the same boat-although someone else would probably get rich. As far as the performers working on the web, one has but to look at the financial success of the typical blogger to get an idea how well going amateur typically pays on the web. After all, people are generally not inclined to pay for what they can get for free. This is not to say that clever people are no longer able to monetize porn, just that the performers will almost certainly be worse off in the new porn economy.

A final point of moral concern is whether or not the porn viewers have a moral debt to those who make it possible for them to see porn. This is not, of course, unique to porn and a similar question arises when it comes to journalism, music, books, non-porn movies and so on. After all, people can readily acquire almost anything digital for free (legitimately or by theft) on the web.

Since I have argued about digital theft in other essays, I will simply note that an excellent case can be made that stealing digital content is morally wrong. As such, the arguments I have made elsewhere would seem to apply to stealing porn as well. However, there is an interesting potential twist here: perhaps the moral dubiousness of the porn industry can provide a moral justification for stealing porn. That is, doing something bad to a bad industry is not bad.

While this has a certain superficial appeal, it can easily be countered. First, stealing from the porn industry is still stealing. Second, stealing from the porn industry does not seem to do anything to counter any moral badness of the industry-that is, the theft cannot be justified on the grounds that it makes things morally better. It could, of course, be justified on the grounds that it might be denying income to the wicked. But, of course, this leads to the third counter: a person steals porn to use porn, thus any moral high ground is clearly lost. This would be somewhat like a person arguing that it is okay to steal drugs to use from drug dealers because drugs are bad. This would, obviously, be a rather poor moral argument.

As far as the free content goes, while giving such product away for free might not be the wisest business model, availing oneself of free stuff is clearly not morally wrong. However, there is still the question of whether or not one should simply free ride an industry rather than contributing to it financially.

On the one hand, a person obviously has no moral obligation to support an industry because s/he has taken free stuff from said industry. After all, it is free. On the other hand, it could be argued that there is some obligation. After all, if the person values what they get for free, then they should contribute to what makes it possible for such stuff to be available for free.

The rather obvious counter to this is that it is up to a business to do what it takes to get customers to support them. If they elect to adopt an approach to business that provides potential customers with everything they want for free, then they have no grounds to complain when those potential customers never actually buy things. While it would be nice of the users to give back to the business, business cannot be sensibly based on this sort of model. As such, it is not so much that the internet killed porn. Rather the porn industry is committing suicide with the internet.

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27 Comments.

  1. There are a lot of free services on the internet – google for example. They find other ways of leveraging their services to make money – like advertising, selling hardware & software. The porn industry, can do the same. They can find new ways of leveraging their services to raise new lines of revenue. As you say every industry has to adjust to changing times.

    Like other industries the porn stars have also got to up their game to attract customers who are willing to pay for extraordinary performance. Again you cover that point.

    The fact porn is now easily accessible can actually prove to the moralist that maybe it is better to pay for porn by law & so you can control their output, content & above their accessibility. The government collects tax dollars, controls output, content etc and creates employment for the porn industry. The moralist can also then have their say on how the industry is regulated. A win, win, win.

  2. Pornography is sex sold as a recreational drug. For that reason this whole discussion strikes me as worrying over whether it is bad to treat drug pushers badly.

  3. Good riddance. Maybe then the internet can be used to spread useful ideas and knowledge as opposed to hosting useless, poisonous media.

    What has porn given to humanity any way?

    As far as I can tell, porn these days promotes violence in sex, tells us women are objects and creates an insecure male populous that is hell bent on replicating the pornography they consume.

    Or we could throw together a stimulus package and bail out the porn industry… I can’t decide

  4. POD,

    True-the challenge is to re-monetize porn at least for the porn folks. Perhaps they could partner with Google and create something like Booble.

  5. True-it can be argued that the industry is immoral. Using your analogy, if people found a way to get high for free, then it would hardly be our worry that drug dealers would now be facing tough times.

  6. Porn is, however, doing great-at least in terms of its volume on the internet. It is just doing badly relative to the old financial model.

  7. Arguing that porn is immoral, de-values women, and “teaches” men to be insecure and sexually violent is a generalization and somewhat narrow perspective.

    While I don’t disagree that the majority of porn out there depicts young women being used and violated, there also exists porn that is passionate, steamy, and even romantic. As consumers we all have the choice of what kind of porn we want to see. Unfortunately, the mass market demands trashy women being used by men, as is evident by most porn. One must go out of their way to find two people having passionate sex — something that is found in amateur porn (real life couples), and not in mainstream sources.

    If the analogy between drugs and porn is going to be used, one has to keep in mind that not all drugs are bad, nor are the people who use them. We now live in a world where one of the most praised CEOs spoke openly about dropping acid, and how his experiences while tripping were, “In the top three most important experiences of my life.” The CEO to whom I refer to is Steve Jobs.

    Steve Jobs is of course not the only individual to gain from drug use. Shakespeare is another great example, who is reported to have used opiates, cocaine, and marijuana. Freud used cocaine. The founding fathers grew their own hemp and likely smoked pot (as well as brewed their own alcohol).

    Many contemporary philosophers have reported using mushrooms and LSD. And many other biologists, chemists, physicists, astrologists — people with PhD’s — have talked about tripping dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. All through history humans have used drugs to enhance their understanding of reality, and its even arguable that hallucinogens have sped up our evolution.

    My point is that with porn, just as with drugs, the experiences and outcomes depend on the user, not the substance being consumed. For all of recorded history human beings have consumed drugs and pornography. Banning porn, something that both men and women use by the way, is like telling us to not be our human selves.

    Instead of eliminating porn through a retributive process, it may be wiser to invoke a restorative/rehabilitative approach by means of proper education and family values. A cultural and mental shift is needed so that the young adults understand the negative impacts of watching degrading porn; they need to understand that there are options when it comes to viewing pornography, and that their choices have consequences. Obviously if no one consumed degrading porn, or MTV, or certain news outlets, then those types of media wouldn’t exist.

    It may not be the easiest solution to educate youth about porn, instead of simply banning it, but it’s not exactly an easy and clear issue either. Banning porn will do nothing in the way of eliminating porn, as any black market will tell you. You may be able to curb the creation of more porn, but that won’t eliminate all of the magazines and digital files that people already possess.

    The porn industry (and the use of recreational drugs) would change if peoples’ mentalities changed. Granting education and perspective to the masses is the solution, NOT a ban or generalization that “it’s all bad.”

  8. Basil,

    You elaborated upon some excellent points that I neglected and overlooked. As you put it, education is essential and responsible media consumption is imperative. I agree with you that not all porn is harmful but that said, the vast, vast majority is.

    Isn’t there a difference between the known pornography industry and authentic, amateur porn? I feel as though once you make sex into a business, the sex itself becomes meaningless and trivial. It loses it’s authenticity and becomes bland and passionless. Where as true amateur porn is traditionally a couple sharing there intimacy and sexual connection through video footage.

    Now If this dynamic is valid, I think we have a real problem. What if the industry itself were to die out? What kind of porn would be able to resurface? Maybe then we would see a rise in real, passion filled, user contributed pornography instead of brutal sexual depictions constructed by a money grubbing industry.

    Lack of pure knowledge through education, without a doubt, remains the true source of our issues. But until we can figure out how to properly instruct our youth and cure those already affected by harmful media, we must treat symptoms as best we can. Eliminate the blanket of blinding, poisonous media spewed from porn industries and our quest towards an enlightened, educated society isn’t such an uphill battle.

    To touch upon drugs and porn, both should be used responsibly and safely. Neither should ever replace reality, they are only means to better grasp it.

  9. Basil,

    Good points. The analogy does seem to hold quite well. Demeaning porn could be seen as comparable to a rather bad drug with nasty side effects that people should probably steer clear of. Pornography that is not demeaning could be seen as comparable to beer or chocolate: perhaps not great for you, but certainly a tolerable vice.

    Some folks like to make a distinction between porn and erotica, perhaps there is a meaningful distinction there.

  10. The word “porn” is a gross generalization for the work of artists, photographers, illustrators, filmmakers and writers who in spite of discrimination from the religiously insane and authoritarian governments, both secular and religious, dare to create explicit erotica

  11. Michael J,

    True. There is a clear need for a more expanded vocabulary in this matter. Of course (as you note), some folks like to just mash all such things into one grand category of porn.

  12. Ethics of Porn?

    I cannot believe.
    Ethics is about values,moral values.
    Porn is immoral.

  13. David,

    There can be an ethical discussion of what is (or is seen by some) as immoral. This can be seen as a legal discussion of something illegal.

  14. I am not going to bother responding to many of the above comments from people’s who sensibilities were offended, but I will say that it is kind of staggering to think of how many men (well mostly men) still pay for “pornography”. If you want to make money shoving objects into your orifices or getting reamed on camera, it is still a viable way to make money. Some people are just not technically savvy and will buy porn, certain fetishes or niche titles that can’t be found for free on the internet or as simple as having dead links means you’ll have to pay to see what you want.

    However, the real way people wanting to get paid for being naked on camera can continue doing so is by doing interactive web shows where viewers get to chat and buy private viewing time and the performer may take on requests. People pay big bucks for this.

    But as my own personal opinion, I think the future of pornography lies in computer games, so to speak. Imagine being the director of your own virtual porno, you can create the most beautiful woman anyone can think of and do to her whatever anyone can think of.

  15. Porn exists because it is necessary. In a world of perfect goodness we become bored to death (remember the Garden of Eden). Human beings cannot live in a world of perfect goodness. Moreover, Porn (sin in general) is necessary for the very existence of virtue.

  16. “Porn” is eroticism and pleasure is not a sin.

  17. ColinGavaghan

    I’m coming really late to this one, and it’s likely a dead conversation by now, but for my own benefit if no-one else’s …

    The question of what (if anything) is wrong with breaching porn copyright* is, I think, closely related to the question of what (if anything) is wrong with porn.

    In this regard, I’m going to start with an assumption: there is nothing intrinsically wrong with enjoying sexual experiences, or doing so outwith marriage/a loving relationship. And this is also true of vicarious sexual experiences, such as watching porn. I realise that some will disagree, but that’s my starting point.

    If there is something wrong with watching porn, then, we have to find it elsewhere. Commonly, two suggestions are offered. (1) That watching porn ‘corrupts’ the viewer in a manner likely to coarsen or debase his attitudes to and relations with others (particularly women), perhaps even to the extent of making him more likely to abuse them; or (2) that the consumption of porn begets the manufacture of porn, which is problematic because of the manner in which porn is produced.

    If our concern is predominantly with (1), then it won’t matter how the material is obtained; the mere fact of watching it is enough. But if we are thinking about (2), then what I should be concerned about is any action that will increase the supply of porn. For the most part, that involves paying for it, either directly with my credit card, or indirectly by viewing it on websites that make money from advertising, etc.

    If, otoh, I download it elsewhere for free, I am not contributing to the ‘demand’ – in economic terms – that will in turn be causally related to the supply. I am not in any sense ‘supporting’ an exploitative industry.

    Of course, there are limitations to this argument. It may be that not everyone who manufactures and distributes porn does so for the money; there may be genuine exhibitionists out there who are just happy that someone is watching them. If that’s so, then the fact that I’m watching them may encourage them to produce more (presuming, of course, that they know that I’m watching.) It’s also quite possible – indeed, likely – that some commercial manufacturers are not exploitative of their workers. In that case, I am certainly not acting well when I deny them payment for their work.

    But if we assume that neither of those examples are typical of the porn ‘industry’, then we should, I think, be open to the possibility that copyright violation is a lesser wrong than financially incentivising actual violation.

    * It is not, contrary to the industry’s propaganda ‘theft.’ I think philosophers, like we lawyers, should make the effort to be precise about these things.

  18. i used t earn a living selling “porn” by mail order but the government legislated the Video Recordings Act 1984 and mail-order is illegal.

    I am now a writer having published 11 books.

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/I-Pornographer-ebook/dp/B003ZYEX6K/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1353425288&sr=1-1

  19. What disgusts me is the people (religious and secular alike) spewing their hatred for a regular form of entertainment they obviously know nothing about, re-iterating the indoctrinated hate for everything sexual in this society.

    In case you haven’t noticed. An orgasm is one of the most exciting experiences a human can have obviously instilled by nature to promote procreation. YES YOU were born via a sexual act, the very act you so despise as soon as it leaves the bed room of a married couple!

    Women are objectified? How ludicrous. Back in the day of the bible, women were second class humans with the only purpose of being married off as f@ck toys, deliver children and maintain the house. Today women have choices and can express their sexuality!

  20. Watching porn is part of one’s private life and the state and legislation should never intrude into the bedroom.

  21. Of course the state should intrude into the bedroom, if what is going on there is non-consensual; marital rape is now properly regarded as criminal, and I’m assuming that no-one is going to argue that child abuse should be decriminalised. The question about porn is whether it’s production is properly to be regarded as consensual, and whether its consumption con tributes to any exploitation or harm.

  22. Please don’t imply that anyone who watches porn condones rape. I am for women’s rights, I am for equality, I am against causing harm to anyone. If violence appears in porn it’s the violence that is despicable, not the sex! Sex is the very opposite of harm! I hate violence but I love porn!

    The only thing the government should do is protect the individual’s rights to say and do anything they wish as long as it DOES NOT HARM ANYONE. As soon as people think we can limit someone’s freedoms just because they don’t agree with your opinion or even the majority opinion, we get exclusion and segregation which leads to racism, homophobia, religious hate, degradation of women, etc.

    If you don’t like it, don’t watch it, but don’t restrict my rights to enjoy it!

  23. An interesting thread. I am, as the nmo de plume indicates, a cavalier conservative. This means that I belive that for the majority of people the morals of respectability and the limiting of the human urges is the best moral paradigm we can have.

    I see a lot of similarities between modern Liberals and Victorian puritans. Both wish to ban words which they find offensive.

    However the former have realised that they can take away all our freedoms one by one, as long as they push the myth that complete sexual freedom is liberating. I abjure you to read the great British writer Dr Anthony Daniels (aka Theodore Dalrymple) who shows , via anecdotes of his experience as a psychiatrist in prisons and in hospitals in poor areas of Britain that one of the leading factors that has reduced the old working class to a pathetic underclass is sexual revolution.

    The problem was that many of those promoting the revolution were upper-middle class solipsists who thought that what was good for them with their extensive social and economic support systems would also be good for the masses too.

    We all know that sex is a jolly good thing. Can we just shut up talking about it, as if no-one has ever done it before, and get on with life.

    As for the Government, the less of that there is the better.

  24. First, one cannot generalize. To claim that “porn is good” or “porn is immoral” is rather meaningless. Clearly some causes harm, some less.

    The ethics of sentient beings concern the well-being of sentient beings. Perhaps like Sam Harris asserts, science will one day quantify a many-dimensional ethical landscape of human interactions. Until then we must live with a certain level of moral ambiguity.

    From a purely personal point of view, especially when single there is an excess of sexual energy, and to be frank, masturbating with or without porn is a healthy way to release that energy. But I try to live a conscientious life, so I do question to what extent porn is healthy or ethical.

    My main concern with porn is whether the performers are harmed. Of course one could argue that any labor performed for pay involves the laborer submitting to some harm or unpleasantness. Spending 60 hours a week at a desk in return for $30 an hour involves one kind of harm. Spending 5 hours a week having sex with a stranger in front of a camera crew for others. enjoyment, for perhaps $100 to $2000 an hour, probably involves another type of unpleasantness or harm. That is why the workers are paid. The latter might be judged harshly by conservative elements of society, but as long as the performer retains his or her self-respect and dignity in his/her own eyes, I see no objective reason for condemnation other than outdated societal mores that condemn consensual sexual expression, exploration and promiscuity. These taboos may have been adaptive and helpful to maintain orderly society before reliable birth control and modern medicine, but today they are arbitrary and on the wane.

    From an ethical perspective, porn comes in many gradations, one one end we have perfectly benign depictions of amateur consensual sex that probably cause no harm for their simply being recorded and dispersed by an exhibitionist couple, unless we are basing our morality on the three-thousand year old religious texts of bronze-age desert tribespeople.

    On the opposite extreme, the internet contains videos, actually deemed legal, where the females (and I’m sure corresponding males in gay porn) are clearly under duress. I came across one such video that from the anguished screams and sobbing I could not distinguish from rape. I emailed the German police but received no response. That the performer signed a consent to be filmed having sex does not give the purveyors the right to rape a woman and even more infuriating to sell the recording for a profit. It is impossible to argue that this type of porn does not cause harm to the performer.

    That said, there appears to be a large gray area in the middle.

    I reject Basil McKeon’s claim that only ‘passionate and romantic’ porn is ethical. Straight ‘vanilla’ sex is one person’s cup of tea, BDSM may be another’s. The runaway success of ’50 Shades of Gray’ indicates that a great many women are excited by domination, submission, bondage, rough sex, S&M, etc. Being ‘exploited’ or humiliated is a turn-on for some, male and female alike. Claiming that a woman having anything other than ‘romantic sex’ is equivalent to her being ‘used and violated’ is chock full of arbitrary judgments and sexism. And moreover, some people enjoy being ‘used and violated’ to some extent, confusing as that may be. That is not to say that exploitation is okay, just that the ethics are anything but well-defined.

    While there are certainly some female and male performers out there who enjoy their jobs, of course for others it is uncomfortable, and for some it is probably a mix.

    Anyway this is just sort of a rambling attempt to flesh out my own thoughts on the matter, and I am left with more questions than answers.

    1 How responsible is the porn viewer or purchaser for the myriad consequences of the performers’ choice to be in porn?

    2. If some porn is wrong and some isn’t, then for the majority whose ethics may not be obvious, how exactly do we determine which is which, and how are we to be sure our own desires and sexual instincts don’t cloud our judgment?

    3. Is it simpler to abstain completely, or is this making oneself a martyr when a means of sexual release, if only by vicarious simulation, is so readily accessible?

  25. Governments argue that explicit sexual imagery is harmful when in fact it has never been proven to harm anyone. Ironically it is UK and USA the the two warmongering nations whose terrorism and arms industry kills millions of children who say that they want to protect children by banning it.
    Authoritarian governments are terrified of the internet because it has revealed their duplicity, corruption and evil like never before in history. The coming revolution will not be between right and left but between the people and big corporations…
    The greedy one per cent would like the power to shut down any website that they like…

  26. Ok you start of with this:

    “First, one cannot generalize. To claim that “porn is good” or “porn is immoral” is rather meaningless. Clearly some causes harm, some less.”

    and then quoting Harris is supposed to make you appear like a free thinker and open minded? The first sentence and what you go on to say tells me that you’re anything but. Perhaps with regards to other subjects but not where porn is concerned.

    Porn is not somewhere between harmful and less harmful, it’s between absolute bliss and a few bad apples who distort it’s true meaning. The same bad apples that occur with any form of entertainment, business, etc. they’re called criminals and aren’t limited to porn.

    The default position of porn is happiness. Sex is about achieving an orgasm built into us by nature to make procreation a beautiful experience. Porn is the inevitable and resulting form of entertainment, that people use to share said experience with others. ANYTHING else that makes us happy we broadcast to the world, but somehow porn is supposed to be different? The mere fact of turning the camera on the sexual act is now suddenly obscene? Only a human mind could be this twisted.

    Have you ever considered that you are in fact the one indoctrinated by your parents, the media, religion and society that porn is something to be feared and shameful about, when in fact it’s those very institutions that have created this fear, like religion spouting hell, without a single shred of evidence?

    So in true anti porn fashion you pick out one bad example and go on to ignore the endless myriad of positive, fun even passionate porn?
    I can use a knife to kill someone, that doesn’t make all knives killing instruments. There are catholic priests who rape little children, that doesn’t make all catholic priest pedophiles. Nazi Germany managed to be racist as an entire country, that still doesn’t make all Germans racists.

    Look at sex, the orgasm, porn for what they are and then explain how they can possibly be harmful by default? Give me specific logical reasoning and solid evidence: how is porn harmful by default?

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