What is ethical pornography?

I couldn’t help but wonder: what is ethical porn? Why is the consumption of it crucial?

Recently, with the increased circulation of Exodus Cry’s video on the damaging child sex trafficking, rape, sexual assault and exploitation in videos on Pornhub, the world’s largest pornography website, people are increasingly paying attention to the ethics of pornography. In a weirder twist of events, it turns out Exodus Cry is an anti-sex work Christian advocacy group, who are also anti-LGBT, amongst other things. So it seems a certain amount of stir has been created in the pornography industry.

Uncomfortable questions are arising: is it ok to consume porn from a website that involves illegal crimes? Is it ok to not pay for porn? Are all porn performers exploited in some way?

Scale: the porn industry

 Pornography can be defined as “ representation of sexual behaviour in books, pictures, statues, motion pictures, and other media that is intended to cause sexual excitement. The distinction between pornography (illicit and condemned material) and erotica (which is broadly tolerated) is largely subjective and reflects changing community standards” (Britannica, 2020).

The industry could be valued at between $6 and $97 billion dollar a year; to pitch this, it produces somewhere between the GDP per year of Togo to Angola. If we’re looking at the production of erotic material to excite sexually, The Venus of Willendorf statue dated 28,000 years ago can be seen as the first form of pornography (Duncan, 2017). From 1997, with porn able to be accessed on the Internet and following into the 21st century via YouTube-style sites such as PornHub, it is safe to say humans have sought out and created pornography for a very. very long time.

Most of these streaming sites are owned by Mindgeek, a company which controls most of the biggest porn sites (100 to be exact)- stolen content isn’t regulated, which means that one-time paid for content often gets pirated (Schultz, 2018). Now, PornHub sees a record 42bn views per year – which works out at every human being alive visiting it 5.4 times per year. Pornhub, significantly, has had multiple videos of rape or abuse on their site, alongside the other exploitative functions of mainstream pornography.

Performers have been treated badly, and there have been unfortunate mental health issues for performers and even suicide (August Ames, a 23-year-old performer, committed suicide in 2017 following Twitter controversy). Mia Khalifa, a current media personality and sports commentator, had a brief stint in porn (3 months, where she earned all but $12,000), but remained one of the world’s top performers on tube sites such as PornHub (subsequently earning them 100s of millions of views). She also received death threats from performing in a hijab (she is of Lebanese descent) (Hay, 2019). The popularity of her performances is thought to link to her wider social media personality (highly recommend her TikToks, where she critiques sex work stigma (Cole, 2020)), although Khalifa clearly highlights the exploitation that occurred – in the sense that she does not own her own content and doesn’t support the way the industry has worked against her and many others.

Porn scorn 

Is the vilification of porn consumption simply the result of a ‘sex-negative’ society (Ley, 2020) or is porn in general harmful? 

Such arguments often centre, rightly so, on the readily available porn online, which could be particularly damaging for younger people. Although it is thought to influence young people, it does not necessarily impact them negatively (Ley, 2020). However, it must be positioned in the right framework: as a form of entertainment, facet or expression of sexuality. After all: “learning to have sex from porn, is like learning how to drive from The Fast and The Furious. A bloody horrendous idea” (Jamil, 2018).

As we get older, porn addiction becomes increasingly posed as an issue, creating a sort of insatiable Internet beast, favouring online material over real human connection (lol read the satire here). There is no evidence that watching porn affects sexual dysfunction such as erectile dysfunction, although it can lead to delayed ejaculation (Ley, 2020).

Other concerns are that it could encourage male violence (only for those who are already predisposed too violent behaviour (ibid)), affects body image attitudes, leads to a rise in labiaplasty, and perpetuates unrealistic sex, along with a flurry of fake orgasms.

Some feminists, particularly earlier and more ‘traditional’ ones may feel that porn, having been initially made for the male gaze, presents an inherent trap: how can you consume something where, predominantly, women ‘perform’ for the pleasure of men (Williams, 2014)?  More recently, following the updating of British pornography laws, female ejaculation, amongst other acts, was banned. Some people, especially the ‘squirters’ amongst us, could hardly argue that pornography, in it’s most commonly consumed form (essentially Pornhub), prioritises or centre female pleasure at a similar positioning to that of males. 

Although there are issues with porn, the demand is still there; provided it is watched in a healthy or even ‘mindful way’, watching pornography can mean having a better sex life (Ley, 2020); something which is hard to complain.

So, a) there must be another option to consume pornography and avoid some of the ethical issues, and b) “sexual fantasy is a sacred thing; you can’t argue it away, and nor should you want to” (Williams, 2014). If you enjoy watching pornography, I see no fit reason for it to be excluded from sexual fantasy, so long as it might not harm or exploit others. 

Ethical pornography

Hurray! We might be saved. Ethical pornography involves the ethical treatment and diverse representation of performers, proper payment, promotion of safe sex, inclusive sex, amongst other things. It has been compared to the promotion of fair trade projects (Ley, 2020). 

Additionally, it can be taken to promote other modes of thinking, other than the ya know, white cishet male gaze. A branch of ethical porn, feminist porn, “further aligns with ethical production by practising intersectionality: it represents marginalized groups without fetishizing them” (Kanaras, 2014). 

It is considered ‘better’ for a number of reasons: namely avoiding the exploitation of porn performers. This has and continues to happen throughout the porn industry: for me, this is the crux of the issue with pornography: the safety and rights of performers. By using sites like Pornhub, where clips can be viewed millions of times for free, at no additional income increase to the performers (only to conglomerate companies), performers simply aren’t making as much as they could be. Essentially, it’s like making a short arthouse film, getting paid a set fee, and it gets put up on Netflix – who make money from the subscriptions. Except with PornHub, you don’t even pay to access videos; they make money through adverts (Schultz, 2018). I know; capitalism at its finest. 

In ways ethical porn has gotten a bad rap – as if sigh something being ethical makes it unsexy. Newsflash – you can still watch great porn. You just have to pay for it.

An additional, timely, and at times lacking lens of analysis from anti-porn campaigners is the inclusion of a discussion of racism in porn. This stems from the lack of black performers, big deals for white women performing ‘interracially’ (positioned as more of a taboo), less pay for black performers, the presence of the Blacked porn channel and sinister plays on Black Lives Matter or slave fantasies (Clark-Flory, 2020). 

The human desire to watch and consume pornography, from statues to free video clips, is not disappearing any time soon. Ultimately, people should be able to watch porn free from judgement, yet equipped with a proper comprehension that the pornography they are consuming has been given the same considerations than, for example, ethical clothing. The question seems to be thus: is porn the issue, or capitalism? (Williams, 2014).

Site recommendations 

  • Bellesa – marketed as ‘porn for women’, has some free videos and paid content (read here to find out more about the company, who have had industry criticism also)
  • Bright Desire 
  • Clips 4 Sale 
  • Crashpad Series 
  • Dreams of Spanking
  • Erika Lust – I’m hesitant to promote this concerning the sexual assault of a performer called Rooster on one of her sets, but her films, in general, are highly recommended (I personally cannot remedy the two)
  • Frolic Me
  • Literotica – free ‘sexy’ stories  
  • Onlyfans subscriptions 
  • Pink and White Productions 
  • Sex School Hub



Listening: Explicit Sex Ed and Diversity in Porn with Lina Bembe and Anarella Martinez



Britannica. (2020). Pornography. Topic Webpage. (Accessed online:  https://www.britannica.com/topic/pornography 12/07/2020)

Clark-Flory, T. (2020). ‘Why Is a White Woman Worth So Much More?’: Inside the Porn Industry’s Overdue Reckoning. Features Webpage. (Accessed online: https://jezebel.com/why-is-a-white-woman-worth-so-much-more-inside-the-po-1843975280 14/07/2020) 

Cole, S. (2020). BangBros Is Staging a Public Relations Campaign Against Mia Khalifa. Motherboard Webpage. (Accessed online: https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/y3znvw/bangbros-is-staging-a-public-relations-campaign-against-mia-khalifa 13/07/2020)

Duncan, J. (2019). The History of Pornography: From The Paleolithic to Pornhub. Unusual Universe Webpage. (Accessed online:https://medium.com/unusual-universe/the-history-of-pornography-from-the-paleolithic-to-pornhub-4123dbeef37e 12/07/2020)

Hay, M. (2018). Mia Khalifa Only Did Porn Three Months But She’s Still a Pornhub Sensation. Sex Webpage. (Accessed online: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/9k84v7/mia-khalifa-only-did-porn-three-months-but-shes-still-a-pornhub-sensation 13/07/2020)

Jamil, J. (2018). Tell Him. Post Webpage. (Accessed online: https://jameelajamil.co.uk/post/181263516735/tell-him-by-jameela-jamil 14/07/2020)

Kanaras, A. (2017). Our Favorite Feminist Porn. Magazine Webpage. (Accessed online: https://unboundbabes.com/blogs/magazine/list-of-the-best-feminist-porn 10/07/2020)

Ley, D. (2020). Can Porn Be Ethical? Sexual Health Webpage. (Accessed online:  https://goop.com/wellness/sexual-health/can-porn-be-ethical/ 10/07/2020)

Schultz, K. (2018).  Don’t Let Them Trick You – MindGeek, PornHub, and YouPorn are Bad News. Chronic Sex Blog. (Accessed online: https://www.chronicsex.org/2018/03/mindgeek-terrible/ 11/07/2020)

Wikipedia. (2020). Pornhub. Wiki Webpage. (Accessed online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pornhub 10/07/2020)

Williams, Z. (2014). Is there such a thing as ethical porn? Pornography Webpage. (Accessed online: https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/nov/01/ethical-porn-fair-trade-sex 10/07/2020)

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