The Ethics of Pornography: A View from the Center of the Fence

Introduction

A university could be seen as a place where people gather not only to seek an education but to find their direction in life, to feel affirmation, or to push one’s own personal limits. This class has given me a healthy space to develop a sexual philosophy, based on the identification of my core values, and I plan to use this paper to convey a very personal message related to the topic of my ethical stance on pornography. Issues regarding pornography have plagued my personal life in ways that have, at times, damaged my own self-perception. I have been on a years-long journey to decide for myself whether or not porn is a harmful practice, and if not, how do I defend such a practice? For four years I have been incapable of expressing how I feel: that I am simply somewhere in the middle, that there is harm as well as value in a variety of pornographic or erotic experiences, and that this is truly valid in and of itself. University life is where I have found the language to articulate my views, and this classroom setting has sincerely helped me see myself as a valid individual not much different than any other (it’s also where I’ve seen my classmates encouraged to see me, a transgender woman,  as an average human from the mouths of scientists and scholars). And defining my core values (privacy, communication, responsibility, health, and equality) has helped me validate within myself that my stance is based in sexual health, and that I have only found affirmation through my relentless pushing of my own personal limits (Barnett, Lab 6, Week 6).

Privacy: Hidden shame transformed into truth

My value of privacy is rooted in personal experience and continues to shape the ways I interact with a variety of stimuli. I view privacy as one’s right to choose the time, place, as well as the persons whom sharing occurs with, if they have anything to share at all. In 2015, within a monogamous relationship, my cis-female partner discovered hurtful things that I had been hiding including what she considered an excessive reliance on pornography. There were many reasons I failed to report my secrets, mostly because I feared rejection and negative labels due to the self-perceived reasons I engaged with pornography (Yarber and Sayed, p. 215). I did not have the language to express what was happening with me at the time (identity crisis, sexual inadequacy, gender dysphoria, secret behaviors I had developed to illicit male attention based in binary gender recognition seeking), and what she saw was a “monster.” She told her vast Facebook community that her “boyfriend” was a cross dresser, a homosexual (actually, a fag), and a cheater. I can understand the things she thought based on what she knew at the time, and I still remember B. as the person I hurt most on the way to finding myself. I struggled to find power within the process of reclaiming my privacy. I could tell people that I was pansexual, but they already knew I was queer. Through all of this, I had been able to maintain at least one element of my privacy that had meant the most, my gender identity. I came out transgender during Pride of 2017 and have since learned to view my privacy as my sole right to disclose what I choose, to whom I choose, when I choose. Incidentally, I have also chosen to adopt intimacy and honesty with romantic interests (Yarber and Sayed, p. 195) as I move into a new life where I hold no hurtful secrets from future partners. I have found that my harm was caused by secrecy and that healthy communication skills better serve the strong woman I am becoming, putting me on the path to seeking partners whom I trust disclosing to (Yarber and Sayed, p. 215).

In my prior relationship, I was accused of having paraphilic issues such as transvetism and fetishism (Yarber and Sayed, pp. 266-267), though at the time neither of us knew these terms. I was called a porn addict and pathologized as “sick” many times during the lengthy, two-month breakup. Studying the text, I can finally see the line where my choices and the harm my choices caused came to meet. Upon reflection, B. really believed she was witnessing a paraphilic disorder (Yarber and Sayed, p. 266), in which my behaviors caused either distress or the threat of harm to myself or others. The revelation of these stigmatized behaviors into the open brought me shame and I felt my unhealthy relationship with pornography was to blame. I had placed pornography consumption in the safety of my privacy, completely unaware that I was missing another, equally important value: Communication. Finding a healthy place to learn the value of communication has helped me see where a once unhealthy fixation could become a healthy outlet for my sexual desires and fantasies via my realization that one’s intimate partners belong within my sphere of privacy (Yarber and Sayed, p. 239). Not communicating this element that I had deemed private only confused what intimacy means to me, and I was in a place to cause a lot of damage by hiding this from someone I had promised to be true to. Had this partner been someone I felt safe disclosing to (sadly they were not), these private matters could have been a source of our closeness, not our decay, and had I been more trusting of my partner these areas of my life may not have travelled so close to disorder. Including my partner in my private sexual world could have reduced shock, harmful labels, and misunderstandings by informing both partners in ways that built trust and education.

Communication: Confession, trust, and intimacy

Conflict is defined in the text as the process by which people see incompatible goals and interference from others as a hindrance to their own goal achievement (Yarber and Sayed, p. 218). Since my use of pornography was considered the act of a sick man by my ex-partner, my goals were perceived as self-destructive and intentionally harmful. As I began to find myself in the summer of 2017, it still haunted me that any involvement with porn might be unhealthy in future relationships, as it had driven such a wedge between myself and the goals of a monogamous relationship (I have since come out polyamorous). Pornography can “trigger(s) deep and conflicting feelings we have about sexuality” (Barnett, Chapter 18, Week 14), and both my ex-partner and I were engaging in daily battles about porn, sex addiction programs, and she even went so far as to suggest pseudoscience by printing off a sex addiction manual that had been retracted by the publisher to show me how damaging I had been revealed to be. We had such variant views of the subject, and I had never known because I had never asked. Looking back, I can see that it was the lack of communication that I feel regret about, not the use of porn to enhance my fantasy of being a sexually desired woman. This was my coping mechanism for never being the woman I wanted to see in the mirror and became the means by which I felt relief from gender dysphoria (Yarber and Sayed, p. 131). Porn helped me see other bodies like mine and to have an introduction to what others desired about bodies like mine within an explicitly sexual context (Barnett, Chapter 9, Week 8). I was lacking the self-disclosure required for involving my partner in an open discussion about our individual sexual desires (Yarber and Sayed, p. 208), creating a series of massive conflicts which resulted in my four-year relationship ending, and me being labelled a pornography addict and cross-dressing male.

Responsibility: The debate behind best-practices

Another core value that determines my relationship to pornography is the ethical value of the production itself. In class we learned that porn production essentially exists in a dichotomy, and that there is a significant amount of rivalry over the concepts of mainstream and ethical, or feminist porn (Barnett, Lab 6, Week 6). Along with now knowing that proper, consensual communication of one’s intimate desires and needs could reduce the hurt and negative effects of acts like secret keeping, I’ve also identified a certain responsibility element I hold for the quality and purpose of that content. As Dr. Robert Jensen explains in the documentary film The Price of Pleasure, a state of inequality exists in the framework of commodification, and since men make most of the money in mainstream porn there is a large chance of exploitation and disparity among other participants (Price of Pleasure, 2008). When Dr. Jensen asks, “Do we really want to simply accept that fundamental state of inequality,” my focus is drawn to forms of pornography that might contain fundamental subversions to commodification such as ethical, or feminist porn (Barnett, Chapter 9, Week 8). In this way, I am able to decide for myself which pornography is made with a sense of responsibility to marginalized people and which is made with the intent of serving a white-male dominant clientele, which usually relies on the depiction of toxic masculinity and the submission of an unwitting, often young, female “acquiescent” to a dominating male (Barnett, Chapter 18, Week 14). Feminist or ethically produced porn is self-identified, and the production means are often representative of real-life couples, nearly eliminating the possibility that these are exploited peoples being coerced into participation (Barnett, Chapter 18, Week 14).  If there is ethical content to the production itself, and if that content expresses diverse sexuality in ways that are equitable for women and queers then I feel the content is responsible, and at least attempts addressing the inequalities and violence that exist in mainstream porn.

Health: Sexuality and the pursuit of a healthy life balance

A key piece of my new value set is the deliberate maintenance of my sexual health, and several areas of my ethical argument rests in a newfound knowledge of healthy sexual practices and behaviors, as well as a deeper understanding of what non-coercive sexual behaviors consist of. When I point out that mainstream porn is a tool of commodification that objectifies female bodies for the pleasure and financial gain of mostly white men (Price of Pleasure, 2008), I mean to express the level of harm that I believe is instigated by the mentality and purpose of mainstream production. A product containing feminist, or generally deemed more ethical forms of erotica, has a very different place in my set of values in that it promotes the financial success of women and gender variant beings, people of color, and other marginalized groups often treated less than human in mainstream porn. This creates the opportunity to represent a variety of racial, sexual, and gender identities and challenge the stereotypes perpetuated in the mainstream (Barnett, Chapter 18, Week 14). Harmful social side effects influenced by the mainstream porn world, such as the 2002 Supreme Court decision that removed the ban on the simulation of child porn images and performances, essentially allowed youthful looking actresses or computer generated animations to depict children engaged in sex acts with adults, and remain some of the most insidious transgressions in my eyes (Price of Pleasure, 2008), though this practice is still in legal limbo and enshrined in controversy. Pornographic practices such as this simulate a coercive sexual scenario, which promotes the mistreatment of young women and children through positive reinforcement of a negative stimuli (Yarber and Sayed, p. 267). Though mainstream porn has its best practices such as routine STI testing, it rarely presents any version of safe sex practices as might be witnessed in ethically produced pornography like condom use, communication, and partner driven activities that promote female pleasure or eroticism (Barnett, Chapter 18, Week 14). In my set of values, if pornography exists on a spectrum, it must have ethically driven means of production that have a wide range of representation and inclusion in order to be a healthy activity.

Equality: A concession to the varying degrees of womanhood and beliefs in feminist thought

Another way I see pornography/erotica is as a form of sexual variation, or an activity not commonly practiced or viewed as desirable by the larger population (Yarber and Sayed, p. 265). Allowing others to condemn a behavior that may be non-normative could create a state of inequality. There is a porn-positive argument within the feminist community, and I feel it my duty as a feminist to stand for all women. This includes exploiting systems of harm and abuse but also embracing autonomy and financial freedom to women. Though women tend to make less money in the mainstream porn industry there are some women like Jenna Jameson who are huge rivals within the business sector of the porn world (The Price of Pleasure, 2008), though her recent T.E.R.F. rant on Twitter  revealed her as problematic in alignment with the typical view of her mainstream status. Regardless, in the feminist/ethically produced film industry women, queer folk, gender variant folk, and people of all backgrounds both racial and ethnic could find a place to advance financially and to build a broader experience for pornography consumers, in which they see more healthy personalities and activities presented.

Conclusion

I feel very strongly about pornography after having a specific history with the consumption of it. These feelings have been exacerbated by both my life experience and the inner conflict of working in the sex industry myself (my undergraduate part time is as the clerk of a sex shop).  Through time, transition, and my continuing education I have been able to express myself honestly and with no shame. As I have allowed myself the room to live life as a female, I find that pornography is not a focus in my personal experiences anymore based on many factors, but mostly via identity recognition. Seeing the person in the mirror that I expect to see has made the biggest change in what my time is spent engaging in. Through this class I have discovered that I, too, am a valid sexual being. I’ve grown so much in two years, and finally have the knowledge and language to both choose what I believe are healthy activities to embrace and to define what I believe to be healthy about them. Pornography, like most things in human existence, exists in many forms and has many responses which are also on a spectrum. My core values inform me that there is an insidious side of this industry that is worth combatting, but that it also exists alongside many other faces of erotic experience, some of which may even have value or health benefit either emotionally or physically.

References (APA)

Yarber, W., and Sayed, B. (2016). Human sexuality: Diversity in contemporary America. McGraw/Hill, 8th or 9th edition.

Picker, M., and Sun, C. (Directors) Sun, C., and Wosnitzer, R. (Writers). (2008). The price of pleasure: Pornography, sexuality, and relationships [Film], Open Lens Media, Cinema Libre Studio, and Media Education Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.kanopy.com /product/price-pleasure-edited-version

Barnett, J. (2019). Breakout Lab 6: SEM attitudes and evaluations, Week 6 [Lecture].

Barnett, J. (2019). Chapter 9: Sexual Expression, Week 8 [Lecture].

Barnett, J. (2019). Chapter 18: Sexually Explicit Materials, Prostitution and the Law, Week 14 [Lecture].

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