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is watching porn bad? + what makes it "ethical"?

Is watching porn bad?

If you've asked this question, you are not alone.


It’s hard to talk about porn without knee jerk reactions of discomfort or judgement.

On one hand, porn can reinforce unrealistic expectations of what sex looks like, especially with younger viewers who are provided little or no context on the porn they are watching. This can sometimes make us feel guilty about our porn consumption, or judgmental of others’ porn consumption.


On the other hand, it’s hot. It’s fun. Experiencing sexuality in the media can be pleasurable for some people. Porn can be a space of radical resistance to dominant narratives on sexuality, gender, race, age, ability, and other identity markers.


Porn is a part of our culture and it will continue to be. Wishing it away is a waste of time. What isn’t a waste of time is developing a better understanding of the porn industry and its complexities. Pornography has existed for centuries and taken many forms, such as paintings, poems, literature, photography and film. Today, there are many different kinds of porn made with different goals and styles and on-set practices.


Choosing the type of porn you watch can shape your experience of porn and the industry at large. Since the media reflects society and society reflects the media, your choices also affect our society’s relationship to sexuality.


What counts as porn?

Pornography is notoriously difficult to define. While terms like sexually explicit and arousing are standard descriptors of pornographic content, exactly what counts as porn is highly subjective. Are classic nudes porn? Are music videos porn? Why or why not? While one definition is difficult, it’s worthwhile to ask critical questions about how porn industries function, who is involved, and what is produced. It is as dynamic and complex as any industry and impossible to capture without nuance, context, and subjectivity. Porn is more of an umbrella term that contains many subgenres, themes, histories, aims and practices.


What makes porn “feminist” or “ethical”?

As stated earlier, it’s hard to agree on one definition of porn. It’s equally hard to agree on one definition of “feminist” or “ethical” porn. Here are a couple things to look for:


The Message: diversity of bodies and styles

In addition to prioritizing health and safety on set, ethical porn aims to improve society’s relationship with sex. It uses sexually explicit imagery to explore (and challenge) dominant representations of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, class, ability, age, body type, and other identity markers.


Is there a diverse portrayal of bodies and types of sex? Does the porn help people feel seen and their sexuality validated, or does it reinforce harmful stereotypes about race, gender, etc?


The Production: cast and crew safety and wellbeing

Making ethical porn means doing your absolute best to ensure the cast and crew are better off after having participated. It’s like the campsite rule: Leave it better than you found it. In order to manage safety and wellbeing on set, some production companies give their performers a Bill of Rights, which outlines everything they are entitled to before, during and after a production. This includes making sure performers aren’t surprised by sex acts or coerced into doing anything they aren’t comfortable doing.



How can I be a responsible porn consumer?

Maybe you watch porn and like some types and dislike other types. That’s to be expected. Regardless of your style, it’s important to be an ethical consumer. If you want to watch porn and not feel conflicted about your consumption, seek out ethically-produced, feminist porn. We’ve already rounded some up for you.


Here are three questions you can ask in order to consume responsibly:

  1. Did I pay for it? Paying for porn is the number one most important thing you can do to be an ethical consumer. Because just like any other kind of media, money is needed to pay performers and crew a fair wage and ensure safe working conditions. So important.

  2. Is it easy to figure out who made this? Is there a person or a production company behind this? Check out the creators/performers on social media or OnlyFans and learn more about them.

  3. Do I like what I’m looking at? Is it hot? Do they seem to be having a good time? Does it seem safe? Is there a connection? It's amazing what you can learn about the porn you are watching by reflecting on your reaction to it.


What is your relationship to porn, either as someone who watches it, or as someone who lives in a society where porn is readily available? What sort of questions do you have about the porn industry? Let us know! Porn is a complicated topic deserving of thoughtful conversations without judgement or shame.