On Making “Ethical” Porn

The porn industry has a bad reputation. Like it or not, deserved or not, there is the perception that, simmering just below our streets and cities there lies a stagnant pool of filth and degeneracy that laps at the doorways of civilised society. Every news article, every documentary that ventures into the perverse wasteland of San bernadino comes out with something along the lines of the same trite realisation:

‘The porn industry is a slavering beast that devours innocence.’

The porn industry is presented as the kind of place wherein the best possible outcome, the only “success story” to speak of, is to somehow escape with a little money in your pocket and with your sanity, your purity, intact. The media serves us so many stories of the girls who make stacks of money, then immediately blow it all on drugs to cope with the machinations by which that money was made. Who find love, shacking up with some director or agent, only to be ditched when pregnant for some new hot young thing, for which the industry, and its participants, have an unending hunger. Even without the behind the scenes insight, without the stories of the industry’s greatest stars seeing jail time and hopping in and out of rehab, without the stories of young girls going home to Who-gives-a-fuck, Idaho with a selection of STDs and broken dreams of stardom, porn is considered a fundamentally dirty industry; a quality it shares with all industries that commodify sex.

So, as with the great GMO scare, the backlash against sow stalls and caged chickens, and horn-rimmed architects erecting minimalist recycled plastic Scandinavian flat pack houses on land proudly acknowledged to be the property of traditional owners, porn has started to see the commodification of “ethical” production. It’s hard not to laugh at the idea of free-range, barn fed porn stars who fuck freely in the sunlight; safe from the injustices suffered by their caged counterparts in the cramped agent owned share houses of Miami. In the first episode of Hot Girls Wanted: Turned On, Erika Lust compares her ethical porn to free-range eggs; and, as with free-range eggs, some (generally affluent, middle class) sectors of the market have come to prove that they will pay a slight premium to know that the product that they are consuming inflicted no unnecessary suffering.

To speak of ethical porn as other, as separate to the majority of porn, is to codify that term with the message that any porn that does not designate itself “ethical” is in fact “unethical”. This may sit poorly with those who work in the mainstream, for the big companies, who recruit cam girls from the flyover states and bring them out to California to make their big break without false pretences. Who pay their talent a fair rate and hire them only to work as often as can be up-kept by the human body without having to pop four Cialis and shoot a needle full of TriMix into their dick. There must be those in the industry who behave ethically, who are working ethically, but have no interest in or ability to brand themselves as ethical pornographers.

Ethical production, not limited to porn, is a traditionally small business mentality. It comes from the same place as smallholding farmers and artisanal producers. It flies in the face of mass production, outsourcing and ‘efficiency over all’. When we look at the beautifully shot, but clearly low budget work coming from, say, the queer pornographers working out of Europe and Australia. It is so easy to see, and believe, that they are not exploiting their performers, their crew. Their ethics are unlikely to be represented in the cost of labour, but on giving a voice to the traditionally marginalised. I would wager that no individual performer, crew member or director working in the small production houses is making as much per video, or per day, as one of the mainstream multi-site conglomerate crews, but in the world of low budget filmmaking, let alone low budget porn, that is the nature of the beast. Being compensated in line with the budget is not unethical by nature. Low remuneration, as in any industry, is only unethical if it’s used to wield power.

‘Ethical porn’ as a product, as a category, can be as simple as cruelty-free; you can buy this DVD, or subscribe to this site, secure in the knowledge that nobody was mistreated, tortured, drugged, kidnapped, trafficked, coerced or ripped off. It can be representational, ethical because you shine a light or give an opportunity to a subset of people usually pushed to the margins. It can be progressive, negating the fetishisation of age, body, race, gender or ability, normalising what is usually considered “other” in an industry renowned for tag-based search engine optimisation. Ethical can be an ethos, or an agenda; it can be applied as a marketing tool, a hiring policy, in the content you create or your distribution method. It should be proudly held up as a torch against the historical perception of porn as an industry. And it should be clearly indicated and clearly communicated as to what makes your product ethical; how you create within those boundaries and why.

For the consumers, I’ll say this: There should absolutely be a feeling of guilt, deep in your being, when you watch porn where some mid-western rube has been lured to a Miami hotel room only to find, too late, that she’s probably not going to be in Vogue. It should feel like eating a cage egg or sow stall pork; which is to say, totally unnecessary when it’s only the slightest bit more expensive to go with the less cruel option. It’s one thing to use porn fulfil a basic human need, but another to do it at the price of the dehumanization, or exploitation, of somebody else. What is now marketed as ‘ethical pornography’ should be the standard for production, and consumers shouldn’t accept anything less.

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