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Ethical Porn Part 1: Unlearning the Porntopia

Charlotte Lear looks at how TraffickingHub dangerously conflates sexual abuse with sex work, and how we can move towards ethical spectatorship.

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Image Credit: Mike Dorner

CONTENT WARNING: Mentions of sexual abuse and assault.

Many of us have seen the video that has gone viral entitled ‘TraffickingHub’ which seeks to expose porn tube site PornHub for profiting from videos of sexual trafficking and abuse. Undoubtedly we stand by the survivors of child abuse and sex trafficking that PornHub and corresponding Tube sites are hosts to.

TraffickingHub cites the landmark case of Rose Kalemba in which video footage of her rape at the age of 14 was uploaded to the site, remaining there for six months in 2009 while she campaigned against them. The footage was only removed after Kalemba contacted the site via fake email, pretending to be a lawyer and threatening legal action, after which the content was removed within 48 hours. The lack of agency attributed to Kalemba over the footage illustrates the wide-reaching impact of victim-blaming whereby action can only be taken when someone can speak for them.

PornHub released this statement to the BBC recently:
"These horrific allegations date back to 2009, several years prior to PornHub being acquired by its current owners, so we do not have information on how it was handled at that time. Since the change in ownership, PornHub has continuously put in place the industry's most stringent safeguards and policies when it comes to combating unauthorised and illegal content, as part of our commitment to combating child sex abuse material. The company employs Vobile, a state-of-the-art third-party fingerprinting software, which scans any new uploads for potential matches to unauthorised material and makes sure the original video doesn't go back up on the platform."

To this day, videos are published with similar titles that cite abuse yet the only thing PornHub can say to this is that it upholds the right to freedom of speech, despite Kalemba claiming that ‘women have told [her] that it is still happening, after they saw [her] blog.’

What happens when sites like these clearly cannot be trusted despite being repeatedly held to account? PornHub and similar Tube sites are a host for illegal instances of trafficking and abuse which is then marketed under the guise of the sex work industry as a whole, perpetuating a culture of widespread sexual violence in the industry. Arguably this contributes to a significantly warped perception of the sex industry itself when they begin to blur the lines between the atrocities of sex trafficking and the work of sex workers and film producers.

Sadly, the current TraffickingHub campaign is largely driven by anti-LGBTQIA+, anti-sex work, religious fundamentalist organisation, ExodusCry. Their website is a mass of derogatory generalizations and uncited figures that culminate in a religious battle against porn and the sex industry more broadly. They write of their ‘three battlefronts’ on the sex industry, that ‘the fight for freedom must be waged on...key battlefronts’. They attribute sexual abuse and violence to their idea of ‘porn culture’ which dangerously conflates the two.

This narrative of war-driven violence blends the trauma of sexual abuse survivors with an anti-porn rhetoric, twisting survivors’ experiences to their own warped agenda. This does nothing to tackle the abusers and only seeks to stigmatise the survivors. They completely ignore the fact that the problem is not with porn, but with the abusers themselves.

Campaigns and organisations such as these are an enormous contributor to the culture of violence against sex workers as they perpetuate the idea that sex work is not work, that it is never a choice, and that it is all abuse. They abide by a specific ‘Nordic Model’ of sex work criminalisation that has been denounced by the World Health Organisation, Amnesty International and the Global Alliance Against Trafficking. By leaving the definition of consent and abuse in the hands of those in positions of power they silence the voice of the survivor who tries to say otherwise, especially when the narrative of ‘all sex work is rape’ is the defining message of these organisations.

PornHub and similar Tube sites, controlled by tech giant MindGeek, are centred on the Tube site business model. Tube sites are legally not responsible for the content posted to their sites - they solely benefit from advertising revenue which redirects the ethical responsibility to the spectator. The Tube model enables the maximum amount of content to be produced which equals the maximum amount of views, hence billions are made from ad-revenue from online spectatorship. MindGeek actively defends this model, arguing that there are meticulous post-upload checks in place, despite the reality that a free porn Tube platform will inevitably allow such abuse to continue.

Henceforth, the porn we consume must be consistently evaluated in accordance with certain ethics of spectatorship on behalf of the viewer. This can be construed as the idea that ‘Tube porn’ culture can be sublimated to a kind of ‘ethical porn’, thereby enabling the viewer to watch porn ‘guilt-free’ so to speak. Despite the fact that ethical porn practices should undoubtedly be supported and employed, they can often be a bit of a grey area.

The first problem is the conflation between ‘ethical porn’ and ‘feminist porn’; the assumption that because something is made for women, by women, it is inherently more ethically produced and viewed. Erika Lust, feminist adult filmmaker, subverts the discourse of male-gaze oriented mainstream porn and redirects the narrative towards the female and queer gaze, employing production teams centered on ‘the beauty of sex’. This idea covers huge ground in order to deconstruct androcentric sex work and move towards equity in the feminist sense which should realistically be foundational for ethical porn as a whole .

The idea that ‘feminist’ porn is innately ethical is a dangerous assumption, however, as it has the tendency to marginalise the voices of LGBTQIA+ sex workers. Feminism is widely appropriated by the porn industry, dressed up in pretty pink heteronormativity. Take Bellesa, for example, who have been in hot water in the past for pirating material under the guise of ‘porn for women, by women’. Though this seems to have been ironed out now with more original content, it shows that even feminist porn has its moments. What we need to be doing is consistently re-evaluating what ethical porn is, how it works, and how it can continually work against stereotypes of sex workers, and push a narrative based on equity.

Ethical porn, by definition, should be fully consensual whereby the workers and the production team are paid in full. The safest way to ensure that the porn you are watching is of a high ethical standard is by doing your research and accessing it straight from the source of production. This often means paying for your porn, which may seem controversial to those who are used to consuming readily available, free porn. This should not be the norm. Tube sites only make their money through ad revenue. Unless the Tube site made the content, the performers and the production team aren’t necessarily being paid their cut.

However, ethical spectatorship has its nuances. There is a danger when watching any porn, whether paid for or not, without a certain scepticism towards its ethics. Karly-Lynne Scott writes in Performing Labour: Ethical Spectatorship and the Communication of Labour Conditions in Pornography that there is a danger when we start becoming inactive spectators of porn because it leads to a conflation between performance and reality.

Scott uses ‘behind the scenes’ moments in ‘ethical’ porn to address this idea. Videos that include interviews with the performers themselves offering consent or discussing the events seek to offer ‘documentary evidence’ of ‘production practices and performer intentions. Such moments are meant to be read as authentic, encouraging a shift from the generic register of pornographic performance to documentary.’

These moments are supposed to disrupt the idea of a ‘porntopia’ in which the idea is to create a video that doesn’t look like a performance or include elements of ‘work’. This failure of porntopia should, therefore, expose to the spectator the ethical practices of the production itself. Scott notes, however, that these instances are often contracted and done in the presence of a director which in-turn puts hierarchical pressure on the workers themselves to ‘willingly oblige’.

Scott makes it very clear that we shouldn’t condemn the practices of ethical porn, but instead maintain a ‘scepticism towards a performance’s relation to reality; to acknowledge that as a viewer one cannot determine with any certainty a performer’s on-set experience from their performance… ethical spectatorship requires labour on the part of the viewer’.

This research is ongoing, the fact that there is a continually evolving idea of ethical porn is the point as we should always be striving to attain a higher level of support for sex workers. Nevertheless, any progress made should always be reliant on the fundamental right that:

Consent should unequivocally be voluntary and enthusiastic at all times.

Sex work is work.

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Resources
A list of hotlines and resources for those who have experienced sexual abuse and those supporting them: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/guides-to-support-and-services/abuse/sexual-abuse/
Non-recent abuse: https://www.nspcc.org.uk/what-is-child-abuse/types-of-abuse/non-recent-abuse/
Rape Crisis England & Wales: https://rapecrisis.org.uk/

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