Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

Pornography is no longer the dark underworld of the internet, but now a heavy force in the entertainment mainstream. It is the fast-moving undercurrent of internet traffic, taking up 14% of internet searches and is a booming multi-billion-dollar industry.

As a taboo subject, that raises moral and ethical thorns, there’s always been something strikingly private and often shameful about porn. Yet, whilst it may be an unseen or even fearful world for some, it’s a very familiar and present in the lives of millions, with 42 billion visits to Pornhub alone in 2019.

The tempting, magical danger of the internet means almost anyone, at any time, can access porn with a few clicks. This has manifested a moral panic over effect of porn on increasingly young minds, with 51% of 11-13 year old British children reported to having seen it. Critics believe the consumption of such sexually explicit material at such a young age creates a craving for more graphic, more intense, and more violent content.

Such a theory has led to the common fear that the violent nature of some porn has increased sexual violence against women. Yet, studies have not yet shown any evidence to support this notion. In fact, as porn consumption has risen, there has been a (maybe coincidental) drop in reported rape and sexual violence rates. [crime rates statistics featured in Atlantic]

Other arguments cite the clear objectification, victimisation and degradation of women in porn – it’s profitable to sexualise male domination and control over women. There are also the concerns over the unrealistic expectations of sex and body image it produces and the pressure that falls onto young women to behave and look like those in porn.

However, there is also the persisting myth that all female porn actors must be desperate, exploited or needing to be rescued – otherwise why else would they do it? Whilst new studies don’t attempt to deny exploitation, abuse and issues of poverty and homelessness amongst those that work in the industry, they do seek to break this narrative. The Journal of Sex and Research found that women within porn are psychologically as healthy or even healthier with higher levels of self-esteem and are more positive, than the average woman. Yet, due to issues of access and under-research, there are still huge discrepancies in data over the level of exploitation which certainly exists. Yet the notion that all women in porn “need saving” undermines them and their work, adding to the stigma and shame they face, and further removes their voice and agency over their own empowerment.

As the porn-saturated generation grow up – those who were subjected to the internet’s unlimited free porn – the long-term effects of this conditioning are being questioned. Psychologists discuss the way in which porn dehumanises sex for the viewer, which in some cases causes long term difficulties with intimacy and less satisfaction in relationships. Time ran a cover story about the mass of young men who believe ‘their sexual responses have been sabotaged because their brains were virtually marinated in porn when they were adolescents’. They argue this has led to issues of porn addiction and the now-named Porn-Induced Erectile Dysfunction. 

What’s lost amongst the anti-porn arguments are the opportunities for good. Psychologists frequently discuss the impact of porn on people’s sex lives – helping to understand an individual’s sexuality and normalise their sexual desires. It forms a positive space and an outlet for discovery, development and realisation.

An evident agenda for change is also emerging that urges the use of porn to help destabilise sexism, fat-shaming and ableism through greater inclusivity and responsibility in the industry.

A healthy space created within porn for those that are traditionally de-sexualised within popular culture, such as disabled persons, helps them to take agency over their own sexuality and away from a society that deems them “unsexy”.

The female audience for porn is also growing and a study for Marie Clare revealed that 1/3 of women now watch porn on a weekly basis. These women, it found, mostly use porn to cultivate their own sexuality and understand their bodies and their pleasure better. The repercussions of this change in demand are being felt through the industry. A range of new female directors are breaking the mould of male-centric porn, filled with faceless and dominated women, towards a focus on female sexuality and desire.

Accompanying this move, is ethical porn or “fair-trade” porn that has emerged on the basis that people shouldn’t have to compromise their values to watch porn. It prioritises paying actors fairly for their work, and respecting them, their consent and their boundaries, in order to provide a more “guilt-free” watching experience. Erika Lust and her production company is one of these championing ethical and female-driven porn. It ensures equal and fair pay between actors, who must be aged 23 and above, and she gives as little direction as possible to allow a more natural sex scene to develop between actors.

Yet, it all comes down to whether people are willing to pay. Similarly, to ethically sourced clothes or food, the porn we watch should surely be no different. But, it’s the age-old debate of money versus morals. How concerned are users really with the welfare of those they watch in private?

Whether you are anti-porn, indifferent or a regular user – the question remains: is porn damaging and immoral or empowering and liberating?

I have no clear answer, I don’t think anyone does. But what I do know is that it is here to stay. People will continue to watch porn, and people will continue to produce porn. The internet isn’t really to blame – it’s the industry and us, the consumers that hold the responsibility. After all, porn, as any media, not only serves to shape society, but also reflects it.

So, let’s abandon the “good” vs “bad” attitude – it is neither all bad nor all good. The world of porn can be a dark and ugly place, and also a consensual, positive and ethical space. The way it ends up swinging ultimately depends on us. By breaking the stigma and bringing porn out of the shadows and into the bright light of mainstream discussion – the consumers hold more power to enact change.