Wellness

Can Porn Be Ethical?

The idea that pornography is just another facet of human sexual expression, and that, freed of the exploitative practices that have plagued its production, it might not be the sexist, erection-deflating, marriage-wrecking, impossible-body-standard-generating scourge that many of us believe it to be is a radical one. But Dr. David Ley’s experiences as a clinical psychologist in Albuquerque, New Mexico; AASECT certified sex therapist and supervisor; and executive director of New Mexico Solutions (one of the state’s largest non-profit community mental health and substance abuse programs) have led him to just that perspective. The author of Ethical Porn for Dicks, A Man’s Guide to Responsible Viewing Pleasure, Ley began his career treating perpetrators of sexual abuse, but expanded his approach to include the fostering and promotion of healthy sexuality, and awareness of the wide range of normative sexual behaviors. He conducts frequent trainings across the nation, assisting therapists in effectively addressing and understanding modern sexuality. Here, Ley argues that flat-out rejecting and shaming porn use hurts more than it heals.

A Q&A with Dr. David Ley

Q

How did you get into the study and treatment of porn and addictive sex behavior?

A

I currently see a great many people who have been harmed and shamed by the approach that their sexual desires are addictive. Porn-related issues make up a large part of that group. I’ve come to realize that there is little dialogue about the ”middle ground” that reflects the majority of porn use, where people have no problems from their use, but are a bit nervous that their use might be judged unhealthy or dangerous by our highly sex-negative society.

I’ve worked with issues involving sex offenders and mental health for many years; many of my colleagues, mental health practitioners, get very little training or education in sexuality issues—and that deficit leads to overdiagnosis and subjective pathologization. There is a disconnect between the science of sexuality and the moral issues that people consider in their judgment of sexual matters.

Q

What are the parameters of what’s considered ethical porn?

A

I talk about ethical porn in two ways, regarding its production, and its use: In terms of production, ethical porn is a media where the performers are paid a fair wage for their work, treated with dignity and respect, not expected to engage in acts against their will, and where sexuality is recognized as a diverse, individual experience. I equate it to fair-trade coffee—when I buy coffee knowing that the farmers weren’t slaves, I enjoy it without guilt and shame. Ethical porn also represents the wide diversity of sexual experiences and desires, from LGBT porn, to feminist-focused porn, to porn involving a wide mix of body types. Ethical porn can be as hot and hard-core as any other material, but you can watch knowing the performers are engaging in behaviors they enjoy, from a place of consent. Much ethical porn, but not all, is currently produced by women, who are often themselves performers. Films and producers considered for the Toronto International Porn Festival make a great filter for finding pieces that are ethically produced.

Another way to think about it is to consider the idea of “mindful” porn use—where a user of porn has considered what porn means in their life, what role they want it to hold, and is using porn in a conscious, considered way that’s consistent with their values. I often describe this as a form of sexual integrity, where our sexual behaviors don’t generate moral conflicts, because they are in line with our consciously considered moral values.

Q

We hear a lot about sexual dysfunctions in men who watch too much porn that show up when they try to have sex/orgasm with a real person. Is that still a problem, and are there effective treatments?

A

There is, to date, no scientific evidence suggesting that high levels of porn use predict sexual dysfunctions like erectile dysfunction. There are a lot of anecdotal stories that suggest this, but I’m suspicious of them—they generally emerge from moral groups opposed to porn, who know the best way to scare a guy is to threaten his penis. The story that porn causes your penis to stop working appears to be a strategy intended to drive people away from porn for moral reasons, like when women were once told that relying on vibrators to achieve orgasm was unhealthy and dependency-creating. We no longer accept that idea, recognizing it as a covert effort to control female sexuality. Many of the folks claiming that porn causes ED seem to have a similar agenda, believing that “healthy sex” is heterosexual monogamy that excludes masturbation, sexual diversity, etc.

There is research suggesting that people who watch porn tend to have more sex, and greater interest in sexual experimentation; there are also studies that show that men who masturbate a lot to porn may risk delayed ejaculation. In other words, porn’s effects are individual. For instance, I see men who can masturbate to porn with no difficulty, but struggle to get an erection in bed with a willing female partner; for these particular men, masturbation is “easier” than sex with another person. When you explore the differences between those two experiences, and how those differences affect a particular man’s sexual performance, you might discover unresolved and unexamined issues of anxiety, self-consciousness, and sexual confidence. Once you understand what’s going on, you can address those issues, rather than (incorrectly) blaming the porn. This perspective also helps create an expanded definition of “sex,” to include much more than just penis-in-vagina, but also foreplay, oral sex, manual stimulation, and all the types of intimacy which don’t require an erection.

Q

Are there particular types of porn that cause the most problems for men in terms of functioning with a real person?

A

Issues of erectile dysfunction and porn use receive very little concern in the homosexual community. But in heterosexual dialogue, if a man can’t get an erection, it’s assumed to be a deficit, and something wrong with the man. I think that’s sad.

Porn is fantasy made external. There is no evidence that different types of sexual fantasy or material have differential effects on a person’s sexual performance. There is some evidence that for men disposed to sexual violence, watching sexually violent porn can increase their risk of engaging in sexual violence. But, for the overwhelming majority of men, even violent porn has no impact.

Humans are much more resilient than we give them credit for, and sexuality is perhaps the most resilient aspect of humanity. Porn is not some form of super-stimulus that overrides peoples’ functions or behaviors.

Q

Do gay men have the same problems with porn-to-real-life translation, or are porn-mens’ bodies and pleasure more similar to real life than how women are portrayed in porn?

A

Porn use, masturbation, sexual diversity, interest in a variety of partners, and interest in kink are all are much more generally accepted in the gay male community, and are rarely shamed. It’s not to say that problems can’t come up, but to recognize that these conflicts are much more connected to dialogues in the heterosexual community. There, if a man is interested in someone other than their female partner, that’s often portrayed as a failing—on the part of the man, or the woman. Is porn use a form of infidelity? In many heterosexual couples, it is seen that way. I’m not arguing that it shouldn’t be, but suggesting that these differences are based in issues of communication, reciprocity, mutuality, and acceptance that sexual pleasure/arousal is not a form of property. When heterosexuals fall in love and commit, there’s often an unexpressed idea that they should henceforth ONLY experience sexual pleasure with, or about, their committed partner. That idea has little to do with the reality of human sexuality, and a lot to do with socially-driven ideas about what we think sex and relationships should be.

Q

Do women get addicted to porn? How do the two genders differ in terms of the issues porn causes for them in real life?

A

According to most research, 95% of sex addicts are men. Half of those men are white males who make over $100,000 a year. This is a very significant issue, suggesting that what is really going on here is a form of sexual privilege where the sexually selfish behaviors of powerful males are explained as a form of disease.

Women are watching porn at increased rates, but they watch porn in some different ways than men, reflecting some of the differences between male and female sexuality. For instance, women search for “rough sex” porn far more than men do. This reflects the sexual trends eroticized by Fifty Shades of Grey, which is a female-focused form of porn, one which is much more acceptable in our society than male use of video porn. My point isn’t to say that one is better or worse than the other, but to invite people to consider the ways we assume male sexuality is inherently dangerous, while female sexuality is inherently passive and harmless.

Q

Are there good ways and bad ways to use porn with a healthy sexual relationship?

A

Couples who watch porn together tend to have healthier sexual relationships. It’s really only when porn is watched in secret that it predicts negative relationship outcomes. What that secrecy means is that the porn is an indicator, a symptom, of a sexual conflict or mismatch. These couples would be better off if they could discuss sexual needs and interests openly, and negotiate for win-win scenarios. The fact that one partner is watching porn in secret means there are unmet sexual needs, and an inability to discuss them. That’s sad, because it is those conflicts, not the porn itself, that ultimately challenge the relationship.

Q

Porn influences what turns us on, individually and as a culture, and its’ male-pleasure-centric-ness makes female pleasure into something extra, that needs to be asked for. Are there solutions you see to this, beyond women asking their partners?

A

The problem is truly based in our society’s abdication of responsibility for pragmatic, real-world-based sexual education. We neglect our adolescents, and then punish them for learning about sexuality from the fantasy world of porn. If a child died from jumping off a building after watching Superman, we wouldn’t blame the movie producer.

We desperately need to be having more conversations with adolescents about what sexual health, and sexual integrity, are. The modern world of sexuality, available at a moment’s notice via the internet and modern technology, is a wide and deep pool. If we don’t want people to drown, we need to start teaching them to swim in that pool.

Q

The prevalence of porn on the internet poses problems for people with kids, for instance the potential for something completely whacked-out to hit a kids’ screen (violence, children, animals, serious BSM etc). How do you suggest parents prepare their kids for the wall of porn that is the Internet?

A

First, there’s an assumption that exposure to such sexual material warps children, out of proportion compared to other experiences. But in a well-regarded study out of the Netherlands, which involved 4600 adolescents followed over time, porn exposure/use explained around 1-4% of variance in later “adventurous sex” behaviors and only 1-2% of variance for participating in “transactional sex” (i.e., sex work buying or receiving). Porn exposure was significant only for females in predicting “risky sexual behaviors,” only explaining less than 1% of variance. Frankly, I think that much of the anti-porn hysteria is a duplicitous effort to avoid addressing issues like family environment, poverty, healthcare, and education, which would really make a difference in kids’ lives. Secondly, this is about teaching parents and kids to fear the Internet, technology, and sexuality—and to distrust each other. That’s pathogenic: It creates the very problems it purports to avoid. The best answer isn’t to try to protect your kids, or monitor them into safety. Vaccinate them from the dangers of developmentally-inappropriate sexuality by creating a conversation, a dialogue, across the child’s life, so that they can talk to you when they encounter sexually challenging information, material, or experiences. If you try to restrict or prohibit it, you just create a very tempting taboo. Scandinavian countries do a much better job at this than we do, by providing sexual information, including full-frontal nudity, to young children. Those societies have much lower rates of sexual problems than we do. That’s an important message.

David Ley, PhD., is a clinical psychologist in Albuquerque, New Mexico; AASECT certified sex therapist and supervisor; and executive director of New Mexico Solutions (one of the state’s largest non-profit community mental health and substance abuse programs), and the author of Ethical Porn for Dicks: A Man’s Guide to Responsible Viewing Pleasure. Ley conducts trainings across the nation, assisting therapists in effectively addressing and understanding modern sexuality. 

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