Friday, February 24, 2017

Review of "Ethical porn for dicks...", part 1 of 3

The author is David Ley, the full title is "Ethical porn for dicks: a man's guide to responsible viewing pleasure", and it was published in 2016.

I loved this informal little book. There is a basic message which I personally have never read anywhere else: "Human sexuality is good, fantasies are good, sexual satisfaction is good. Porn can be a good part of that goodness." Looking back, I can't find a quote where Ley says this succinctly, but it is the premise for the book.

Everyone knows that porn is a huge industry and lots of people watch it, but it's usually with a sense of guilt or at least apology. After reading Ley's book, you can imagine a porn pride movement, "Say it out loud, I watch porn and I'm proud!" With that premise that porn can be a good thing, the book is mostly a combination of two things: (1) looking at the various unfair attacks that have been made on porn, and (2) recognizing ways that porn use can be bad, but showing how those can be avoided, leaving a large part of porn watching as good.

The linear structure of the book is fine, ten equal chapters one after another. But I'd like to emphasize one major distinction. There is a divide between how porn directly affects a person on the one hand, and how a person's choices, taken together with those of millions of others, affect society (mostly through the porn industry). These are quite distinct. People appropriately look out primarily for direct effects on themselves. Will porn ruin my life directly or my relationship with a partner? The effects of my choices bundled with those of millions of others on the lives of people I don't know is quite separate, and I'll deal with questions about the industry later.

When we're dealing with the individual, one related and important question is, What do you think of masturbation? Conservative religions teach that it is sinful, and this was a predominant view a century ago in society at large and still has much power today. Many of us were taught that masturbation is something to feel guilty about. When people talk about porn's effects, what they are talking about is masturbation to porn.

But there has emerged in liberal society a positive attitude towards sex. Consenting adults should do whatever they like and celebrate it. I was taught as a young boy that masturbation was just fine as long as you did it in private. From the age of 13 or so, I masturbated every day or two to the remembered images of the hot girls in my classes at school. It was very satisfying and I felt no guilt at all. I was very interested in romance and sex with my peers, and that has been a major concern of mine ever since. I was delighted when I could have partner sex to replace some of the masturbation, but it never went away.

People were worrying about excessive masturbation long before internet porn was so easily available. So every time we consider some downside to porn, we should be asking how much is due to the porn and how much is due to masturbation.

Now, men's sexual arousal is most often triggered by visual cues. Porn provides a strong stimulus to lots of masturbation. But the modern world provides plenty of other temptations. Most of us could afford unlimited sweets, there are addictive computer games, and there is no end of non-sexual video. Instead of talking about addiction, Ley's basic view is that watching too much porn is a bad habit of the same kind as any other thing we might do too much of. Ley argues that porn gets the blame, but it's really the person himself where the issues lie. It would be very interesting to interview people who claim to have porn addictions and see if we can detect a healthy, guilt-free attitude towards masturbation before they started watching porn.

The complicated effects of porn on intimate relationships interest me more. While women tend to blame porn for men being insensitive or demanding in bed, Ley says the fault there is with the men and not with the porn. Perhaps high-quality sex education about real-world relationships would also help. People are generally excellent at distinguishing fantasy from reality -- once they know what reality is.

I was also intrigued that Ley thinks we must accept that most women view porn use as bad, in part because that's what the culture tells them. This means that when a man wants to discuss porn use, it needs to be done with sensitivity and recognition of where most women start on the issue.

One of Ley's contentions surprised me -- that even in a healthy intimate relationship, it might be just fine if a man prefers masturbation with porn over sex with his partner. He rightly points out that we would be much more likely to think this is OK for a woman than a man. I agree on the possibility, but I think many couples counselors would join me in thinking that an intimate relationship is better if it includes quite a bit of satisfying partner sex, and both partners should be willing to put considerable effort into creating the conditions to support that if they value the relationship.

Let's return to the other kind of issue I identified at the start -- how a person's choices combined with those of millions of others affect society. This means the porn industry.

One objection is that women are exploited in the making of porn. While recognizing that the women are consenting, some feminists argue that they are nonetheless exploited. The porn actresses argue rightly that they can make those decisions for themselves.

In his desire to make porn better, Ley feels that it should be created in a good environment. Porn actresses should be paid a decent wage, their videos not pirated, and all activities in the porn agreed to before the shoot. And to support this, men should pay to see this porn. He doesn't exactly say that amateur porn is bad, but he notes various potential problems with it. He comes across as something of a union organizer for porn stars. I think that's fine, but I also think men can be ethical while ignoring this aspect of the situation.

Consider this comparison: behind each purchase of an ordinary good is potentially a whole tree of commercial transactions of varying degrees of fairness, ending notably with multiple farmers or factory workers far away. Most people spend little time analyzing such choices. If they do, and buy only items certified as fair trade or bearing a union label, many people view that as a good thing they have done -- but it is rare to consider those who don't to be ethically suspect. Even those laudable people only apply that analysis to a few products. It's not clear why porn should demand a higher standard.

If what you're seeing on screen looks like something a person with the relevant kink might naturally like doing or be willing to do for payment, that sounds good enough to me. There's tons of free video on the web, and we enjoy it without worrying about its provenance. I think you can be an ethical person watching whatever you want without worrying about the circumstances under which it was made (except child pornography, which is the topic of the 2nd part of this review).

Ley also formulates his opinion with problems with porn as, "we should make better porn". I think there are two components there which can be separated. One is that some porn is good enough, and a person can feel good watching it without trying to change the world. The second is that problems could be reduced if more was made better, and that's a laudable thing to do. It may be politically astute for someone in Ley's position to link the two -- showing a desire to improve the situation to win acceptance of porn. But the ordinary porn consumer doesn't have to go there.


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