Reader question #57: Friends, porn, and ethics.

Dear Captain Awkward:

About a year ago I made a conscious decision to stop consuming porn. I stumbled across the basic argument that you can’t be certain whether or not the people being filmed have been coerced. This coupled with recently having  realized that I was/am a Nice Guy(tm) (and being mortified) was enough to make me too uncomfortable with porn to continue to consume it.

A year goes by and porn comes up in jokey conversation amongst friends so I admit to not consuming porn anymore and am interrogated as to why. Apparently it isn’t enough to suspect that some of the people being filmed may be coerced.
The gist of the conversation was that since:

  1. There are women that get rich doing porn
  2. I still wear clothes and use gadgets that are produced by exploited labor.
  3. I am a tool and a hypocrite and therefore totally wrong about porn. At least until I go and actually do something about something else that’s more important like disposing of my smartphone and/or swap out all my clothes for those produced by people making what would be a living wage in the US or EU.

I am stuck with limply stating that I have to start somewhere. OK, maybe I’m a little too bitter about this.

I’m still befuddled by trying to fix the Nice Guy stuff, now I have to defend not watching porn?  I don’t require that anyone else forgo watching it, I have just found the human trafficking/coercion angle very compelling. I guess that it’s possible I may have implied “…and you shouldn’t either.” and that could explain the vehement resistance, but I really didn’t expect it.

I don’t know if I’m just hurt or really offended by their reaction. Do I try to let it drop or do I need new friends?  Or am I just a hypocrite?

I was looking for an analogy that would allow me to write about your question without writing about porn in more detail than I’d like to do under my real name, and then it hit me:

You became a porn vegan.

Factory farming of meat!  It is gross and inhumane!  There are both ethical and environmental reasons not to consume factory-farmed meat! But there are a lot of economic/class/food security & hunger/cultural issues also, so it’s not a completely cut and dry issue of “Never do that!”  (For instance, if we closed all the factory farms tomorrow, it’s not like those animals would go live happily “in the wild.”) What I’m saying is that there are some complex issues here, and people find their own ethical framework for dealing with those issues.

Some people:

  1. Don’t know or pretend they don’t know what’s up. And some people have very good reasons for this.
  2. Some of them, when the topic comes up, get very defensive will present classic derailing arguments about other problems that are worse.
  3. Some of them (like me) will go to great lengths to eat meat that lived a good life before it became delicious. I’d like to point out that it is expensive to do this and I have a lot of privilege around this.  I have a farmer who will drop things off at a Farmer’s Market near me, and if I can’t make it to the market she’ll drop it off at my house.
  4. Some people decide not to eat meat at all.
  5. Some people decide that all animal products are off-limits and become vegans.

You can make a case for any of these stances, right?  (Please don’t, in the comments section.  I know I brought it up and all, but yeah…please don’t.) And a lot of it boils down to personal choice and the idea of “Well, I have to start somewhere.”

So, without meaning to, you hit on a sore spot and a very human way to behave:  When someone we know takes a very strong moral stance, we are forced to think about something ethically complex.  Inside our dried-up little hearts we kind of know that we should look more deeply at it, but sometimes we’re not ready to do that or to be inconvenienced, so we shoot the messenger.  You weren’t trying to convert them to your stance, but when asked you calmly stated what it is, and for a second they had to think about “Jeez, was that hot dirty mom maybe coerced into banging that entire fraternity? No way!” and it was easier to take it out on you than to engage honestly with your arguments.  When someone makes you feel guilty and like you might not be 100% a good person for what you think are harmless habits, it doesn’t feel good, so you reflexively defend that idea of yourself as a good person at all costs.  That’s what your friends did, and it’s very human, and we’re all doing it because if you live in the prosperous West you can find 1,000 ways that the nice things you enjoy are paid for in some measure by the suffering of others and if you decide to really hold that in your mind, to take in the extent to which that might be true, you’ll fall down on your knees weeping.

Recommended reading:  You may enjoy Nick Hornby’s How To Be Good, and it enjoyably grapples with what happens when someone in your life undergoes a total moral overhaul.

Now, listen. I’ve tried to write about this without engaging too much with the idea of porn and coercion.  I mean, there is coercion and sex-trafficking and that is very bad, but there’s something reductive in just assuming that the women have not made the choice to perform.  I feel it’s important to say that you can be a good feminist and consume/create/enjoy porn and that there is, uh, “free-range” porn out there.

But I totally support you in your decision to not consume porn, just like I’d support you if you became a vegan even though I still eat meat.  And you don’t have to defend this decision to your friends.  If they keep bringing it up and needling you with it, maybe you do need to find new friends, not because of porn but because they are behaving like jerks.  If it comes up again, you’re well within your rights to say “This conversation makes me really uncomfortable, so let’s change the subject.”  But if they let it go, and they are generally not jerks and everyone can be trusted to maintain a “let’s agree to disagree” stance, then let it go.


19 thoughts on “Reader question #57: Friends, porn, and ethics.

  1. honestly? this is a universal issue. it’s not really about the porn. if you have friends that are judgmental about issues in your life, and aren’t asking questions out of interest, but to tell you that you’re wrong about an issue…well, that’s a bad scene. i’mma little out there, and i’ve met a lot of people who want to discuss my choices. it’s always an interesting conversation. you’ve thought about your stance. you’ve made a valid choice. screw, ’em. at the same time, be careful not to assume that people are disagreeing with you – sometimes people are simply interested in what makes people make the decisions that they make.

  2. “I feel it’s important to say that you can be a good feminist and consume/create/enjoy porn and that there is, uh, “free-range” porn out there.”

    First up, I just want to highlight this. Yes, you can never be SURE that performers are acting out of their own free will. But frankly, am I sitting at my desk and making maps of my own free will? No I’m doing it because I need to get paid. Particularly if you have had “Nice Guy” issues in the past, pause to think about the assumptions you may be making re: female desire and agency. The key difference between being a vegan and being a “porn vegan” is that porn performers are sentient beings, not domesticated animals being led to a slaughter.

    Your friends’ arguments, however, are a giant pile of poo. And I have heard all of them when it comes to my vegetarianism, too. As our dear Captain Awkward said, this type of derailing is typical of people who feel threatened by someone who’s decided to opt out of consumption of ANY kind. You say, “I’m a vegetarian” and they hear “You are an evil carnivore”. You say, “I decided to stop watching porn” and they hear “I decided that all of you are assholes and exploiters who love human trafficking.”

    At this point, the second anyone starts to assume that my personal choices constitute a moral judgement upon them, I simply tell them, “You don’t have to be a vegetarian. I don’t even think everyone is supposed to be a vegetarian” and leave it at that. Because I have the right to muddle through this unfair, exploitative world as I see fit, and so do they! And, nobody owes anyone else an explanation.

    1. Yes! I was going to say that. You can say “You don’t have to agree with my reasons, and you don’t have to do what I’m doing. Thanks for your interest.” Or something else. Because they don’t have to do those things – and you don’t have to keep defending yourself.

  3. I’d add one more category of people to the list, Captain:
    Some people become vegetarian or vegan for health reasons rather than moral ones.

    It also correlates to porn vegans. Some people that have had porn addiction problems in the past might abstain to keep from ‘falling off the wagon,’ so to speak.

    Just my two cents.

    1. Also, some people don’t like meat or find it gross. The porn equivalent of that would be the subsection of asexuals who don’t like porn or are repulsed by it. That has nothing to do with moraity either, but it’s another two cents (now we have four cents!).

      1. Point of clarification: you don’t have to be asexual to not enjoy/be repulsed by porn. Come on, now.

      2. Ha, now I want to make a t-shirt that just says “Porn Vegan” for people who like neither meat nor porn.

  4. Free range porn. Free. Range. Porn. FREE RANGE PORN.

    I love your column so desperately sometimes. I had similar experiences with friends and family when I went vegan (not porn vegan but actual vegan). People can get very defensive even without you saying much beyond “I don’t eat meat” or “I don’t watch porn” because they sometimes read a silent judgment in your actions – if you’ve decided that something is Not Right than clearly they’re continuing to partake in this thing that you think is Not Right is also Not Right and who the hell are you to judge and blahblahblah. The best tactic I had was “I don’t consume meat. If you want to know why, I will tell you but as I respect your decision to eat meat, I expect you to respect mine.”

  5. The Captain is, as always, very right. Your friends are the jerks.

    I remember, to this very moment, a raging argument I got into with a dude about whether my porn of choice (erotic fiction) was actually porn. I believe the argument boiled down to two things:
    1 – Dude did not believe that any woman could like porn. Ergo, whatever it was that flipped my switch was not porn. Because I am a woman.
    2 – If it’s not live, it’s not porn.

    Now, for me, live porn just makes me laugh before I can even consider being indignant about exploitation

    But that’s my own battle, LetterWriter, not yours.

    My axe to grind in response to this letter is this: I do hope you have Porn Vegan beat-off options! If you are at all interested (and it’s totally cool if you aren’t) please allow me to provide you with some free range equivalent options that do not in any way involve someone being coerced or exploited. Heck, you already be using most of these:
    1 – Erotic ficiton! Fictional people fictionally doing fictional things. No one is being harmed in the making of this porn.
    2 – Erotic drawings! Perhaps you are more visually oriented, but photos make you feel icky. Drawings: they don’t have to be from life! (Please allow me never to tell you how my MOM bought me Alan Moore’s Lost Girls. Which is pretty… yeah.)
    3 – Sex toys for you! Have solo sex in new and interesting ways!

    Basically, as a similar Porn Vegan for reasons other than yours, I want to be sure you’re getting your porn equivalent of B12 and iron! 🙂

  6. With the phrase ‘free range porn’ and the comment suggesting, erm, vegan friendly sources of protein, I am reminded again why I love this site.

  7. The thing about porn is that the ONLY reason to view it is because you enjoy it. It’s not like buying clothes, housewares, etc. that are made in exploitative conditions, or eating meat or food is that produced non-organically. You have to wear clothes, and eat food, and frankly it is a lot of work (and expense) to avoid the morally tainted stuff. (Not that it is not worth trying, but I don’t know anyone who succeeds completely). Porn, by contrast, is not a necessity. You can easily avoid being part of the exploitation by foregoing it altogether.

    Also, when you buy products made in exploitative circumstances or eat less virtuous food, you are not watching and getting your rocks off on the very act that is exploitative. (Hard to imagine getting hot looking at pictures of sweatshop workers, or crop sprayers applying pesticides!)

    The way I see it, since you realized porn stars are less likely to be deliciously horny babes who get a secret thrill getting dirty for the camera than they are to be victims of an exploitative industry, porn has seemed at least as sordid as titillating to you, leaving you feeling ambivalent, or perhaps even a little degraded about enjoying it. In short, it isn’t fun anymore; your pesky, enlightened conscience ruins it for you as surely as having your mother in the room when you’re trying to wank off. So, since porn-viewing is not a chore to be done whether you enjoy it or not, you’ve moved on. For heaven’s sake, don’t feel defensive about that! It suggests that you are not just a NiceGuy, you are a genuinely decent guy.

    If you feel a need to explain yourself further, tell your friends that like all good men, you are both a beast and something more, and although the beast in you loves porn as much as ever, the something else has ruined it for you (feel free to use the above analogy, if you wish) — that while part of you wishes you had never had your epiphany, and that you could still enjoy porn, you did, and you can’t.

    If your friends still can’t let it go, find new friends. Because friends who try to make you feel bad about doing what feels right for you, just because it tweaks their consciences to see you behave a little better? Let’s just say the new, improving you can do better.

    1. “…an exploitative industry..”

      Which is to say, “an industry”, this being capitalism and all…

Comments are closed.