An interesting question posed on twitter this morning by David Quinn:

There is significant controversy about the term “ethical porn”, with many people rightly believing that it is an attempt by elements within the porn industry to rebrand itself as more, ahem, family friendly. But that’s only partly true.

The word “ethical” when put in front of the word “porn” does not mean, as many seem to believe, that the pornography itself is more, or less, virtuous than regular pornography. It’s a bit like eating an egg, or a free-range egg. At the end of the day, you’ve still eaten an egg, and if you have an egg allergy, the fact that the chicken had a nice time before laying that egg won’t do you a bit of good.

“Ethical Porn” refers to the way the stuff is produced, in much the same way that “free range eggs” refer to how the eggs are produced.

One of the biggest problems for the porn industry over the past decade has been that as more and more of it becomes free to view, the profit margins have fallen. There’s not really much need to pay for it, if you are a consumer, given that there is – at last count – half a million years worth of the stuff watched on just one website annually.

As a result of money flowing away from pornographers themselves, and towards large porn-streaming sites that attract billions of views and vast advertising revenues, individual producers of porn have been, well, squeezed. In turn, this has meant that the money to be made by individuals who have sex on camera has fallen dramatically, because of the basic law of supply and demand.

In turn, the money incentives have moved to the extremes. Because there is so much supply of video of relatively straightforward pornography, the market increasingly exists for depictions of more extreme acts – those that a majority of people would find repellent, but which a small and avid audience exists.

And of course, this regularly leads to exploitation of performers – particularly young women – who are coerced into performing sexual acts that are degrading, shaming, or damaging, even to those who might have been initially willing to perform relatively common sex acts on camera for money.

“Ethical” porn, therefore, refers to a subset of pornography which places emphasis on the well-being of those performing on camera. It may well be a total lie – and we’ll come to that in a moment – but just as there’s a market for free-range eggs, there’s increasingly a market for those who want to ease their guilt about consuming pornography by watching porn that is, to their mind, non-exploitative. The notion that the performer is enjoying it, and not being coerced, is something that a growing subset of porn consumers are willing to pay for.

So in a sense, much like free-range eggs, it is both a real thing, and a branding exercise. The popularity of free range eggs stems from the fact that people are willing to pay more to salve their conscience. The same is true of “ethical porn”.

But is ethical porn actually ethical? It depends on where you start from.

If you believe, as many progressives do, that the problems with pornography are that it exploits the performers and damages those who take part, then you might have some reason to believe that ethical porn is a step up from the rest of the market.

But if you believe that the problems with porn are that it sets harmful expectations of sexual behaviour for those who view it, then ethical porn is not much better than anything else.

The primary purpose of branding a porn video as “ethical” is to make the viewer feel better about viewing it. It is not, per se, about improving the lot of the performer. Porn companies could do that overnight without branding their product to make it more appealing. The whole point of the exercise is to legitimise their output and to enable them to charge more money for it.

And is it actually better, or less harmful, to the protagonists? That’s an entirely open question. It’s very hard to believe that a teenage girl who decides to start in the porn industry is in any way equipped to know how it will affect her psychologically, let alone how it will affect her in ten, or twenty, or thirty years. The idea that it is substantially less harmful to the participants is unproven, and, largely, unprovable.

On the other hand, and this is where we conservatives are sometimes challenged by the practicalities of the world; it is very arguable that pornography that, on screen, emphasises mutual respect between sexual partners, mutual enjoyment, and consent is vastly preferable in terms of its impact on the viewer to pornography that treats women as little more than sex toys who breathe.

The moral question for someone opposed to porn is whether, since porn is going to be impossible to eliminate, it’s better for the world as a whole if pornography tilts in the direction of respect than in the direction of use and abuse. The answer to that question is fairly obvious.

Answering it, though, does not take away from the fact that the emerging legacy of modern pornography is overwhelmingly harmful. The very fact that there is an ongoing debate about how to prepare children to deal with pornography, from early primary school, is evidence of a society that has left it far too late to address this problem.

So yes, “ethical porn” does exist. But “ethical” does not mean “harm free”, and those who advocate it on behalf of the pornography industry shouldn’t be allowed to get away with portraying themselves as the good guys.