Line by Line

Pornography is Inherently Abusive


Tags: gender and sexuality, morals and ethics, sexualization, social justice

First things first: This post is going to talk about sexual abuse. If you’re under 13, I recommend grabbing a favorite parent or other trusted adult before reading anything to do with sex, abusive or otherwise. There's nothing particularly explicit in this post, probably nothing that would faze you if you've seen actual porn (which on average seems to happen around age 13) but I'm still advising parental guidance and reader discretion.

Often, when my fellow Christians try to argue against pornography to a secular audience (who won't be swayed by “whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her…,” they fall back on “natural law” arguments. These aren't inherently religious in principle, but to be frank, a telos-based sexual ethics has some problems, the first of which is that it relies on a philosophical framework that's barely used by anyone except Catholic nerds.

Another common approach is to point to rampant abuse and human trafficking involved in the production of pornography. These are, at least in theory, problems of the porn industry, not inherent to pornography itself, and they are—again, in theory—solvable. Similarly, one could note that earlier exposure to pornography leaves boys more likely to desire power over women, but porn already markets itself as adults-only so that's a non-starter.

My goal here is to show that, based on the widely-accepted assumptions of consent-based sexual ethics, pornography qua pornography is illicit. Let's start with the two base assumptions:

  1. The free, informed consent of all involved parties is a necessary precondition for any sex act to be licit. If there's no consent, it's abuse.
  2. For consent to be free, it must be revocable. Any sex act that continues after one party no longer consents is inherently illicit. There's no consent (anymore), so it's abuse.

The upshot of that second point, which may not be immediately obvious, is that a person can't consent to give up the right to revoke consent.

This is a problem for pornography, because it creates a permanent record of sex acts and distributes it. That's not just an incidental thing pornography usually does—it's the whole point. It's what pornography is. The only exception I can think of is pornography that is solely created and consumed by the same person and never sent to everyone else. Anything beyond that is going to be outside the control of the people who consented to creating it.

So what happens if the people depicted stop consenting? Nothing. Their sex act continues to be out there in the possession of someone else, usually an unknown number of unknown people. Those people can continue to stimulate themselves with that pornography, regardless of whether or not the creators still want them to.

From there, it's simple math: Any sex act that doesn't stop when a participant stops consenting is abuse. Pornography can't stop when a participant stops consenting. Therefore, pornography cannot not be abuse.

That's it. That's all there is to it.

Sure, there are some counterarguments. Probably the biggest one is the idea that pornography isn't a sex act, so the rules of consent don't apply. Sure, creating pornography involves a sex act, but that doesn't mean the sex act is ongoing for as long as the porn itself exists.

I think the simplest counter-counterargument here is that the recording is a separate thing that requires consent, and if you don't believe me, just ask anyone who's been filmed or photographed, without their consent, in the act of having sex or even just in the nude. But that only gets us as far as consent being required to create the pornography. It still doesn't mean the continued existence requires ongoing consent.

To that I say, that permanent record is integral to the nature of pornography. The point of pornography, after all, is to titilate the person consuming it. Someone who creates a piece of pornography does so for the purpose of sexually stimulating someone. To call that anything other than a sex act, just because it's done through a medium rather than in person, seems like special pleading.

Okay, so what if nobody is actually performing the sex act? That is, what about drawings, animations, prose erotica, etc.?

That's an easy one, actually. For porn to be made, someone has to make it. And since we've established that porn is a sex act, that means everyone involved in the production is involved in a sex act. Which means each of them needs to give their own consent. As discussed above, that consent needs to be, but cannot be, revocable. This is true if you were to somehow remove the actors from a pornographic video and leave everything else intact, and it's just as true if you swap out the medium. Even if nobody is photographing/filming anything, someone is still drawing, writing, making sounds, etc. to create the pornographic media.

What if we eliminate the human creators altogether? Then you don't have porn, or anything else. If you use an AI-generated image in lieu of a photo or drawing, you haven't actually eliminated human creators because those neural networks have to be trained on existing images. In fact, you probably now have an additional consent problem: Most (if not all) of those image-generating AIs were trained on images scraped from the open Web without the consent of those images' creators. So even if I'm wrong and porn can be consensual, AI porn is still sexual abuse because the creators of the vast majority of Internet porn didn't consent to have their work used as training data.

As you can probably guess, this also creates problems for the popular trend of pornographic fan art and fanfic. If you're putting someone else's character in pornographic situations, then you're involving the creator in your sex act as well. If you're using an actor's likeness, you're involving the actor, too. Again, even if I'm wrong and porn can be consensual, let's be honest: People drawing smutty Captain America/Bucky fan art did not get consent from Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan, let alone Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

Those are ultimately just digressions, though. The core concern is that pornography continues existing out in the world even if one or more participants no longer consents to that continued existence. So, then, what about the possible exception I mentioned above, pornography that isn't meant for distribution? What about private porn, like sexting?

In most cases, the same principle applies: You're still creating a permanent record and then putting that record in someone else's hands. There's a very good reason we (try to) teach teenagers not to sext: Nothing is stopping the recipient from sending it to friends or even uploading it to a porn site. In fact, there's a whole phenomenon called revenge porn, in which people publicly share nude or sexual photos that their exes sent them with the expectation of privacy. And even if that doesn't happen, even if everyone involved acts in good faith, if you try to revoke consent by asking the recipient to delete the photos, there's no guarantee it will actually happen.

Admittedly, that's starting to look like a risk of being sexually abused rather than the abuse being inherent. I'd argue that it's an unacceptable risk. I'd caution that technological solutions that purport to mitigate or eliminate these risks are easily circumvented, for instance via the analog hole. (Anyone who suggests a blockchain-based solution owes me fifty dollars.) But that doesn't make it abusive in principle. In the case where you have a single person creating erotic material for their own use, never sharing it with anyone, and making sure they can destroy it when they no longer want it to exist, then I'll concede that my argument likely doesn't apply.

But that's a small minority of cases, and the further you get from that, the closer you get to the point where risk is unacceptable. I don't know exactly how or where to draw that line, but it clearly exists.

In any case, at least most erotic material is expressly for public distribution, which means withdrawing consent is impossible. I hate to sound like a broken record here, but there is no getting around it: If it's not possible to put a stop to it by revoking consent, then you're dealing with sexual abuse.

Finally, I expect that people will say I'm blowing this all out of proportion. It's just porn, after all. It's not like anybody's getting raped. (Well, actually that happens all the time in the production of pornography, but in principle the problem there is the rape, not the porn.)

To that, I say, just how much are you allowed to use someone else to sexually gratify yourself without their consent? Where else do you draw that line? Why there and not somewhere else? Is is okay to grope someone just a little bit? Surely not. What about consensual sex with someone underage? After all, they consent to the extent that they're able, just like porn actors ostensibly consent to the creation of pornography. But no, I think most of us recognize that minors' limited capacity to consent makes them unable to consent freely to sex. That's why the concept of statutory rape exists. Likewise, the inherent impossibility of giving irrevocable consent to ongoing/future sex acts means that nobody can consent freely to participation in pornography.

The bottom line, if you'll forgive me for repeating it one more time, is: Sex requires freely given and freely revocable consent, which is inherently incompatible with a permanent record that is out of the hands of one or more of the participants. Pornography is, therefore, a non-consensual sex act, which is sexual abuse.