Is Pornography* an Ethical Problem

 Is pornography* an ethical problem – and, if so, what kind(s)? To state the obvious: the internet and digital media more broadly are awash with pornography* of every imaginable stripe and genre. The increasing diffusion of internet-connected digital media means that more or less anyone who cares to do so can easily consume, produce, and distribute sexually explicit materials” (SEMs), to use the ethically more neutral term. At the same time, the complex interplays between digital media and the larger spheres of our lives mean that pornography*, however we may define it, is thoroughly infused throughout contemporary societies. These complex interplays have been further amplified by Web-based technologies and communication venues – most commonly, social networking sites (SNSs), micro-blogs (e.g., Facebook status updates and Twitter), and “produsage” sites such as YouTube, and, increasingly, the Dark Web. All of this is further coupled with ever more predominant internet access via mobile devices: anyone with a smartphone can easily record still images and videos and then upload them for all of the internet world – currently nearly two-thirds of the planet’s population – to see.

These facilities and capacities thereby both continue and dramatically expand earlier forms of amateur pornography, for example, while simultaneously enabling new forms of SEMs such as Netporn, which blurs the “boundaries of porn producers and consumers,” and thereby entails nothing less “than a redefinition of pornography as a cultural object in terms of esthetics, politics, media economy, technology and desire”. Such redefinition, in particular, occurs within the subgenre of alt porn, defined in part by “its exhibition of non-standard subcultural styles, community features and interaction possibilities”.

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By the same token, increasing access to the internet by way of mobile devices – i.e., devices that can (and usually do) accompany us more or less everywhere – dramatically complexifies the contexts for the consumption and production of SEMs. For example, one of the premier scholars and authorities in these domains, Feona Attwood shows in fine detail how the complex interactions between sexuality, gender, sexual identity(ies) and representation vis-à-vis our rapidly changing and diffusing technologies over the past 20 years or so have first of all led to a concomitant diffusion of all things sexual – including ever more diverse forms and expressions thereof – into ever more public spheres. Against the background of this expanding spectra of sexual identities, practices, gender, and so on, as interwoven with media, our focus here on pornography* represents but one thread among many in these domains. At the same time, as Attwood’s book indexes, serious study of pornography* has come out of the academic closet in recent years. For example, the journal Porn Studies has been in publication since 2014.

These recent developments – that is, expanding forms and expressions of sexuality as entangled with ever more communication venues that are ever more interwoven throughout our lives, coupled with a dramatically growing body of research literature – profoundly complicates our approach to pornography and SEMs. First of all, the increasing diffusion and presence of “sex media” throughout our lifeworlds2 have thereby made the difficulties of defining what counts as pornography* – i.e., sexually explicit material that is potentially questionable for at least some audiences and age groups – that much more complex. Just having to do with (relatively) explicit representations of sex and sexuality is hardly enough to count, at least in many of the increasingly secularized societies of the West. Second, researching pornography* likewise becomes that much more sophisticated and detailed. To begin with, both utilitarian and deontological approaches arguing for restrictions against pornography* very frequently depend on the claim that such materials entail significant harms (and thus negative utils), such as greater sexual aggression toward children, girls, and/or women. As also holds for efforts to restrict violence in games, such claims of effects, however, are intrinsically difficult to establish empirically: beyond the standard problem that correlation between porn or game consumption and higher rates of (sexual) aggression, for example, does not prove causation – empirical researchers are faced with ever- changing environments that are increasingly infused with sexual representations of many sorts: being able to isolate porn consumption as a single variable leading to increased aggression becomes increasingly difficult indeed.

Third, this mediatization of sex and sexuality thereby intersects with the larger patterns of mediatization – meaning the various ways in which we use digital (and analogue) media to represent ourselves and our lives, both to ourselves and to others: again, as digital media continue to diffuse into every corner and wrinkle of our lives, so more and more of our lives are experienced through and with these media. The pocketfilm Porte de Choisy, for example, which otherwise violates earlier notions of bedroom and bathroom privacies, can be understood as simply an extension of our increasing ability to record and present ourselves via digital technologies. Re-presenting ourselves through the resulting artifacts – whether in the form of a text-based blog, an online photo album, a home-made video – is a way of communicating with one another in enhanced ways, ways that are more enjoyable because they are quick, convenient, engage more of our communicative senses (sound and vision, not simply reading), and are globally accessible. Relatedly, various forms of “sexting” – sending sexually suggestive or simply explicit images (e.g., “dickpics”) – are becoming more widespread. And this is not only among young people, whose exploitation of SNSs such as Snapchat and Instagram in these directions may be of considerable concern and/or the occasion of another “moral panic”. In addition, the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon), was recently caught up in a power struggle with a US media conglomerate over the latter’s publication of Bezo’s intimate texts and pictures. In Bezos vs. American Media, business and media empires – and perhaps nothing less foundational than freedom of expression – may be at stake.