Last updated: Sept 2006


Ethical Consumer has had a 'pornography' criticism since EC77. More recently the debate was renewed within ECRA as to the need for the Pornography criticism and which column it should be placed in – Human rights? Workers rights? Irresponsible marketing?


In the light of the complex and extremely heated debates over the rights and wrongs of portrayals of sex, why do we feel that pornography is worthy of criticism?


Pornography is an enormous business, with estimated worldwide sales of over $57 billion.[1]

Although costs are low, with most mainstream porn movies costing only $5-10,000 to produce, multinational corporations are involved in selling the end products, for instance through the pay-per-view channels available in many hotel chains or the distribution of pornographic DVDs and magazines.[2]


Human rights

Child pornography is the area which most concerns anti-porn campaigners and is most often considered in the context of abuses of the human rights of society's most vulnerable members. Much child porn is produced by underground abuse networks and individuals and is separate from the kind of corporate responsibility concerns that EC deals with, although some internet service providers have been criticised for not acting strongly enough to close down child porn websites.[13]

Sometimes, however, the lines are blurred, for instance in 2004 when Spearmint Rhino became the subject of controversy over the discovery that a 15-year-old stripper had been employed in its Birmingham lap dancing club,[3] or when some tabloid newspapers are found to routinely run ads for sex telephone lines with slogans such as "take off my school uniform” and "virgin/teenager.”[4]

Organisations such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women believe that the illegal trafficking of women, such as those freed in high-profile raids on 'massage parlours' in the UK where they were forced into prostitution, is strongly connected with the porn industry, and that some of the films available on 'hardcore' videos and channels are made using such coerced women.[11]


Social and psychological damage

The debate over the effects of pornographic representations on society and individuals is often acrimonious. Some campaigners believe in the right to free speech, and see attempts to regulate pornography as censorship. Others fear that regulation can slip into moralistic repression of all representations of sexual expression or human nudity.

EC's original definition sought to avoid this by differentiating between erotica and pornography, the latter being identified with images condoning exploitation or degradation, rather than those showing human sexuality as consensual, equal and enjoyable. It also deliberately excluded sexually explicit educational materials which have been the target of obscenity campaigns by right-wing and religious groups.

Many claims are made for the negative social impacts of pornography, with a strange alliance of right-wing Christians and feminists claiming that exposure to porn results in rape, sexual assault and other violence, principally against women. The evidence for this is still hard to determine the truth of.

On one hand, psychological experiments conducted in the 1980s suggested that repeated exposure to porn gave the male subjects more and more extreme tastes, caused them to be desensitised to the sufferings of rape and child abuse victims, and gave them inaccurate ideas of the commonness of extreme sexual practices.[5]

On the other hand, country studies of porn legalisation from Japan to Scandinavia have suggested that legalisation leads to a reduction in sex crimes, often explained by the idea that porn offers sexually repressed men a means of expressing desires which might otherwise be dangerously bottled up.[6]


Workers' rights

The proliferation of 'porn star' t-shirts and a few big names like Jenna Jameson have created a myth of glamour around the porn industry. In reality, most porn movies are made cheaply, paying low wages once the costs of production are covered. In addition, the conditions under which some actresses work range from the dispiriting to the abusive.

In 1977, porn actress Georgia Stark told Newsweek that: "the first film I made was really a downer. Afterwards I started to think about suicide. But after a while I got so I could do the Eleanor Rigby thing – you know, leave your mind in a jar by the door. Then I'd know I'm just an animal and they are taking pictures of an animal.”[7]

Nearly 25 years later, a Channel 4 documentary followed the progress of Felicity, a single mother from Essex seeking the big time in the California porn industry. The film shocked many viewers, despite the initial intention of filmmaker Stephen Walker to produce a 'light-hearted' programme.

The actress was subjected by porn industry producers and directors to sexual assault and verbal abuse, and porn film-makers were depicted describing films where women were dressed as children, spat on and choked, and boasting that their movies 'make Belsen look like a picnic'.”[8],[9]

An interview in a broadsheet paper featured a director claiming that his films showed "a strong male-dominant thing, with women being pushed to their limit. It looks like violence but it's not. I mean, pleasure and pain are the same thing, right?”[10] Even the producers of 'lads' mags,' widely available on the lower shelves of newsagents, perpetuate the idea that humiliated women are sexy, as seen in one editor's attitude to Abi Titmuss: "she'll do subservient [sic] poses with her arse in the air that other girls won't do.”[4]

As well as the abusive treatment of women in the porn industry, other health and safety issues exist. A series of high-profile porn star deaths from AIDS-related illness in the 1980s led to a general policy of frequent tests for actors, but the long incubation period of HIV means that this is not foolproof. Mainstream porn films rarely show condoms being used, and frequently include unprotected high-risk acts, endangering the actors and perpetuating the idea that safe sex is less arousing.


Solutions to porn?

Susan Easton, a feminist academic, proposed a model of dealing with representations of sex modelled on the way the law deals with race hate crimes and incitement to racial hatred. This, Easton argues, would allow erotica depicting consensual sex, even that which might contain S&M or bondage, sexual education materials, and even depictions of violent sexual acts if they do not condone or encourage them, for instance in documentaries discussing rape as a war crime.

What would be excluded is the kind of material discussed above, where women are degraded and maltreated and this is conveyed to the viewer as desirable and attractive.[12]

Ethical Consumer does not, in the main, deal with regulation in this way. But Easton's model does suggest a way for looking at corporate involvement with pornography, criticising those companies which are part of this multi-billion-dollar industry based on abuse, but not penalising those pioneering makers of erotica who explicitly use existing couples or fully consenting adults, promote safe sex and depict sex as an act of mutuality, pleasure and non-destructive self-expression, rather than of power and humiliation.


Human rights again

Some campaigners concentrate on the illegal human rights abuses of child pornography and trafficking in women, while other are more concerned with workers' rights issues or the 'irresponsible marketing' aspect of pornography's direct impact on its readers.

EC's decision to place pornography in its human rights category draws together these various strands to recognise the effects of pornography on the people who are involved in making it, those who are forced into encounters with it by illegal means, and those who consume it. But it also extends beyond these.

The human rights issues represented by the pornography industry start with the extreme and violent abuses of trafficking, rape and child abuse. But they also include the more pervasive infringements of rights to safety, security and freedom from discrimination which stem from the degrading images of women which are commonplace in mainstream porn.

Desensitisation to rape, child abuse and sexual violence (potentially affecting current low conviction rates for sex crimes) and warped expectations of relationships and sex damage women, men and children throughout society.[5],[13]

These are not accidental side-effects, but directly connected to the images of female powerlessness and humiliation sold by the mainstream pornography industry – a global industry which can be confronted by consumers of even everyday companies, demanding that depictions of sex and nudity are consensual and equal, and where those involved in the making of films have made a free choice to participate in a well-run industry.


Pornography in ethical research

Leading ethical investment researchers EIRIS and KLD both include pornography amongst criteria of 'concern to many clients' but which they don't take a stand on. Unlike Ethical Consumer, however, both organisations take the same position on manufacturing military weapons and involvement in the nuclear power and tobacco industries.

Of the 51 ethical investment funds listed by the Ethical Investors Group, 36 have involvement in pornography as an exclusion criterion. 12 did not (some of these including specific health or environmental funds) and 3 did not specify.

In most cases pornography was listed as one of many criteria, but Aberdeen Asset Management included it amongst its 'product safety' categories and Allchurches Amity stated that it sought to "contribute to the world we live by  avoiding companies which are materially involved in the production of alcohol, tobacco, armaments and video tapes and magazines of a pornographic nature.”


Related links

  • Object – London-based campaign against pornography and 'lad's mags'
  • International Union of Sex Workers or via the GMB union at Thorne House, 152 Brent Street, London NW4 2DP
  • oneangrygirl - US website with a collection of resources for those undecided about pornography and its sister trades.


Further reading 
Susan Easton: The Problem of Pornography: Regulation and the Right to Free Speech. Routledge 1999


1. June 2006 
2. CBS report on the pornography industry, 5th September 2004 
3, 2nd February 2004 
4 Rachel Bell 2005 'Challenging the 'sex sells' cliché,' 
5 Zillman & Bryant 1989, cited in 
6 Diamond, Burns and Uchiyama 1999 'Pornography, Rape and Sex Crimes in Japan,' International Journal of Law & Psychiatry 
7 quoted in Spare Rib issue 65, December 1977 
8 The Guardian, Wednesday June 5, 2002 
9 16th April 2001 
10 interviewed by Martin Amis, Guardian Saturday March 17, 2001 
11 June 2006 
12 Susan Easton 1994 Pornography and the Right to Free Speech (Routledge) 
13 Lilith project, July 2006


From Ethical Consumer, Issue 102, September/October 2006