The Smart Girl's Guide to Porn

Most of us watch it, but few of us talk about it. That’s right, Her Campus is getting down and dirty to discuss (what can be) a very taboo subject: porn. While viewing porn is totally normal—more on that later!—it can be confusing. In order to feel good about, well, feeling good, the type of porn you are consuming matters. We talked to two different experts who helped us create this “Smart Girl’s Guide” to porn. Here’s what you need to know.

It’s normal to be curious!

According to Erika Lust, award-winning erotic film director, author and sex-positive feminist, it's perfectly natural to be curious about sex. “But it's also natural to not want to do it,” she says. “Do what feels natural for you. No one should feel like they have to watch something if they don't want to.”

Rachel Born, PhDc of Human Sexuality Education, agrees. “Porn can be a great and safe way for college girls to explore different kinks, sexual orientations and/or sex positions,” she says. “Plus, porn can be a way that you turn yourself on before masturbation, which is A-okay, too!” There’s no need to be embarrassed about your interest in sex. It’s just part of being human! 

Not everyone likes the same things

There are so many different kinds of pornography out there, and you don’t have be turned on by all of it! “If you see something you don't like or that makes you feel bad, switch it off,” says Lust. “It’s okay to not like everything you see. A lot of things in porn are just being presented as ‘normal’ when they are in fact very advanced and even extreme sex acts…often they are presented in a way without any communication, obvious consent or buildup.” Just like with any aspect of your sexuality, it’s important to learn what you do and don’t like.

There are benefits and risks

In Lust’s opinion, a lot of mainstream porn teaches the wrong lessons about consent. “Young men might learn to just view women as objects, and young women might learn to just subject to that objectification and never express any needs of their own. I think that's a potential risk,” she says. It’s important to be aware about what you’re watching, but don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s a learning experience, after all.

“I definitely think porn can work as an educator about sex,” says Lust, “And if people don't watch it critically and just consume it and get inspired, they might try to act out all these things from porn that in reality, don't feel really good for anyone involved.” She stresses the importance of showing real pleasure in her films. I hope they will inspire people to have great sex together, as sexual collaborators, not just as something you do to someone.” If you watch something that makes you feel good, Lust explains, it can help you connect with your sexuality, inspire you and make you feel like a happier person. 

You can be an ethical consumer of porn

The fact is, some porn is not ethical. Performers are often underage, poorly paid, placed in unsafe working conditions and treated with little to no respect. You want to be sure that the performers in the porn you are watching are consenting adults who were treated well and were paid fairly for their work.

In 2013, Jon Millward conducted the largest personal research study on the Porn Industry in the U.S. He interviewed 10,000 porn stars about the business. One statistic that stands out is that the most common female role in porn is women in their 20s portraying teenagers. 

In his study, Millward quotes Luke Ford (a former pornography gossip columnist), who said on CBS News: “Most girls who enter the porn industry do one video and quit. The experience is so painful, horrifying, embarrassing, humiliating for them that they never do it again.” Luckily, people like Lust are working to change this.

The Ethical Porn Partnership (EPP) states on its website that pornographers affiliated with the EPP agree to “optimal sexual health screening, transparency around pay rates, age verification of performers, healthy on-set conditions,” and more. Basically, ethical porn means porn that was produced according to regulations, with the consent of everyone involved.

“Porn, if produced ethically, is not dirty. It can be beautiful, liberating and educational,” says Born. How the film is produced makes all the difference!

“A very common feminist criticism of porn is that it objectifies women,” says Lust. “And that's correct because very often it does. But that doesn't mean that all explicit films have to objectify women.” Lust suggests trying to be a critical viewer and finding out where the porn you watch comes from. “Look at who’s made the films you want to watch. If it's not easy to find the producers behind it, chances are they are not proud of the kind of films they make,” she says.

Doing research on directors and producers may not feel very sexy, but knowing that the filmmakers have good values will most likely enhance your experience. “Female directors are in general better at remembering that women have sexual desires, ideas and like orgasms, too,” says Lust. These shouldn’t be things people forget!

What is feminist porn?

If you’re a feminist, you can still watch porn. You just have to be choosy about what you are consuming. “It's simple,” says Lust. “Feminist porn is explicit film made by people who have a problem with the power imbalance of the mainstream industry. It has nothing to do with what acts are shown; it's how you film it and present it.”

As a director, Lust is an expert in this area. “The political idea has always been there for me, to create an alternative to an industry that is very one-sided and often very sexist,” she says. “It's just about having feminist values during producing and shooting, treating everyone with respect.” Again, while this should always be the case, the reality is not so simple.

Related: Viewing Porn Doesn’t Make You Anti-Feminist

Where can I find ethical porn?

If you have the means to pay for sites like Lust’s, it’s a great idea. As for specific feminist porn sites, Lust has a few recommendations. Check out Vex Ashley's project A Four Chambered Heart for “a very modern take on explicit films,” and the Swedish project A New Level of Pornography, which is made by two young women. Lust’s own project XConfessions has plenty of different videos, as well as fun stories to read. The EPP also has a list of ethical pornographers.

With a multitude of options available when it comes to pornography, it can be difficult to know where to begin. It becomes even more of a struggle when you want to know that the porn was produced ethically. “The majority of porn can in many ways be dangerous – the kind that shows sex as something that men do to women and that women do for men,” says Lust. “I think that reflects and thereby reinforces a warped view of sex that contributes to rape culture. But that's why I think there has to be more voices in porn, and more people who show that sex can be a healthy, positive thing.”

The bottom line is this: “The best thing you can do for yourself is to let yourself feel your sexuality, enjoy it, and let it be a healthy part of your life, free of shame. You have the right to be sexual, to feel desire and to feel pleasure,” says Lust. So be curious, do your research and be aware of the risks. But above all, don’t forget to enjoy yourself!