Is Watching Free Porn Anti-Feminist?

photographed by Michael Beckert
If you search "free porn" on Google, you get 1,400,000,000 hits. That’s a lot of porn. From vanilla lovers to BBW aficionados, kink and BDSM enthusiasts, foot fetishists and golden shower fans, there’s something for everyone. All at your fingertips, and all for free.
Although free porn is an accessible way for us to explore and embrace our sexuality, it relies on a business model that exploits sex workers and filmmakers. So while viewers are getting off, creators are the ones getting screwed. We boycott fast fashion brands for exploiting factory workers, we go vegan in the name of animal rights, we ban plastic straws to save the ocean, so where’s that same energy when it comes to protecting sex workers?
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Free porn sites operate on pirated and unregulated user-generated content. Users can upload clips even though they’re infringing copyright, and stolen content goes up faster than studios can issue demands for it to be taken down. Award-winning feminist adult filmmaker Erika Lust tells Refinery29 that at the time of writing her team had been fruitlessly chasing Pornhub, asking them to take down some of her XConfessions films. "[Free porn sites] steal from studios, while at the same time profit from unregulated amateur production. This adds to the capacity for exploitation towards the performers, and the illusion that porn is free leads to the assumption that sex work is not work," says Lust. "Most of the performers involved in these videos did not give their consent for their film to be pirated and hosted on a free porn site." And they’re not making a penny, either.
"Sex work is a real job, and performers deserve to be paid," says Lust. "It costs money to pay performers, crew, production, post-production and the director. Legal contracts that protect all of their rights as workers, lunch for the day, STI test and comfortable accommodations and plane tickets if required."
Pornhub’s Vice President Corey Price assures Refinery29 they’re committed to protecting the intellectual property and earning potential of performers, models and sex workers alike and claims Pornhub models make over 80% of the ad revenue their videos earn. "We use a third party fingerprinting software on every new upload," he says. "Any models who come across copyrighted content that they own on Pornhub can either choose to have the content immediately removed, or switch it to their personal channel. This way, they can receive all payments associated with the video moving forward, as well as anything it has previously earned."
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Last year feminist porn website Bellesa came under fire for hosting stolen and unlicensed content after many performers and filmmakers, including Lust, took to Twitter in protest. After a brief hiatus, the website relaunched its video section and is now providing free adult videos, this time in partnership with performers and studios. "Being able to explore your sexuality in an entirely accessible way is so important, especially for women, who already face certain hurdles and stigmas surrounding sexuality," says Michelle Shnaidman, Bellesa’s CEO and founder. "It all depends on approach. What ultimately matters is that the creators are consenting to the display of their content, and that the people involved are being fairly compensated for it. It makes a difference."
"Typically, when you’re watching free porn on a tube site, there’s little, if any, control over what is being uploaded and by whom," says Shnaidman. "In order for porn to be ethical and non-exploitative, the content needs to come from trusted studios that implement rigorous measures to ensure the comfort, consent and safety of the people involved. Bellesa currently showcases 10-18-minute-long cuts from some truly awesome and 100% ethical porn studios with which we’re partnered, so you can watch some shorter but free content there." Ultimately though, Shnaidman still encourages viewers to support these companies by signing up and paying.
Porn isn’t the lucrative business it once was, and free tube sites (where porn can be uploaded by users and accessed for free) have either put performers and studios out of business or forced them to lower their budget. Lust says that when Pornhub launched in the '00s, performers’ wages dropped drastically, and now they’re having to make more with less.
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Many of us don’t really think about what’s going on behind the scenes, and the fact that we never question it speaks volumes of a culture that sexualises women for personal pleasure, but is reluctant to humanise sex workers. "The problem with free porn is that a lot of the time it isn’t really 'free'. Porn watchers aren’t typically thinking about the human beings who are performing, filming, directing, editing the porn they’re enjoying. They’re just… watching porn," Shnaidman tells Refinery29.
Board certified sex therapist Raquel Savage only learned how problematic free porn is when she started posting adult content on her private Snapchat, and having it stolen and reposted without her consent. "The general public doesn’t know the sites they’re often visiting are contributing to exploitation," she tells Refinery29. "People generally don’t respect or care about the wellbeing, safety or lives of sex workers so they don’t have the desire to navigate adult content in a way that is respectful to sex workers, puts money in [their] pockets, and honours their consent."
Stigma is also partly responsible for free porn consumption and the exploitation of sex workers, and the less we talk about it, the worse it will get. "People go to the free websites because they’d be embarrassed to have a subscription to porn; watching sex is still a massive taboo," says Florence Barkway, one half of sex-positive channel Come Curious, who believe YouTube has been shadow-banning their content. "The problem is, people still don’t expect to pay for their porn. It’s like any other job, people wouldn’t walk into a coffee shop and take a free cup of coffee, would they? So why not pay for your porn too?"
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"You need to pay for your porn," adds Lust. "People have a preconceived notion that if they're paying for porn they're weird, or they like it too much, but that's not the case at all. People should be proud of paying for it, and for supporting filmmakers and sex workers."
Lust is living proof that paying customers are the life force of alternative porn. "Ethical porn will always be behind a paywall, because if it's free, someone is losing money," she says. If we keep assuming porn should be free, mainstream misogynistic free porn sites will continue to prosper while ethical, feminist and queer porn will slowly die out.
"A lot of people believe they don’t have the money for it, but when most people find something that’s worth paying for they will put their money into it," says Reed Amber, who runs Come Curious with Bark. "If you are an honest, genuine person you will do your best to pay for porn."
If you truly don’t have the disposable income to spend on porn, then you shouldn’t consume it. You wouldn’t pay for a night out or new shoes if you were strapped for cash, and we have to start bringing that same mentality to porn – which I guarantee is cheaper than a cocktail in London.
"If you really care about sex positivity and feminism you should do research into where your porn comes from and care about the implications of watching free porn," says Lust. "Paying is the only way to guarantee that you’re not endorsing exploitation. You want to support a company that pays its performers fairly, treats them well on set, and prioritises consent." However, there are loopholes that can allow us to watch free porn without being complicit in a business model that promotes exploitation.
"Most performers, whether it’s cam girls, porn stars, people like me, have links to our content on our social media page and a lot of us offer free shit too," says Savage, who still encourages consumers to tip performers when watching content they’ve posted for free. "The other way is, on certain sites, Pornhub for example, there are verified pages where if performers post their content they get paid off the views. It’s not a lot, but there’s residual money coming in."
Porn can be a powerful form of sexual liberation, it can be a source of expression and representation, and a means to destigmatise pleasure and sex work, but none of that can happen as long as performers and creators are being exploited. The bottom line is that sex work is work: refusing to pay for porn means refusing to recognise the humanity of performers, perpetuating a cycle of objectification and exploitation. Now that we know what the implications of free porn consumption are, it’s time to be held accountable.
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