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Sex Researcher David Ley Wants You to Consume Porn Ethically, Like Fair-Trade Coffee

You’re not a dick for watching porn. In fact, some researchers maintain that porn use may actually improve your health and community. David Ley is one of those researchers. A clinical psychologist and author specializing in sexuality, Ley wrote his newest book, Ethical Porn for Dicks: A Man’s Guide to Responsible Viewing Pleasure, in response to a world where porn has become a comprehensive villain (and alleged cause) for problems like infidelity, depression and erectile dysfunction.

For Ley, the crux of what makes your relationship to porn “ethical” is the same thing recommended for just about everything else relating to self-improvement today: mindfulness. He claims that because of internalized shame, many of us relegate our sexualities to the part of our brains that lacks critical thinking, reflection and moral judgment, almost as if we’re so ashamed of our desire for erotic stimulus that we deprive ourselves of the chance to actually think about it in any real way.

But for Ley, who operates out of New Mexico and sees a diverse pool of patients in terms of their orientations and kinks, your sexuality is part of who you are, not something buried away beneath the parts of yourself you hate less.

I recently spoke to Ley about the influence of Katie Couric on his work, why we all just need a little alone time with our genitals (whether we’re partnered up or not) and how to be a gentleman when giving someone a facial.

Why did you dedicate your book to Katie Couric?
I was brought on a show to talk to Katie Couric about pornography. She had a lot of strong negative opinions about it so I was trying to educate her about what the research shows. At one point, she hit herself on the head and said, “Enough about research, what about common sense?” That made me realize we weren’t doing a good job of talking about pornography in a common-sense kind of way, so that became the point of this book. Media has learned that pornography and sex are easy things to make people nervous about, because everybody has a kind of intuitive mistrust of pornography. So I wrote it as if I was having a beer with a buddy, not addressing other psychologists.

You’ve called pornography “a kind of canary in a coal mine” when it comes to contemporary sexual values. What do you mean by that?
Everybody with an internet connection or a smartphone has access to this material now in a way that couldn’t have been envisioned even 20 years ago. Some people, especially religious folks, view the modern accessibility and acceptance of pornography as an assault on their sexual values. That largely comes out of social biases against masturbation and any other kinds of sexuality that are outside a heteronormative, monogamous model of love and sex. Nonetheless, there’s been a big social shift with things like marriage equality, and porn has been a big indicator of them.

Is porn only ethical if you pay for it?
Unfortunately, most porn stars don’t get royalties from their own material. So when their work is pirated and reposted, they’re being exploited. One thing you can do is go to your favorite performer’s own websites and purchase videos directly from them. Or you can find them on Twitter and other social media and enjoy whatever content they post there, which would still be ethical.

So is all porn on tube sites bad?
No. For instance, in response to some of these concerns, PornHub launched a “verified contributors” program where you can watch videos that have been verified, so you know it’s all legal — meaning it’s not pirated and that everyone is of age and all the sex is consensual. Also, when you finish watching a short clip on PornHub or another tube site and they link out to a full version of the video available for purchase, you should do so when you like the material. It’s a great way to find new material and support an ethical, transparent porn industry.

What are some of your favorite ethical porn sites?
Some of my favorites are Pink and White Productions, Louise Lush, Jessica Drake’s Guide to Wicked Sex and Kelsey Obsession. These are all websites or companies that aspire to ethical values.

What does using porn ethically have to do with mindfulness?
Our sexuality is a component of who we are as people at a holistic level. Ethical use of pornography is about being mindful and responsible. Think about it like drinking fair-trade coffee or buying conflict-free diamonds. These are decisions where people try to make their values consistent with their consumption of these products, and in doing so, they eliminate their feelings of guilt. But the key to this is to spend time thinking about your pornography use even when you’re not masturbating, because we’re impulsive and have poor judgment once we’re turned on.

What about the amount of porn someone watches? How much is too much?
This is something that concerns a lot of people. I often suggest people compare their porn use to how much TV they’re watching. Most people are watching 4–5 hours of television a day, which is far more impactful on your attitudes and beliefs than a few minutes of porn a few times week.

Let’s say my boyfriend watches porn four times a week, 10 minutes at a time. Is that “normal”?
According to PornHub, 10 minutes is the average amount of time Americans spend watching porn in one sitting. Is watching 40 minutes of porn a week too much? Probably not. I think that level is average, and if anything, maybe a little low. In contrast, extreme pornography viewing is typically identified at around 60 to 90 minutes per day, which again, sounds like a lot until you compare it to the average amount of time people consume TV daily.

How could anti-porn crusaders actually make porn less ethical?
Anti-porn activists run the risk of making things a lot worse. For example, they’re often legislating to make condom use in all porn a requirement. But if that happened, people would still make porn without condoms — it would just happen underground. And those underground situations put people at risk for porn made without consent or rules.

Like with what happens with abortions?
That’s a great analogy. I think we can enjoy pornography more when we trust that it’s being made without exploiting the people in it. One of my big concerns is how the entertainment industry itself is exploitative, whether you’re talking about Disney or professional sports. I think about Miley Cyrus and all that she’s shared about her personal struggles and all the pressure she felt. Or someone like Debra Winger and her public decision to leave acting due to Hollywood’s approach to women.

In terms of sports, you can’t look at the massive concussion and brain damage impact in the NFL and not realize and accept that they’re taking advantage of typically African-American males from poor families and exploiting them for our mass entertainment.

With pornography, like with sports and other entertainment, we need to make sure people aren’t being hurt for our sexual enjoyment. If they are, it’s our personal responsibility to change that by advocating for ethical options.

In the afterword of your book, porn performer Chanel Preston talks about how she feels deeply privileged and turned on that she gets to act out other people’s fantasies for their enjoyment. Had you considered porn from that perspective before?
I don’t think we usually look at performers in porn that way, in terms of how they provide us a unique and fulfilling service. What I like about Chanel’s reflection is that it also asks us to think about our own fantasies. Is our fantasy something we just want to enjoy on screen? Is it a fantasy we want to enact in real life? Is it a fantasy we’re okay with having? The point of all of this is to look at our sexual fantasies as part of who we are, not as external things separate from our identity or personality.

What about couples who blame not having a sex life on their partner’s porn use?
I treat a lot of couples where the wife blames their lack of sex life on their husband’s porn use. But the relationship is usually the problem, not the porn. There’s something going on in the relationship that makes it easier and more comfortable for him to masturbate to pornography. Often times, couples simply don’t talk about sex, so porn becomes something they can blame these issues on while still not really exploring their sexuality. That said, masturbation and sex are two different things. Sometimes people, both men and women, just need some alone time with their genitalia. We need to recognize that as just as valid as partnered sex.

What advice would you give guys who have a hard time separating the fantasy of porn from the reality of sex with another person?
One thing I tell straight men is, “Don’t cum on a girl’s face unless you can be a gentleman about it.” What I mean is, don’t cum on someone’s face unless you’ve talked to that person in advance and gotten their permission. Don’t do it unless you’ve thought about how both of you will feel about it. This is another example of how mindfulness helps integrate our behaviors with your values. Sure, you may have watched a lot of porn where the guys are ejaculating all over the girl’s face, but you don’t see the negotiation and dialogue that established that everyone was okay with that.

Porn is fantasy, and fantasy makes it look easy, but this means some people fail to recognize the nuances and specifications of negotiation, personal respect and mutuality that’s needed for good sex. Again, we need greater sophistication in the conversations we have with people about sexuality so that folks know how to integrate their fantasies into their sex lives in healthy, responsible ways.

You’ve said that you think pornography can actually make society better. How so?
People who watch more pornography tend to be more accepting of sexual diversity, like LGBT issues, and studies show they are less gender stereotyped. [Men who watch porn] are less likely to be misogynistic and expect women to do work in the kitchen. There’s something about the exposure to pornography that leads people to become more accepting around sexuality and gender. And recent research shows, at a fascinating level, that people who watch more pornography are more knowledgeable about sexual anatomy and sexual function than those who don’t.

Additionally, pornography and masturbation go together, and we know people who masturbate, live longer and have healthier relationships and lives. I think that the more that we can acknowledge that pornography and this form of sexual expression is a healthy part of our lives, the more thoughtful conversations we can start having about it.