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Hi! I have a question that I haven’t felt comfortable asking anyone else. I have an unusual fetish – I find myself very aroused by childbirth videos. This started innocently enough – seeing birth scenes in movies and realizing they…affected me. I know there’s not a lot of point to trying to figure out WHY you have a certain fetish – but my question is, is this unethical? In the modern era, there are basically an infinite number of birth videos available for public consumption, especially on YouTube. However, I know that these are not put online with the intent of any sexual connotation or viewing. Should I feel guilty for watching these videos in this way, knowing the people in them would not consent?
This handwringing is unnecessary, friend. What if I said, “Yes, you should feel guilty and ashamed for watching this stuff”? Would you stop? Would a compelling ethical case against watching them halt your activity?
I think you know I’m not going to say that, and I imagine you’re asking me this simply to get permission — a proverbial thumbs-up. But you really don’t need my permission. Once something exists, the ethics of should it exist become moot.
I’ll likely catch heat for writing that, but it’s true. Your desires are real, and these birth videos are real, and all the ethical conflict you feel won’t make either of those things vanish. The long history that humans have with religions and ethics show a pattern — moralisms have little bearing on what we are actually able to do and feel. Ethics, then, are simply the “What’s next?” of the situation. Ethics help you make decisions within the reality that your erotic responses are beyond your control. Should you continue watching these videos? Is there an ethical argument against their eroticization?
I don’t think there is. If someone were to present one, they’d have a daunting task ahead of them, because they’d have to apply the same argument to the eroticization of every possible thing in the world. If there’s a sound ethical case to be made against eroticizing birth videos, there must also be a sound case against eroticizing feet, dildos, body parts, and people. You are free to eroticize anything — you just can’t always turn your eroticism into action without crossing ethical lines and breaking some laws.
Everything can be porn. Some people are turned on by hands and feet, and these people can enjoy non-sexualized images of hands and feet freely available on the internet or by simply walking through a department store. Some people prefer steamy love scenes in romantic movies over hardcore sex videos, or what most people call “porn.” Both are meant to be arousing, so why is one considered Porn but the other is Hollywood-sanctioned entertainment? Where is the line?
I believe there isn’t one. The distinction of “porn” is invented, a moral label rather than an actual one. Since anyone can be attracted to anything, everything in the world can be an object of desire. We can debate the ethics of how certain pornographic content is made, but that’s not relevant to your question, because in your erotic life, birthing videos already exist. You’re not responsible for them and you’re not debating the ethics of creating them. You’re not the one who uploaded them to the internet — this would be a different post if you were. I think there are valid ethical arguments against making and uploading birth videos if you’re a parent or a person uploading these videos without a parent’s consent — but I assume you are neither. These videos already exist online and are freely accessible, so I say you are free to watch them. (Someone is going to ask if I’d say the same thing about child pornography, and my answer is, “Yes.” I believe seeing something that you did not pay for, create, procure, or commercialize can be a neutral act, although I’m sure some reporters and photojournalists who document war, conflict, and human suffering might feel differently. So if underage pornography is freely accessible and already exists, I can’t come up with a compelling ethical argument against seeing it — but buying it is not neutral, as you are contributing to its commercialization and therefore complicit in its production. However, in the United States, it is illegal to search for or see child pornography, so while there may not be a compelling ethical case against seeing — and only seeing — it, you can still be arrested for doing so.)
Your question comes at a pointed moment in the debate on porn. Following a crusading op-ed in The New York Times about child pornography on Pornhub last December, the Canada-based porn company recently deleted 80 percent of its online content. The op-ed called for credit card companies like Visa and Mastercard to stop working with Pornhub, and a week later, both had formally ended their relationship with the site, which is currently the tenth most visited website in the world. Pornhub (and its parent company Mindgeek) denied the allegations, saying that the site employs a “vast team of human moderators” who manually review “every single upload.” Moral outrage following that op-ed prompted a bill, the Stop Internet Sexual Exploitation Act (SISEA), to gain bipartisan support and be rushed to the U. S. senate for a vote. Like FOSTA/SESTA before it, SISEA would have been a disaster for sex workers and adult content providers and another blow against internet free speech. SISEA was not an outright porn ban, but its effect would have been equivalent. The law would have required companies that provide pornographic content to the public (companies like Pornhub, OnlyFans, JustForFans, ManyVids, Twitter, and others) to institute strenuous and costly moderation and verification measures — including a 24-hour hotline — that were so heavy-handed and expensive that they would have forced most of those sites to simply ban adult content altogether, which was likely the bill’s intended effect. (If you can’t ban it directly, pass laws making it too expensive.) SISEA is dead for now, but many similar proposed legislations are building momentum under the new Biden/Harris administration, and things don’t look good for porn, particularly since Vice President Harris has a career-long history of attacking consensual sex workers and co-wrote the notorious FOSTA/SESTA legislation that, to date, has been the most devastating example of the U.S. government using anti-trafficking policy to police marginalized people.
At the center of this flurry is the essential question contained within your message: What is porn? How do we define its margins? Can things not intended as porn be porn? (Yes, definitely — as you can attest.) Can things intended to be porn be completely innocuous and nudity-free? (Of course. There’s an entire community of porn consumers who love watching fully-clothed women in high-heels step on gas pedals.) These questions are important, because if we can’t agree on what porn is — if we cannot define its margins — then porn bans will sweep up so much more than videos of people having sex. And they already have. Sloppy, algorithmic censorship methods since FOSTA/SESTA have swept up ads for LGBTQ nonprofits, sex-ed channels, contraceptive information, cartoons, fine art and photography, and so much more content that wasn’t intended as porn. Other alarmist op-eds like the one in the Times will come because we’re in that post-#MeToo media moment and, with them, legislations will be proposed which, in one fell swoop, could strip the internet of artists like Araki and Mapplethorpe and Arbus. We could lose all the fashion photographers who tease and titillate — all the Bruce Webers and Guy Bourdins of the world. Would your birthing videos go? Probably.
Censorship advocates peddle the myth that it’s easy to discern between harmless stuff and hardcore stuff. In reality, the whole world can be porn. If you were attracted to trees — as some are — you could just go outside. People are turned on by all sorts of things that are freely available in the observable world, so sweeping bans of some observable things opens a dark gateway to policing the very concepts of reality, art, and truth. And that is the horrible world we live in.
When you watch these videos, you’re not directly interacting with someone so as to require their consent. Other people uploaded these videos. In doing so, they’ve consented — knowingly or otherwise — to a myriad of people watching them for myriad reasons. I promise you’re not the only one beating off to them — fetishes for birthing and pregnancy are very common.
Dan Savage once answered a similar question from a shoe salesmen who was turned on when he measured women’s feet. The salesman felt guilty and asked Dan if he should tell the women whose feet he adored that he was turned on by them. The man would invariably lose his job and make the women incredibly uncomfortable if he did so. Dan emphatically said, “No, absolutely not.” (I searched strenuously for this post but to no avail.) Dan has written on “secret perving,” the idea that as long as the object of your fetish never finds out about it and their safety and well-being are not impacted one way or another, you’re allowed to lust and fantasize as you want.
Why? Because we cannot police thought — at least, not yet. You’re allowed to have your own private world of desire and think sexual thoughts about anything, even things that are taboo and illegal. You are not allowed to act on all these thoughts. Remember my ethical defense of seeing? I believing fantasizing, like seeing, are neutral acts. U.S. law disagrees on both counts.
But until we have technology that can step inside your mind and read your thoughts, your mind is a lawless playground where you can do anything. But we may already have that technology — it’s called the internet. Everything you do online is tracked, and your web activity is effectively a roadmap of your mind. Smart A. I. can now predict your desires and decisions better than your closest friends. This is why data has become the most valuable commodity in the world. As social media and A.I. evolve, we must all think about the dangers of thought police.
The infamous “cannibal cop” of 2013 inspired a flurry of debate over the concept of “thought crime” and the sometimes vague line between fantasy and reality. In that case, I side fully with the “cannibal cop,” Gilberto Valle. His story shows that, while you are free in your fantasy life, the internet makes it possible for your fantasies to spill over into your actual life, to potentially disastrous results. You can fantasize about bombs in your head, but if you look up how to make them, your web activity could be flagged and you could have a hard time going through airport security for years to come. But you don’t have this problem, friend, because no one is going to flag you for watching birthing videos. The secret agent monitoring your web activity could think you’re just interested in becoming a parent.
Enjoy your porn and don’t apologize for it. You can’t control what turns you on, and all your ethical conundrums won’t make your fantasies (or these videos) go away. You’re not harming anyone by enjoying content that’s already online and being watched by millions of people.
When I really get into my porn — particularly the more extreme stuff I love — it becomes a kind of relationship, something part of me that I’m proud of. I wouldn’t wear my porn searches on a T-shirt, but I confess them to my favorite sex partners, and to my partner, because I think my porn makes me more interesting. And I promise that your thing for birthing videos makes you more interesting, too.