For many of us, our first exposure to pornography was surreptitious: a sneak peek at someone else's copy of Playboy or the viewing of a worn VHS tape stolen from an older sibling.
Today, however, porn is everywhere; anyone can jump online and view it with the few clicks of a keyboard. The numbers are staggering: According to data provided by the American Psychological Association, rates of porn consumption range between 50% and 99% among men and 30% to 86% among women.
The popular website PornHub alone logs about 2.4 million visitors per hour -- more than an estimated 6,000 visitors per second.
And guess what? It's all free. Not only does that make porn more accessible, it makes it more acceptable to us: For many millennials, porn is less taboo and simply part of life. In some ways, that's a positive thing. Porn -- or, as we call it in my field, sexually explicit Internet material or visual sexual stimuli -- can be a valuable aspect of a healthy sex life
A proposed regulation in California would require porn actors to wear condoms while filming. The thinking is that this will not only promote safer sex on set amongst the performers, it will encourage porn viewers at home to follow their lead. But condoms aren't the only way to protect the safety of adult film actors or to ensure that the porn that reaches consumers is of a higher standard overall.
In fact, a booming trend in the creation of adult films -- ethical porn -- is changing the way erotic content is both made and consumed.
"If we put porn in perspective and use it as an adjunct to fantasy, it can be beneficial," said licensed marriage and family therapist and certified sex therapist Marty Klein, author of "His Porn, Her Pain: Confronting America's Porn Panic with Honest Talk About Sex."
But with this growing acceptance comes a tolerance for mediocre material. Like most advertising-based online content, the "tube" sites that offer free porn operate on search terms and clicks. It isn't created on the "build it and they will come model," but rather on the "build more of what they're already clicking on" model. This approach creates a vicious cycle: What we click on is what gets made, which is what gets clicked on, which is what gets made.
Though the average duration of a porn visit clocks in at about 9 minutes, many men and women spend way more time searching for something interesting to view. "Sometimes, I can spend two hours a night looking at porn," one of my patients said. "It's not because I'm addicted. I'm just looking for something that feels real."
Unfortunately, that can be difficult to find on the tube sites, where quantity far exceeds quality. "Amateurs have largely replaced actors because they're willing to work for less money," explained Bryant Paul, a faculty member at Indiana University Media School and co-producer of the Emmy-nominated documentary "Hot Girls Wanted." With an amateur's career peaking after just a few months, many must participate in increasingly degrading or exploitative material to remain relevant in the industry.
Because tube sites tend to deliver short, digestible clips of content, some of the material they offer may be pirated and taken out of context.
"Free porn sites may steal scenes from longer movies, which they re-label and rebrand," explained adult film director and writer Jacky St. James. "I can create a film that's more story-driven and romantic, only to have a clip from it pop up on a tube site, where it's being called something like 'big-breasted blonde whore on her knees.' " Worse, there's no guarantee that the people participating in free porn are of legal age or that they have consented to the acts portrayed onscreen.
An ethical approach
But the answer to bad porn shouldn't be no porn at all; it should be better porn. Enter ethical porn. Much the way organic produce, cage-free eggs and fair-trade coffee have transformed the way we shop for food, ethical porn is changing the landscape of adult-oriented material, making it easier to enjoy.
In his new book "Ethical Porn for Dicks: A Man's Guide to Responsible Viewing Pleasure," clinical psychologist David Ley outlines the requirements for this new form of porn: It should be made legally, respect the rights of performers and pay them for their labor, and treat both performers and consumers as consenting, thinking individuals. Also important: Ethical porn celebrates sexuality as a diverse, complex and multifaceted component of being a human being, without judgment.
That doesn't mean that ethical porn is always romantic and soft. "Hard-core, rough sex can be ethical," St. James said. "What matters is that the performers are comfortable, consenting and respectful of everyone's boundaries."
Ley agrees. "Ethical porn can explore darker aspects of sexuality. If we expect it to be 'nice,' we set others up to be ashamed about their own desires," he said. "Professional sports aren't 'nice' either, but they can be played ethically and responsibly. Porn should be the same."
Something else to consider: Just as porn itself should be ethical, the way it's consumed should be, too. "In addition to advocating for a product that's made ethically, we should be using it ethically as well," Klein explained. "That means enjoying it in a way that highlights the positive aspects of your own relationships and sex life: for example, not breaking any promises to your mate about your viewing and not using porn to withdraw from your mate or make them feel bad with explicit comparisons to porn stars' bodies."
In my own practice, I often suggest to couples in sex ruts that they try ethical porn as a way to increase sexual arousal, as well as to people coping with common sexual concerns such as erectile dysfunction, premature ejactulation and difficulty achieving orgasm. Indeed, research by neuroscientist Nicole Prause and her colleagues has found that watching more pornography actually increases arousal in men to less explicit material -- and increases the desire for sex with a partner. In other words, it makes them more responsive to "normal" sexual cues and more desirous of real physical relationships (Archives of Sexual Behavior, May 2013).
So how do you know whether the porn you're watching was produced ethically? Although there's no guarantee, you might want to start your search with the winners at the annual Feminist Porn Awards. Yes, you'll probably have to pay for it, but even with a small budget, you can build your ethical porn library into something you can feel good about enjoying.