Talking About Sex Online Shouldn't Be Illegal

Porn sites and other online spaces with adult content are fun; they’re also important sources of community and information.


Kayden Kross, an adult film entrepreneur and a former business partner of mine, sent me a text message a few months ago. She was excited—she was seeing a community of straight dudes gather on Deeper, the power exchange and BDSM-themed website she owns, to discuss their sexual preferences, turn-ons, and other various tastes. And she was seeing this across other platforms too. This felt rare to her, and groundbreaking to me. 

When I asked Lucie Fielding, a mental health counselor in Washington state, how many spaces she was aware of for straight men to have these conversations, she said "Oh, not many—unless we're talking incels—there's got to be stuff on Reddit, but apart from that, these are such important forums. Because there's such a societal pressure for men not to be talking with one another about these things." But on platforms like Deeper, PornHub, and other online providers of adult videos, the comments section is just that sort of conversation.

Kross described the communities as having creeds of acceptance, giving examples such as "The 'don't yuck my yum' thing. It's agreed upon that so long as you are not saying something that is a political minefield, it is not OK to dog on someone else's expression of what they're there for. And when people do, even if it's something where you can't imagine anyone would be into that, you'll see people rush to that person's defense. There's very much this understanding that in order for this to work, everyone has to agree not to add shame to the pile."

And it isn't just sexuality being shared. Someone might say, according to Kross, "'My dog died today.' And then someone else will chime in with, 'Oh, I'm so sorry.' And then the person will say, 'I had no one,' and 'I'm alone.' And then someone else would be like, 'Well, I would have given you a hug if I was there.' We all know, there's this kind of idea of traditional masculinity, and the expectations are that men don't really talk about their feelings. And the fact is, in the comment section, when you're anonymous, you're not subject any longer to expectations, right? That's why we have trolls. But it's also why you end up with these kinds of conversations that, you know—otherwise, who would you have them with?"

But these conversations, like so many others, are at risk of being censored out of existence. New state laws requiring verification of consumers' ages threaten to wipe out small producers and scare off subscribers concerned about threats to their own reputations in the event of a data breach. Laws like SESTA/FOSTA have made promotion of adult entertainment—already an uphill battle—even more starkly difficult, reaching as far as those Reddit communities Fielding mentioned and causing many subreddits about sexuality to shutter. And payment processors and banks have been denying adult workers access to financial infrastructure for decades.

Why does freedom of speech and freedom from shame matter in this context? According to Fielding, "Shame tells us that we are bad. That our desires are bad, that our pleasure isn't valid. And the relationship between shame and isolation is that when we feel that we are bad or that there's something to be ashamed of, we withdraw because we don't want to share that.… That leads to social withdrawal.… It means that folks are trying things in very risky ways, because they don't have the community around them." One example is choking—without proper safety and risk-informed consent, this risky activity can turn deadly with alarming ease.

Ali Joone, my former boss at Digital Playground and the originator of the virtual sex video game genre in 1999, recalled consumers using the CD-ROM version of Virtual Sex with Jenna to share the ways they'd used the technology to live out fantasies of directing Jenna Jameson in a point-of-view porn film. Joone was pleased by this usage, "To me, it's all about how do you make connections? How do you make people create connections even through [something] like commentary? We're wired to connect, to communicate with each other and people." Sexuality is a big part of human life, yet conversations about it are often silenced.

No matter what regulations are passed, sexuality will continue to be expressed, and pornography will continue to exist. But the more these communities are stamped out, the harder people will have to work to find each other  and the  wealth of information about how to explore their fantasies more safely and with higher risk awareness. The federal and state governments, as typical of the past few decades, continue to pass laws that hurt freedoms while failing to achieve their stated aim of protecting children.

Porn can fester, driven offshore and underground, contextless and removed from both communities and educational resources, fostering shame and isolation. Or it can thrive—along with consumers of such media—in relative sunlight, embedded in a web of discourse, information, and empathy.