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How to revel in porn and feel good about it Add to ...

'I've never seen people be more polite and gentle and careful," Canadian director Brigitte Berman told me over the phone last week. She was describing one of the Playboy casting sessions she sat in on while shooting Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, a documentary hitting theatres in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver over the next three weeks.

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The film shows a side of the man we rarely hear about - one of ethical integrity who took personal and professional risks to support racial equality, freedom of expression, pro-choice abortion rights, and several other progressive causes.

Of course, when assessing Hef's moral uprightness, there are also all those nudie pics to contend with.

Although it would be hard to call Playboy "pornography" by today's standards, the industry that he helped foster is certainly a sticky one, ethically. But after watching an advance screening of the film, this juxtaposition of social justice and bare flesh inspired me to take a closer look at contemporary porn. And, after enjoying that for a while, I wondered to myself: Is there any way to become an ethical consumer of smut?

I can take Ms. Berman's word that Playboy treats their models with respect and professionalism, but what's often struck me as I've surfed through videos on websites that aggregate porn - commonly called "tube" sites - is that I have no idea what happens when the camera is turned off. In my worst fears, I'm watching men and women coerced into sex acts, either through circumstances of economic disparity or even rape.

"That exists more in our fears than in reality, but it does exist," says Gill Lamon, a worker/owner at Toronto sex shop Come As You Are. "It's ultimately a labour issue - their labour is being exploited." Ms. Lamon recommended that if I want to be sure the performers are being treated well and compensated properly (and if it's not obviously just two amateur exhibitionists having fun), I should watch videos where it's clear who is producing it, and the company name is easily identified and researchable elsewhere on the Internet. "Folks who make ethical porn tend to be proud of it," Ms. Lamon says. "If the porn has no credits, it's worth wondering why."

She used Tristan Taormino's Chemistry series as an example of ethically sound porn in this respect. "The actors in that series actually collaborate and decide what kind of sex they want to have and who with," she said. "They totally set it up and I'd say that it makes for hotter porn, too, in that it's so genuine."

Another issue I came up against during my quest for ethical porn is condom use. In the fantasies meant to be elicited from viewing a scene of, say, a woman accepting a delivery from the UPS man, a "where did I put those condoms again?" moment, which is akin to breaking that ever-important Brechtian fourth wall, rarely comes into play. In real life, though, dudes are idiots if they don't use condoms outside of a long-term relationship. And despite the fact that not all the porn performers' body parts may look exactly real, for them, what you see on screen is their real life.

Peter Nowak, author of Sex, Bombs and Burgers, told me about a scare in the porn industry six years ago, when a male performer spread HIV to three female performers. "At that time, there was a push to get everybody to start using condoms," he told me. "Wicked Pictures was taking the leadership role there and made all their actors use them. They still do."

"The industry wholeheartedly believes that viewers don't want to see condoms," says Alison Lee, manager of Good For Her in Toronto and director of the Feminist Porn Awards. "But all it would take would be for them to say we're using condoms 100 per cent of the time and viewers would get used to it. It's not like viewers will say, 'Oh there's condoms in porn? I'm not going to watch it any more.' "

For the sake of your ethical protection, I'd say it's worth it to spend a few awkward moments with your partner - or with your hand - to ask, "Where did I last see that condom-only porn again?" It's not going to be easy, though. HIV-testing procedures were improved after the 2004 scare, but the majority of porn producers have once again made condoms voluntary. "You'd have to be a very conscientious shopper," says Ms. Lee.

A third major ethical issue I came across is something performers in other media have been complaining about for years: piracy.

Seska, a Montreal-based pornographer who has been posting her sexual activity online for the past decade, told me her business has taken a hit from tube sites that steal work from her and other performers like her.

"A friend of mine once said to me, 'I have sexual needs, so porn should be free so I can deal with those needs,'?" Seska told me. "But this is something I work hard at and I need to be compensated for it."

Another thing Seska said brought me full circle back to my first concern about knowing how the porn is being made: "Some people are in desperate situations and were they not in need of money, they would not perform sex acts. You can't always know an individual's motive. But, if you choose to support independent or personal porn where the performers are involved in making it, it's definitely a good way to go."

Although it's something of a losing battle in the digital age, I'm still going to go ahead and say it: If you want to be an ethical porn consumer, pay for it. But don't do it for me - do it for Seska and, thus, for yourself. I have a feeling if she's being taken care of properly for all her hard work, it'll make that scene-ending smile that much brighter.

Micah Toub's memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks, will be published in the fall of 2010.

Follow on Twitter: @MicahToub

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