A couple of weeks ago, I decided that with no paper to write for, I’d move my Sex Geek column to a blog- but that it would have to wait until next week (Because I have conferences to prepare for and exams to study for). Until I retweeted Tristan Taormino’s piece on why Measure B (mandatory condoms in pornography) wasn’t going to protect performers (If you haven’t read it, check it out, it’s excellent). And those in on the “Yes on B” campaign took it upon themselves to tell me about how there’s this other epidemic (yes, they said epidemic) that I didn’t know about. (It might as well have read “Oh, you poor dear girl, you don’t realize what this actually means. Here, let me explain it to you.”)
Now, I don’t know why they singled me out (no one else who retweeted the article seemed to have been contacted), but I do feel the need to clarify something. To the “Yes on B” campaign, I actually had read the report you sent me. In fact, I’ve read every policy statement on your website. I understand what it’s all about, which is exactly why I’m inclined to take a feminist sex educator’s position on the appropriateness of this measure. And just in case there’s anyone else that you’re afraid might not have read your site, don’t worry, I’m writing this so that they can take it all into account.
Now, Measure B is more than a little wordy, and there are lots of people on both sides of the issue. The way that their official website defines it, the question is “Shall an ordinance be adopted requiring producers of adult films to obtain a County public health permit, to require adult film performers to use condoms while engaged in sex acts, to provide proof of blood borne pathogen training course, to post permit and notices to performers, and making violations of the ordinance subject to civil fines and criminal charges?” Most people refer to it as the “mandatory condoms in porn” debate. This would only apply to LA, but about 90% of the legally distributed (professional, I assume) porn in the US is made there. Meaning that this would be something that affects the majority of the business. Okay, with me so far?
Before we go any further, I want to establish some fundamental beliefs that I have.
–Condoms are an effective way to reduce the risk of spreading STIs, HIV, and unwanted pregnancy. This goes for male and female condoms (used correctly, of course!), and regardless of whether it’s latex, nitrile, polyurethane, or polyisoprene. (Not lambskin condoms though- they don’t fit quite as well, so there’s an increased chance of slipping, and they’re less effective at protecting against STIs).
-There are performers in pornography who are they because they have to be (or at least had to at one point).But there are also performers who are there because they want to be, not because they have no other choice.
-There are conditions under which pornography is made that are not safe (not just for sexual risk, but in terms of being clean, or having toilet paper, etc.)
-Performers in pornography (as with anyone who engages in sexual activity) should be able to make the choice on if/what kind of contraception they use together.
Back to measure B. Now, there are a whole bunch of reasons that they cite for this. Among them:
- Performers in pornographic films do things that put them at risk for contracting STIs and HIV. (I say: Yes, it’s true! And it’s true whether you’re using condoms or not, there’s still risk. It doesn’t matter if it’s in porn or real life!)
- They are much more likely to have gonorrhea and Chlamydia- as much as seven times more likely than the given sexually active adult who lives in LA. (I say: okay, I’m happy to go with those rates. And yes, being 7x more likely to contract an STI is a huge risk. I’m a little hesitant because I’m not sure if they’ve controlled for the number of partners there, but I’m happy to stipulate those rates for the purpose of this post).
- Right now, the Adult Film Industry requires testing for a variety of STIs and HIV every 30 days, but testing isn’t a form of prevention (Well. . . sort of. It’s not a form of primary prevention (keeping from contracting it in the first place). It’s true, getting tested is not going to keep you from spreading whatever you may be infected with to any other partners you have before you’re diagnosed. But knowing that you’re diagnosed, getting the proper treatment, and informing your sexual partners (so they can inform any other sexual partners) will cut WAY down on the spread compared to not knowing. Plus, then you can get treated which can cut back on some of the more dangerous long-term complications, like infertility).
- Not all STIs are tested for (Absolutely true: and it’s something that’s not limited to performers. Check out what your doctor actually tests for, and where. These guidelines are a little outdated, especially for HPV, but it’s a good start.)
- The majority of STIs happen among women (I say: Well, okay. Even though I could only find rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea reported on the site as being higher for women (check out table 1). Let’s go with that. But let’s also recognize that for heterosexual intercourse, young females tend to be at greater risk for contracting an STI anyway).
- 97% of films are produced without using condoms (Well, in 97% of the heterosexual films screened in this study, the raters observed the use of condoms)
- It would be pretty cheap to provide condoms for any kind of sex, especially when you compare it to the cost of treating one HIV infection. (Yes, I agree. There are tons of money arguments flying around this debate, and frankly I’m not interested in getting in to them)
- By (California) law, apparently performers are required to use condoms, but it’s not really enforced (I say apparently because I’m not sure if this is law, or just the statement of the health and safety board).
Given all this information, I can see why it’s easy to call this a “no brainer”.
There’s a reason that this article coming from Tristan Taormino was so important. A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to see her and another porn producer speak. And I was really quite surprised to hear about the way that performers are sometimes treated. Things that I never thought of as issues before, like keeping the set very uncomfortably cold (particularly a problem when you’re naked), not providing the performers with meals or proper breaks, or giving them little (if any) say about who they’re having sex with in the scene or the activities in which they’re engaging. She told us about the “No” list; that is, performers have a list of performers that they’re not willing to work with. I can’t remember what it takes for someone to get on that list, but I can imagine. Ever since then, I have been interested in articles that come out about pornography, how it’s made, how sex is depicted, etc. (If you’ve never heard about it before, read this review of “Rough Sex”. Some of the ads that come up at the side of the page are NSFW).
Anyway, I started to hear rumblings about this measure, and actively started following the issue when Hugo Schwyzer wrote about it in his column on Jezebel. He made a pretty good argument for it, and I was fully prepared to take a stand against it, when I figured I should probably look at what the other side was saying.
On their website, YesonB has laid it out pretty well- a twitter feed of their issue, videos of people in support, and the issues in nice big letters so there’s no way you can miss it. They also have links to all their resources listed. And I took a look at the names of the sites that were listed and thought “I’m studying public health. Is it even okay for me to disagree with all these authorities?”
Turns out, I didn’t have as much to fear as I thought. The first link, from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC, or the gold standard for all things public health) was a link that talked exclusively about the effectiveness of latex condoms in protecting against STI/HIV transmission, as well as protecting against unwanted pregnancies. Sure, I completely agree- using latex condoms does help protect against STI and HIV transmission.
But there was nothing in that link about adult videos.
So I went onto the next one, which is from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, which was talking about the requirements that porn producers are supposed to abide by during filming. This was released after there had been transmission of HIV among performers a couple of years ago, and was all about how workers could advocate for their rights and where they could go if their rights weren’t being protected. Okay, it was a good read, and probably a really good thing for performers to know. But it didn’t really seem like a “this is what we’re recommending you do in order to keep this from happening ever again” kind of document. More of a “if you’re not being respected at work and want to do something about it, check out your options” kind of document. (And don’t get me wrong- I think it’s incredibly important for performers to have this kind of place to go and report unethical, dangerous, illegal, exploitative, etc. work). And certainly no endorsement of Measure B. Again, there are links at the bottom to support their information. Among them, one is to a publication on sex workers and HIV (I tried, the link’s broken), and one is “CDC publication on post-exposure treatment for occupational exposure to HIV, HBV, HCV.”
I want to be very clear here- the recommendations that the CDC makes are very important, but they are specifically for occupational exposure among Health Care Personnel. Yes, performers are at risk of being exposed to blood borne pathogens, but it may be through very different means (a needle stick vs. a gangbang). Not entirely sure why that was referenced. (FYI- there is a similar CDC document for “nonoccupational” exposures (like IV drug use and unprotected sex) but nothing that deals with the occupational hazards in the adult film industry. There may be some updated links on the CDC website that they’ve put out since then, but absolutely nothing in the link they provided.
Finally, on the last link, we get there! The County of Los Angeles Department of County Health. There’s a lot there, and I’m not going to break down every article, but here are some of the relevant pieces.
So the American Medical Association, recognized that there are risks that performers face (like multiple or consecutive partners, high-risk sex acts), a high number of STIs that have been diagnosed among performers (in addition to some- though numbers aren’t included- transmissions of HIV), and that there are laws that exist that aren’t currently being followed, and that performers should have the right to a safe workplace. They believe condoms should be used in porn. The American Public Health Association is also in favour of condom use to reduce the spread of HIV among performers. So is the American Social Health Association, the California Conference of Local Aids Directors, the California STD Controllers Association, the National Coalition on STD Directors, and County of San Francisco Public Health.
Great. So why am I still talking?
It seems like an intuitively simple solution to the problem, doesn’t it?
We know: Condoms prevent the spread of STIs and HIV.
We know: performers contract STIs while performing.
Therefore: If we make performers use condoms while having sex, then we’ll reduce the spread of these diseases, right?
Then I have to ask myself- why are there performers who are openly rallying against this initiative?
Now, normally I believe that celebrity wisdom or activism on health issues can be disastrous. For instance, people stopped taking antidepressants after Tom Cruise jumped the couch, Jenny McCarthy has been responsible for much of the progress that the anti-vaccine movement has had (I’m using “progress” very selectively here. They’re raised a lot of awareness, but that awareness flies in the face of more than a decade of studies aimed at disproving one extremely flawed sample of 12 people, which has since been retracted by the publishing journal). However, in this case, it’s an issue where they have some personal experience. Who knows better what it’s like to be in porn that the performers themselves? Some of the notable name (AKA: names that came up as celebrities when I looked through the news) that have come out against Measure B include James Deen, Ron Jeremy, Tera Patrick, Jayden James, Amber Lynn, Tatiyana Foxx, Nina Hartley, and Kylie Ireland. And there are a variety of reasons. (It should be noted that there are also performers in favour of it, such as Aurora Snow, Derrick Burts (who actually became infected with HIV while working in the industry), and Darren James (who also became infected while working in the industry). The Measure B site also make it appear that Jenna Jameson has endorsed the measure, but the best I can tell, it’s referring to a statement she made 2 years ago about the need for safer sex in the industry. (BTW, all those links are to news sites).
So why the hostility towards it? Well, James Deen says “The idea of restricting our ability to make choices of our own is insulting. It is frankly unconstitutional.” He also ads that right now, performers have the choice to use condoms, and if that’s what they want, they’ll use condoms. Yes, James Deen has an extremely privileged position (he’s been likened to the Ryan Gosling of porn), is in high demand, and has the luxury of being financially stable enough to turn down jobs if they don’t respect his wishes. But he does raise a good point. . . is it the job of the government to be regulating what happens in pornography?
Beyond that though, there are occupational hazards that may come from the use of condoms. According to Nina Hartley, “condom burn is a real issue. The friction from the latex, even with lubrication, is painful and breaches the integrity of my mucosal membranes, putting me at greater risk for disease transmission.” Now keep in mind, though Nina Harley is known as a porn performer, she’s also been an active sex educator, considers herself a feminist, and is also a registered nurse. So, as it turns out, there are health issues associated with the use of condoms too!
Or maybe, the simplest explanation, which comes from (NSFW) Jayden James, may be the simplest of all: “It’s my vagina and I’m going to do with it what I wish to do.” (As should be her right, provided that she and her partner (in the scene) are both okay with their decision).
(Aurora Snow really did a beautiful job discussing why she is in favour of the measure- I’d suggest checking it out too).
Okay, so we’re kind of equally balanced here. . . on the one hand, people want to protect performers who seem to have a higher risk of getting an STI than the general public (there are some debates about the way this has been calculated, but I’m just going to assume, for the sake of argument, that their risk is higher). But on the other hand, you have the people who will be affected by the law speaking out against it. What tipped the scales?
On their website, YesonB lists six supporters of the “Yes on B” initiative: Los Angeles County Medical Association, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists District IX California, Jeffrey D. Klausner, MD, MPH, Professor of Medicine, David Geffen School of Medicine, The California STD Controllers Executive Board, and an editorial from the Journal of Sexually Transmitted Diseases entitled Occupational Health and the Adult Film Industry: Time for a Happy Ending.
Then they go and list a ton of well-respected organizations who support the use of condoms in pornography including the American Medical Association, the American Public Health Association, and the American Social Health Association, (along with 10 other organizations). But. . . endorsing the use of condoms in porn doesn’t mean that they’re endorsing what’s been put forward. In fact, many of their statements are shorter than the actual proposed measure).
In fact, one of the most interesting issues associated with this campaign is the lack of endorsement. Neither political party has taken a stand, which is kind of telling given just how interested they’ve (well, mainly the republicans) been in talking about what women can and can’t do sexually. La Opinión, a well known Spanish paper in LA has endorsed it, while the Free Speech Coalition, the LA Times, and the Daily Breeze (another LA newspaper) have all endorsed voting “no” on the measure.
So what’s actually going on?!
The way I understand it, Measure B, quite simply, is a mess. If we were to take it at face value as the YesonB site explained, that might make some sense. But the actual measure is actually FIVE pages long. It calls for a lot of things, like requiring those on the set to the a blood-borne pathogens training course, having signs up on set about condoms being required for safety, and says “an “adult film” is defined as any film, video, multimedia or other representation of sexual intercourse in which performers actually engage in oral, vaginal, or anal penetration, including, but not limited to, penetration by a penis, finger, or inanimate object; oral contact with the anus or genitals of another performer; and/or any other sexual activity that may result in the transmission of blood and/or any other potentially infectious materials.”
What does that actually mean in practical terms? I’m not really sure. But it sounds like this includes using protection for any kind of penetration, whether its fingers (gloves would be required?), oral (dental dams), or genital (condoms). What does it mean for, for example, two women engaged in sexual activity on screen? I’m not entirely sure. Or a transgender performer? Or basically anything that falls away from the “penetrator”/”penetratee” script? If you use a sex toy, does that mean that it immediately has to be thrown away? And what if the performer isn’t using it on him or her self, but on another performer? Does that require gloves?
But it gets even trickier from there. For instance, it says “ “Filmed” and “filming” means the recording or real-time broadcast of any adult film, regardless of the medium used.” There are tons of people who make money by having sex live (just google “cam girls” if you don’t believe me). Do they have to use protection? Even if it’s with their spouse? Even if they’re totally monogamous?
Okay, right now, the Adult Film Industry is self-regulated (Sorry, I didn’t have a reference for this one, but it is discussed by James Deen and others, above), requiring performers show their results every 30 days. And while performers may claim that its working (and admittedly, they have done pretty well), it does have its issues. Just earlier this year, there was allegedly a Syphilis outbreak that resulted from one actor having his records falsified. Problem? Absolutely. But again, I come back to the question, would mandating condom use actually have prevented his outbreak?
See, porn actors are people too. And sometimes that means that they’ll have sex- whether it’s with their spouse or a casual partner (partners), or whoever. Had this actor been required to use condoms, would that have actually stopped the spread? If it wasn’t mandated, would performers continue to be diligent in regular testing? Would they care? According to the CDC’s own “Get Yourself Tested” campaign’s fact sheet, there are more than 19 million new infections of STIs in the US every year! And at that, only half of those individuals in the US who should be getting tested regularly are. The majority of these infections are among young adults.
Another issue is that even though there’s been this legislation in California for years now, it hasn’t really worked. Is that about the performers, or the people who are in charge of regulating? (Honestly, I keep imagining someone coming in during the middle of a scene, asking one partner to dismount the other, and make sure that the performer is, indeed, using a condom). And that’s not to criticize those who’ll be required to do that job, just to say it sounds pretty hard to regulate. How is this going to be any different?
There are some performers and critics who say that is going to drive performers away from LA. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t, I really don’t know. But I do know that when you prohibit something- especially something like unprotected sex which is a turn on for some people- there are always going to be those who exploit the situation. And while Yes on B wants to talk about protecting the “vulnerable populations”, this isn’t going to protect them. This is going to create a demand for performers who can’t (yet?) make it in mainstream porn and get by on whatever underground work they can get. It’s basic supply and demand.
On top of that. . . we’re lacking any proof that condoms are as effective in preventing the transmission of STIs in performers as in “regular” use. Remember, porn is a production, and while you may get a kind-of reasonable length scene out of it, there could be multiple takes. And lots of moving around. And with all of that going on, maybe not necessarily feeling all that aroused? (I’m thinking specifically of how in women, not being sufficiently lubricated can increase the chances of chaffing or tearing, but there are certainly consequences for men too). So the claims that condom use is going to be as effective in performers as it is in the regular population sounds premature. Maybe it turns out that they are effective, there are just different ways they need to be used. But for now, we don’t actually know. From what we know, it makes sense to strongly urge individuals to use condoms. . . but nothing that shows proof that mandating it would help.
This measure totally fails to take into consideration the changing landscape of pornography. While at one time, it may have been all big business, there are increasing numbers of user-made videos being posted online. You know how there are all those teens who make videos of themselves singing on YouTube? Yeah, kind of like that. (I’ll refer you to Wikipedia to learn more about this. And just in case you don’t think it’s a real thing, check out the “Make Love, Not Porn” project). What does that mean? Who is that protecting? (And what are we going to do when these real couples are getting money from selling their videos on this site?)
One of my biggest concerns is that this gives people the impression that we’ve (as society) done something to protect the performers, so we can pat ourselves on the back and forget the whole issue. But that doesn’t necessarily make making pornography safe. What about these cases with women being insufficiently aroused and getting hurt from it? What about performers feeling like they can’t say no to a given request (demand?). What about even bothering to check if the performer is sober enough to legally consent to sex? What about those who don’t consent to what ends up happening on the shoot? Just like in any other workplace, there are dangers, and these need to be talked about. Unfortunately, Measure B makes it sound like we’ve done whatever was needed.
Or, what about the often repeated issue from the Yes side that performers don’t get any health benefits (therefore they REALLY need to be protected)? What about advocating for health benefits for them? Or just generally treating performers as human beings? In this discussion from the Yes side, they’ve become “others”, “vulnerable populations” that we have to be here to protect. This entire measure was introduced without consulting them. To me, this points to a much larger societal issue, one that we’ve been witnessing for months about the need for legislators to make rules about women’s bodies- as if somehow they aren’t capable of making such a decision themselves. Women (and their partners) couldn’t possibly make the decision to terminate a pregnancy, so we (the politicians) need to protect them. It’s just a matter of extending this logic to all performers. I can’t help but feel like this is a theme that involves making decision for those who you can prove engaged in sex.
Like James Deen said, it’s insulting. Why do legislators expect that they couldn’t possibly make the choice to use condoms for themselves (even though they’re able to make that decision to engage in acting in pornography). How is it that they’re suddenly insufficient? And what about this false sense of “either/or” that’s being presented? Much like when talking about pro-life vs. pro-choice, it sounds like you either have to be with Yes on B (“absolutely use condoms, no exception”) or against (“No, it’s never okay to use condoms in porn”). But it’s not. There is a middle ground- allowing performers to make the choice to use protection, for the acts that they want to use it for. When it comes down to it, isn’t pornography the place to let individuals decide what they do with their bodies? I fail to see how legislating sexual activity is going to do anything to advance the understanding that people have the right to do what they want with their bodies.
So please, Yes on B, you don’t need to keep tweeting me. I’ve read what you have to say. I’m offended that you think that I wouldn’t have considered different aspects of the argument than what was presented to me in one article. And that reductionist attitude that it’s that simple makes me think that you haven’t really thought about the outcomes of this measure. While I absolutely want to see choice, safety, and autonomy in pornography, I still don’t think it’s up to you.