Before we get going, I want to state that this post acknowledges the existence of sex and discusses some issues of its related issues in an adult manner. If you have any problems with that, consider this a warning. However, I'm not kidding when I say the issue of adult performer protection does matter to everyone, so please give it a chance.
Recently Quartz.com posted an article detailing the efforts the state of California is making to require adult film performers to wear condoms and protective goggles for all adult film performances. The article details the efforts California is making to put in place what it believes to be a positive public health measure, but one which the adult film industry's major producers believe would kill their business.
However, what is only given a small recognition in the article is that this measure and similar local ones before it have already resulted in many porn companies moving out of California for fear of a backlash from porn consumers/viewers against seeing condoms used in films. (This if the first time that I've heard goggles added as well, which is a layer of protection I haven't heard of before. Usually it's dental dams.)
As a result, states such as Florida and Nevada have seen a significant increase in the number of porn films shot in their communities, and porn companies specifically target adult film actors with higher pay rates to perform without protection. This is especially concerning due to the number of female "amateur" adult film actors (usually between 18-25 yrs of age) that are recruited to travel to these states to get into the industry, understanding working without protection to be the 'norm' for adult performances. (This has been documented by a number of media outlets, but the recent documentary "Hot Girls Wanted" is a particularly good snapshot of how the industry currently behaves in the recruitment of actresses and getting around California health protection ordinances on porn.)
Why should I care if Long Dong Silver uses a condom?
So why does all this really matter? The vast majority of people will not own up to watching porn and/or don't watch it. So isn't this just an issue that's of importance for a sub-community that most self-respecting moral members of society wish would just go away?
No, not really.
Putting aside sex-negative moral arguments about porn, the reality is that porn exerts a significant influence over the sexual imagery of our current popular culture. And it's not just our pop culture. As Western pop culture has spread across the globe and mashed up with local pop cultures, porn has spread with it. The vast majority of porn consumed worldwide was, until recently, produced in California's San Fernando Valley area. As such, the images, concepts and prevalent ideas carried in those adult films were by-in-large Western images, concepts and ideas.
As Western culture enmeshed with local pop cultures and local peoples looked to various aspects of the West in aspirational ways, it has been documented that such attitudes carried through with sexual attitudes as well. (While some cultures may officially condemn everything related to sex and gender that is associated with Western cultures, it has been repeatedly shown that there still remains a strong appetite for Western-produced adult films. So strong is this contradiction that there have been reports of hardline Islamic terrorists in ISIL, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban being recorded watching and/or found with Western porn tape, despite enacting hardline punishments for any population doing likewise that is under their rule.) To borrow an adage, like water on concrete, Western porn still seems to find all a societies cracks.
Whether we like it or not, Western porn -- and when I say that I largely mean porn that has traditionally been filmed in the Los Angeles area -- has helped inform the beliefs and expectations societies have of sex, sexuality, gender roles and even fashion of Western society (which again, is still often viewed largely in an aspirational ways by many individuals in non-Western societies.)
Setting aside all the questions this raises about what this means for advancing both progressive gender issues/politics and sex-positive cultures in societies around the globe (as that would take volumes in another post), why does it matter whether adult performers wear protection or not?
It matters for two primary reasons -- i) the overwhelming impact such a decision makes on the prevalent attitude of current and future generations in defining sexual 'norms'; and ii) the importance of recognizing the rights of adult performers to a safe, healthy work environment.
First, sexual 'norms'.
Influence on Sexual 'Norms'
Overwhelmingly, teens like sex. They like thinking about it. They like looking at it (in a variety of forms). They like reading about it. And all evidence shows that by-in-large they like having it. And genetics research has shown us that they're pretty much hardwired for it during this period of their lives.
Yes, people have sex at later stages of life. (Just to be clear, anyone having sex in an earlier stage of life we call a 'victim' and we prosecute the hell out of those that engaged with sexual activity with pre-sexual minors.) However, research has shown that the attitudes towards sex, sexuality, gender roles, etc that are formed during individuals teenage years generally form the foundation for their understanding of these issues later in life. (Individuals won't stop learning and can still change their views, but their teen years are generally the starting point for their comprehension and understanding.)
At the same time, the internet age has never made it easier for anyone -- especially teenagers -- to access sexual content. To be blunt, the internet is awash in porn and teens only need surf the 'net for a few minutes to encounter porn. And almost certainly that porn is going to be some version of the porn that's traditionally been produced in the Los Angeles area. And at some point curiosity is going to get the better of the majority of them and they will watch at least a short clip of an adult film. And like it or not, that will leave an impression on them about sex -- how it's done, what their expectations of it should be, what their reactions to it should be, etc. (This, of course, needn't be their only formative understanding of sex, sexuality, gender and related issues. In an ideal world, the same teenager will also experience sex-positive supports from family, friends, their community/religious institutions, their schools and society writ large.)
But in that moment, the question of whether the adult performers in that influential porn scene were using protection becomes crucial. If the teenager sees the performers 'going bearback' (i.e. using no protection), this can leave a strong impression on the youth that this is the 'norm' for having sex -- and any attempt to insert protection into that scene becomes an uphill battle against this 'norm'.
In the same fashion as health groups have strongly lobbied Hollywood to eliminate actors smoking in films as it creates an impression for youth that this is an acceptable (let alone really cool looking) activity, the California measures are designed to ensure that the message youth receive from the porn they almost certainly will encounter is that the use of protection is not only an acceptable part of sex, but actually the 'norm' for sex. And by extension, anyone pushing to remove protection from sex is going against the 'norm' and it should give youth pause to consider whether proceeding is really the thing to do.
In effect, we acknowledge that porn (and access to it) is pretty much everywhere in Western society (we'll stick to the West for this point). The real concern is ensuring the depiction of protection being used is the new 'norm' in depicting sex, so that it's de rigueur for youth (and anyone else over 18 yrs) when they engage in sex. We know from years of sexual health classes, public outreach and frankly a litany of pop culture tropes that the current sex 'norm' doesn't include using a condom or other protection (with the possible exception of the LGBT community due to the specific education over HIV/AIDS vulnerability). It's been an uphill battle, and continuing rates of teen pregnancy and STDs (including HIV/AIDS) are a testament to the failure of at least a larger segment of the population to see the use of protection as a 'norm' when it comes to their understanding of sex.
If we can change that in porn, there's a significant chance we can change that in the general population -- with likely a carry on effect to other cultures that are also struggling to increase the acceptance and use of protection as a sex 'norm'.
Which brings us to the second reason it's so important the California measures are adopted by the adult film industry regardless of location, ensuring the health of adult performers.
Ensuring the Health & Well-Being of Adult Film Performers
Let's acknowledge right off the bat that there are many in society who don't like porn stars. They see them as a sign of society's crumbling moral values and would prefer to be pretty much anywhere else than be within 100 feet of a porn star. In the public hierarchy of respectable occupations, porn star is regarded by many as being among the lowest rung professions a person can be, and often stories of desperation, blackmail/forced consent or possessing a personal moral vacuum are used in popular culture to explain why individuals would engage in such a profession.
Let's also acknowledge that adult film performers are human beings. Human beings who have chosen this occupation for a variety of reasons, but human beings nonetheless. (It's an entirely different post the variety of issues and reasons that adult performers enter the business, some of which are quite concerning. But while acknowledging that, let's leave those issues aside for now as not germane to the point of this piece.)
The legal adult film industry generally requires two things of their performers before they can participate in an adult film -- proof that the performer is over the age of 18 years, and proof the performer has received a clean bill of health recently. This is as much to do with the industry's self-interest as it is to do with any concern for its actors health and well-being. Producers could face criminal charges if they allow anyone under the age of 18 years to participate and would be unable to use any of their actors again for some time if one or more actor is found to have a communicable STD. In an industry that's known for playing fast and loose with a lot of things, these rules are one of the few that are written in stone for the vast majority of legal industry producers.
The Case of Adult Industry Medical Associated PC
Following repeated outbreaks of STDs on adult film sets (e.g. Hep B & C, etc.) and a strong concern among the adult film industry of the potential for an outbreak of HIV in the 1980s, a former adult film actress left the profession to create what is now known as Adult Industry Medical Associates PC (AIM Medical hereafter) to provide reliable rigorous medical testing for adult film actors ever 30 days. AIM Medical certificates proving actors are 'clean' became the standard for California adult film actors (which formed the great majority of Western porn actors), and AIM Medical coordinated with the major industry producers to ensure proper health measures were taken when an actor did not turn up clean after a film shoot. (In 2004, AIM Medical coordinated a 60-day quarantine of the adult film industry after a male actor tested HIV positive after returning from a Brazilian film shoot. The shutdown was to prevent another outbreak by identifying and testing all his sex partners, which resulted in 12 women being identified and four testing positive for HIV.) Subsequently, the adult film industry shortened the time between health tests required of performers to 14 days in an effort to catch infected performers earlier.
Unfortunately, following a massive breach of personal performer data by hackers in 2011, AIM Medical was forced to declare bankruptcy. In its wake, a number of other testing clinics have taken up the responsibility of testing adult film performers, but none function in quite the systemic, coordinate public health fashion as AIM Medical did.
So why is this industry background info important and why should the general public care at all about this when it comes to using protection in porn?
The AIM Medical-led 60 day shutdown of porn filming in 2004 speaks to the problem the industry faces. An actor went to Brazil to shoot an adult film and returned HIV positive, unbeknownst to him. He subsequently went on to sleep with 12 female performers, infecting four of them, before he was required to do his mandatory 30 day medical check and his infection was discovered. This actor was able to potentially infect so many women with HIV because the industry was not required to use protection in all sex scenes and he was within his required 30 day medical check period.
We know that no method of protection is 100% effective at eliminating the possibility of transmitting an STD. However, the use of condoms and additional protection in this case would have likely prevented four female performers from becoming infected and putting an additional eight others at high risk of potential infection of HIV.
Ensuring the health and well-being of performers through the use of protection is a no-brainer when it comes to statistical and public health policy arguments. However, these performers -- particularly female performers -- are up against tremendous pressure from industry film producers who fear their films won't sell/be popular content if performers are using protection, and the reality that they work in a volume business. Performers are paid (often in cash) per scene depending on the activities performed for their role, and for the great majority of them who are not really "porn stars" (i.e. big names in the industry), live scene to scene for their income. (According to some reports, the average income for a female performer for a scene may be approximately $800, with male performers earning far less.) The ability of performers to push back against industry producers who insist that they perform 'bareback' is highly limited unless they are a major actor/actress in the industry, and all adult performers are strongly aware of the large number of young women and men who will agree to such demands if they do not.
It is unrealistic to expect adult performers to push back themselves to have access to the protections that may very well save their lives in preventing serious communicable diseases such as HIV. Additionally, with the de-centralization of the porn industry from the Los Angeles area and the loss of AIM Medical's systemic public health approach to industry testing, the ability to identify, track and appropriately respond to infected adult performers has been significantly diminished in the industry. It now relies as much on word of mouth between performers as any true systemic health sciences approach, and in an industry where the ability to maximize profits are the primary (arguably sole) concern for industry producers, it's highly unlikely that there will be any real efforts made to recreate the systemic public health approach AIM Medical brought to the industry on a larger scale.
So this matters for everyone. What can we do?
California's efforts to address the challenges of the porn industry in a practical and sex-positive way are admirable, but like municipal firearms bans in the US, won't work if all the jurisdictions around it don't take a similar approach. This is a systemic problem and needs to be addressed in a systemic fashion that empowers performers so that they are not putting their lives on the line when they are performing and advances a sex-positive sex 'norm' that both includes and regularizes the use of protection when having sex.
Look, there are a lot of other problems with porn and our society's approach to it. A LOT. I'm still not convinced that the damage done by porn in its current form outweighs any benefit individuals and/or society get from it at this point. But I'm not going to be one of the fire and brimstone people that believe it must be excised from our society. But that's not the point of this post.
The point of this post is that there are things that can be done, can be put in place by governments and by communities as a whole, that positively respond to significant problems in the porn industry that, whether we like it or not, end up impacting all of us. California's measures mandating the use of protection by adult film performers are a practical positive step forward in addressing some of the issues porn presents and need to be replicated in all jurisdictions across the Western world (and ideally the globe, although as I said, that's entirely another post.)
We do ourselves no favours by sticking our heads in the sand and pretending this issue doesn't exist, or worse, condemning and ridiculing those who raise the issue. And for those who utterly detest porn and all those it touches, putting such a California measure in place is not a vote condoning porn and/or anything to do with the adult film industry. This is about making your community a better place for everyone to live, and you're free to continue railing against everything to do with adult sexuality at your leisure and with a clear conscience.
As previously stated, the porn industry is like water on concrete -- it will find every crack for its benefit. Isn't it time we fill just a few of those cracks with more than righteous indignation?