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If the Government Cares About the Safety of Porn Performers, Why Doesn’t It Ever Listen to Them?

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This week, California bill AB 1576 (also known as the condoms in porn bill) passed through the California Senate Labor and Industrial Committee, bringing it one step closer to becoming California law. For the bill’s supporters this news is cause for celebration. For the bill’s detractors – including many of the people that AB 1576 claims to protect – it’s a sign that California may not be home to the adult industry for much longer.

If this story sounds familiar, it’s because it’s not a new one, but rather the latest installment in the ongoing battle between the state of California and the adult industry. Years ago, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (commonly referred to as AHF, and one of the driving forces advocating for condoms in porn) petitioned Cal-OSHA to amend their standards to specifically address working conditions on adult industry sets, with an eye towards mandating barrier protection on set. Then in 2012, Los Angeles County passed Measure B, a bill requiring condom use (and expensive permits) for porn productions shot in the county limits. Now AB 1576 has taken Measure B’s mission statewide – and repeating the many mistakes of Measure B (and then some), but on a much grander scale.

Pro-AB 1576 propaganda frames the bill as merely an issue of worker safety, one that – like Measure B, which supporters openly compare AB 1576 to – merely requires the use of condoms on set [1]. But in truth, the bill is about far much more. As Shine Louise Houston, owner of condom-friendly Pink & White Productions, explains in an open letter, AB 1576 is a vaguely worded, punitive bill that threatens severe, criminal ramifications for every employee of an adult company – even ones who have nothing to do with on set violations, and, in a cruel twist, even the performers the bill claims to protect. For Houston, “language that calls for a jail sentence up to six months for violations of the bill’s vague provisions is… distressing. The risk of jail for myself, my six employees and possibly the talent we work with is too great a risk to continue producing in California.”

Throughout this process, the forces battling to regulate porn have repeatedly said that they’re on the side of performers, that their battles are intended to provide the kind of safety and assurances that are afforded to workers in numerous other industries. Yet for all their pro-worker talk, none of the people pushing these regulations ever seem to sit down with members of the adult industry to actually craft and construct legislation that would serve the best interests of all involved, preferring instead to issue top down commands without ever deigning to visit a porn set. In 2011, Cal-OSHA held a meeting with members of the adult industry to discuss the topic of barrier protection; many performers were dismayed to discover that, in the first opportunity to communicate their concerns to the regulation committee, Cal-OSHA chose only to speak, not listen.

Not surprisingly, this type of attitude has been duplicated by the supporters of AB 1576. When porn performers advocate for themselves, their supposed protectors rarely listen, or even show up. For all his interest in the well being of adult stars, AB 1576 author Assemblyman Isadore Hall was nowhere to be found when a delegation of porn performers, with a petition signed by more than six hundred of their peers, showed up at his office to protest AB 1576. Jiz Lee, a San Francisco-based performer who traveled to Sacramento to speak out against AB 1576, reported that “Hall had his back to (the public testifiers opposing the bill) during our testimonies at the Assembly Appropriations meeting, which just felt so disrespectful.”

Adding insult to injury, pro-AB 1576 forces advocate for their bill by spreading lies and misleading information about the rates of STI transmission within the industry. As Lee complained to me, “AHF and testifiers keep saying that performers were exposed to HIV because of porn, when the (still very unfortunate) truth is that those performers contracted it in their personal lives.” Along similar lines, an unpublished report publicized by AHF alleges that porn performers contract gonorrhea and chlamydia at much higher rate than the rest of Los Angeles County, without factoring in that – by industry mandate – adult stars are tested far more frequently than the rest of the county, and thus have a greater likelihood of having infections detected. AHF reports also neglect to mention that the porn performers included in the study were apparently found through data drawn from clinics set up to treat performers with STIs, which likely come into contact with a higher percentage of STI-infected performers by virtue of their very mission.

The phenomenon of “protectors” ignoring and spreading misinformation about the communities they claim to care about isn’t limited to the porn industry. It’s one that happens with virtually all forms of sex work. Pundits and politicians are all too happy to take the side of sex workers, but only when they fit the downtrodden, exploited stereotype that polite society deems acceptable. Witness men like Nicholas Kristoff, who trumpet their concern for the alleged legions of trafficked teen girls while ignoring (and often acting counter to) the interests of many more subsistence sex workers for whom sex work is not slavery, but merely the best available option. Those who actively choose sex work – either out of economic necessity or a genuine passion for the work – are frequently shut out of the conversation, while lawmakers acting in their supposed best interests enact legislation that does little to help, and often a great deal to harm, their situation. (In an interesting coincidence, Measure B passed in Los Angeles the same year that California voters approved Proposition 35, an “anti-trafficking” bill that served mostly to dole out punitive measures to impoverished sex workers and their families.)

As with the trafficking debate, the arguments over condoms in porn serve largely to punish sex workers while distracting attention and resources from efforts that might actually improve the lives of adult performers. As Stoya, one of the co-founders of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee (APAC), shares, “I strongly believe the adult film industry, like all industries, has and always will have room for improvement. Our community would be better served if the resources currently tied up in fighting unhelpful legislation could be put into achieving actual improvements instead.” In a piece for the Daily Dot, Stoya outlines numerous ways that the adult industry could be made safer and better for performers – none of which are included in AB 1576.

Houston similarly sees a role for regulation in the adult industry. “I’m pro labor and would appreciate health and safety regulations constructed with the input of adult industry producers and performers. I’d rather see a bill that offers tax incentives for testing and safe sex supply expenses than one that criminalizes and violates a performer’s right to privacy.”

AB 1576 has a ways to go before it becomes law (it must still be approved by the California Senate, as well as Governor Jerry Brown), and there is always a chance that it will not survive the journey into official legislation. If it does go on the books, however, the adult industry has made it clear that it will not be sticking around to deal with the fall out. Many production companies have already mapped out plans to relocate in the event that AB 1576 is successful, most likely to Nevada (where several Los Angeles-based companies moved in the wake of Measure B). Should Nevada become the new home of the adult industry, I can only hope that it won’t repeat the mistakes that California has made. There are plenty of porn performers, directors, and producers willing and eager to work with lawmakers to reform the industry and make it a safer place for all involved. Hopefully one day they’ll find lawmakers who are actually willing to work with them.

[1] It is interesting to note that, in the year and a half since Measure B passed, the lives of porn performers have become less, not more, safe. 2013 saw four different members of the adult industry community test positive for HIV. While all contracted the virus in their personal lives, it is very likely that the declining amount of work in the adult industry (an ongoing trend aggravated by Measure B) led to risky behaviors that increased their risk for contracting HIV.