Freedom’s Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose?

Image from La Manchù at Flikr

Back on March 6, more than three months before this latest HIV outbreak I wrote the following:

One conversation I think is long overdue is a sex-positive examination of the attitudes towards STIs in the “adult industry.” A few years back, when Vivid backtracked on their condom-only policy, I remember Chi Chi La Rue stopped working for the company. He said he couldn’t reconcile his concerns and public record advocating condoms and safer sex with Vivid’s new policy. But other than La Rue, I don’t remember anyone taking much notice.

It’s frustrating to me that it always seems to take an acute problem, whether it’s a subprime mortgage meltdown or HIV outbreak to get conversations started that are long overdue. I suppose this is part and parcel of the fact that our brains don’t have an intuitive feel for large numbers, and are not well equipped to understand risk. It’s very hard to feel the difference between one in a thousand, one in 10,000 or one in 100,000.  I’ve often wondered, half facetiously, if this isn’t a survival adaptation; if our minds were truly able to apprehend just how badly the cards were stacked against us, our species would have gone extinct as a result of despair long long ago. But instead, our race is blessed with a profound capacity for denial, and hope springs eternal.

Anyway, the conversation’s started. A round up:

Ernest Greene at the Pro Porn Activistm Blog:

“Personally, I’ve always thought the term “safe sex” was something of an oxymoron. Whatever measures are taken, physical intimacy is never completely free of risks of various kinds. It is from that understanding that the current harm-reduction approach, which has saved countless lives over the past decade by acting as an alarm system rather than a policing operation, evolved as it has.”

Darren James in the LA Times:

“I predicted it would happen again… You’re like Superman. Especially with the amount of work that I had? It was nonstop, I’m thinking, I’m invincible. . . . That’s just the way our mentality was. It was, you get the test, you’re clean, not realizing that in between the tests, and after the tests, you know, other people, you don’t know what they’re doing… That’s why I want to come out and do a little more [talking about the issue] if I can. And if it’s just to help . . . just to get them to listen. Not to boast up porn, not at all, just to make people be aware that I got caught up, man. I thought I was invincible, and I got shot down so fast. . . . There’s some really good people, and they want to change.”

Courtney Trouble at her blog:

Because the nature of the beast will always find plenty of performers willing to take a risk with an unprotected scene,the straight porn industry will only adopt condom regulations when it’s ordered to. It will never choose to regulate safer sex on it’s own. They don’t have to, they will always be able to find someone who needs the work.

Jiz Lee at her blog:

I’ve had the opportunity to work for small indie companies and larger-run businesses. Companies treat the issue of safer sex differently and to the best of their abilities. For example, models at Kink.com are required to be AIM tested at least 30 days prior to their shoot. The test is: Aim Panel (includes HIV-1 DNA by PCR & Chlamydia and Gonorrhea by PCR) and costs the company $120 each. They schedule testing with every model who participates in shoots for the company. Because a lot can happen in 30 days, Belladonna and other safety-conscious folks in the industry require 2 days.

Violet Blue at TinyNibbles.com

Keep in mind that Southern California porn is a different world than NorCal porn. But because of AIM, testing is stringent and hardcore; enforcement is the issue. And that in 2004, remember that AIM Healthcare contained the outbreak, fast.

Thomas Roche at the Blowfish Blog:

Commercial porn, true to its nature, has become a clusterfuck the last few days. People both inside and outside the industry are scrambling to make their opinions known a reported case of HIV in an adult performer. It seems very important to everyone in the room that they be heard on this issue now.

Meanwhile, there’s been a perfect storm of misinformation, misunderstanding, and defensiveness. Hubris, hysteria and bullshit: All three are certified virulent.

Audacia Ray at Feministing:

Both male and female porn performers are disempowered to demand condom usage because most companies actively discourage condoms (even though the option to use condoms is often written into their model release or contract). The reality is that unless the performer is a major star and has leverage or produces his or her own films, performing without condoms is a sure way to get booked frequently and work a lot. Condom mandatory performers work less and get paid less.

Alison Hart at Pornochromatic:

Porn performers have sex with people other than their scene partners, be they lovers, tricks or random guys in bars. One of the unfortunate facts of this business is that having sex with the right people gets women work. Directors, producers, agents, you name it – they’re screwing talent. And most of them are not getting tested. Not to mention that a lot of stars escort on the side, possibly without condoms. This is a huge X factor in the STI equation.

Belladonna at the Babeland Blog:

Since I started testing people that I have sex with 3 days prior to our engagement, it has been over 5 years since I’ve contracted Chlamydia or Gonorrhea. I knowingly caught over a handful of performers with STDs by using this rule. As a female in this industry, I can say it feels DAMN good to not have to spend every week at the doctor’s office clearing up an STD and being out of work. I feel like I’m more excited about having sex and performing, knowing that I’m going to be STD free…

Performers in this business need to be safer when having sexual relations OUTSIDE of the industry. They need to be more responsible with safe sex because they DO know more than the average person when it comes to STDs and safe sex. If this were happening, the spread of STDs inside the business would be a fraction of what it is now. 

Nina Hartley at Nina.com:

In a nutshell, performers as a rule don’t care for condoms for several reasons. For most of the men (with few exceptions), condoms make for a very-much-more difficult scene; just one more huge distraction to add to the host of other ones on the set: uncomfortable set, no chemistry with the female player, asshole director, late/early hours, too hot/cold, bad food, personal issues, etc.

For the women, there are just four words: rubber rash/friction burn. Not only do I have to work harder for him to feel anything, the scene takes much longer to get through, with the changing out of condoms, needing to give the guy a break and suck him again, and the total passion-killer that is on-set condom use. It’s hard enough to create a real connection, so the scene doesn’t feel to the viewer like we faxed it in, on a set as it is. If all of our energy is focused on our working parts, there is none left over to actually connect and show a spark, which is what the people at home want to see.

ChristianX at ADT:

[E]ach test costs 120 bucks per performer each time. I work every day, you want me to get 10 tests a month? that 1200 bucks a month. Or are you suggesting producers pay for their talent’s new test every 3 days? Both are impractical unless you shoot 1-2 titles a month (like Belladonna).

Mike South at his Blog:

AIM needs oversight, first and foremost and that oversight should come from a board of directors that consists  of mostly health care professionals, real ones, not associated with anyone in porn.

Second Sharon Mitchell must step down, her credibility is lower than that of George W Bush, The whole Doctor thing bit her in the ass, it’s time to fix it.

Third we must start testing not only for HIV but also Hep A and B  Hepatitis kills way more people every year than AIDS does.  We also must do a full panel, it doesnt matter if 75% of porners have herpes  the 25% who don’t have a right to know if the person they are working with does.

Fourth we should be doing both a viral load test for HIV and an antibody test, one without the other is not sufficient. You may say fine South but where will the money come from?  I tell you what we can do it a lot cheaper now than it will cost should the county/state get involved…find the money you can pay now or you can pay a lot more later.

Finally we need to implement a system of full disclosure, if someone has been exposed or tests positive everyone must know.  The people who were quarantined from the Darren James situation didn’t suffer ant long term bad results.  porn people are fine working with you if you test clean for the required length afterward.

Likewise if you do gay porn or have done gay porn (and yes tranny is gay) that should be disclosed as well, it puts you in a higher risk group and your potential partners have the right to know that.  If that bothers you don’t sign up to be talent.  When you perform in this business you have no private sex life, other peoples lives depend on making informed decisions and if you are hiding things they cant make informed decisions. If you don’t like that tough shit, stay out of the biz.

Gram Pomonte on his blog

My predictions:
1. This will blow over.
2. There will neither be mandatory condom use nor state regulation of the porn industry in any form.
3. Companies will feel compelled to require more frequent tests. This is expensive, and they can argue that performers not on a contract will have to foot the bill as they’ve always done.
4. The major companies will agree on an increased testing schedule and then, one by one, the schedule will return to what it once was
5. AIM will close loopholes in reporting test results, such as verbal or provisional confirmation, if loopholes exist. If there is a phone call greenlight process, that is probably going to go away, too.


I hope Gram’s predictions are wrong, but I fear he isn’t. Five years ago there was an outbreak that resulted in the on-set infection of three performers. AIM and its supporters announced this was proof that their system worked, and nothing changed. In fact, things have arguably gotten worse with respect to performer health, Vivid’s backtracking on its condom-only in 2006 policy being only one example.

Also, I understand that it’s the letters H I V that get everyone’s attention, but I wish there was a little more attention paid the other health implications of a business built on such high volumes of unprotected sex. In Belladona’s post she talks about spending “every week at the doctor’s office clearing up an STD”  before adopting her own 3-days prior testing policy. I hope “every week” is an exaggeration, but if HIV were out of the picture altogether, Belladona’s experience with STDs and the policies she’s adopted seems like more than enough reason to re-examine our attitudes about how pornography is manufactured.

But I think this examination has to take place with a realistic  sense of what, if anything additional regulation can do. As I said in a conversation with long absent friend Yogadame in the comments section of the previous post:

I do not support state-mandated condom use, because 1) I do not believe the state has the means or will to enforce it; and 2) because I believe it will only push an already highly marginalized population further underground…

There will always be people willing to put their sexual desires above their ability to see the people providing for their sexual desire as human beings – as brothers, sisters, sons, daughters; and there will always be people willing to trade their scruples or their safety to provide for this market. 

This may strike some as a harsh judgment, and perhaps it is. But I also think it’s realistic. If change is to come, it will come as individual producers, performers, and viewers decide that what’s in place isn’t sufficient, and they don’t want to support it – with their bodies, with their cameras, with their dollars.

To that end I have a small suggestion.

I’d like to see an independent, peer-reviewed epidemiological analysis of AIM STD figures with a side-by-side comparisons to the relevant cohorts in the general population. AIMs ongoing assertion is that STD rates in their performer pool are lower than in the sexually active population at large, but I don’t think the numbers I’ve seen presented by AIM bear this out.

But the fact is no-one at AIM has the expertise to make a definitive analysis, and I certainly don’t; and it’s not a stretch of the imagination to suggest that perhaps I have an agenda, and perhaps AIM does too. We may have our (bias-informed) opinions about whether it’s riskier to be a 21 year old college student or a 21 year old adult performer, but an independent analysis of the HIV and other STD infection rates from AIM’s 10+ years of testing, with a comparison to sexually active, non-high risk group young adults would put the facts on the table, giving performers the information they need to make informed choices about their health and welfare, and viewers the information they need to understand the human costs involved in manufacturing pornography.

I would hope that there would be broad agreement that such an analysis would be in the best interest of all parties concerned.

Absent such an analysis, it seems to me it would be best to err on the side of caution, which is course, a judgment call. I’d like to return to Susan Quillam’s blog on February 24,  

Sorry to revisit a topic I was going on about only a few weeks ago… but if there is one thing that I really “got” when I was rewriting Joy of Sex, it is that while sex may be the same as it was in 1972, the joy certainly isn’t. Given the drip feed of horror stories in the press and the continuous warnings about the dangers of sex from all sides, we’ve somehow lost our optimism, our innocence – somehow, we’ve flushed the joy baby out with the bathwater.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not advocating condom-free orgies or emotion-free lust-fests. I’m as aware – and as vociferous – as anyone about just what we all need to do is order to make sex safe, sane, concensual and super-enjoyable. But I do feel that we’ve forgotten that sex is a Good Thing.

And my response to Susan, which later became a part my post on March 6::

My own thinking about sex, both in my personal life, and as a filmmaker is tremendously influenced by my experiences as a surfer, rock climber, skier, and various other pleasures that reward responsible risk taking. Some of the most interesting literature in the mountaineering world is devoted to forensic examination of tragedies, which necessarily invite the reader/climber to reflect on their own values and form judgments.

“Judgment” is fairly nearly a dirty word in the sex-positive community, but it need not be. Good judgment is at least as fruitful a route to joy as anything else.

This last week or so has certainly drained the joy out of my life. In the last ten years I’ve tried to do everything in my power to advocate for a safer, saner approach to depicting sex, adopting the age-old maxim “lead by example.” Aside from promoting our own films as a model of how a financially successful enterprise can be built without resorting to “meat grinder” business tactics, I’ve never shied away from speaking my mind about the regard for performer safety, from making judgments in a judgment-phobic community, knowing full well that doing so may cost me friends, allies, and my livelihood.  Once or twice I’ve heard the accusation that my standards are too high; unreasonable and unworkable for others

Of course that too is a judgement call, and hearing it brings me no joy.

Judgments, mine and those of others, are informed by factual knowledge, experience, and values. When assessing risk I tend to be less concerned with frequency, and more concerned with severity. This is why, for example, I buckle up when I drive, even though it has been seven years since in was in an accident, and more than 20 years since the one before.

This is also why I would never play Russian Roulette, regardless of how high the pay off. Unlike financial risks, physical risks do not amortize. You can never be half-pregnant, half HIV+, or half-dead.

Similarly, when considering the balance of risk and reward, I look towards who is being asked to bear the risks, and who is in a position to reap the rewards. In my mind there is a world of difference between the risks that I am willing to take for my own amusement and the risks I will ask others to take for my financial benefit.

But I readily acknowledge that my judgments are my own, and that people generally have the right to perform in films or make films under whatever conditions they wish, in accordance with their accessment of risk and reward, and using their own faculties as informed by their knowledge, experience, and values. Freedom must include the freedom to do things of which others may not approve, up to and including being reckless with one’s own life. The desire to regulate, to make a world in which we are safe from all harm must be balanced against the benefits of liberty, an abstraction sometimes difficult to set against the reality of broken bodies.

But acknowledging this freedom is not the same thing as condoning reckless behavior, or countenancing those who profit from ignoring or encouraging reckless behavior in others. 

It is also naive to ignore that fact that there are disparities in power, that the freedom to be reckless is not of particular benefit to the person exercising it, and that sometimes the freedom to walk away is precious little freedom at all.

I wish no one any harm. In a world that can be so brutally indifferent to our frailty, I hope that each person has the chance to carve out some small measure of security, some measure of meaning, some measure of joy. The sun also rises, but it sets as well. Find happiness where you can.

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