It’s just a 50-cent piece of latex, but depending on whom you ask, it will either kill or save the multibillion-dollar pornography industry.
California’s Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board agreed in March to consider a request by anti-pornography activists and the country’s largest HIV/AIDS nonprofit to require actors to wear condoms in sex scenes in pornographic features.
The petition has created sharp divisions in the San Fernando Valley, the area in and around Los Angeles where most of the country’s legally distributed pornography is produced. That’s where a new adult video is shot every 45 minutes, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Advocates say the industry is already breaking the law by creating a hazardous workplace — one where performers are at risk of contracting HIV infections and other sexually transmitted diseases. They want adult entertainment businesses to observe the same pathogen exposure regulations that protect California’s medical workers.
“The evidence is on film,” said Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. The agency turned to state regulators for help after a judge dismissed its lawsuit seeking to force Los Angeles County to require condoms in adult films in December.
“What documentation is clearer than the product itself?” Weinstein asked. “When it’s a pair of Nike shoes, you don’t know that an 8-year-old in that sweatshop in Indonesia made it, but when you slip the DVD into the machine, you know that they’re violating the law.”
But many producers and performers say they follow a rigorous testing system precisely so they can perform without condoms, arguing that consumers don’t want to see them.
“I really hope that it does not go all-condom, because this is entertainment,” Sunny Lane, an actress who says she has appeared in more than 180 adult films, said in an interview with NBC station KNBC of Los Angeles. “This is hot. It’s passionate. You want to have fun.”
The controversy has been on the front burner since 2004, when a male adult film performer tested positive for HIV and was found to have spread the virus to three women he had performed with. The latest wave of activism gained impetus last June when the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation, which tests performers for the industry, confirmed that an actress who has not been publicly identified had tested positive.
Will porn still call California home?
Executives of adult entertainment companies say most studios would leave California if the proposal is approved because they would lose too much business under a strict reading of California workplace safety laws.
“Condoms are only part of the issue,” said Steve Orenstein, president and chief executive of Wicked Pictures, the only studio in the San Fernando Valley that enforces a 100 percent condom policy in its productions. Clinic-style regulations imply “goggles and rubber gloves,” he said, which “I imagine you agree [is] a bit too restrictive.”
Orenstein called on regulators to work with industry leaders to establish rules that would acknowledge circumstances “specific to adult productions” — that is, demand for explicit depictions of sex acts. Otherwise, he said, “many companies talk about plans to shoot in other states if they needed to.”
But Shelley Lubben, a former adult film actress who runs the anti-pornography Pink Cross Foundation, said that wasn’t likely.
Under a 1988 state court ruling, California is the only state where production of hard-core pornography for profit is explicitly legal — in other states, prosecutors and courts have equated paying performers to engage in sex with prostitution. That means the studios are “not going to run away,” Lubben said.
If it’s Orenstein who’s right, the stakes for Los Angeles and the greater San Fernando Valley could be enormous. While it’s impossible to precisely calculate overall revenue for legally distributed pornography — many studios are privately held and don’t report such figures — the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation estimates that the industry generates $12.6 billion a year, as much as 90 percent of it in the Valley.
And even though that’s well down from the industry’s heyday of the 1980s and the early 1990s — before free Internet pornography and easy pirating of studio films began gobbling up profits — it’s still 20 percent more than what the industry’s legitimate Hollywood cousins made in 2009, which was a record year.
Fear of HIV galvanizes activists, performers
Jessica Drake, a prominent adult film star, said that “for me, personally, using condoms is the right choice.” And while she said it was possible that the use of condoms “might hurt our sales,” she said she had heard no objections from her fans.
Even so, Drake has appeared before state lawmakers to testify against requiring the use of condoms, saying it was “a matter of personal choice — my body, my choice.” In an interview, she objected that reports of the positive test last year were “sensationalized by the media” and were being used to club the industry into submission.
“Even one positive HIV test is a very serious matter,” Drake said, but “the general public heard words like ‘outbreak’ and ‘epidemic,’” even though it was the first publicly reported HIV infection in five years in an industry whose workers engage in hundreds of sex acts a year, some of which most people would readily characterize as extreme.
If anything, she said, that case proved that “our testing system does work” because it “prevented further exposure.”
For allies, same means to different ends
For the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the morality of pornography isn’t the issue.
“To be clear, AHF is not against pornography,” the foundation said in filings last month with the California occupational safety board. The issue, it said, is “whether or not the current regulations are sufficient to protect these young people ... as they do every other workplace in the state.”
At public events where the foundation campaigns for the condom regulation, Shelley Lubben is likely to appear as a passionate spokeswoman. She speaks out from her pespective as a former porn star whose life was nearly destroyed by the industry.
That is only part of the story, however. For Lubben, the morality of pornography is very much the issue.
The Pink Cross Foundation doesn’t call itself a religious organization in its nonprofit tax registration, but it clearly is one. It solicits donations of Bibles and other religious materials to distribute at adult industry conventions, like the Los Angeles Adultcon last week, where it set up a booth “to reach out to thousands of people with the love of Jesus Christ,” it reported on its Web site.
In an interview, Lubben said plainly that she’d “love to see porn come down.”
“America just sees the finished product, so we’re just exposing this terrible evil and slavery,” she said, adding that she was taking on the pornography industry because “God gave me this vision.”
Lubben acknowledged that the AIDS Healthcare Foundation had different long-term goals, but she said she was happy to work with anyone who could advance the Pink Cross mission.
“We believe the beast can be stabbed in seven different places and bleed to death,” she said, listing issues she uses to try to persuade people both inside and outside adult entertainment to turn against the porn industry — such as alleged sex slavery, exploitation of underage women and the instability of easily broken short-term contracts for performers.
Right now, the issue that’s working is workplace safety, and, through it, Lubben has “found a common denominator” with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
“It doesn’t matter what my motivation is,” she said. “It’s a high-risk occupation — there’s bodily fluids everywhere..”
AIDS group emphasizes science, not religion
The AIDS foundation did not respond to a request for comment on its work with the Pink Cross Foundation, in which it would seem to find an unlikely ally. Weinstein’s organization describes itself as an “independent voice” on AIDS and HIV policy, operating clinics in numerous non-Christian countries and working with the United Nations, the World Health Organization and other secular government organizations worldwide.
In advocating for widespread distribution of condoms, it has argued that "governments are obligated to follow scientific evidence in order to set up effective public health policies to fight AIDS and not rely on religious beliefs.”
“They’re aware of our agenda,” Lubben said, “but we agreed to agree in this area, which is a health and safe workplace area.”
Regardless how they got together, the combination of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s scientific credibility and Lubben’s high-voltage charisma has brought the adult entertainment industry to the brink of direct government regulation of its on-screen content. And if this initiative fails, Lubben will just keep chipping away.
“I love that they want to protect the workers,” she said of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. “But there are many other angles.”