‘Condom Regulation Will Take Away Our Consent’

By Mary Newman

Janice Griffith is a sex worker. She’s sipping tea in a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District. She’s peering out from behind large black-framed glasses, and waiting for an order of spring rolls. She’s talking politics.

Griffith, 21, says she began her career as a performer in adult films as soon as she turned 18. Now she hopes to make the transition from fresh-new-face to established porn star, but she believes a state ballot measure in the Nov. 8 election could be a major obstacle to those dreams if it becomes law.

Proposition 60, the Condoms in Pornographic Films initiative, would increase enforcement of state occupational health rules mandating the use of condoms on adult film sites. But while the measure is supported by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and the American Medical Association, it’s drawn virtually no support from the performers, underscoring how difficult it is to regulate workplace safety in an industry that operates at the fringes of mainstream entertainment.

Ostensibly, it could be difficult to understand why adult performers would be against Proposition 60, as it would require producers, directors, and production studios to pay the cost of testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases; the proposition claims the thrust of its creation is for the safety of the performers.

The state voter guide argument penned by Cynthia Davis, M.P.H., Board Chair of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Gary A. Richwald, M.D., M.P.H., former director of Los Angeles County Sexually Transmitted Disease Program, and Derrick Burts, an HIV-positive former adult film worker is as follows:

“Nobody should have to risk their health in order to keep their job! A YES vote for Prop 60 is a vote to protect California adult film workers from disease, Porn producers refuse to provide a safe workplace for their performers. As a result, thousands of workers have been exposed to serious and life-threatening diseases. It is time to hold the pornographers accountable for worker safety and health in California’s adult film industry.”

The ballot also “imposes liability on producers for violations, on certain distributors, on performers if they have a financial interest in the film involved, and on talent agents who knowingly refer performers to noncomplying producers.”

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, is the sole financial backer of the proposition. According to the California Secretary of State, AHF has contributed $4.5 million to help the proposition pass in November, arguing that adult film performers can pose a greater threat to California citizens if they are contracting HIV while filming.

Supporters of Prop 60 claim new regulations are needed because the rules in place now are widely ignored, but the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal-OSHA) — the state agency that enforces workplace safety and health — can already go after adult filmmakers who allow blood-borne pathogens to spread by not requiring protection. Proposition 60 would allow anyone the right to sue a producer if condoms aren’t visible in adult movies showing explicit scenes of penetration, potentially surfacing a morass of complicated litigation.

The Yes on Prop 60 campaign is also concerned that producers are pressuring young performers into filming without condoms because that’s what the audience prefers to watch. But Kink.com spokesperson Mike Stabile argues that performers should have the choice to use a condom or not, and that choice shouldn’t be dictated by the audience or by Cal-OSHA.

“It would be disingenuous to say that there is not some sort of market that informs us, but it’s not the driving force,” Stabile explains. “If it were just about this issue, the industry would have folded a long time ago.”

In Los Angeles, where adult film production had served as a major industry since the ’70s (the halcyon days of the ’90s found the San Fernando Valley making more than $4 billion in porn revenue), concern about the spread of infectious disease led to the passage of Measure B in 2012. Similar to Proposition 60, it requires performers to wear condoms in sexually explicit productions.

Critics say it was easy for producers to evade the LA rules, simply by moving production centers elsewhere. Prior to Measure B there were 480 permits issued to adult film sets in Los Angeles in 2012; that number dropped to 26 in 2015.

Three performers are featured on the Yes on Prop 60 campaign website sharing stories of contracting HIV while filming on set, although opponents question whether that’s really how they contracted the virus.

“I am not trying to discredit their situation,” Senator Mark Leno said in response to their claims that HIV was contracted while filming. “But there was never any proof present at the Cal-OSHA hearings last spring.” Dozens of film performers and producers attended the hearings to argue that no one is allowed to film unless they have cleared test results.

Polls show a majority of voters favor the measure, despite the outcry of the performers, however. In early September, a poll found that 55% were in support of Proposition 60. It also illustrated a large gender gap with 64% of women in favor, compared with 44% of men.

Porn, estimated to be a $9 billion-a-year industry in California, needs to be investing more in worker safety, says Rick Taylor, the lead campaign consultant for the Yes on Prop 60 campaign. Certainly, he added, the industry can afford to pay for basic health protections like blood tests for STDs.

“No one can argue that the industry shouldn’t be paying for the testing,” Taylor said during a telephone interview. “Tell me another job in America that you pay for your own testing.” He believes the financial burden of STD and HIV testing should fall on the producers, since they make more money than individual performers.

But to Griffith, testing is just a cost of doing business; it’s also a $3,000-a-year tax write-off. She also insists that the other actors she performs with also get tested — and she has requested certain performers repeat the testing a few days before each production she is in.

Her biggest concern is not her own safety or her fellow performers’ as self-vigilance surrounding testing has always been and remains high; rather she is fighting against what she considers to be degrading stereotypes and ill-informed moralizing by industry outsiders.

“Prop. 60 just feels like a vendetta against the porn industry,” she said, adding that she and her peers are taking unpaid days off to work against the ballot measure and attend hearings.

Some performers worry that Proposition 60 will make them less safe, both professionally and privately. “Janice Griffith” is a stage name the actress uses to protect her real identity. She and many other performers have taken to social media to voice fears of increased harassment if Proposition 60 passes, because the measure would require film producers to submit documents listing where and when filming takes place, and list everyone who will be performing.

Harassment and stalking is already an issue for performers, but many worry that enforcing this kind of documentation would give both anti-porn groups and obsessed fans the ability to find out their legal names, where they are filming, and in some cases, where they live.

One reason she can find work in the Bay Area, Griffith said, is that studios are fleeing the mandatory-condom rules in Los Angeles. If the state ballot measure passes, Griffith predicts more of the action will shift to Nevada and Florida.

The Infectious Disease Society of America and HIV Medicine Association conducted a study examining the efficacy of condoms for protection against herpes and HIV; the study concluded that using condoms reduces the per-act risk of transmission by 80%.

While these numbers feel like compelling fodder to get behind Prop. 60, Griffith explains that condoms aren’t as effective at stopping the spread of STDs as simply being tested, despite ample evidence to the contrary from outside the entertainment industry. Her main concern is contracting STI’s — like herpes orally — through other points of contact while filming.

“Condoms work when you’re having sex at home with your partner,” Griffith said. “But we are filming anywhere from four to eight hours so they usually break in that time. They can also form small micro abrasions within our vaginal wall, which actually makes it easier to contract HIV.”

No medical study has been done about sexual intercourse specific to adult films to support Griffith’s claim, but her peer Casey Calvert made similar claims to The Huffington Post in 2014:

“After fucking for 45 minutes to an hour without a condom, my insides are sore. With a condom, they are rubbed raw. The extra friction from the condom causes micro tears in the walls of my vagina and anus. Besides the fact that they just plain hurt, they take time to heal. There is no way I could work as often as I do if every scene required a condom. The micro tears also leave me more vulnerable to STDs when the condom does fail, again completely defeating the purpose.”

While we spoke, Griffith rifled through a sheaf of carefully written notes fanned out on the table beside her, often quoting language directly from the proposition. She admitted to the “no condom” pressures young women receive from producers, but isn’t convinced Prop 60 will improve that dynamic.

“It’s not that we’re against regulation,” she added. “But I’ve read the proposition, and it’s clear that they did not consult anyone who is performing in the industry today.”

Griffith follows the testing standards suggested by the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee, which offers testing resources and advice to porn actors. Chanel Preston, president of the APAC, has been working to create alternative approaches to regulating safety in the industry, including more specific Cal-OSHA rules, which she said would keep performers safe without preventing their ability to earn a living.

“The regulations that are being applied to our industry currently are regulations that were written in like the ’90s for hospitals,” Preston said. “So they are choosing to just apply those to our industry. There are no OSHA regulations for the adult industry.”

Preston’s main concern is that language in the current Cal-OSHA regulations is too broad. She thinks it would be more effective to regulate regular testing and increase education to young performers.

But there has already been some effort to crack down against producers who don’t play by the current rules. This past May, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health cited the San Francisco adult film studio Kink with 13 violations, resulting in $146,600 in penalties.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, three of those violations were related to condom use, each costing $25,000. The remaining 10 violations were more general worker safety violations, including a table saw that did not have the proper safety guard. Kink tried to appeal the decision, but the citations were upheld by an administrative law judge.

In an email, Preston said the only way to completely eliminate disease risk in porn would be to avoid showing explicit scenes of intercourse. “Obviously that would not work . . . There will always be a small risk, but the industry works very hard to eliminate that risk,” she said.

Blame Game

The Yes on Prop 60 campaign puts the burden of complying on producers and directors, not performers, but sometimes the distinction isn’t clear. When a major studio produces a film there is a large crew of people, making it easier to identify each individual role. However, many performers have taken to the internet to earn more income, producing their own custom videos for a clip site, or live-streaming webcam shows.

“Due to all the free porn on the internet, it has really changed the way we structure our incomes,” Sara Jay, a Miami-based performer who frequently performs in California, said during a phone interview. “The big studios are the only ones able to afford to be compliant, but all of the smaller producers will be forced out of work.”

Under this proposition, anyone with a financial stake in a film is liable to be sued if Cal-OSHA determines a condom was not used during filming. Since many performers also produce their own films they would have to pay for legal representation if the complaint turns into a lawsuit. Jay also worries that the industry will be pushed underground if Proposition 60 passes, making pornography more dangerous.

Taylor, on behalf of the Yes on Prop 60 campaign, expressed frustration with such claims. He said stricter regulation would help sharpen the lines of responsibility, and close many of the current enforcement loopholes.

“The reality is, if you’re a producer and you’re making money off of a film, and it breaks the law, guess what? You’re going to get sued, and that’s the way it oughta be.”

He said the underlying argument of the anti-60 forces is simple: “‘We should be able to break the law.’ That’s really what they’re saying,” he said.

Mainstream opposition, however, seems to be bipartisan. Both the California Democratic and Republican parties have taken positions against the measure. Democratic state Senator Mark Leno of San Francisco described the initiative as ill-conceived and poorly drafted.

“I don’t think that it will offer any benefit to the people of California,” Leno said, noting that his allies include community-based organizations with a long record of fighting AIDS and HIV, such as the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and Los Angeles LGBT Center.

***

Griffith polished off her spring rolls, gathered her notes, and called a ride-share. She wanted to continue the interview at her apartment, which she shares with a roommate.

She hopes to be an advocate for girls entering the industry at 18 like she did, often tweeting advice, research about sexual health and safety, and disputing claims that she isn’t an intelligent woman in control of her body.

Her roommate had installed a variety of lighting installations around the apartment, including a pink flamingo comprised of Christmas lights. Lady Gaga’s warbling new country-ballad — Million Reasons — provided a soundtrack while Griffith scrolled through Twitter, which she is using to doggedly promote the cause; her profile photo reads “Harassment is not a California Value; NO ON 60.” She hopes of turning her 223,000 followers to her way of thinking.

She said porn was a career choice she went into with full knowledge of the risks. Considering what the clientele demands to see, Proposition 60 would force her to find a new way to make a living. If it passes most of the industry will likely move out of California completely, a move Griffith isn’t willing to make.

“If someone is consenting, who are you to judge?” she said. “Prop 60 will take away our consent.”

***

Lead Image: Modified from Flickr / Roberlan Borges

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