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The HIV Crisis in the Porn Industry

The porn industry, using its sophisticated, well-resourced public relations machine, sells itself as an avant garde, progressive, counter-cultural force out to empower us all with exciting images of an edgy, fun, creative sexuality. In reality, it is a multi-billion-dollar-a-year business that functions like all global industries, especially when it feels under siege. The recent HIV outbreak among porn actors and the subsequent negative publicity about how the business treats its performers has revealed how this industry goes into attack-dog mode by discrediting, defaming, and slandering those who blow the whistle on what goes on behind the scenes.

For years, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation has been fighting for mandatory condom use on porn sets. The porn industry has mounted a wholesale attack on the foundation, accusing it of fear-mongering, exaggeration, and stigmatizing porn performers. Ironically, one of the AHF’s main critics, porn producer Tristan Taormino—who accused the organization of propagating “negative stereotypes about sex workers” and using “inaccurate information to scare the public” —is now herself a target of a porn industry smear campaign for announcing on CNN that she will no longer shoot condom-free scenes.

What a difference a year makes! In a Huffington Post article in October 2013, Tristan Taormino urged people to vote against Measure B, which made condoms mandatory, because it “will not make workers safer nor will it help stop the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).”

Accusing the AHF of trying to destroy the porn industry, Taormino argued that she was against Measure B because she wanted to “empower performers to make decisions about how they will protect themselves.” On September 20, 2013, just 11 months later, Taormino stated on her blog that she still wants to “empower performers to make decisions about all aspects of the work they do.” This time, though, empowering them means refusing to work with those who won’t use condoms. While all of this may seem very confusing to the average person not acquainted with the inner workings of the porn industry, it actually makes perfect sense given the events of the last month or so.

Last month porn performer Cameron Bay tested positive for HIV, and since then three other performers have come forward, making a total of four who have been diagnosed with acute HIV infection. At first the porn industry expressed sympathy, but now they are circling the wagons and sharpening their knives, going after the infected performers who took part in an AHF press conference on September 19. At that conference, Cameron Bay described how, in her last shoot before testing positive for HIV, her partner’s penis was bleeding, and even though he wasn’t wearing a condom, the filming continued. She described another shoot in which one of the actors she was working with was cut. Rather than stop shooting, the director went on to film an explicit scene.

In the press conference, Cameron’s partner, also a porn performer and one of the four who tested positive, blasted the industry for continuing to shoot scenes without condoms just one week after a performer tested positive. Hitting the nail on the head, he told the reporters that “Ultimately, it’s a business, and their main concern is money and not their performers.” Indeed. Rather than closing down all production and investing in the healthcare of their performers (AHF is paying for all the healthcare needs of the four performers because none of them has health insurance), the industry is busy pouring money into a PR crisis-management campaign.

Following the press conference, The Free Speech Coalition (the lobbying arm of the porn industry) did what most industry organizations do: blame the victim. According to Diana Duke, the CEO of FSC, “While producers and directors can control the film set environment, we can’t control what performers do in private. We need to do more to help performers understand how to protect themselves in their private lives”. That the performers contracted HIV in their private lives is now the official line of the porn industry. Mouthing almost the same words, Steven Hirsch, CEO of Vivid Entertainment, is quoted as saying, “Unfortunately, we can’t control what people do off-set”.

What evidence does the industry have for making such claims? According to Mark McGrath of the AHF, “In order to definitively prove how HIV was transmitted, you would need to do detailed molecular analysis of the HIV strains of known cases. This includes genotyping the viral strains, determine nucleotide sequences, then compare these sequences phylogenetically to comparable sequences from available reference strains.” Of course, no such research has been done by the industry; it has been too busy digging up dirt on the performers.

The Real Porn Wikileaks  has claimed that porn actor Derrick Burts is wanted for outstanding warrants for reckless driving, as if this explains how he got HIV, and has posted Cameron Bay’s juvenile arrest record on the website above the question: “Is Cameron the kind of person who would lie to evade responsibility for her actions? Let’s see what Maricopa County and the State of Arizona have to say about that….”

Not surprisingly, Taormino, the only porn producer who has acknowledged that there may well be health risks on porn sets, is now being hung out to dry as a traitor to the industry. She was until last week the golden girl of the porn industry because she branded herself as a fun, cool, hip “feminist” who could build a female consumer base (even though she has been filming condom-free anal sex scenes for a decade and seems to have shown no concern whatsoever for the health risks until now). Now the industry is after her like a pack of wolves, arguing that her condom-only policy is a cynical PR ploy aimed at building an image of herself as a feminist pornographer who cares about performer safety.

Ernest Greene, a well-known director of violent porn (Roxie Loves Pain, Jenna Loves Pain, McKenzie Loves Pain) and one-time Taormino collaborator, wrote a scathing article accusing the latter of jumping ship because “she tacks with the political wind however she perceives it to blow”.  Similarly, the blogger Red Garter Belt Club denounces Taormino for putting “her own personal enrichment and political posturing above the principle of defending true performer choice and the actual facts and merits of protecting performers,” but doesn’t actually explain how performers are better served by having unprotected sex.

Whatever the reasons behind Taormino’s decision, I have to agree with Greene (and this is a first!) when he says that “I doubt [that] Gail Dines is likely to find this abrupt conversion credible.” For over a decade, Taormino has been an integral part of an industry that has shown callous disregard for the well-being of performers, one that shamelessly spits out women (and men) once finished with them, goes after whistleblowers with a vengeance, and has fought, like other global industries, any attempt to regulate conditions…all in the name of profit. Far from being counter-cultural, this industry is built on the degradation and debasement of human beings, and no amount of PR can render invisible the violence it does to the bodies of real people.

Gail Dines, a Professor and Chair of the Department of American Studies at Wheelock College in Boston, and author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked our Sexuality , was an expert witness in the Free Speech v Eric Holder Case.

 

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