Backers of California's "condoms in porn" Prop 60 say it's about worker safety. Workers disagree. | KALW

Backers of California's "condoms in porn" Prop 60 say it's about worker safety. Workers disagree.

Oct 11, 2016

 

Tucked away on the edge of Chinatown in Oakland is a small lab. Andre Shakti sits in a chair across from the phlebotomist waiting for her blood to be drawn. You can hear the hum of the centrifuge machines spinning blood samples in another room.  

It’s Shakti’s first time in this particular lab, but certainly not her first time having blood samples taken. She's here to be tested for STIs— sexually transmitted illnesses— because her job requires it.

Shakti is an adult entertainment performer—a.k.a. porn actress.  She can’t work on most porn sets in the Bay or LA without showing producers a clean slate of STI tests before each shoot. The porn industry developed this self-regulating testing regimen starting in 2004— the year several actors contracted HIV on set. That forced studios to shut down for a few weeks.  

Shakti gets tested regularly, even though she uses other kinds of protection on set. As the phlebotomist puts a bandage on Shakti’s arm, Shakti says “I’m actually a condoms-only performer with men, because STI testing does not prevent pregnancy.”  She has made that decision for herself, but she says she’s not so keen on Prop 60, the initiative that would make condom use mandatory in all adult films.  “It’s incredibly offensive,” says Shakti. “It insinuates that porn performers cannot make their own decisions about their sexual health and safety, as any other person in the world could do,  when in fact we are more well-versed in sexual health and safety than almost any other person on the planet because it’s literally our job.”

California voters will weigh in on this issue in November. Proposition 60 would require performers to use condoms on all adult film sets in the state. Recent polls from September show that the proposition is expected to pass with 55% of voters in favor, 34% in opposition (the rest are undecided). On the surface this might seem to be a straightforward law about health, however the proposition is at the center of a heated battle. Many of the performers and producers in adult entertainment oppose Prop 60. They argue it violates their freedom of speech and choice.  

The Proponents

If the performers are not backing this proposition, then who is behind it? The initiative was written and entirely funded by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. Its president (and Prop 60’s major supporter) Michael Weinstein, didn’t respond to multiple emails and calls.  However, Rick Taylor, the campaign manager for Yes on 60, spoke to us.

“This is about protecting young men and young women from catching venereal diseases: HIV or whatever else might be out there. That's as simple as it really is,” Taylor says. He also says that if the industry’s self-regulating STI testing were sufficient, performers wouldn't be contracting diseases.  He points to cases such as Derrick Burts, an actor who contracted HIV while working in the industry in 2010.

Burts has spoken out in favor of Prop 60. He says that he was a part of the testing protocol the industry uses, but it didn’t work in his case. “They told me that the testing was in place to protect me,” Burts says. “They told me that I would be tested every single month and I would only be working with others who were tested.”

When Burts contracted HIV, the industry claimed he contracted it off set. Burts contends he contracted it from another performer while working on a film shoot. Burts also points out that that the industry’s testing doesn’t cover certain common STIs including Herpes and HPV: “My cousin’s wife worked in the industry for a small period of time, and she got HPV. That can lead to cervical cancer.”

Rick Taylor from the Yes on 60 campaign says making a law requiring condom use would keep these kinds of cases from reoccurring, and would protect performers from unscrupulous porn producers. “These people don't care about these young men and women,” Taylor says. “They care about their bottom line: their pocketbook.”

The AIDS Healthcare Foundation has advocated for mandatory condom use in porn for years. In 2012 the group successfully passed such a law in LA, where much of the porn industry is based.  They've been pushing for statewide regulation for some time.  Prop 60 is the latest attempt. However, the law would do more than just make condoms mandatory; it would allow individuals to sue film producers and studios that don't comply.  Taylor says that this is to allow the citizen to enforce regulations. “If my Attorney General—  for whatever his or her political reason—  isn’t going to step up for the voters, then somebody should have the right to step up into that place,” he says.

The Opponents

Mike Stabile is the spokesperson for the Free Speech Coalition, a trade-association for adult entertainers.  He insists that the Industry and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation ultimately want the same thing. “We want safe sets,” he says. “We want safe performers and safe workplaces.” Stabile says they just disagree on how to do it.

Stabile further explains that for some performers, on long film shoots, condoms can be painful. “They require more friction. They can cause chafing, something that performers call condom rash that can actually leave them more vulnerable if there is an exposure.”

Stabile continues, saying that after the 2004 HIV scare, the industry did try condoms for a time. Many in the industry, however, say that people watching porn don’t want to see condoms. Stabile says making testing the law would make more sense because it would satisfy both consumers and performers. “You really have to involve the people that are being affected,” Stabile says adamantly. “You can’t come from the top down system and say I have an idea how this will work and just apply it. It's a recipe for failure.”

Stabile and the performers we talked to for this story say that studios now require STI testing every 14 days. If Prop 60 passes, Stabile says it's not likely that the industry will just willingly comply.  Further, performers are concerned about lawsuits that could violate their privacy.  Ultimately, Stabile says, mandatory condom use might push porn underground, making the industry less safe. “Anytime you move any kind of work underground, what you find is that performers or workers are then open to different forms of exploitation.”

What will happen?

Even if Prop 60 passes, it will likely not be the end of this discussion on safety and free speech. The industry—producers or performers— can take this to court. If they show that the law is in violation of freedom of speech, the courts could then rule that the law not be enforced. Andre Shakti, the performer having her blood drawn in Oakland, says that the industry has always found ways to create its work, and will keep doing just that. “Whether it’s creating content that abides by the standard, or whether it’s going prohibition style, we will work together and band together and figure out a way to keep the industry going.”