Monday, June 15, 2009

"Sex-Positive" Elitism And The Latest HIV/Porn Panic

A lot of people think that sexual conformity only exists among the folks of the Religious Right and of a particular strain of "radical" feminism who condemns pornography and other forms of sexual expression as innately "anti-woman".

And, most certainly, it does.

What is less noticed, though, is a related but somewhat different variation of sexual conformist efforts to constrain sexual expression to fit a narrow political agenda that comes from an unexpected source: namely, those promoting themselves to be "sex positive" and promoting the beauty of long as it's on their narrow terms and conditions.

This kind of "sex positive" elitism is usually masked because of the far more prevalent rhetoric of the Right about using direct government censorship and behavior modification to impose their narrow repressive views on the masses. The former tends to allow for a far more expansive tent of acceptable sexual behavior that is approved, and tends to use more paternalistic (or maternalistic) language to justify their set conditions, plus they tend to use more flowing rhetoric to label their cherished and more preferred sexual practices.

However....all of that doesn't prevent those who promote this "sex positive elitist" view from coming down hard like a ton of bricks on anyone who might not agree with their professed ideas with "You're doing it WRONG!!!"

And on some occasion, the dark side of such elitism can be unmasked and show its fangs at non-conformers with cataclysmic effects.

As is with this latest kerfuffle involving the most recent porn sex panic now ongoing.

When first the porn gossip site (formerly operated by gossiper Luke Ford) and then the Los Angeles Times reported that a (still unnamed) female porn performer was confirmed to be infected with the HIV/AIDS virus last week, and that there was a possibility of more transmissions, it set off a firestorm over the degree of protection from STD's that performers in porn have, and whether the existing system of self-regulation, frequent testing, and peer pressure is adequate or whether stronger methods and even government intervention to impose even more astringent protections are warrented.

At the center of the controversy is Dr. Sharon Mitchell, former porn starlet herself and founder and chief executive of the Adult In Medical (AIM) Health Care Foundation, which serves as the principal organization involving testing of performers for HIV/AIDS and other STD's.

Following a previous HIV "outbreak" that took place in 2004 in which three XXX performers, including Darren James and Lara Roxx, were infected with the virus, the ensuing firestorm exploded to the point that regulatory agencies such as the California state branch of the Occupancy Health and Safety Administration (Cal-OSHA), some AIDS prevention groups, and even some California political officials were calling for more direct government intervention in the industry.....including requiring porn shoots to regulated in the same way as businesses handling hazardous bodily fluids and mandating severe conditions and protective procedures, and requiring mandatory usage of condoms on all productions, regardless of performer preference. Due to both lobbying from the major porn production companies and testimonials from porn performers opposing the proposed regulations as overkill and ineffective and a violation of personal choice, the regulations never made it pass the political process at that time...though there were firey hearings in the California Assembly where both sides of the debate got to expound on their views.

This most recent "outbreak" is still not totally resolved as of today, but based on the latest information, it seems to have been effectively contained to that one performer, who is described to be in her 40's and who had only primary contact since being tested with one other performer and her boyfriend, with secondary contact limited to six others whom have so far tested negative.

Unfortunately, that hasn't prevented the barrage of criticism that has besieged Dr. Mitchell and AIM from various circles and from those whom believe that their support of a tougher and more restrictive policy regarding porn protrayal of sex has been justified and vindicated.

At first, it seemed that most of the critics were those performers and producers from within the industry, as well as a few "" gadflies like Tony Comstock whom have been very critical of AIM's practices from the very beginning, and some of whom have had personal and political vendettas against AIM from the 2004 "outbreak".

But then, the Cal-OSHA authorities decided to take their case directly to the public, in the form of an article that was published to the LA Times depicting the latest breach as a "cover-up" from AIM to mask the "reality" of how not protected porn performers are. The article quoted freely activists supporting the tougher regulations, such as LA medical expert Dr. Johnathan Fielding, Cal-OSHA spokesperson Dean Fryer, and AIDS Healthcare Foundation founder/president Michael Weinstein, in saying that the latest outbreak justified their worst fear that the existing system is woefully inadequate, and that the industry is incapable of self-regulation such that government intervention is warrented to save lives. In particular emphasis, they quoted the existing "condom optional" rule as the main weakness in the protective barrier of the present system, and they repeated their call for a industry-wide imposition of a "condom only" policy across the board, imposed by government fiat if neccessary.

And that prompted an even bigger eruption from the general sex-positive blogosphere community, some of which has been long since critical of the porn industry for not using its power to promote "safe sex" guidelines. From Good Vibrations to Carnal Nation to Feministing and all in between, there have been calls in support of the Cal-OSHA authorities for imposing mandatory condom usage as a means of sex education and "sex positive" principles, and to protect performers livelihoods from a rapicious industry bent on exploitation. Support also comes from what is being called the "" community of sexual rebels who see themselves as providing a progressive alternative to the "all gonzo"/"circus sex" mentality that has been said to have produced the trend towards double penetration, double anals, anal sex, and all other forms of what they see as dangerous antics being promoted in the "mainstream" explicit sexual media.

While I understand all those criticisms and even share them to an extent, and I do believe most of them to be in the best of intentions, I have to strongly disagree and dissent on this one.

Most of my dissent is based on a long and detailed rebuttal by Ernest Greene (aka Ira Levine), who was one of the founders with Dr. Mitchell of AIM, and a long-time member of the ruling executive committee there (along with his wife and partner, porn legend/sexual rights activist Nina Hartley), which was posted to the Blog of Pro-Porn Activism yesterday. Ernest also happens to be a producer of mostly BDSM videos, as well as the editor and sometime editorialist of TABOO magazine, which is published by Larry Flynt Productions. (Disclosure alert: I am a long time commentator at BPPA as well, and everyone probably knows my feelings about Nina, as well as my deep respect for Ernest, our occasional disagreements to the contrary. So, my own biases are as up front as possible, too.)

First, Ernest clears up the present condition for the parties directly involved:

The performer and her two primary contacts since June 4 (one a male performer, the other her boyfriend) were immediately notified and quarantined, as were six secondary partners of her two primary contacts.

As of that point, the prospect of contagion from the female performer who tested HIV+ to the rest of the porn talent pool and the surrounding population was contained and remains so now.

Both her primary contacts and their secondary contacts have been tested and are HIV- as of now. They will be retested twice during the coming month and if those tests are also negative, which is highly probable given the nature of the contacts (vaginal intercourse without internal ejaculation and female to female exposure), the quarantine will be lifted and those performers will be able to return to work at no unusual risk to their partners.

In short, this single, isolated case was caught early, notification was given promptly, including to governmental public health agencies mandated by law for notification of new HIV infections, and the infected performer has already been referred for treatment. She’s out of the business. Her few contacts are HIV- and likely to remain so, but will not be working until that is certain.
In other words: out of all that, only one confirmed case of infection, which was quarantined and handled quickly and effectively, so far. A tragedy for her, yes, and everyone should give her thoughts and prayers...but hardly worth inciting a panic.

Indeed, an actual improvement over the 2004 outbreak, according to Ernest:

In no way does this case resemble the situation in 2004, which involved a perfect storm of highly active, long-term members of the performing community, particularly high-risk sex practices (double-anal penetrations and internal ejaculations) on multiple sets and a much larger group of primary and secondary contacts throughout an entire month-long testing cycle. There was clear evidence of performer-to-performer HIV infection in the 2004 episode. There is no such evidence in the present instance and little chance any will emerge.

As to the claim by Dr. Johnathan Fielding of the LA Health Care office regarding the "16 known cases of HIV/AIDS infection" within the porn industry that AIM is alleged to be "covering up": well, there is this:

Fielding is a long-time adversary of AIM’s whose department has a history of harassing and defaming the organization dating to well before the 2004 cases. Fielding’s hirelings have attempted to obtain confidential medical records of AIM’s clients, made threatening calls to AIM clients in efforts to intimidate them into giving information his department has no legal right to collect and publicly accused AIM of “stonewalling” his department’s attempts to investigate STI transmissions in the industry, though he knows as well as we do that California law is extremely specific regarding what we must report to government agencies and what we are forbidden to report to anyone. Members of Fielding’s staff have heckled AIM board members, myself included, from the floor at public forums unrelated to his agency’s mission and Fielding himself has lied to my face in his office in front of two other AIM board members and two members of his own staff regarding his intended recommendations to the state legislature prior to the investigative hearing into the 2004 cases.

But none of Fielding’s cynical machinations sinks to the level of his false assertion, trumpeted by The [LA} Times, that AIM has “concealed” an additional 16 HIV infections in the industry since 2004. In fact, eleven of those cases involved male performers in gay porn who are not part of AIM’s client base and who do not test with AIM and four were private citizens not affiliated with porn who sought testing at AIM for personal reasons. As required by law, all HIV infections detected by AIM were reported to Fielding’s department, which is how he comes to know about them, but were not disclosed to AIM’s heterosexual porn industry clients because they did not involve het porn in any way. And yet The Times reported this deliberate and heinous distortion of the truth under the blaring headline: “More Porn HIV Cases Disclosed.” In point of fact, there is no way AIM, Fielding or anyone else can know that the cases involving the gay performers were porn-related, as AIM does not monitor that population. But then again, The Times also characterizes mainstream porn as a $12 billion dollar a year industry, an unsourced figure frequently repeated in mainstream media and universally scorned as a ridiculous exaggeration by industry insiders.

Of course, Fielding has long been gunning for AIM to be placed under his control for a long time, so this might just be more political showboating on his part using the guise of "protection" to cover his own ass.

Then there are the two other major proponents of government-imposed mandatory condom usage:

Meanwhile, Cal-OSHA’s Fryer alleges in the same story that “AIM Healthcare has never been cooperative with us and our investigations,” because AIM has obeyed the law and refused to give out client information to agencies not entitled to said information.

And then there’s AHF’s Weinstein, who has characterized the porn industry overall as “a poster-child for heterosexual HIV transmission” and proclaimed that: “This industry screams for regulation. Cal-OSHA needs to require condoms be used in any film. Yesterday.” Weinstein has organized picketing in front of Larry Flynt’s offices to demand that the straight porn industry adopt mandatory condom use and has refused to meet with industry representatives to discuss the reasoning behind the current standards. He is what is colloquially known as a hothead.

All these individuals, and a few converts they’ve made at the margins of the industry, support a truly mad plan by Fielding’s deputy Dr. Peter Kerndt to implement state-legislated regulations requiring condom use throughout the industry that would make it illegal to distribute sexually explicit materials created without the use of condoms, even though Kerndt himself admits that digital post production effects could theoretically render it impossible to determine after the fact whether condoms were used or not.
Considering that most porn products are not made in porn studios (or even in California), how such a law can be enforced without the most intrusive and invasive techniques akin to raiding porn shoots is pretty much doubtful.

But if even those who advocate this understand the ineffectiveness of such regulation, then why propose it in the first place?? Ernest gives the game away here:

If these individuals were mainly concerned with the health and safety of performers, their views might at least be worth a second hearing, and their methods, while still questionable, would at least be well meant if misguided.

But their real objective has nothing to do with performer safety and everything to do with porn content, which they regard as setting a bad example to viewers following safer sex precautions in the viewers’ private lives. Kerndt makes his priorities crystal clear in his 2007 jeremiad published by the Public Library of Science:

“The portrayal of unsafe sex in adult films may also influence viewer behavior. In the same way that images of smoking in films romanticize tobacco use, viewers of these adult films may idealize unprotected sex. The increasingly high-risk sexual behavior viewed by large audiences on television and the Internet could decrease condom use. Requiring condoms may influence viewers to see them as normative or even sexually appealing, and devalue unsafe sex. With the growing accessibility of adult film to mainstream America, portrayals of condom use onscreen could increase condom use among viewers, thereby promoting public health.”

This is basically Weinstein’s line as well. They want to empower the state to punish porn producers for not requiring condom use because they regard the depiction of sex without barrier protections as unhealthy viewing for the audience.

Unfortunately, in the service of that goal, they’re quite prepared to put at risk the performers they claim to be protecting.
In other words, this is merely the "liberal" equivalent of the typical right-wing approach at behavior modification through government censorship, albeit justified with the "good intentions" of protecting performer safety...but mostly done to control the message to the public. Backdoor censorship and abolition, to be sure.

But while the right-winger and fundie would just simply censor or eliminate sexual expression outright as "sin" and "moral corruption" and "anti-God, anti-family, and anti-American", the more enlightened, "liberal", even "sex positive" commisar would justify their form of censorship under the notion of saving humanity, protecting women and children, even saving sex, from the corrosive and negative byproducts and aftereffects of dangerous sex practices.

It is is such a way that even the more prominent "sex positive" activists can become taken in and support such legislation under the notion of "protection".

Take, for instance, Audacia Ray of Waking Vixen, who posted a guest blog piece for Feministing supporting the call for mandatory condom usage using mostly the same rhetorical excesses and cooked-up information used by Fielding, Weinstein, and Freyer:
With the reports of another incidence of HIV infection coming out of porn valley this week, the HIV infection count in the straight business has reached 22 cases since 2004. So what's going on? The straight porn industry regards testing as prevention - and while testing and knowledge of your partners' status is certainly part of a risk reduction strategy, testing is not prevention. Porn production companies argue that the appearance of condoms in porn reduces the fantasy for the viewer, and as a result condom mandatory videos sell fewer units. Yep: sales are more important than sexual health. 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.
Earlier in the piece, Audacia quoted some of the "safer sex" practices of the gay male sex media community, as if they should be the foundation for the "straight" industry to follow.

[...] A stunning majority of straight porn companies do not require condoms and actively discourage their use - in the business this is called "condom optional" which is euphemistic for "you either perform without a condom or you don't perform for this company." The gay porn industry has slightly different standards than the straight porn business. Gay porn companies do not require testing, with the idea that it is an invasion of privacy and HIV shouldn't prevent people from working/having sex, but the more reputable companies require condom use. The Gay Video News Awards (GayVN) will not consider a film for an award if there is "barebacking" (sex without a condom) in it.
Problem is, Dacia seems to have missed the basic fact that there is more than a slight difference between the straight and gay porn industries, as Ernest made clear:

But wait a minute, didn’t I say that gay porn is made without testing but with condoms instead? Why wouldn’t that work in straight porn as well?

In part, because it doesn’t really work in gay porn. Though condom use has become less of an absolute in gay porn, it has been the standard for 20 years, during which time, unlike in straight porn, a number of performers have died of AIDS. This is most likely a result of imprudent behavior in their personal lives rather than on the set, but it points to an important difference between the composition of gay and straight talent pools.

An unspoken by generally accepted truth in gay porn is that many performers are already HIV+ when they enter the industry. Producers and directors make quiet but diligent efforts to pair them only with other already-infected partners, but the fact remains that testing is regarded as pointless in gay porn because, as one of the best known gay directors told me privately, “it’s just assumed that all of our talent is or will be infected and that the use of barriers is a secondary precaution.”

Our model in straight porn is to try and keep the talent pool disease free rather than simply accept the permanent presence of infected performers as a necessary work-around. If you visit the web site that lists all the porn performers who have died during the past twenty years, you’ll find that the overwhelming majority of them were gay male players who died of AIDS. The risk of a similar situation in straight porn is what Fielding, Kerndt, Weinstein, et al would subject us to in the interest of setting a better example for our audiences.
And indeed, the fear (or in some cases, hidden hope) of a major outbreak is the principal motivation behind both the criticisms of Sharon Mitchell and AIM's program and the call for mandatory condom usage as a panacea to protect performers and promote "safer" practices. Tony Comstock, indie adult film producer and "" guru, made it perfectly clear in his latest diatribe at his company's blog personally attacking Mitchell and AIM and the rest of "the porn industry":

In this latest incidence of HIV in the AIM talent pool, the individual in question went 37 days between tests. Due to the latency inherent in the testing, she may have been HIV positive for as long as 45 day or more before her infection was detected. If this infection had occurred in a male performer there almost certainly would have been secondary infection(s).

But more than that, sooner or later an HIV infection is going to cross from second generation to third generation, and instead of 3-5 on-set transmissions, there are going to be 20-30. This day is coming; it’s a statistical certainty.

To that, and to the general slandering of Sharon Mitchell, Ernest responded thusly (via a comment here):

And as for Tony Comstock, with whom I have already gone multiple rounds on this subject, way down in his post, after all the personal attacks on Sharon Mitchell and the heinous comparison of AIM to a drug dealer, he gets down to the same bottom line as Dr. Kerndt:

"Pornography is made in a way that profoundly contradicts the basic safer-sex message and respect for responsible personal choice that is supposed to lie at the heart of sex-positive philosophy. I am profoundly disappointed."

For him, it's about the message. For me, it's about the best way to protect performers. Those intentions sometimes conflict, and when they do, I side with what has proven effective at protecting performers, not with abstract issues regarding "messages."

And if you're reading this, Tony, I have never in 25 years asked a performer to do anything on set that he or she wouldn't have done off set.

The suggetion that testing is useless and that repeatedly tested performers are at the same risk in multiple sexual encounters as the general public is risible, as any cub reporter could quickly establish.

Equally indefensible is the claim that a generalized outbreak of HIV in the het industry is inevitable under the current protocols.

If such a thing were likely, would it not have happened by now after a decade of relying on the safeguards in place during that time?

I'm well aware of your statistical modeling of the situation on the ground here, and find it theoretically flawed and fundamentally baseless, as I said during our last go-round on the subject.

Make your own movies your own way. I'd be the last to challenge your right to do so. But you're wasting your time attempting to persuade the rest of us to to follow your lead for reasons we find unconvincing.

And I think the sex-postive community is more attuned to the voices of performers than to your jeremiads in contradiction of performers' oft-stated preference for a voluntary system based on individual choice and responsibility.
It really does sound to me like there is a hidden agenda if Comstock and those on the "safer sex" side who want to mandate condom usage really do want to wipe out the mainstream porn industry for all of its supposed sins (racism, mistreatment of performers, low pay, misogyny.

And while I do acknowledge and respect Audacia's concerns about promoting safety and protecting the performers, and do think that she is coming from a good place in her heart, I have to say that it is kind of elitist for people who call themselves "sex positive" and "pro sex" and who label themselves as progressives to basically flip off the concerns of active performers about regulations regarding their own bodies. It's as if they are all for sexual liberation as long as they control what is considered as liberating...but cannot understand that not everyone will see their particular way as the only way of liberation.

That is the thing that really, really bothers me about all this controversy.....that some advocates who would would go to the wall to condemn the Right for imposing a narrow concept of sexuality have no problems doing a small-scale version of the very same thing to those whose sexual practices don't quite fit their hierarchies.

Actually, what really bothers me is how much those who are pushing condom-only are so willing to blow off and dismiss active real sex performers who state their opposition to having these practices imposed on them without their approval and say if the advantage of "public safety" should overwhelm any objections of personal comfort and practicality. Simply saying that "Well, they are being paid or silenced by the industry bigwigs who wouldn't profit so much by imposing condom-only!!!" just isn't good enough; and merely dismissing them with a wave of the hand and a stern "Oh, shut up and wrap up, it's for your own good!!!" just isn't enough.

In the essay cited, Ernest quotes liberally from testimony that Nina Hartley gave to the California State Assembly in 2004 regarding some of the hazards of condom usage during porn shoots, and how it is worlds different from condom usage in the civilian world.

Our model in straight porn is to try and keep the talent pool disease free rather than simply accept the permanent presence of infected performers as a necessary work-around. If you visit the web site that lists all the porn performers who have died during the past twenty years, you’ll find that the overwhelming majority of them were gay male players who died of AIDS. The risk of a similar situation in straight porn is what Fielding, Kerndt, Weinstein, et al would subject us to in the interest of setting a better example for our audiences.

Thanks but no thanks to that noble sacrifice. For uninfected female performers, not only are condoms in the absence of testing a more dangerous approach than bare-backing with tested performers, it actually puts them at greater risk. To understand why, it’s necessary to recognize that sex on camera is quite different from sex in private.

As a director, I allow two and a half hours to shoot a typical boy-girl sex scene. That’s over two hours of intercourse in various positions with constant stops and starts during which male performer’s erections rise and fall, condoms frequently tear or unravel and the degree of latex abrasion on the internal membranes of female performers’ vaginas lead to micro-abrasions that make them more vulnerable to all kinds of STIs. Most condom-only female performers eventually abandon condom use, not under pressure from producers, but rather because of the constant rawness and end-on-end bacterial infections produced by countless hours of latex drag.

Condoms are fine for ordinary folks having a quick bang, but they’re not suited to effective use in porn. I know whereof I speak because I refuse to shoot as a director for any company that won’t allow performers to use condoms if they wish and have probably shot more condom footage than any straight porn director alive. I began doing so way back in 1993, when all we had was the elisa test, which though still regarded as the so-called gold standard outside of porn because its antibody detection screening is virtually never wrong when it comes to detecting active HIV cases (if you’ve got HIV antibodies in your bloodstream, you’ve got HIV, no doubt about it), may not detect a case for as long as six months, while the PCR-DNA test has a window period no longer than two weeks. That’s still too long, and I would personally prefer twice-monthly testing to reduce the false-negative results that contributed to the situation in 2004. But it’s a lot safer than a six-month interval during which a newly infected person would be at his or her most contagious, having the highest viral load because antibodies had not yet begun to fight the progression of the disease process. From having shot so much condom footage, I would estimate the condom failure rate at about 15% in any given encounter.

So, if we give up universal testing in favor mandatory condoms, what we would have is a large group of internally compromised female performers having sex with a number of men whose HIV status would be unknown.

I ask anyone reading this who is HIV- if he or she would knowingly have penetrative intercourse with someone who they knew for a fact was HIV+, condom or no condom. I’m betting the honest answer for the overwhelming majority of readers would be “no way.” That is just plain common sense.

The choice is pretty simple and pretty stark: condoms or testing. It is legally impossible to have both. At the investigative hearings in 2004, lawyers for the ACLU made it clear that numerous challenges to the anti-discrimination laws sought by specific professions to weed out HIV+ potential employees were successfully resisted in court challenges and that the ACLU would vigorously resist any attempt to gain such a waiver for the porn industry.

I repeat: testing or condoms: that is the choice. If you’re HIV-, it’s pretty much a no-brainer.

Personally, I'd rather trust the performers who do the dirty deed than some outsider looking in...but that's only me.