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Sex work isn’t immune to urban legends

SexworkcondomsThe ‘using condoms makes it easier to contract HIV’ argument merely substitutes an elaborate excuse that sounds plausible for scientific evidence, writes Amanda Marcotte.

14 November 2010

Lindsay Beyerstein has been doing a kick ass job as of late researching and reporting on the battle over mandated condom use in straight porn in California (it’s already standard in gay porn).

It’s a story that has gotten some attention as yet another actor has tested positive for HIV and has likely exposed many women – often you can expose dozens – in the time since he became positive and turned up a positive test.

It’s hard to get people to care about this issue in more than a cursory way, in part because sex workers are still treated like they’re not worthy of full human rights and in part because the public has become somewhat blase about HIV in general.

It’s an old story by now. The fact that there is a drug cocktail that is effective in allowing people who would have perished in short order back in the day to live long, productive lives has put the public in a place where they forget how deadly AIDS really is.

But 11,000 people die of AIDS in the U.S. alone every year, and let’s face it, having to take that drug cocktail for the rest of your life is no picnic and not that easy to do. Availability is also dependent on many factors.

Despite the title “porn star”, most porn actors don’t make a lot of money and they are pushed out of the business at a relatively young age, and subsequently their access to regular health care is limited, to say the least. If you believe, as I do, that sex workers are full human beings deserving of the same consideration as everyone else, this is nothing to be blase about.

I recommend reading Lindsay’s coverage of this. The basic theme is that California OSHA already has regulations that should require universal condom use in porn (basically the same ones that require nurses to wear gloves), and the straight porn industry aggressively flouts the law.

Their excuse is that they do regular testing. But as this recent example shows, you can take a test, get infected, and expose dozens of people before your next test.

There is more than a little wishful thinking going on here. The reason that they give for not wanting to use condoms is they think it’s bad for business, but I think that’s a fear that has gotten reaffirmed so much that it’s grown larger in people’s minds than it is in reality.

As Lindsay documents, some countries have mandated condom use in porn and it hasn’t hurt business, and gay porn uses condoms without seeing any loss in profit. From her point of view – and I agree – good liberals don’t put the profit concerns of businesses above basic safety precautions for workers.

It dents profits on construction sites to require safety gear – owners have to buy the gear and enforce use of it, all of which costs money that they could otherwise pocket – but so what? Remember, these are human lives. Even if porn took a minor ding on the profits because of condoms, I can’t care. I don’t see why they get special status to complain about the cost of doing business that liberals rightly criticize when it’s anyone not making porn.

Anyway, all this is set-up to what is a strange phenomenon in all of this – an urban legend that trips off the lips of many of porn’s spokespeople with surprising regularity. The idea is that condoms somehow make it easier to transmit HIV. Lindsay documents it:

As far as I can tell the notion that condoms are in any way counterproductive is pure conjecture based on anecdotes from people with a financial stake in the status quo. The argument seems to have originated with industry insider Ernest Greene and his wife, porn legend Nina Hartley. They claim that porn sex is so rough and prolonged that condoms cause more abrasions than unprotected sex. I couldn’t find any independent confirmation of that.

Lindsay explains a few reasons why this can’t be true. I’ll add that if gay porn can go 100% condom without this complaint, something is up. And why is the right to work someone’s body until they’re raw and bleeding sacrosanct? Maybe OSHA needs to monitor porn sets for overtime abuses, too.

But what really struck me about this claim was that it immediately put me in mind of another urban legend that people rely on to avoid basic safety measures. It was more common in the days when seat belt laws were still controversial, but you occasionally still hear it: That seat belts are actually dangerous, because they “trap” you in a car.

This myth is 100% bullshit, as traffic fatalities have been in a freefall since seat belts became mandatory and cars even started to beep at you if you don’t use them. The myth is a purely self-serving one that allows the person spouting it to feel like they’re smarter and more in control than they are, while also validating the bad behavior they wish to engage in.

The “condoms make HIV worse” argument sounds the same to my ears – substituting an elaborate excuse that sounds plausible for scientific evidence.

I’d like to think smart feminist bloggers wouldn’t write articles arguing, “The research shows seat belts reduce traffic fatalities, but drivers themselves say that they are afraid seat belts will ‘trap’ them in their cars. We should take this seriously, because drivers are the ones out there doing the driving.”

If they did, you’d see the problem with their assertion, which leaves no room for the tendency of human beings to rationalize their choices, and instead treats human beings as what they’re not, which are purely rational decision-makers.

So why do I see smart feminist bloggers spouting this porn industry urban legend uncritically? Tracy Clark-Flory spouted it, rationalizing that they don’t do it like “normal” folks and so their concerns are completely different.

Sady Doyle trotted it out, too. (I just have to say that I can’t imagine phrases like “industry self-regulation” would appear without a shit ton of skepticism if the industry putting its workers in danger was, say, the coal mining industry or even the telephone operator industry.)

The rationale is that some sex workers are willing to spout this urban legend, and we should listen to them. I agree that their opinion is important and needs to be included heavily in all analysis. But there’s nothing about getting paid to have sex that makes you suddenly a person that’s above the ascientific thinking and irrationality that plagues all other people.

As Lindsay notes, marathon sex, with or without condoms, causes abrasions that can make HIV transmission easier, period. This only increases the need to use condoms.

But beyond just the logical assessment of the claim on its own merits, is there scientific evidence that certain populations that have a lot of heavy duty sex in a short period of time have higher transmission rates for HIV if they use condoms? Do other populations that have a lot of this kind of sex find that condom use is impossible?

Short answer: No, and in fact the evidence proves the opposite of Hartley’s claim.

Gay porn is just one example. Even though gay actors work the same kind of hours that straight actors do – and are probably doing more anal per hour, frankly – they somehow magically manage to use condoms.

But it’s not just porn actors who have that amount of sex in any given day. In fact, there are a lot of people out there who probably have more sex and more punishing sex in the course of their life as sex workers.

Take prostitutes that live in poverty and really have to scramble to make money when they get paid so little per encounter. For instance, I hope I don’t have to explain to you why actual prostitutes working in Thailand and Cambodia might have a greater claim to the idea of physically punishing amounts of sex in the course of a work day.

I bring those countries up, because they implemented mandatory condom programs. In Hartley’s claim that regular condom use raises the HIV rate for people who fuck for a living, then we should have seen this program raise the HIV transmission rate in Thailand and Cambodia.

In reality, the rate of HIV transmission was cut in half in Thailand, and it reduced the percentage of sex workers who were HIV positive from 44% in 1998 to 8% in 2003 in Cambodia.

The stalwart belief that condom use ruins the fantasy disturbs me to no end. Why? Is it because the sense that the actors onscreen are putting their lives at risk is part of the pleasure for the audience?

If it’s just about the basic pleasure in seeing people fuck on screen, then condom use shouldn’t matter – the parts are all working the same way even without a condom. If it’s because condoms deaden the sensation, well, the viewing audience is presumably feeling their own hands most of the time, so that really doesn’t matter.

It’s hard to shake the creepy feeling that the porn industry believes that their job is not just to fuck on camera, but to cater to the kind of men who would actually think that seeing actors on screen protected by a condom is a turnoff.

And if a guy says to me that it’s a major turnoff to see a woman on screen playing safe, frankly, I’m going to have an extremely low opinion of his feelings towards women, and think that porn appeals to him on more than a strictly sexual level.

Frankly, I think those guys are such good porn customers that the industry shouldn’t really worry that they’ll give up the product entirely because of a small change in safety standards.

Amanda Marcotte is an American blogger best known for her writings on feminism and politics. She writes regularly for Pandagon, one of the first feminist blogs, where this article was first published.

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