California has often been the prime site of the 'condoms in porn' battle, and will vote tomorrow on Proposition 60, which aims to make condom use in pornography mandatory. But is it a good idea?
By
Simon Copland

8 Nov 2016 - 2:52 PM  UPDATED 8 Nov 2016 - 3:26 PM

As part of the elections in the United States this week, California voters will be asked to strengthen regulations around the use of condoms in porn. Proposition 60 is part of a process in the state that allows citizens to put initiatives to the rest of the public for consideration.

California has often been the prime site of the 'condoms in porn' battle, with condom use mandated on sets by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health. However, the regulation is rarely enforced, if ever at all. Proposition 60 aims to strengthen this by making it possible for anyone who sees California-produced, condomless porn to file an official complaint. If the complaint is not followed through on, they can then bring a civil action suit against anyone involved in producing and distributing the film.

While the specifics of this initiative are too detailed for analysis, the existence of the vote opens up an important question: should condoms be mandated in porn?

The argument in favour of compulsory condoms in porn is simple: The set of any pornographic production is just like any other workplace, and as such, requires occupational health and safety (OH&S) standards. With STIs being the biggest health risk on these sets, it makes OH&S sense to mandate condom use in production.

Building on from this, many also argue that condoms are important for encouraging good safer-sex behaviours. With young people accessing porn at increasing rates, the use of condoms, it is argued, is a clear way to encourage safer-sex behaviours. This is backed up by evidence that suggests a correlation between viewing porn and a lack of condom use, suggesting a need for porn to set the standard.

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However, while compulsory condom-use may make theoretical sense it is often overwhelming rejected by both the industry, and workers alike.

The industry’s argument is equally simple: people do not like, and will not watch, porn involving condoms. Condoms are not ‘sexy’ in this mindset, and therefore the forced use of condoms, it is argued, will effectively destroy the industry. While somewhat valid, this argument is also flawed, ignoring the role pornography can play in creating sexual norms, and the role producers can play in producing a market for their product. The idea that condoms will destroy the industry is hyperbolic at best.

More importantly, this argument highlights an important power dynamic within the industry. The industry argues that voluntary standards are the best way to regulate safer-sex practices, but undermines this argument by insisting that viewers will not watch porn involving condoms. If, for example, a performer insists on the use of condoms, will they be taken seriously by producers who also insist that no one will watch said porn? Can voluntary standards hold up in this situation?

This brings us to the workers in porn. While the mandatory use of condoms is marketed as a way to protect their safety, many workers resist the initiative as well.

The arguments behind this are twofold. First, many say that forced condom use is a way of constricting sexual and artistic freedom. Many workers enjoy performing without condoms and do not desire to have that practice restricted. This is particularly relevant in an industry where workers are increasingly becoming more independent, relying less on standard employment relationships with production companies. In this space, workers have greater capacity to control their own sexual and artistic practices.

Potentially more important, however, is that condoms are not the only, nor necessarily the best way to stop the spread of STIs. Workers engage in a range of other safer-sex practices, including regular STI testing, taking PrEP, engaging in serosorting, or using other preventative measures such as femidoms. While there have been a number of high-profile cases of performers contracting STIs over recent years, the prevalent spread of STIs within the industry - at least in places such as California - is actually very low.

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What’s important about these approaches is that they are ones that regular performers engage in actively, and often as a community. Workers often emphasise their active approach to safer-sex, with the community engaging in education, awareness and joint practices to ensure each other’s safety.

However, even though freedom of sexuality and expression is extremely important, that does not mean that some form of regulation should not exist. Like every other workplace, the porn set still involves power relations, ones that can result in workers feeling pressured to engage in acts they may be uncomfortable with, or find unsafe. While some workers are certainly empowered to protect themselves, that is not necessarily the case for others, particularly those who are marginalised, poor, or new to the industry.

What this regulation should look like is hard to know, primarily because we do not have enough information on the industry. However, unlike Proposition 60, this sort of regulation must involve active engagement with porn workers and performers. In doing so it can, and must, be something that goes beyond a standard understanding of safety that sees condoms as a fix-all. It must be something that encourages active engagement with safety discourse as part of pornographic productions, instead of encouraging perceptions that portray any form of safer sex as ‘unsexy’.

This is what Proposition 60 fails to do. It does no engage with the community, nor with the complex discourses that surround safer-sex. In fact, it puts workers at risk of being liable if condoms are not used on set. It makes condoms a one-size-fits-all solution, which they clearly aren’t. Let us hope this initiative fails, but do not let that stop the discussion from continuing.