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Does Porn Need Condoms?

Sociologist Chauntelle Tibbals makes the case that forcing condoms onto porn performers is wrongheaded and premature.

Yesterday, condoms-in-porn advocates took another step toward full coverage of all onscreen penises forever by releasing their new California ballot measure. If enough signatures are gathered in the coming months, the new measure will be voted on in the 2016 election. The new initiative is similar to an existing, and controversial, law in Los Angeles requiring condoms on porn sets, but the new law would affect the entire state.

This push for signatures comes on the heels of the news that that two porn performers had contracted HIV last month when they were tested after a 2014 movie shoot in Nevada.

The main figure fighting to get porn stars to put on jimmy hats is Michael Weinstein, the head of the Los Angeles–based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the group that created the new ballot measure. He's known for his media-savvy trolling in support of his cause, but his organization caught flak late last year for discouraging uninfected people from using preventative drugs as a strategy of preventing HIV infection, and has rubbed many government officials the wrong way with what the LA Times called his "hard-charging style."

Whether they agree with Weinstein's methods, many would probably agree that preventing disease is worth porn actors putting on latex or lambskin cock sleeves. But Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, a sociologist who focuses on issues related to the adult industry, told me in an email that Weinstein is "distorting the facts in order to feed [the] media the story he wants." According to Tibbals, who writes about porn, and is frequently cited as a scholar of the porn world, the Nevada case shouldn't sway public opinion—the industry in Southern California, she said, uses HIV tests that are far more sensitive than those used by Nevada porn productions.

I followed up with her to talk more about condoms and porn—what follows is a lightly edited version of our lively exchange.

Photo Courtesy of Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals

VICE: Condoms on porn actors seem like a good idea. What am I missing?
Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals: Condoms sound familiar. We, as just regular average folks, go, "Oh shit, you're not supposed to be having sex with a person who you don't know without a condom!" But that negates the mechanics of the labor, that negates the concerns of the workers, and that negates all of the issues associated with selling a product that's contingent upon fantasy.

Right, but the other argument is that it's a bad influence.
Next time you're watching TV, doesn't matter what it is, like watch The Wire or watch episodes of Homeland. Whatever it is, every single person driving a car is not wearing a seatbelt.

Yeah, I've noticed that. And no rearveiw mirrors either a lot of the time.
I never noticed that! That's also unsafe. If the logic for condoms in porn holds, then all of those actors are being put at risk, and at the same time all of us who are watching those films are going to stop wearing our seatbelts and pull off our rearview mirrors.

But that's completely counterintuitive. Other sex workers have condom laws.
So legal brothel prostitutes in the state of Nevada have this whole licensing thing that they have to do. They have to show clear STI tests and all of the people who visit the brothel have to be using condoms at all times. And oftentimes that is invoked as your reason why people in porn should be using condoms.

It's clearly similar.
That example is not similar to porn, because in porn you don't have a regulated population with an unregulated population. In porn, you have a population of performers only. You see what I mean?

Is there anything to suggest that HIV shouldn't be prioritized as the main health issue in the adult industry?
If you go and you look at the LA County Department of Public Health statistics, from what I have, in 2010 they reported over 2,000 instances of new HIV infections in LA County, out of 9.8 million people, so I mean the percentage is very, very small. But none of those [infections] were on a porn set. And if you go to 2011, 2012 and 2013, the numbers—I mean, it's provisional data because they're so slow on their reporting—but none of these numbers are porn transmissions.

But what's the actual harm in making people wear condoms?
The over-reliance on condoms as some sort of end-all-be-all protection against STIs, especially when we're talking about professional-level porn sex—that's a very very dangerous place to be.

So if your concern is the health of the performers, what should the plan look like?
I have absolutely no idea. Because I couldn't even tell you how many performers there are in LA County, much less overall. I couldn't tell you how frequently performers work. And I know a lot of performers. As a sociologist, I couldn't tell you because we don't even have exact information. A demographic capture of the population of an industry does not exist, even one that I would call a comfortable guesstimate. There is no estimate that I can give you, for example, that is an average range of the length of time a woman stays as being a porn performer.

So you're not just invoking consumer preference for "raw-dog" sex, or whatever?
That's a whole other debate that people have. People talk about, "Consumers don't like condoms in their porn." I don't know how people know that.

You don't know consumer preference?
The first thing that we need is a demographic capture of what the business even is. The next thing we would need is some sort of consumer behavior study. Because even though some companies occasionally release consumer data, even these numbers do not represent the entire industry.

But I've seen data about porn.
They don't exist.

You're saying the ones that exist are flawed?
Yes. Or incomplete. For example, I can tell you that I conducted a study in 2010, but I only interviewed 27 performers for that work. And the 27 people who I interviewed were not representative of the population because they're people who came to me, that I got by a snowball sampling. So I can very easily tell you not one single porn performer wants mandatory condoms based on a study I published. But I would never tell you that that study represents everyone in the performer pool. Because it doesn't. And that's a study that I published in the Stanford Law & Policy Review.

Isn't getting reliable data on porn like that an untenable goal?
There are for-profit market services where you can get people to come in and do focus groups about how they feel about New Coke, or whatever. If somebody were to go to a group like that and say, "Design me a study and get me some numbers," and then go out and get a 10 percent response rate to the survey—that's the same statistically significant figure that any other survey would require—it's as simple as that. It's not different than what you would expect to happen with any other group or organization.

So for all anyone knows, the data might somehow show that condom laws wouldn't keep performers safe?
People have locked into this condom issue as if one way or the other it is going to make or break all of the problems in the industry. But I don't think people even have a full grasp or concept of what the problems—and then solutions to those problems—even are, because nobody is looking at the business on that level. And part of the reason of why that is, is because the industry is very, very secretive and because they're totally stigmatized and all of that, but there's also our fear and revulsion with porn.

OK, but there must be an example from an industry that doesn't scare people so much, right?
The example that I think about here is, what happened recently in LA where they passed the health ordinance that said sushi chefs had to wear gloves, that they couldn't handle food directly. And they repealed it.

That's an interesting example, because I can still remember people having a revulsion toward sushi 25 years ago.
A lot of people don't like porn because they don't know what it is. You still hear rhetoric in the media that equates porn with sex trafficking. You still can read about the phrase "child pornography" that implies that the legitimate legal porn industry is abusing minors, and that's not the case. But sometimes you get people who just don't like porn because they don't like it.

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