Be­ware the porn po­lice

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - By Conor Friedersdorf Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at the At­lantic and found­ing edi­tor of the Best of Jour­nal­ism email newsletter.

In Cal­i­for­nia, road crews wear safety vests, win­dow wash­ers clip into har­nesses and pizza de­liv­ery boys must buckle up. Should adult film ac­tors also be forced to use protective gear?

Un­der newly pro­posed rules, OSHA, the state agency charged with main­tain­ing safety and health in the work­place, would force adult film ac­tors to use con­doms when per­form­ing any­where in the Golden State. (Los An­ge­les County be­gan man­dat­ing con­dom use in 2012.) The new rules would also re­quire eye pro­tec­tion in some scenes to pre­vent the trans­mis­sion of STDs through mu­cus mem­branes.

As jour­nal­ist Michael E. Miller put it: “A hand­some de­liv­ery man ar­rives of­fer­ing more than just a pizza. A pretty young woman opens the door. Flir­ta­tion en­sues. Clothes are cast off. Then out come the gog­gles.”

This is good news for gog­gle fetishists. But porn in­dus­try rep­re­sen­ta­tives in­sist that the typ­i­cal porn con­sumer doesn’t want his fan­tasy dulled by any sort of pro­phy­lac­tic and that fre­quent STD testing — which the in­dus­try has man­dated since 2004 — of­fers all the pro­tec­tion that ac­tors need. They also ar­gue that if Cal­i­for­nia keeps im­pos­ing new rules, the in­dus­try will move to other ju­ris­dic­tions where there’s less reg­u­la­tion. In­deed, re­quir­ing con­doms in L.A. co­in­cided with a steep decline in the num­ber of per­mits sought for X-rated pro­duc­tions in the county.

The adult in­dus­try has been at odds with state of­fi­cials be­fore.

When Ron­ald Rea­gan was in­au­gu­rated gover­nor of Cal­i­for­nia in 1967, he de­cried the “harm­ful ef­fects of ex­po­sure to smut and pornog­ra­phy.” He would soon tar­get what he char­ac­ter­ized as “the flood of porno­graphic ma­te­rial now avail­able on our news­stands.” Later, as pres­i­dent, he presided over an FBI crack­down on porn and asked his at­tor­ney gen­eral to doc­u­ment its ills.

The pornog­ra­phers of the Rea­gan years could scarcely dream of a fu­ture in which so­cial lib­er­als con­trolled the state­house, the Leg­is­la­ture and the popular mores of their state. In to­day’s Hol­ly­wood, sex tapes are of­ten ca­reer boost­ers. And nei­ther the gover­nor nor the Demo­cratic cau­cus in the Leg­is­la­ture seems re­motely con­cerned about porn’s ef­fect on the soul. Yet some pro­gres­sives are con­cerned about porn’s ef­fect on that in­dus­try’s work­ers.

The new sex po­lice are as ir­ra­tional as the old.

The work­ers most likely to be killed as a re­sult of their jobs are log­gers, fish­er­men, pi­lots, roofers, garbage col­lec­tors, min­ers, truck driv­ers, sales­peo­ple, farm­ers, power-line tech­ni­cians, con­struc­tion work­ers and taxi driv­ers. That list, gleaned from a Bureau of La­bor Statis­tics re­port, goes on at some length. Porno­graphic act­ing is safe enough not to make an ap­pear­ance.

A lead­ing pro­po­nent of the work­place safety rules, Michael We­in­stein of the AIDS Health­care Foun­da­tion, has asked porn pro- duc­ers, “What’s the ac­cept­able num­ber of in­fec­tions that peo­ple should have to be sub­jected to when they go to work?”

Putting aside the fact that, in Cal­i­for­nia, there were zero proven on-set HIV trans­mis­sions be­tween 2005 and 2014, one might as well ask, “What’s the ac­cept­able num­ber of car wrecks to which taxi driv­ers should be sub­jected?” or “What’s the ac­cept­able num­ber of con­ve­nience store clerks killed by thieves while work­ing overnight shifts?” or “What’s the ac­cept­able num­ber of light­ning strikes to which golfers should be sub­jected?”

Small risks of in­jury or even death are un­avoid­able if many jobs are to be done well. Driv­ing a cab, fish­ing for tuna and play­ing golf dur­ing months with thun­der­storms are all more sta­tis­ti­cally danger­ous than cre­at­ing porn with­out gog­gles. And free peo­ple should re­tain the right to weigh the costs and benefits of tak­ing on such risks rather than be­ing forced to, say, pull their taxis to the side of the road dur­ing rain­storms, shut­ter their stores af­ter dark or golf with wooden clubs to stave off elec­tro­cu­tion.

Re­quir­ing adult ac­tors to wear con­doms is bur­den­some but not ab­surd. Man­dat­ing gog­gles, how­ever, strays into ridicu­lous ter­rain.

If the state out­laws sex on cam­era with­out gog­gles, who knows which of our liveli­hoods they’ll con­strain next?

There is, fi­nally, a strange­ness to new pornog­ra­phy reg­u­la­tions in an era when a right to per­sonal au­ton­omy is thought to pro­tect ev­ery­thing from abor­tion to BDSM to polyamorous or­gies.

Writer and mu­si­cian James Pou­los has ex­plained what’s be­hind this seem­ing con­tra­dic­tion, ob­serv­ing that “where so­cial or in­ter­per­sonal free­dom is val­ued much more than po­lit­i­cal free­dom, gov­ern­ment be­comes as­sertive in re­strict­ing ‘un­healthy’ and ‘risky’ ac­tiv­ity,” even as it broad­ens out­lets for in­di­vid­u­als to pur­sue plea­sure in ways re­garded as safe. The re­sult, he says, is a gov­ern­ment that is both more per­mis­sive and more in­tru­sive: So­ci­ety is sex­u­al­ized, even as more of life falls within an of­fi­cial sphere “char­ac­ter­ized by the pur­suit of health and se­cu­rity: the clean, safe but co­er­cively ster­ile world.”

This ap­proach to reg­u­lat­ing porn may ul­ti­mately threaten the in­dus­try more than any pu­ri­tan­i­cal attack. By­gone at­tempts at cen­sor­ship in­creased porn’s ap­peal by mak­ing it seem transgressive. As to­day’s reg­u­la­tors strive to make porn clean, safe and ster­ile, they de­stroy the essence of a prod­uct many seek out as an es­cape pre­cisely be­cause it seems dirty and danger­ous.

Is sex with gog­gles safer? Well, it’s cer­tainly dumber.

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