Prop 60, which would force male porn performers to wear condoms, isn’t just about condoms. Yes, at the center of this controversial California bill on the ballot this November is the ongoing battle over the adult film industry’s use of condoms to prevent sexually-transmitted infections and diseases, but there’s far more to Prop 60 than meets the eye.
Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, is the man behind Prop 60, or more specifically the “California Safer Sex in the Adult Film Industry Act.” His name is hardly new to adult film producers and performers, as he was also behind 2012’s Measure B, which imposed strict penalties in Los Angeles County for pornographic productions that didn’t use condoms. If it passes, Prop 60 would not only impose the same penalties on productions throughout the state of California, but it would also promote Weinstein to the status of “porn czar.” That proposed power is why the state’s Democratic and Republican parties are both urging Californians to vote no on 60 on November 8.
They’re hardly alone. The state’s biggest newspapers oppose Prop 60, with the Mercury News calling this “the daft idea of giving a California porn czar the power to override the state attorney general.” The San Diego Union-Tribune calls Weinstein’s proposition “excessive” and further details the problem with giving one man the authority to take any case to court himself, should the state refuse to “defend its legality.” Weinstein, both publications argue, would have unimaginable power and to remove him it would take “a majority vote of each house of the Legislature when ‘good cause’ exists to do so.”
The Sacramento Bee calls Prop 60 “well-meaning,” accusing the adult film industry of having “exploited the vulnerable,” but it also commends the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) for doing its best to police the industry in recent years. Ultimately, the Bee is concerned over Weinstein lining his pockets with taxpayer money, calling Prop 60 “a legal overreach and too hardcore.”
The San Francisco Chronicle writes that Prop 60 “invites legal bounty hunting,” because average citizens can file lawsuits and earn a nice payday as whistleblowers. And the Los Angeles Times labeled Prop 60 as “heavy-handed” and touched on the other significant issues, well beyond the idea that this is just about performers using condoms. At risk here are the “small-time performers,” the blue collar pornographers if you will, who would not only be crushed financially by the court fees from even one lawsuit, but also personally exposed to people who want to hurt them.
“Privacy is a huge concern for the performers because of the nature of our industry,” explains Chanel Preston, a performer and chairperson of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee. “We’re prone to people and organizations wanting to attack performers or the industry overall. Anytime there is a tool people can use to hurt the industry, they will use it. When we say this to people, they think we’re exaggerating, but we face threats like this every day. One of the ways they do it is blasting our private information – I’ve had my entire family’s information put on the Internet. I don’t know what people’s obsessions are with revealing our personal information, but they love to do it and any way they can get it and exploit it, they will do it.”
So, why, if both political parties and the state’s major newspapers oppose Prop 60 (some smaller newspapers are in support), is it still favored by voters? Because the adult film industry, despite the revenue it produces, both for the companies and the state, is still the underdog in this fight. Very few politicians are willing to stand up for porn, and Weinstein’s “war chest” is considerable, which is perhaps why he is so positive that Prop 60 will pass.
This is an uphill battle that is, for once, uniting a very divisive industry, and everyone — from the industry’s biggest producers to those blue collar performers — is fighting back to make sure voters know what is really at stake. Whether they’re passing out flyers on college campuses, protesting on the streets, or even blocking porn sites from use in California, they want voters to know that Prop 60 could mean the end of “Porn Valley.”
What is Really at Stake with Prop 60?
“It’s unbelievable and unprecedented,” declares Vivid Entertainment founder and co-chairman Steven Hirsch, who was a vocal opponent of Measure B. Last time, he warned the people of Los Angeles County what would happen if more regulations were passed, and, sure enough, the number of permits pulled in L.A. County for adult film production declined considerably the following year.
“It gives the average citizen the ability to sue any adult performer or anybody who is involved in an adult film if there is no visible condom,” Hirsch said. “If the state decides not to prosecute, then Michael Weinstein would become a state employee and would be able to use state funds to enforce Prop 60. The people who bring these lawsuits stand to benefit if there are any awards. They get 25 percent of any awards, so people are incentivized to go after the performers in adult films. You’ll see a lot of lawsuits and a lot of money wasted.”
While the concern over a “bonanza of lawsuits” PolitiFact has determined is half-true, Weinstein and his Yes on 60 allies have argued that performers will have nothing to worry about, because the law will only affect the people and companies with financial stakes in the productions. However, performers are increasingly serving as producers on their own films and projects. Industry icon Julia Ann is one of the strongest driving forces behind the No on 60 grassroots campaign, and she estimates (NSFW) that as many as 75 percent of performers have financial investments in their projects today. Every one of them would be held accountable, too, if someone fails to wear a condom in a scene.
And yet Prop 60 still looks appealing to the average voter, because there’s no way something that promotes “safer sex” can be a bad thing, right?
“The risk is that anybody who doesn’t have a stake in the adult industry may be blissfully unaware of Prop 60,” says Axel Braun, whose porn parodies of everything from Suicide Squad to Peter Pan have earned him critical acclaim within the industry. “They’ll see the words ‘safer sex act’ on the ballot and they will vote ‘yes’ without wasting a second trying to figure out what it really is. Our voice doesn’t get primetime exposure, and although most people are consumers of our products, nobody cares to acknowledge that we exist, or that we generate over 60,000 jobs a year. We are California’s inconvenient $36 million yearly taxpayers.”
So, why not just wear the condoms? Seems like a simple enough solution. Weinstein’s critics, however, accuse him of being inauthentic in his desire to make the porn business safer. As he told The Guardian in May, his duty is “applying political pressure in places where they’re vulnerable.” In this case, he faults the porn industry for not doing its part in adhering to the law. “I just don’t get why it’s such a sacrifice,” he said of the pushback against condoms; however, the problem might be that he isn’t talking to the right people.
“He certainly, for some reason, doesn’t like the adult film industry,” Hirsch explains. “If he legitimately felt like there is a problem, he should sit down with the performers, producers, and all the people involved in the adult industry and talk about it. Instead, he likes to put out these ballot measures and be very, very public, and we have no choice but to fight back. It’s difficult because he has an unlimited war chest, but we are not going to stop fighting. The adult industry has come together and recognizes just how dangerous this proposition can actually be.”
“If you talk to most adult performers, including myself, we actually would love to have regulation, we would love a politician to back us, we would love for somebody to step in and say, ‘Sex work is okay, what you do as a performer is appreciative in society, and we want to support you, and let’s regulate your industry to make it safer,’” adds performer Tasha Reign, who has taken the No on 60 movement to college campuses. “But nobody has asked us anything. Nobody’s asked us for our voice. Michael Weinstein’s not our voice, he doesn’t have anything to do with the adult industry. We don’t understand why he’s put himself in it. It’s kind of crazy because it’s just so much money.”
While most of the backlash focuses on the financial and health aspects of Prop 60, many performers believe that this is, simply put, an issue of respect and choice.
“As a performer it’s my body, my choice,” explains AVN Hall of Famer Tabitha Stevens. “Every time a person steps into a car and drives down the road it’s their choice to travel knowing full well that there is a chance an accident can happen. It’s called life. Incidentally I, as a performer, have a significantly higher chance of being struck by lightning or being eaten by a shark than contracting HIV on a movie set, especially given the frequent testing and safety practices which are already in place within the industry. It is incredibly rare for HIV to be contracted on a movie set. In fact, it’s been many years since a case of this has happened. The statistics clearly show that it is far more likely for someone to contract HIV out in the general population than while filming a sex scene. Actually astronomically, more likely!”
There’s also the fact that porn sex often doesn’t represent reality. Things happen in adult films that are intended mostly, if not only, for adult films. As such, the standard condom isn’t going to hold up over the course of marathon sex sessions that involve multiple partners. Sten Cade is a film editor and cinematographer, and she got involved with the industry after her wife, Lily Cade, became a performer in 2008. Sten calls Prop 60 “the most horrible and ineffective way” to achieve the goal of implementing universal condom use in porn, because it simply isn’t realistic in terms of comfort.
“While condoms are a fantastic way to prevent the spread of STIs among ‘civilians,’ porn sex is obviously very different from ‘regular’ sex,” she explains. “Most people find using condoms somewhat less comfortable than going without, but when you’re going at it for 45 minutes straight with, to be blunt, much larger-than-average penises, and sometimes several, it becomes very uncomfortable very quickly. It can cause the sorts of chafing and abrasions that actually increase the risk of infections of all kinds. Even with properly fitted condoms, this combination of extra stressors on them means that they break far more often than they do during typical use.”
Of course, some producers and companies actively require their performers to use condoms in every scene, such as Wicked Pictures, which has been condom-only for 15 years. Wicked distributes Braun’s films, and as such he has been condom-mandatory since 2013 because of Measure B. If Prop 60 was simply about making sure everyone wears condoms, Braun would tell a different story.
“Unfortunately, this proposition is not just about condoms,” he says. “It’s about trying to systematically destroy the adult industry by enabling whistleblowers and private citizens to sue producers, distributors, and performers for any ‘suspected violations,’ and collect 25 percent of any and all fines imposed. It’s about creating chaos and the loss of tens of millions of dollars for California.
“It’s bad news for everybody. Prop 60 could not be implemented as written without being deemed impartial. To function without prejudice, it would have to also apply to all mainstream media with sexual content (movies, reality shows, cable dramas, etc…) beyond hardcore, and include scrutiny against the threat of STDs as well as HIV. This is not just a free speech issue, it’s a human rights issue. This law permits agents of the government to enter private property at will, without a warrant, to inspect the genitals of consenting adults engaged in deeply intimate activity. Consensual sex, bodily autonomy, and sexual agency are core personal liberties. The idea that one’s rights and liberties disappear as soon as one elects to do it for commercial gain is baffling.”
Can the Adult Film Industry Simply Leave California?
“There’s a lot of bad information,” Preston says of the industry’s reputation and testing procedures, but the performers and producers tell us companies have worked very hard to protect everyone. Bottom line, Hirsch says: “There is no issue with HIV in the adult industry. It has been over 10 years since there was a case where HIV was transmitted within the adult industry. We have testing that’s in place, and the testing works well. There’s no reason for this.”
While the performers admit that the industry is far from perfect, significant progress has been made in both testing and working with Cal/OSHA to ensure that all performers are safe. Obviously, this doesn’t include companies that operate “underground,” meaning that they avoid or ignore the state’s laws on condom use and the industry’s testing policies, but the industry has also gone to great lengths to exclude performers who refuse to be tested. A better solution, some suggest, is more funding for Cal/OSHA.
“We are already making progress working with Cal/OSHA to develop regulations that actually make sense, and we don’t need Michael Weinstein or, indeed, California voters, insisting that they know our industry better than we do,” Sten explains. “Adult performers are infantilized enough as it is.”
As a representative of her industry, Preston is not only adamant that performers and producers are doing the best they can to keep everyone safe, but she’s proud of the process they have in place and the progress they’ve made on their own terms.
“A lot of people don’t know that we already have regulations in place,” she says. “We follow a strict testing protocol with a full-panel test every 14 days. The tests that we use are the best possible tests you can get. Even our HIV test isn’t available to the general public, usually, because it’s very expensive. That has worked for people. There’s this assumption that condoms keep people the safest, and in the general public that’s actually true. When you don’t know someone’s status, then a condom is the best way to go; however, in our industry that’s not the case. This bill is asking people to use a means of protection that the performers feel could keep them less safe, compared to the current standards.”
Even as the major newspapers urge Californians to vote no on 60, it’s not as if they’re all now allies of the industry. In the Mercury News editorial, the board took a shot at the industry’s past threats of leaving California for good, writing: “We won’t shed any tears if an industry that’s demeaning to women, addictive and emotionally damaging moves to another state.” That kind of language certainly makes an already uphill battle harder for these performers and entrepreneurs.
“Perhaps the Mercury News doesn’t care about this, and they are welcome to their opinions, but there’s a certain cultural element that ‘Porn Valley’ brings to Los Angeles,” Sten offers in defense of the industry. “A deep part of the city’s history and fabric, an integral part of celebrity and rock culture, would be irreplaceably lost if our industry were to be put out of business. I can see why ‘respectable’ people might hold their nose up at that, but I think that would be a real loss, and I know I’m not the only one.”
“We’re talking about freedoms here,” Stevens says. “We are often treated like lesser humans, demonized, treated like trash so it doesn’t surprise me that people can’t get over their own insecurities. They don’t want to see the good they would rather posture in their self-righteous bullshit than see the truth. Porn contributes tons of money.”
And yet the industry continues to deal with this attitude: “If you don’t like it, leave.” Some companies have left, as Measure B forced producers out of L.A. County to other parts of California or Las Vegas. But why should the rest leave? Could the rest just up and leave? Most of all, will they leave?
“We will leave,” Hirsch says, very matter-of-factly. “You already don’t see any production in L.A. County and the industry absolutely, one hundred percent will leave California. I know Michael Weinstein continues to say, ‘They can’t move,’ but we can move and we will move.”
Preston agrees. “I think people will leave. Companies have already moved to Vegas, and I think there are companies that are preparing for the possibility that they’ll have to move.”
Not everyone is sold on the mass exodus, however. “Why should we have to leave,” Reign asks. “I’m not going to. I love my house in Hollywood, I’m not leaving anywhere.” While she only performs about once a month, she says she’s ready to simply retire if Prop 60 passes and, as she puts it, “criminalizes the adult film industry.”
If performers and companies don’t leave, the sky very well could fall on them and the behind-the-scenes people who help produce the films. This industry is just like any other, in that there are people who rely on productions for income to support their families. “The reality is that a lot of small companies will disappear,” Braun explains, “and there will be a lot less work for local performers, crew members, editors, graphic designers, makeup artists, and all other professionals connected to the adult industry.”
Performers have families, too. They’re people who have bills to pay, rent and mortgage to cover, and food to put on the table for their kids. They worry about the next paycheck just like everyone else, and if the industry is decentralized and companies begin moving elsewhere, that will force a lot of performers to work with “underground” companies that they don’t trust. In more extreme cases, the performers who are protected and cared for within the industry could end up working as escorts.
“This bill could decentralize the industry,” Preston says. “What’s nice about having this ‘Mecca of porn’ is that we create and set the standards for the rest of the industry. If we’re fragmented, that will be really difficult to do. It will be difficult for performers to even make a career out of this if there are companies all over the United States and not a lot of companies in one area. For the top ten percent of performers, companies are willing to fly them out, but they don’t do that for the bottom 80 or 90 percent. It’s up to the performer to be where the work is. There are a lot of performers who are very scared.”
Preston also noted the effect Prop 60 could have on entrepreneurial performers who go out on their own to try to make a buck.
“You have this image of a producer being a large company; in our industry that’s not the case, there’s not enough work to go around,” Preston explained. “People can’t make a living by waiting by the phone. So a lot of performers produce their own content, they run a clip site, they share other people’s content, they run a webcam, there’s merchandising, custom videos for people – there are all kinds of ways that performers make money where they could be held liable under Prop 60.”
If the worst happens, someone like Sten, with her extensive background, should be able to apply her talents in mainstream entertainment, but she says that most companies disregard her porn background as if it doesn’t count.
“The way Prop 60 is written, it’s not at all clear that even moving out of state would protect anyone,” Sten says. “We are left with no choice but to find new careers or risk an unacceptable level of personal and financial danger. Even that is not a particularly viable option, since, as I’m sure you can imagine, finding a new career after porn is an incredibly difficult thing. The stigma is still deep and powerful, and very few employers respect our work experience or the business acumen it takes to hustle work, create and promote a brand, make and edit content, manage finances, advertise, maintain social media, and all the other things that performers have to do to make a living in today’s industry.”
In her doomsday scenario, she and Lily, like others, would probably stay in California and run independent operations. Quality would take a hit, obviously, and they’d still be up against the bigger companies, wherever they might land. Performers who stick around will be forced to accept lower rates, because the industry’s top 10 percent, as Preston puts it, will follow the bigger companies to Vegas, or perhaps even Europe.
This is what Californians don’t know, because the porn industry doesn’t have a mainstream voice. As such, performers have joined together for this grassroots campaign to try to spread the word as voting day nears.
“We are historically a very divided industry, and yet I have never seen so much unity in the current fight against Prop 60,” Braun says. “I am cautiously optimistic.”