The failure to block the pro-condom ballot, for all their political leverage and wealthy donors, is a knock for Big Porn’s exploiters
As an anti-porn feminist academic and activist, I am often accused of being in bed with the right. Well, the time has officially come for the pro-porn camp to stop worrying about my bedmates, because they seem to be the ones who are cosying up to some very strange bedfellows indeed.
Who, for example, would have believed that the pornographers would end up in the same corner as the Los Angeles County Republican Women’s Federation? This was just one of the groups, along with the Los Angeles County Republican party, that supported the porn industry’s efforts to stop the Los Angeles County ballot initiative that would require condoms to be used for vaginal and anal sex in porn films shot in the county. Known as Measure B, and authored by the Aids Healthcare Foundation (AHF), this initiative also requires porn film producers to obtain public health permits. Repeated failure to do so could result in civil fines or misdemeanor charges.
Even though there was a massive campaign against this measure – orchestrated by the porn industry and supported by business organizations such as the San Gabriel Valley Legislative Coalition of Chambers of Commerce and the Valley Industry and Commerce Association (Vica), which proudly boasts that it “promotes a pro-business agenda” – the measure passed on 6 November, with 55.9% of the vote. It is worth noting that some of the “premier partners” of Vica include Chase Bank, Walmart, Southwest Airlines and Vons (a Safeway company). With friends like these, it is clear that the pornographers’ carefully crafted image as a bunch of cool, hip, renegade artists at the cutting edge of protecting our fantasies and freedoms is bogus. They are in bed with the big boys of American capitalism, and the fact that a non-profit group such as AHF won is a rare instance in this country of David beating Goliath. It’s no surprise that the mainstream media has virtually ignored this, because it shows just how a well-organized, committed and dedicated group of activists can fight and win against corporate power.
And there was lots of corporate power fighting the measure. One of the biggest contributors to the effort to defeat Measure B was Manwin, which can best be described as a foreign-based porn cartel. In addition to Los Angeles, Manwin maintains offices in Montreal, Canada; London, United Kingdom; Hamburg, Germany and Nicosia, Cyprus. Manwin owns a number of well-trafficked internet porn sites such as MoFo’s and Brazzers, as well as most of the popular so-called “free porn” sites that are actually major conduits of traffic to its for-pay websites. The two controlling agents are non-US nationals: Fabian Thylmann, whose residence is listed as Brussels, Belgium, and Andrew Link, whose residence is listed as Montreal, Canada. Given this fact, the Aids Healthcare Foundation has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission regarding violation of the prohibition on political contributions by foreign nationals.
According to records obtained by the AHF, Manwin not only donated over $300,000 to fight Measure B, but also had banner ads reading “Vote No on B” splashed across its porn sites. On its Brazzers site, the banner was directly above an image of a woman being anally penetrated by a condom-free penis. In addition to Manwin, questionable supporters opposing the measure included the Coalition for Senior Citizenry, which gives its address as 2350 Hidalgo Avenue, Los Angeles, but has a disconnected phone number; and the Council of Concerned Women Voters, which has no phone number and no web presence – and also resides at 2350 Hidalgo Avenue, Los Angeles. Along with support from these purported grassroots, or “astroturf”, organizations, money flowed in from major studios such as Vivid and porn companies like Flynt Management Group, and John Stagliano, owner of the hardcore porn company called Evil Angel.
Echoing the usual ideology of the right wing of the Republican party, the anti-Measure B campaign had three main purposes: to promote the economic benefits of the sector to the regional economy; to deny a need for governmental regulation; and to encourage workers to make their own choices, however dangerous or exploitative the conditions. The campaign committee against Measure B was established through the Free Speech Coalition, which is the lobbying arm of the porn industry.
Diane Duke, the group’s executive director, is on record as saying that Measure B was not about “performer health and safety”, but rather about “government regulating what happens between consenting adults”. So, in place of employees being paid per scene by porn owners who control their wages and working conditions, the industry reframes workers as “consenting adults” having sex that just so happens to end up on film that is distributed through porn industry websites and generates profits for its capitalist owners. This is like those Walmart ads that depict its “associates” as retirees who love hanging out at the store because everyone at Walmart is just so nice and friendly.
As a way to further render invisible the power inequality between the owners of porn companies and their employees, the industry used some performers to make the case that Measure B was an infringement on workers’ rights. Porn actress Amber Lynn was quoted as saying that:
“The idea of allowing a government employee to come and examine our genitalia while we’re on set is atrocious.”
Nina Hartley, a long-time performer and pornographer, sounded like a character out of Orwell’s 1984 when she explained that condoms are actually dangerous to the performers’ health because “condom burn … can create micro abrasions in the vagina or anal canal,” exposing them to potential pathogens.
Anyone familiar with mainstream porn knows that it is the pounding anal, vaginal and oral sex that causes a whole host of health problems, not to mention the saliva, semen, urine and feces that are ever-present on the set. Many of today’s mainstream porn movies feature only hardcore brutal sex that often includes women being penetrated by three men at the same time, while they spit in her mouth, pull her hair and push her body to its limits of endurance. The now-shuttered Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation, which was the Los Angeles-based voluntary organization in charge of testing performers, included a list on its website of possible injuries and diseases to which porn performers were prone. These included HIV; rectal and throat gonorrhea; tearing of the throat, vagina and anus; and chlamydia of the eye. Nowhere will you find a currently-employed porn performer talking honestly about the type of bodily injuries that occur on the set for fear of industry retaliation.
In a study due to be published in the December 2012 issue of Sexually Transmitted Diseases that examined 168 sex industry performers (67% were female and 33% were male), 47 (28%) were diagnosed with a total of 96 infections. Even more troubling, according to the authors, was that the porn industry’s “protocols” significantly under-diagnose infections; 95% of oropharyngeal and 91% of rectal infections were asymptomatic, which, the authors argue, make them more likely to be passed on to partners both in and out of the sex industry. These findings led the authors to conclude that:
“Adult film industry performers in California are workers in a legal industry and should be subject to the same workplace safety standards from which workers in other industries benefit.”
Why has the porn industry been allowed to get away with this for so long? A couple of obvious reasons include the revenue that it generates for Los Angeles and the political power of the pornographers. A hint of the latter was found in a fawning article in the New York Times on Hustler owner Larry Flynt. Brooks Barnes, the author, reports that his interview with Flynt was interrupted by a phone call from Governor Jerry Brown of California. According to Barnes:
“Mr Flynt apologized and took the call, saying that the governor, pushing a 6 November ballot measure to increase taxes, probably wanted money for the campaign.”
The phone call ended with Flynt saying, “Have your girl [sic] call my office with the information.” As well as being buddies with politicians, the multibillion-dollar porn industry in Los Angeles interfaces with local venture capitalists, banks, real estate companies and credit card companies – not to mention all the allied industries it supports: film companies, sound studios, editors, software developer, and a whole host of pimps who rent their “commodities” out to the industry, film by film. No surprise that the industry used the threat of leaving Los Angeles if Measure B was passed.
The porn industry, like all industries, is promiscuous when it comes to jumping into bed with anyone who will support a neoliberal agenda of deregulation and market growth. Industry owners don’t care if the performers suffer from diseases, ripped orifices or emotional trauma. What they care about is making a profit, and it is about time their supporters stopped mouthing platitudes about fantasy and sexual empowerment, and instead, wised up to the public health risk that porn poses to us all, because we now have a generation of boys (and, to a lesser extent, girls) being groomed to believe that hot sex is sex without a condom. Measure B is only the first step in the fight against this industry, but the AHF has shown that, when activists organize, even a well-oiled corporate machine is vulnerable. This should be a lesson to activists everywhere.
And for all those out there interested in who radical feminists are in bed with, I can promise that we have never – not once, ever – snuggled up with the Los Angeles County Republican Women’s Federation or, for that matter, the San Gabriel Valley Legislative Coalition of Chambers of Commerce.