SF AIDS Walk Raises 2 Million: Why Real Activism Isn't About Slut Shaming Porn Stars

BEIJING - JULY 11: Detail of clothing material made from condoms and worn by a model during the 4th China Reproductive Health New Technologies and Products Expo at the Beijing Exhibition Centre on July 11, 2007 in Beijing, China. The organizers hope the exhibition will promote the use of condoms for the prevention of HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases as well as a means of contraception. (Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images)
Source: Feng Li/Getty Images News/Getty Images

More than 20,000 people raised over two million dollars Sunday at the 2014 San Francisco AIDS Walk. Now in its 27th year, the annual walk raises money that goes towards stopping new infections and supporting those already living with HIV and Aids across the Bay Area. That is truly wonderful, but what's lesser known is that yesterday's walk took place in the shadow of a pernicious new bill passed by the California Senate's Labour committee last month. It now moves to the Appropriations committee. If it's approved there — which is highly likely — it will become law soon after.

The bill, AB1576, is co-sponsored by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, but will do little to help those actually suffering from AIDS — and everything to further stigmatize porn performers, who are being incorrectly identified as a major source of HIV/AIDS infection. 

Those that make the case for condoms compare condoms to hard hats on construction sites. But as performer-campaigner Lorelei Lee pointed out at the hearing, "hard hats don’t harm their wearers."

Modeled on LA County's Measure BCalifornia State Bill AB1576 requires that porn performers use condoms during filmed anal and/or vaginal sex scenes, that employers pay for HIV testing, that performers consent to disclose to the state's occupational safety board that they took HIV tests, and that the board be allowed to compel employers to disclose "any additional information" it requires. 

You don't need to be pro-porn to understand that such invasive requirements compromise performers' privacy. This bill can only exacerbate the way America treats workers in the porn industry — a legal business sector it is happy to make millions of tax dollars from — as dirty criminals (it was only in May that JP Morgan Chase shut down the personal bank accounts of porn performers for no apparent reason). 

Condoms speak to our common sense about safe sex — after all, when used correctly, they are 98 per cent effective in preventing pregnancy. They are also the most effective barrier method against the STIs gonorrhea, chlamydia and trichomoniasis, and they even reduce the risk of HPV contraction. But counterintuitively, they can actually be hazardous to a performer’s health. 

For starters, condoms were never designed for the endless starts, stops, and repeat takes of the porn set, which means they can make vaginal and anal intercourse more painful and potentially harmful. Those who make the case for condoms compare condoms to hard hats on construction sites. But as performer-campaigner Lorelei Lee pointed out at the hearing, "Hard hats don’t harm their wearers."

What’s more, condoms don’t always protect against the whole host of STIs, including genital warts, herpes, or syphilis — which means they would have done nothing to help with the 2012 syphilis outbreak in the porn industry. Instead, it was the industry itself that issued a moratorium on shooting that allowed the spread to be contained. 

Meanwhile, condom-only sets, popular in the gay segment of the industry, have still had HIV transmissions. Testing is vital for keeping performers safe and healthy, which is why the industry itself, along with medical and legal experts, developed its own PASS (Performer Availability Screen Service), which requires testing every 14 days. 

Yet California Assemblyman Isadore Hall claims that his law is needed because "the industry has never offered a single reasonable suggestion to universally protect its workers and now opposes the very STD testing protocol that they developed and inconsistently use."

Nobody would argue against keeping people in the porn industry safe — particularly the performers themselves. But why are politicians so concerned about the HIV status of the porn industry when just 22 performers were confirmed HIV positive between 2004 and 2009, with none of those being on-set transmissions? By comparison, 7000 Californians a year are diagnosed with HIV, the majority of whom have nothing to do with the porn industry. 

As Senator Holly Mitchell, who voted for the bill, made a point of saying at the hearing that the legislation does not seem to address "the demographic actually at risk" for HIV transmission — African Americans, and African-American women in particular. (Notably, AIDS Lifecycle reports that survival rates after HIV diagnosis are lowest amongst African-Americans.

If the bill's sponsors were serious about reducing HIV and AIDS in California, they'd do far better to spend the money it will now take to implement the bill on education, clinic access, and research into how substance abuse, incarceration, and poverty increase the risk of infection and transmission. 

Given that so many HIV cases in South California are attributable to intravenous drug use, clean needle exchanges would have a demonstrable and immediate effect in reducing the infection rate. So would a campaign to encourage testing, given that there 1 in 5 Americans with HIV aren't aware of the fact that they have it

As queer porn performer Jiz Lee testified at a hearing in Sacramento, "This effort isn't helping communities who are actually at risk." It’s for this reason that Senator Mark Leno, who reminded those attending the hearing that he lost his partner to AIDS, voted against bill AB1576. And as the fundraisers at San Francisco's AIDS Walk well know, the HIV and AIDS transmission and infection rates still gripping the city, the state, and America, are in a real crisis. 

Further stigmatizing those in the porn industry by blaming them — and by extension further stigmatizing those with HIV and AIDS as sexually promiscuous — is certainly not the answer. 

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