The Harvard Crimson Weighs in On Measure B

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from – In November, Los Angeles County passed the Safer Sex in the Adult Film Industry Act, also known as Measure B. The law requires the use of condoms by performers in pornographic films.

The law has yet to be effectively enforced, but on June 11, the Los Angeles City Council passed a measure that would put more pressure on production companies to abide by the rules that went into effect in early 2013.

The enforcement of the measure could certainly have broad economic implications for the industry. The jury’s still out on its potential efficacy, but either way, it’s easy to see how Measure B might affect Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) prevention and promote public health.

Also, importantly this measure allows to us focus on how the debate over condoms in pornography speaks to the way we think and talk about sex in public discourse.

Proponents of the measure argue that not only will the law make sex safer within the adult film industry, but that it might also help to increase condom usage in everyday sexual encounters.

The idea is that what arouses people when they are by themselves influences what they want with a partner. It does seem intuitive that porn often affects the way we think about sex. Porn provides the rare opportunity to watch other people have sex; the lack of condoms in porn could create the perception that most people don’t actually use them.

Adult filmmakers and actors see this law as a huge threat to the industry. Porn performers have argued that, given that sex in these films is often prolonged and rough, using condoms during filming can be incredibly uncomfortable and often painful for female performers.

Moreover, the friction caused by this kind of prolonged condom use can actually make them more susceptible to STIs. They also argue that the industry-wide testing standards are actually far safer than a condom requirement. But what’s really sending the industry into a panic is a perceived economic threat: Their viewers simply don’t want to see condoms in their porn.

It might be because so much of porn is fantasy—an escape from the ugly realities of sex. Porn sex is often messy, illicit, and dangerous, but it exists in a world free from consequences. People don’t want to see condoms in porn because they like their porn world to be free of STIs and pregnancy.

But associations between condoms and real-world sex are complicated as well. Condoms are clear signifiers of sex, but they’re not sexy. They can be seen as a sign of sexual responsibility, but they can also be seen as a sign of promiscuity. They connote the possibility and availability of sex, yet in a flesh and blood sexual encounter, condoms can be a turnoff.

This split in the way we think about condoms speaks to the way we think about sex more generally.

But why is this separation a problem? Sex is often an issue of public health and of promoting tolerance and understanding. Creating a public perception of sex that is often very different from the way we actually have sex can lead to restrictive and sometimes dangerous social conditions. It’s what allows communities to advocate abstinence-only education while also practicing unsafe sex. And it’s part of what gets in the way of our use of condoms in everyday sexual encounters.

This dichotomy can often be broken down into separation of public and private spheres of sexuality. When we talk about sex publicly, we are really talking about relationships and culture. In an intimate moment, however, our understanding of sex operates very differently. Sex becomes a matter of the partners and bodies involved, not a matter of culture.

The debate over Measure B is important because talking about porn has the potential to straddle this divide. It is the private made public.

Gerard Damiano, the director of the seminal 1972 pornographic film Deep Throat, predicted that the porn and mainstream film industry would merge. This turned out not to be true.

The enormous mainstream interest in Deep Throat turned out to be an anomaly. Today, the multi-billion dollar porn industry is a defining part of sexual culture, and yet porn is still seen as something private: When we think of watching porn, we think of closed doors, headphones, and incognito browsers. The hidden nature of porn-viewing may not be universally true, but culture does tend to wall off pornography from mainstream discourse.

Measure B is so divisive in part because it brings the supposedly seedy underbelly of the porn industry into mainstream political discourse.

Mainstream culture is not yet equipped to engage in a real dialogue about pornography because we are reluctant to engage both the public and private sides of sexuality. In this debate, porn is dragged into the entirely public sphere of politics, in which condoms can effectively signify sexual acts, whereas within pornography, condoms carry their private “unsexy” image.

Measure B is a missed opportunity to engage in fruitful discourse about the separation of private and public understandings of sexuality.

The government is taking a positive step in recognizing the influence of the semi-private/semi-public pornography world on everyday sexual practices, but it fails to recognize that the public is not yet prepared to bridge the gap between a sociopolitical understanding of sex and sex as we actually practice it.

Whether or not this measure is the right call for public health and the adult entertainment industry, the dialogue around the controversy suggests that we need to rethink the way we talk about sex. There is more to this debate than just the health of performers or the financial stability of the industry; our cultural sexual discourse and the way we have sex are less aligned than we might like to admit.

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