Performer Safety, and The Law of Unintended Consequences

Sep 20, 2013
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A “porn tagger” says adult performers mustn’t be treated like victims in need of protection.

I got the job from a friend who couldn’t handle the sight of so many naked women. “I thought,” she said, “that my lady parts were unique and special.” She looked out the window and sighed a little. “They are not.”

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The job was to watch porn. The office was a Bay Area dotcom, circa 2008. My assignment was to tag each actor in these videos by attributes (hair color, breast size) and tag each sex act. That way, a subscriber could easily search our database and filter out everything but, say, group sex featuring brunettes.

Then I would identify the actors by name, so that they could be sorted into a searchable database that would show our compliance with what are known as “2257 reporting requirements,” a part of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, to ensure that no performers in these clips were under the age of 18.

Sometimes identifying the actors was easy. They would say their names at the beginning of a video (“Hi, I’m Tammy Jenkins, this is Mark Jones, and you’re watching A Simple Tale of Butts VIII!”).

Sometimes I would find myself staring into a writhing spaghetti pile of women, all more or less the same hue of tan, the same shade of blondness and the same shape of bosom, and I would try to pretend that I was plucky and I could do this: I was Nancy Drew in The Case of the Indeterminate Orgy.

Other times, I was confronted with complete enigmas, like the performer who was nothing but a penis poking out of a pink bunny suit. When that occurred, I would call over my supervisor, a somewhat bitter man who had been doing this so long that he could identify most of the 20 or so men who worked regularly in straight porn by crotch shot alone.

This was bargain-basement porn, sex carried out by people who were doing two shoots a day, four or five days a week, often on what appeared to be the same sofa, which remained a mute witness to their exertions, stabbed with gold high heels, but never punctured. None of the performers were paid much — between $150 and $300 a shoot. I knew this because I had access to their contracts.

My career as a porn tagger didn’t last long. I was slow, because I had secretly begun listening to radio documentaries instead of the porn audio. Also, my supervisor criticized me for cataloging performers as having real boobs when to him they were clearly fake. I was embarrassed: to me they had jiggled plausibly. When the job ended, I was relieved.

I’ve been thinking of that job again amid reports that several porn actors — first two, then three, with rumors of a possible fourth — have tested positive for HIV. The news has heightened an ongoing debate over whether porn actors should be, or even could be, forced to use condoms. A law that would mandate condom use in any pornographic film made in the state of California, AB-640, died last week in the state senate. But L.A. County successfully passed a similar law, Measure B, last November.

Pornography is work that deserves to be safe. Like nursing, boxing and other bodily-fluid-intensive jobs, that safety is going to be complicated. What I do know from my brief time in the industry is that a lot of the laws that get proposed to make porn safer have unexpected side effects — some of which are just as bad as the original problem.

Take condom use. Condoms are already the standard in one fairly substantial sector of the porn industry: gay porn. But the last time a porn actor tested positive for HIV, in 2010, he told the Los Angeles Times he believed he had caught the virus on a gay porn shoot where condoms were used.

Porn sex can go on for an hour at a time, and everything is more transmissible, even with protection. In gay porn, condoms are common but testing is rare. By contrast, actors working in straight porn get tested for HIV and other STDs every few weeks, as part of voluntary industry standards. If condom use were mandatory, such standards could fall by the wayside.

Or consider the elaborate databases people like me helped to create in order to protect against underage pornography.

The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act reporting requirements seem to have done a good job of keeping people under 18 out of the porn industry, but they have done so by compromising the personal information of every person over the age of 18 who has ever worked in porn, or erotic modeling, no matter how briefly. Even as a contract worker with no background check, I had access to the addresses, Social Security numbers, real names and unflattering ID photos of every porn actor or actress that I identified. I could have used their information to commit credit-card fraud.

It’s always easy — and it plays well on camera — to call for a simple new law. But the creation of low-cost health clinics with staff members who are trained to work with sex performers
would probably do much more to protect people’s safety and privacy. That’s harder than just passing legislation, but we’re far more likely to help porn performers if we treat them less as victims in need of protection and more as workers with a stake — and an interest — in their own safety.

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