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Porn Stars vs. High Schoolers: Who Needs Condoms More?

By Mathew Rodriguez

January 10, 2013

Let me begin by saying that I am a huge condom advocate. I have a box of condoms in my own bedside dresser, and carry around a few with me in my bag at any time. No, not only for myself. I give them out to friends, acquaintances, anyone who asks me for one. The use of condoms has increased significantly since the genesis of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s to the point where they are ubiquitous in all supermarkets and discount department stores. One day, I hope to see them moved out of stores, divorced from the marketplace, and made available, free-of-charge, everywhere. They should be subsidized by a government that cares about the preventative health of its citizens.

When it comes to sexual health and empowerment, this tiny ring of rubber makes a tangible difference; and I always advocate condom use -- for those who want to use them. As a sex-positive feminist who believes in open conversations about sex, sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and sexual pleasure, condoms must always be a part of the conversation, not the whole kit and caboodle. Lately, condoms have entered our national conversation in two distinct ways: via Los Angeles, where Measure B has put into place strict laws requiring actors in pornographic films to wear condoms when filming pornographic scenes; and via Philadelphia, where about a third of high schools will now have free condom dispensers.

Between the reactive measures taken in Philadelphia and the stigmatizing measures enacted in L.A., this truly is a tale of two cities. The Philadelphia school system's measure to place condom dispensers in a school setting is invaluable. America, take note. The measure was implemented after 5 percent of Philadelphia high schoolers tested positive for STDs -- including, in some cases, HIV. With one revolutionary stroke, Philadelphia has taken a tiny rubber barrier meant to protect from disease and broken down a big cultural barrier between public education and sexual education -- that barrier we know as "abstinence-only" education.

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Measure B, also known as the Safer Sex in the Adult Film Industry Act, is a measure that was put up for majority vote in L.A. County on Nov. 6, 2012. Seeking the imposition of condom use in all pornography scenes involving vaginal or anal sex, the measure passed with 57 percent of the vote. The law was heralded by many, including Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, who claims that bareback sex encourages real-life barebacking. Opponents of the measure included many porn performers, such as James Deen; both the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Daily News also opposed the measure. Those who opposed the ban cited mostly economic reasons -- entire companies would leave L.A., which would lose beaucoup tax money; and taxpayers would now be paying several government employees to do nothing but sit around porn sets and examine porn actors' genitalia.

Philadelphia's decision to make condoms available came after concrete evidence that STDs and HIV were a real problem among its teenagers. Also, as teenagers, they need the empowerment and guidance that leads to good sexual health practices. The move showed that Philadelphia cared about young people's bodies, and especially the bodies and health of young people of color. In the fight against HIV and other STDs, young people and people of color are often forgotten, and this measure is meant to ameliorate many of those inconsistencies in terms of access to prevention and sexual education.

While Philadelphia's measure of condom availability was built to counteract years of doing ill by our nation's teenagers, L.A.'s anti-barebacking referendum was clearly born out of a very different kind of paternalism: stigma. And, coincidentally, it was the pornographic actors who got the raw deal -- their work was affected, their industry scapegoated and their genitalia demonized. In fact, much of the rhetoric used by proponents of Measure B said that pornography promoted unsafe sex through its fantastical images of raw sex. Does anyone see the major rhetorical difference here? While in Philadelphia, condoms were meant to protect our youth, the referendum in L.A. was not really meant to protect porn actors, but rather these bodies were even further objectified -- this time as vehicles on which the government could further a public health message that the government should be responsible to promote! They contributed to the dehumanization of sex workers. While usually projections for our own sexual fantasies, they have now become projections of L.A. County's worries and fears regarding sexual health education.

The truth is, the porn industry may be one of the safest settings in which to have sex. Actors must undergo testing every 28 days -- far more frequent testing than most people undergo as part of their own sexual health regimen. And, when an actor is identified as HIV positive, which was a reality in 2010, the problem is addressed by the industry right away. In fact, Measure B doesn't even make a case for increased testing, and instead reduces a sexual health message to its most visual aspect -- seeing a rubber ring on a penis in the pornographic video.

Had the measure actually cared about porn actors' health, it probably would have included a clause that made porn actors undergo stricter testing as part of a complete sexual health regimen. And, if they wanted to drive home a safer-sex message, they could have mandated safer-sex messages at the beginning of each video. Had the government really wanted to address HIV and other STDs as a public health problem, perhaps they should have followed their own County Department of Public Health, which released a 152-page epidemiological profile on HIV/AIDS that identified certain populations that needed attention, the porn community notwithstanding.

Unfortunately, mandated testing does not exist in the bedrooms of our nation's youth. They often do not have anyone looking out for them, and I applaud Philadelphia in taking a step forward in the fight against HIV, STDs, and teen pregnancy. However, all we have done in L.A. is further the stigma-ridden portrait of pornographic actors as filthy cesspools of disease. Pornographic actors are part of an industry that is colloquially called "the world's oldest profession" -- sex work. However, Measure B doesn't value the humanity and individuality of sex workers, rather it sees them all as one thing -- unclean.

Measure B amounts to not much more than a very public campaign meant to promote sexual health, but really only puts the onus on pornographic actors for our private sexual acts. In Philadelphia, the measure to put condoms in schools makes the government and the students share the burden of sexual empowerment: We provide the condoms -- and, hopefully, the education -- and the students have to make use of them. It is this kind of solidarity and two-way conversation that will lead to true sexual empowerment, not the scapegoating and stigmatizing of the pornography industry.

Mathew Rodriguez is the editorial project manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.

Follow Mathew on Twitter: @mathewrodriguez.



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See Also
Quiz: Are You at Risk for HIV?
10 Common Fears About HIV Transmission
Condom Basics
Condom Demonstrations/Distribution
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Reader Comments:

Comment by: sto morris (oklahoma) Mon., Jan. 14, 2013 at 5:20 pm EST
I love sex but you need to be protected.
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Comment by: Tamika (West Houston,tx) Thu., Jan. 10, 2013 at 9:30 pm EST
I think both groups should have access to condoms, but more so high school students, because at least porn stars have the abilty and mind set to get regular testing, where as students always use that same judgment.
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Comment by: Douglas (Miami Beach) Thu., Jan. 10, 2013 at 9:25 pm EST
It's great that condoms are now available in Philadelphia public schools. And I agree with the writer that they should be available everywhere free of charge.

I was pleased, however, to see the passage of Measure B in Los Angeles County, and, as a client of an AIDS Healthcare Foundation practice elsewhere, I'm proud to have lent my financial support to this effort. Some porn viewers--particularly younger, less experienced and more impressionable ones--indeed are influenced by, learn from, and opt to emulate what they see in porn. To the extent this Measure reduces the amount of porn depicting high-risk sex, I see that as a good and positive thing. Kudos to Michael Weinstein and the AHF for taking the principled stand that they did.
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Comment by: Kevin Holt (Chicago,IL) Thu., Jan. 10, 2013 at 5:32 pm EST
Excellent article--the 'free condom' idea in high schools is so needed and should be national! It's definitely needed in Chicago High schools.
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Comment by: Terri W (NYC ) Thu., Jan. 10, 2013 at 3:20 pm EST
Good job Matthew!
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