Occupational Health in Porn Production: New Frameworks

Valerie Webber asks whether familiar ethical frameworks of recreational sex and of occupational health and safety are useful ways of thinking about fair labour standards in the porn industry.

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I am sitting in the kitchen of porn performer Charlotte Sartre. We’re eating dinner, playing with the cats, chatting about my research on the politics of sexual health management in the adult film industry. I’ve asked her about how some performers working in straight porn refuse to work with certain types of co-stars – like those who work in gay porn or who escort – on the basis of their assumed riskiness. She says:

“You can’t limit like, ‘oh I’m not gonna fuck this type of or this class of performer who’s done this because I’m taking a calculated risk’. We have no idea what anybody’s doing off camera. Anytime you have your scene partner’s [STI/HIV] test in your hand, you’re taking it at face value. But the fact is you just don’t know what actually has gone on.”

For some years now, there has been a surge of debate in the American adult film industry about the relative risks of working with certain types of performers, and about the “right” way to choose or reject a co-star. This debate was largely triggered by the tragic and controversial death of performer August Ames, who died by suicide after she tweeted her refusal to work with men who have performed in gay porn.

Photo Credit: kitsplit.  Image Description: Digital clapperboard film slate on dark background.

Traditionally, occupational health and safety protocols have dealt with asymmetrical relationships. They regulate conduct between providers and clients, where the provider is burdened with the task of ensuring a safe environment or procedure for the client. Some examples are the regulation of restaurant food safety, aesthetician services, or health care practices. Alternatively, they regulate contact between workers and certain substances or conditions, where the employer is burdened with ensuring workers are safe. For example, there are procedures to protect against contamination by toxic chemicals, the risks of using dangerous equipment, or exposure to environmental harms in the workplace.

Porn production, however, is different, since it entails protecting performers from other performers – regulating what is essentially a symmetrical relationship. If both workers are simultaneously the person to be protected and the potential source of danger, what does this do to our traditional understanding of worker safety? Who is burdened with ensuring worker safety? How, in this instance, might occupational health protocols discriminate against the very workers they are supposed to protect?

Some classes of performers may be erroneously deemed too hazardous to work with. A performer’s known occupational sexual activity, as Charlotte points out above, cannot accurately serve as a barometer for the relative risk of working with them. Furthermore, performers who are HIV positive but undetectable pose no risk of transmission. But we know that risk assessment is not a solely rational process but an emotional, visceral activity influenced by things like personal anecdote and community narrative. Given that in porn production, the work itself is sex, this visceral level is generally given precedence. Consent, in the most basic sense of the word, takes absolute authority, or else the work becomes sexual assault. But is sexual assault the ideal framework for thinking about consent within sex work? What (or who) does that protect, and what (or who) does that leave vulnerable?

Without a parallel occupational health model to work from, we find ourselves deferring to models of consent developed for recreational sex: that no means no, no matter what. This deference is likely motivated by lingering insinuations that sex work is not, in fact, work. While in recreation this means that some people are refused sex, in porn production it means that some people are refused work. Is the inability to secure employment a different kind of issue than the inability to secure recreational sex, and is it cause for concern? Yes, I think, when we take up the position of those who are edged out of the performer pool. When sexual performance is our source of livelihood, economic justice must reside, no matter how uncomfortably, alongside matters of consent and bodily autonomy. But the notion of consent as bodily autonomy is taken for granted so much that it can be hard to envision alternative interpretations.     

Ensuring fair working conditions for porn performers is complicated, and can only be done through constant conversation with porn professionals. That conversation is crucial, because when the asymmetrical framework of traditional occupational health and safety is imposed upon a symmetrical situation – two bodies, two workers – one worker will always lose out. __________________________________________

Valerie Webber is a PhD candidate in Community Health at Memorial University.

This commentary is based on a presentation given during the Inaugural Symposium for the Memorial University Centre for Bioethics.