A Pro-feminist's

Porn, HIV, Freedom, Responsibility

The adult entertainment industry in Los Angeles (the porn capital of the world, thank you) has been hard hit by news that two of its stars have recently tested positive for HIV. Some companies have shut down production entirely, others are continuing business as usual, some are shifting to a "safer-sex" format.

Some folks might respond to this story with schadenfreude, or at the least, with a certain lack of compassion for the people involved. "What else should they have expected?", a reasonable person might ask of those who perform in porn; "they are reaping the consequences of their actions",others might -- with some justification -- say.

The one woman known to be infected with HIV is an 18 year-old porn actress (who has only worked in the business three months) named Lara Roxx. She contracted HIV through unprotected anal sex with two men during the shooting of one particular film in March. What she was doing was perfectly legal, as it was in the workplace and she was over 18. No one -- least of all the producers of the film -- showed the slightest regard for this young woman who is still, for all psychological and spiritual purposes, very much in adolescence. (For obvious reasons, I'm not going to link to any porn sites -- all my information about her has been gleaned from mainstream, non-x-rated media.) Brian Flemming, who apparently works close to the industry, put it best in his blog:

Lara Roxx had zero protection by government agencies. There was no cop on that set. No fire marshal. No doctor. Nobody had a license. And nobody broke the law by paying a teenager to accept the uncovered penises of two men into her anus.

Roxx showed poor judgment, yes. She isn't blameless. But there are plenty of neophyte stunt performers in L.A. who would also be delighted to show some poor judgment and get themselves hurt or killed on a Hollywood movie set--but the government regulates those sets. I've auditioned plenty of eager young actors who would no doubt be willing to do their own dangerous stunts if it meant getting a good role and getting paid--but the LAPD, the LAFD and the Screen Actors Guild would all have something to say about that.

The 18-year-olds flooding into the porn industry have just about nobody. The porn companies label them "independent contractors," so the performers don't even have the workplace safety protections that fry cooks at Burger King do.

Lara Roxx, who is too young to legally drink in a bar, has HIV not just because she participated in a dangerous sex act. She also has HIV because there was nobody to stop the producers from dangling money and other inducements in front of this young woman to get her to take that risk.

It's important for porn to be legal. The government has no business outlawing sex or sexual fantasy. But this principle is not so sacred that we need to allow an industry to exploit and endanger its workers. There's no fundamental right to express HIV. There's no right to pay someone to play Russian roulette for your entertainment.

But we Californians have decided that the sex industry is the one industry that is allowed to lure young women and men and use them as it pleases. No politician speaks for these workers. No union imposes conditions on their employers.

The mainstream film industry, while making billions from distributing porn on the QT, doesn't have any use for the dirty people who actually make it.

The porn industry has become increasingly mainstream, so much so that on the same day that the HIV story broke in LA, the New York Times did an "at home" feature in its House and Garden section on porn star Jenna Jameson's 6700 square foot palace in Arizona. But this increasingly accepting attitude towards pornography is still another example of how our society is abandoning its responsibility to care for and protect all of its citizens.

I know firsthand how destructive porn can be. I cannot say I have not enjoyed looking at it; I can also say with confidence that exposure to it has invariably left me feeling ashamed, alienated, and sad. That may not be a universal experience, but it is certainly a very common response! Like in so many other areas (abortion, plastic surgery) we frame the debate about pornography in terms of choices. Women should have the choice to work in porn. Men should have the choice to work in porn. Women and men should have the choice to consume porn as well. As long as everyone (performer, producer, marketer, consumer) is over 18, where is the harm?

The harm is in my soul when I view it. The harm is in Lara Roxx's body right now. Lara Roxx no doubt has another name, which we in the public don't know. Porn stars, almost without exception, change their names when they work in the industry. "Lara Roxx" is not a person in the male porn consumer's mind, she's an object for fantasy and objectification. But beneath Lara's violated and brutalized flesh is a young girl who has what I imagine is a far humbler name (a Nicole, a Jennifer, a Maria, an Elizabeth perhaps). I don't know her, but I'm pretty damned confident that in 1996, when she was TEN, the little girl who would become Lara Roxx (HIV-infected porn actress) did not dream of becoming famous and wealthy for having anal sex with two men on camera. Her hopes for herself were, I suspect, simpler, warmer, and filled with infinitely more longing and promise.

The fact that Lara is 18 and consented to the making of this film means no crime was committed under California law. I'm not interested in ranting about the law. I'm grieving because Lara's story reminds me of how much damage porn does to so very many lives. Lara's very life is now in jeopardy. You can say she has some culpability, and I agree, she does. But the only reason the money is so good for young women in porn is because men are willing to pay quite a bit to see girls like Lara naked and exposed and penetrated. I confess that in the past I have been guilty of that very sin. My dollars have fed an industry of death, and I grieve that. And I know that I too -- and countless other men -- have been damaged. When men like me lust after girls like she who is called Lara Roxx (she's 18, I'll be damned if I'll call her a grown woman), we scar our spirits and tarnish our relationships with all the other women in our lives as a consequence. I have worked hard to make certain that when I see teenage girls and young women (and I work with them daily), I see them as people worthy of my respect, friendship, and -- yes -- my protection.

I know there are women who work in the porn industry (the aforementioned Jameson chief among them) who are proud of what they do, who refuse to see themselves as exploited, who have reaped large financial rewards. While I accept their experience as valid, I am convinced that they are rare and over-hyped exceptions. I am convinced that the reality of the porn industry -- for performers of both genders -- is pyschically, physically, emotionally and morally far bleaker than its few superstars will ever admit.

As a man, I am called to do the hard but essential work of looking beneath the hyper-sexualized surface image that young women so often adopt in our society today. I owe it to myself, to the woman with whom I share my bed and my life, and to these young women themselves. The fact that many young girls and women choose to make themselves objects of desire does not lessen for one second my obligation to look past that veneer and see them as my younger sisters whom I need to honor, love, and care for. The girl who is called Lara is sick today. I imagine that tonight she's scared beyond words, filled with regret and fear. I'm praying for her, and I ask God for forgiveness because I know that in some small way, my money has in the past helped to fuel the industry that has done this to her.

Porn kills many things: innocence, hope, trust, health, bodies, spirits. I know it is hip today to proclaim it harmless, but the unfashionable fact is that this is an industry built on distorted fantasy, loneliness, and despair. And we on the left need to stop hiding behind the First Amendment issues and articulate this untrendy but vital truth.

©2005, Hugo Schwyzer

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Women really must have equal pay for equal work, equilaity in work at home, and reproductive choices. Men must press for these things also. They must cease to see them as "women's issues" and learn that they are everyone's issues. - essential to survival on planet Earth. - Erica Jong

The assorted musings of Hugo Schwyzer: a progressive, consistent-life ethic Anabaptist/Episcopalian Democrat (but with a sense of humor), a community college history and gender studies professor, an avid marathoner, aspiring ultra-runner, die-hard political junkie, and proud father of a small chinchilla. hugoboy.typepad.com

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