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Is sex with goggles safer?

California's attack on pornography: The new sex police are as irrational as the old

In California, road crews wear safety vests, window washers clip into harnesses and pizza delivery boys must buckle up. Should adult film actors also be forced to use protective gear?

Under newly proposed rules, OSHA, the state agency charged with maintaining safety and health in the workplace, would force adult film actors to use condoms when performing anywhere in the Golden State. (Los Angeles County began mandating condom use in 2012.)The new rules would also require eye protection in some scenes to prevent the transmission of STDs through mucus membranes.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Adult films: An op-ed Wednesday on regulating the adult film industry stated that under newly proposed rules, adult film actors will have to wear eye protection in some scenes. The state agency charged with maintaining workplace safety, Cal/OSHA, actually issued rules several years ago requiring use of eye protection for workers exposed to infectious substances, but the industry argued that they didn't apply to them. The new rules would clarify that adult film workers must be protected.
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As journalist Michael E. Miller put it: "A handsome delivery man arrives offering more than just a pizza. A pretty young woman opens the door. Flirtation ensues. Clothes are cast off. Then out come the goggles."

This is good news for goggle fetishists. But porn industry representatives insist that the typical porn consumer doesn't want his fantasy dulled by any sort of prophylactic and that frequent STD testing — which the industry has mandated since 2004 — offers all the protection that actors need. They also argue that if California keeps imposing new rules, the industry will move to other jurisdictions where there's less regulation. Indeed, requiring condoms in Los Angeles coincided with a steep decline in the number of permits sought for X-rated productions in the county.

The adult industry has been at odds with state officials before.

When Ronald Reagan was inaugurated governor of California in 1967, he decried the "harmful effects of exposure to smut and pornography." He would soon target what he characterized as "the flood of pornographic material now available on our newsstands." Later, as president, he presided over an FBI crackdown on porn and asked his attorney general to document its ills.

The pornographers of the Reagan years could scarcely dream of a future in which social liberals controlled the statehouse, the Legislature and the popular mores of their state. In today's Hollywood, sex tapes are often career boosters. And neither the governor nor the Democratic caucus in the Legislature seems remotely concerned about porn's effect on the soul. Yet some progressives are concerned about porn's effect on that industry's workers.

The new sex police are as irrational as the old.

The workers most likely to be killed as a result of their jobs are loggers, fishermen, pilots, roofers, garbage collectors, miners, truck drivers, salespeople, farmers, power-line technicians, construction workers and taxi drivers. That list, gleaned from a Bureau of Labor Statistics report, goes on at some length. Pornographic acting is safe enough not to make an appearance.

A leading proponent of the workplace safety rules, Michael Weinstein of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, has asked porn producers, "What's the acceptable number of infections that people should have to be subjected to when they go to work?"

Putting aside the fact that, in California, there were zero proven on-set HIV transmissions between 2005 and 2014, one might as well ask, "What's the acceptable number of car wrecks to which taxi drivers should be subjected?" or "What's the acceptable number of convenience store clerks killed by thieves while working overnight shifts?" or "What's the acceptable number of lightning strikes to which golfers should be subjected?"

Small risks of injury or even death are unavoidable if many jobs are to be done well. Driving a cab, fishing for tuna and playing golf during months with thunderstorms are all more statistically dangerous than creating porn without goggles. And free people should retain the right to weigh the costs and benefits of taking on such risks rather than being forced to, say, pull their taxis to the side of the road during rainstorms, shutter their stores after dark or golf with wooden clubs to stave off electrocution.

Requiring adult actors to wear condoms is burdensome but not absurd. Mandating goggles, however, strays into ridiculous terrain. If the state outlaws sex on camera without goggles, who knows which of our livelihoods they'll constrain next?

There is, finally, a strangeness to new pornography regulations in an era when a right to personal autonomy is thought to protect everything from abortion to BDSM to polyamorous orgies. Writer and musician James Poulos has explained what's behind this seeming contradiction, observing that "where social or interpersonal freedom is valued much more than political freedom, government becomes assertive in restricting 'unhealthy' and 'risky' activity," even as it broadens outlets for individuals to pursue pleasure in ways regarded as safe. The result, he says, is a government that is both more permissive and more intrusive: Society is sexualized, even as more of life falls within an official sphere "characterized by the pursuit of health and security: the clean, safe but coercively sterile world."

This approach to regulating porn may ultimately threaten the industry more than any puritanical attack. Bygone attempts at censorship increased porn's appeal by making it seem transgressive. As today's regulators strive to make porn clean, safe and sterile, they destroy the essence of a product many seek out as an escape precisely because it seems dirty and dangerous.

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at the Atlantic and founding editor of the Best of Journalism email newsletter.

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