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California

‘Scarlet letter statute’: L.A.’s adult performers strike back against state registry bill

Riley Reyes
Riley Reyes said she was shocked to learn about a bill that would require licensing, fingerprinting and background checks for people like her who perform in adult films.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Adult film actress Riley Reyes was preparing for a “particularly physical” scene last week when she received word of a proposed state measure that would impose strict new rules on her industry.

“I was completely shocked,” said Reyes, who is among “hundreds of thousands” of performers the bill initially sought to have fingerprinted, background-checked and mandated into education programs under a new licensing scheme. “It was weird to have to go to work and act sexy and normal after finding out.”

Reyes shoots hardcore sex scenes on the storied sets of the San Fernando Valley, long dubbed the “porn capital of the world.” She also heads the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee, one of a small number of organized labor and workers’ rights groups that meet regularly with lawmakers on industry issues.

None of them knew about Assembly Bill 2389 until after it was introduced. The snub has renewed a bitter fight over who speaks for adult performers in a state where legislators have long sought to assert some control over the industry. After a decade of proposed porn czars and failed condom codes, strippers, adult film actors and webcam performers say Sacramento is looking for novel ways to police them.

One industry lawyer called it a “scarlet letter statute.”

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“It is my goal that the training required by AB 2389 will result in a certification process similar to that of other industries,” Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) wrote in a statement on Feb. 20, two days after she introduced the bill. “For example, the food service industry requires a food handlers training course, in which workers complete a training course and at the end take a quiz. Upon passing the quiz, they are then certified food handlers in this state.”

On Thursday, Garcia introduced amendments to scrap fingerprinting requirements and scale back the business license mandate in favor of a certificate program.

But experts said such a scheme “misunderstands how the industry works.”

“The industry simply isn’t comparable to other jobs which require permitting,” Heather Berg, assistant professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Washington University, wrote in an email. “There is also a long history of sex workers resisting mandated registration with the state.”

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Garcia said the bill was proposed by the International Entertainment Adult Union, an umbrella organization for industry guilds. But those guilds represent a small fraction of adult entertainers — most of whom are nonunion — and their leaders said it was drafted behind their backs by a “rogue officer.” The officer, union secretary Amanda Gullesserian, told The Times she went to the lawmaker alone.

“Who would draft a bill without talking with us?” said Mike Stabile of the Free Speech Coalition, an industry trade group that works regularly with state officials. “No one had consulted us at all — we spoke to the other major performer groups, and no one had any contact with the legislators who drafted this. Everyone was pretty outraged.”

The backlash was sudden.

“This does not protect performers — it basically treats us like criminals,” said Alana Evans, president of the Adult Performers Actors Guild. “We’re coming to the adult industry because we need to buy diapers, we need to feed our kids. ... They’re going to use this to scare people away.”

She and other performers were particularly alarmed by requirements that appeared to create a statewide database of adult entertainers while doing nothing to combat the stigma and discrimination many face. Many likened AB 2389 to SESTA/FOSTA, a 2018 federal law aimed at online sex trafficking that adult entertainers and sex workers say has destroyed labor protections and upended their lives.

“AB2389 is a bill that, like SESTA/FOSTA, is dressed to look like it seeks to protect adult entertainers, when in fact, it seeks to further criminalize them,” wrote Antonia Crane, founder and director of Soldiers of the Pole, a stripper labor movement in California. “The bill allows the state to ‘register,’ meaning to fingerprint, record, ID and to police, the most vulnerable workforce in the world.”

Others worried the bill would stigmatize gig workers who rely on erotic labor as a side hustle.

“This isn’t just the porn stars in the Valley anymore, this is your neighbors,” said Jennifer Allbaugh, vice president of the Adult Performers Actors Guild. “Good luck having this license and trying to get a straight job after you decide you want to retire.”

Following an industry outcry, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego) said she would pull her name from the legislation, which she initially co-sponsored. Even the bill’s architect has sought to distance herself from the proposal.

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“It’s written completely wrong,” said Gullesserian, who first approached Garcia with bullet points for what became AB 2389. “It just needs to be erased and fixed — and it’s going to be.”

Indeed, Garcia amended the bill, promising “a collaborative process with all stakeholders.”

But critics say that process is already long overdue.

Many see AB 2389 as part of a pattern of legislative efforts to restrict California’s adult entertainment industry. Several compared it to L.A.’s 2012 mandatory testing statute and 2016’s failed Proposition 60, which would have required condoms in all adult content filmed in the state. Similar proposals have each died in the Legislature.

“Requiring sex workers to take classes and be fingerprinted and be identified? Come on! No sex worker is going to want this ridiculous law,” said Corey D. Silverstein, a prominent industry lawyer. “I do believe that ultimately this bill is going to fail, but California has been doing everything they can to make the production of adult content impossible. They are chasing people out of the state, and they are forcing adult content production to go back underground.”

Gullesserian, the International Entertainment Adult Union secretary, said she had envisioned an education bill that would help protect young performers from abuse and manipulation. And while most want the legislation pulled from the state Assembly, others see value in a more limited program.

Several pointed to the recent dust-up over an explicit clip involving a young performer that appeared to have been filmed in the Santa Monica Public Library’s Ocean Park Branch while unsuspecting patrons browsed in the background. Public sex is a misdemeanor in California.

“As the barriers to entry in adult film have decreased, producers have to do more extreme things to attract a [paying] audience,” said David Schieber, an assistant professor of sociology at Northwestern and a scholar of labor in the adult entertainment industry. “Someone more experienced might say, ‘This is illegal, I’m not doing this.’ ”

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Reyes, the workers’ advocate, cautioned that a legally mandated education program could only do so much in such cases.

“The things models need most are education about their rights, their sexual health, and financial planning,” Reyes said. “But people’s work is so varied, you start to wonder if you can standardize an education packet ... and if that is something that should be state mandated.”

It’s unclear if the ill-starred Assembly bill can be reworked to fit that goal. But whether it’s pulled or passed with amendments, experts say, its effects are likely to be felt well into the future.

“No one would do this to teachers or nurses,” Reyes said. “I think we’ve made our voices heard this time for sure.”


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