Few issues in our industry are more potent than HIV prevention. In many ways, this is understandable. Since its earliest days, HIV has been used to attack performers and anyone outside of monogamous heterosexual relationships. Unlike cancer, Ebola or Zika, HIV has always been highly politicized, the virus treated as just punishment, and those with it treated like villains.
Today, despite medical advancements that render the virus as a chronic illness like diabetes, we still face some of the same challenges. We must be vigilant — both against transmission and the stigma that comes with it.
Recently, FSC, the ACLU and numerous other groups supported Sen. Scott Wiener’s bill to modernize HIV law in California. Some in the industry were outraged, fearful that this would change the testing protocols, or pose new threats to the performer pool. It doesn’t. But, in some ways, rumors and fears like this are to be expected. For performers, sexual health is not only vital to their well-being, it’s vital to their work.
As an industry we recognize that the safety and well-being of adult film performers is of the utmost importance, which is why informed consent, respect of choice and control, and the protection of privacy and identity are non-negotiable tenets of our industry.
But there’s also been a lot of confusion about the bill, what it would do, and why we join the large coalition of organizations supporting the decriminalization of HIV. HIV criminal reform is a concept that is supported by the American Medical Association and the Department of Justice. Sadly, SB239 itself was widely misunderstood even outside the industry, so I want to explain it a little further.
SB239 modifies outdated laws criminalizing HIV, some of which date back to the height of the AIDS crisis, at a time when religious conservatives stoked fears that gay men and others with HIV were purposefully infecting unsuspecting partners. It was an urban myth then, and still is.
That original law had two main parts: the first made it a felony to intentionally pass HIV to another person, separating it out from other often more serious communicable diseases. The second made it a felony for any sex worker with HIV to solicit a client, regardless of the act promised or whether a condom was used, or whether any sex was had at all.
Of the approximately 800 arrests made under the old law, 95% of the charges were against sex workers. Many of those prosecuted were practicing survival sex, and the law disproportionately affected the most vulnerable: people of color, transwomen, and the undocumented. Because the law only punished people who knew their status, it’s actual effect was paradoxical — it discouraged those with HIV from getting tested, thus making them more likely to pass on the virus.
Thanks to medical advancements, people with HIV who know their status and are being treated are much less likely to transmit it. Modern antiretrovirals can reduce the presence of the virus to near zero, to the point where it is unable to be transmitted at all. In fact, someone who is HIV+ but undetectable is much less likely to transmit the virus than someone who is only using a condom.
SB239 brought the old law up to speed with modern science, and removed some of the hysteria that had clouded the original bill. Intentionally spreading the virus is still punishable, but someone in effective treatment for HIV is no longer assumed to be intentionally spreading the virus if they don’t automatically disclose their status or use a condom.
SB239 will encourage sex workers living with HIV to get tested, result in better access to treatment and adherence, and will lower levels of risk and transmission. This makes everyone, particularly those of us working in sex-related industries, safer.
Does this mean we don’t need to be vigilant against HIV? Of course not. While manageable and preventable, HIV is still a serious infection, with profound implications. But the original law was outdated and had the opposite of its intended effect.
That’s why FSC and other organizations supported the modification of the law. Ignorance and stigma only make the work that performers do more dangerous. By working on and supporting legislation that actually works to prevent transmission, we move toward a safer, saner workplace.
There may be those among us who say that this wasn’t our battle, because they are straight, or don’t escort, or not at high-risk for HIV. To them I say, an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. As an industry, we have seen how laws meant to “save” us are quickly turned against us. We have seen laws written with stigma end up making our lives riskier.
We stand together with the most vulnerable among us, because if one of us isn’t safe, none of us is. I am proud to have lent our support to SB239, and proud to defend it.