Scoundrel Time: Tristan Taormino’s About-Face on Requiring Condoms
"I still want performers to have choices, and they can choose not to work with me if they don’t want to use condoms.”
The message is different, but the tone is remarkably familiar. Producers who refuse to allow performers to wear condoms in their scenes use very much the same language in defending their actions. Performers always have a choice. They can do what the director wants them to with regard to their personal safety or they can work for somebody else, if somebody else conveniently chooses to hire them when they’re urgently in need of work, an ever more common condition as the industry contracts under a hail of bad numbers. Nina and I have both made clear our revulsion at this kind of disingenuous proposition and our unconditional support for real performer choice, free of economic intimidation. We have always offered performers the use of condoms on every production and made a variety of different brands available to those who chose to use them. Likewise, we still oppose any attempt to pressure them, one way or the other, when it comes to decisions regarding their own protection.
By now most BPPA readers are aware that Tirstan Taormino, pioneering director, sex-positive activist and winner of multiple Feminist Porn Awards, went on CNN last Friday and proclaimed to the world that she would henceforth insist all performers in her future productions to use condoms in all scenes whether they like it or not.
“From now on, I will require all performers I work with to test for STIs according to industry standards and to use condoms in their scenes. Until now, I have adhered to industry standard STI testing and my sets have been condom optional, which, for me means that performers truly can choose to use condoms or not and I always have condoms available. I’ve shot several scenes with condoms (and other safer sex barriers), but the majority of the scenes have been condom-free. Because I want to empower performers to make decisions about all aspects of the work they do, I have respected their decisions in the past not to use condoms,” she says on her blog (http://puckerup.com/2013/09/
20/porn-feminist-labor- practices-and-the-condom- debate/), concluding with the sentence quoted at the beginning of this post.
In both her written statement and her interview with CNN reporter Elizabeth Cohen, she attributes her change of policy to the recent announcement that performer Cameron Bay had tested positive for HIV. Taormino had Bay “on the short list” for the casting of her next production until the announcement and claims to have been shaken by the possibility that Bay might have infected other performers on Taormino’s watch.
“"It just struck me we need to take a step back and look at how we can give people the safest work experience possible," she says. "I can no longer roll the dice on my set," the director told Cohen. Of course, factually, no such eventuality could have taken place, as the existing testing system, working as it's meant to, revealed Ms. Bay’s status and she would never have been on Taormino’s set, but we’ll move on from that for the moment.
Writing about this is personally painful in more ways than I can describe. I helped secure Tristan’s entry into the world of X-rated production by hooking her up with John Stagliano for the award-winning and hugely popular video “Tristan Taormino’s Ultimate Guide to Anal Sex for Women” in 1999. I co-directed that picture and its sequel with her and since then have done everything possible to support her career, as has my wife Nina Hartley. Nina and I have participated in a number of her non-commercial projects in recent years. Taormino has been a monthly columnist for Taboo, the magazine I edit, almost from the beginning of my tenure there. Until very recently Nina and I considered her a close friend. The loss of that friendship is a bitter price to pay for them, but she has her principles and we have ours. For what it's worth, we find the viciousness of the attacks launched at her on Twitter and elsewhere appalling and uncalled for and wish her no misfortunes regardless of our differences.
But Nina and I agree that Ms. Taormino's actions cannot pass unchecked, given the current situation. Her decision may be her own, but her method of proclaiming it et urbi et orbi has dire implications for all of us and demands a reply.
Taormino’s blog links to Nina’s most recent post here by way of allowing for reasoned disagreement, but she does so without comment, conceding nothing to Nina’s arguments and essentially painting Nina as her adversary when it comes to concern for performer safety. In doing so, she plays into the hands of those who consistently and wrongly charge Nina with being no more than a front for the producers. Gee, thanks oodles and bunches for that. Some in Taormino's close circle have already sought to marginalize Nina as ‘’too mainstream” and “out of touch with the new thinking in porn.” It’s been suggested that Ms. Taormino would make a better public face for the industry. Judging by her recent irresponsible actions, that claim seems little short of preposterous.
There is no denying that by taking her new-found conversion to condom-only director before the public by way of CNN Taormino knowingly tossed a match into the political powder-keg the debate over condoms in porn has become. Though she still claims, rather diffidently, to oppose Measure B and other schemes to legally mandate condom usage in porn, she’s far too smart and media-savvy to have been unaware of the impact her remarks would have at the time she made them.
While other members, ex-members and purported members of the industry have taken similar positions none brings to bear the gravitas of Ms. Taormino, who is routinely lionized as the most important Third-Wave Feminist influence in the business. She is not Shelley Lubben or Derek Burts or Rob Black. When she speaks, attention must be paid.
And that’s already happening. In a matter of hours Taormino’s remarks were all over the porn blogosphere and the object of furious tweeting back and forth between factions. There’s a lot more to come when the rest of the gang that has a beef of some kind with porn lines up to join the fracas. She knows, and says as much, that she’ll make enemies with what she’s doing. The real question that troubles me is what new friends into whose embrace she may retreat. If AHF is prepared to kick down substantial amounts of cash to the likes of Derek Burts and Darren James, we can only speculate what a photo op of Taormino shaking hands with Michael Weinstein might be worth. For the record, Taormino furiously denies any affiliation with the pro-condom-mandate forces, but how long those denials will remain plausible is very much open to question. The superficial guile evident in her proclamation would appear to position her ideally, should she be able to continue directing on her own terms, as the crusader who made the slimy pornographers knuckle under. Should she fail and find herself unemployable and shunned, she can cloak herself in martyrdom and make the loss of a sputtering career look like an heroic sacrifice compelled by ethical necessity. Some will undoubtedly celebrate her behavior in the event of either outcome, but those who know her best are likely to remain highly skeptical.
Having watched Taormino’s career trajectory at close range from the start, it seems to me that she tacks with the political wind however she perceives it to blow. When porn was enjoying it’s moment of mainstream quasi-respectability, she was everywhere defending it and her participation in it, albeit with an eye to her image as a feminist at all times. Now that her own prospects as a director no longer promise substantial revenues or favorable recognition, the politic thing to do is re-charge her alt-feminist cred by parting ways with the majority opinion in an industry that served her well for a number of years but no longer appears apt to do so. It’s pretty easy to declare a new all-condoms-all-the-time shooting regimen when it’s unlikely to be put to the test on very many sets in the foreseeable future.
Of course, this recently declared epiphany doesn’t magically make Taormino’s previous ten years of building a reputation for herself as a director primarily by shooting bareback anal scenes disappear, but now that she’s seen the light I have no doubt all that will be forgiven and forgotten by those to whom she might prove useful, if not by those who were useful to her during her ascent.
If she really had a stake in making porn safer for performers, had experienced a genuine change of heart on how best to accomplish that goal and truly did not want to ally herself to those on a mission from god to destroy the whole enterprise, she had many other alternatives that would have been far less damaging to those who still rely on porn for their livings.
Taormino could have made her blog post, informed whatever companies she still works with and contacted her favored players directly to clue them in. She could have submitted a commentary on her newfound affinity for barrier protections to XBiz, which would most certainly have put it on the front page. Likewise, she could have given AVN a press release with little fear of being quoted out of context, as she insists she was in HLN’s summary of her interview with Cohen (and what do we generally think when politicians cop the out-of-context-alibi after coming under fire for something they said?).
In short, if her real intended audience was the porn community, she might have started by alerting them to her change of position prior to going national with this bombshell where it could only do that community harm. Who watches CNN who has the best interest of porn performers at heart? I’m sure there are viewers who do, but they make up a vanishingly small percentage of CNN’s core demographic.
There is no doubt in my mind, despite Taormino’s denials, that her timing and choice of medium were the result of political and economic calculation. She may very well be correct in the assumption that the anti-condom-mandate side is losing support in quarters where she wishes to be taken seriously, but doing a sudden, highly public about-face after vociferously opposing Measure B on HuffPo has all the appearance of cynically attempting to alter her own record after the fact. As Nina emailed Tristan directly: “I think what you did was cynical and self-serving and can be read as throwing a grappling hook off the sinking ship S.S. Porn and onto the rigging of the S.S. Industrial-Porn-Really-Is-
Icky-After-All, as it steams by.”
I’m shocked but not surprised that she’d attempt to distance herself from her previous actions now that they appear a liability to her good name as a feminist pornographer. I doubt the attempt will prove successful, as neither Gail Dines nor Amanda Marcotte is likely to find this abrupt conversion credible, but when you think your prospects are dim no matter what you do, all kinds of dismal alternatives suddenly become attractive. In fact, with the mandatory condom bill now dead in the state legislature and Measure B likely D.O.A. on appeal in the wake of Hollingsworth v. Perry, she may actually be abandoning one shipwreck for another.
Frankly, appalling as I find it, Taormino’s new position is no more corrupt and mendacious than those taken by many on both sides of the condom question. Like numerous part-time Hollywood leftists who found it expedient to cooperate with the blacklist so as not to end up on it, Taorimino can hardly be blamed for trying to make a scramble for the lifeboat look like a courageous attempt to rescue others, claiming to have finally realized that she’d been endangering all hands for a number of years. She can, however, be held accountable for endangering them now by lending credence to a campaign that threatens to destroy the existing system of safeguards that has worked so well for so long. If memory serves, she was pretty quiet when AHF was dismantling AIM, but she's certainly made herself heard now.
What I resent most about this whole sorry business is the way she denigrates the intelligence and good judgment of performers just like everyone else. There’s a word for the behavior she demonstrates in the opening paragraph of this post: paternalism. After arguing for performer choice and making that argument central to her posture as a feminist pornographer, she seems to have decided that performers really can’t make rational decisions concerning their own safety and need someone wiser to do their thinking for them. Reconciling that with everything Taormino has said previously with respect to the agency and autonomy of performers would require a platoon of Jesuits. In the event she does get another directing gig, I would like to hope that performers would be too insulted by her condescension to participate in it, but in desperate times people do desperate things. Taormino clearly counts on that in much the same way that other producers who are busily beating down scene rates and cutting back shooting days do.
And like those producers and AHF, it’s not the welfare of performers that appears the central concern. Taormino’s image would seem to be the foremost motivation for this turnabout. It’s widely understood that the attempt to force condom use in porn by law has already made shooting less safe and if it succeeds, those Taormino claims to want to protect will be put at far greater risk. She’s quite aware of the inherent danger of such a mandate and has said as much in print. She’s simply too smart not to know that going on national TV to proclaim her new-found faith in barrier protections is a huge propaganda windfall for the advocates of a position she claims to oppose even now. How does her star-turn on network TV, despite whatever weak disclaimers are attached, not lend unwarranted legitimacy to their efforts?
Tristan, I don’t believe a word of it. You can forget about being seen as heroic by those who make their livings under the lights. They’re smarter than you give them credit for and your actions in this matter will be just as transparent to them as they are to me. I hope they do just what you suggest: exercise their freedom of choice by refusing to work for you.
Lillian Hellman titled her memoir of the Hollywood blacklist era Scoundrel Time. It would appear that time has come around again.