Harvard Crimson Editorial Tackles Measure B, Sex and Society

LOS ANGELES—Diane E. Brinkley, a joint philosophy and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Harvard University's Lowell House, has written a thoughtful essay on larger themes she believes are a part of the Measure B situation in Los Angeles, where the local government, prodded by an independent actor (AHF) with millions to spend, has codified in a new law the mandatory use of barrier protection on porn sets. Condom use in porn is already required statewide, but is effectively unenforced by CalOSHA, which is supposedly in the process of promulgating new rules that pertain to adult productions.

Brinkley, who is scheduled to graduate in 2014, does not take a position in the battle over mandatory condom use, but rather sees the battle itself as an expression of a much bigger dichotomy. First, she lays out the two general sides of the argument, postulating that the anti-mandatory condom side stakes out the “fantasy” position, wherein “porn is fantasy—an escape from the ugly realities of sex. Porn sex is often messy, illicit, and dangerous, but it exists in a world free from consequences. People don’t want to see condoms in porn because they like their porn world to be free of STIs and pregnancy.”

Of the “real-world” side of the argument, she writes, “Proponents of the measure argue that not only will the law make sex safer within the adult film industry, but that it might also help to increase condom usage in everyday sexual encounters. The idea is that what arouses people when they are by themselves influences what they want with a partner.”

Making no judgment regarding either argument, and in fact respecting the basic assumptions of each, Brinkley notes, “This split in the way we think about condoms speaks to the way we think about sex more generally.

“But why is this separation a problem?” she pointedly asks. “Sex is often an issue of public health and of promoting tolerance and understanding.”

It's a dichotomy, she observes, that "can often be broken down into separation of public and private spheres of sexuality. When we talk about sex publicly, we are really talking about relationships and culture. In an intimate moment, however, our understanding of sex operates very differently. Sex becomes a matter of the partners and bodies involved, not a matter of culture.”

The sad but unavoidable conclusion she arrives at is that our societal maturity simply isn’t there yet. “Measure B is so divisive in part because it brings the supposedly seedy underbelly of the porn industry into mainstream political discourse,” she writes. “Mainstream culture is not yet equipped to engage in a real dialogue about pornography because we are reluctant to engage both the public and private sides of sexuality. “

Despite all its public drama, Brinkley thinks Measure B has in the end been “a missed opportunity to engage in fruitful discourse about the separation of private and public understandings of sexuality.”

The government may be taking “a positive step in recognizing the influence of the semi-private/semi-public pornography world on everyday sexual practices,” she says, but in doing so “it fails to recognize that the public is not yet prepared to bridge the gap between a sociopolitical understanding of sex and sex as we actually practice it.”

More than about “just the health of performers or the financial stability of the industry,” for Brinkley the Measure B debate reaffirms the fact that “our cultural sexual discourse and the way we have sex are less aligned than we might like to admit.”