Updated: Aug 4, 2021
Blog Post Written By Jessie Sage
Every industry has been impacted by COVID-19, and the porn industry is no exception. In fact, given the intimate nature of sex work, it has been hit particularly hard. While the porn industry had streamlined health and safety protocols regarding sexual health and STI testing, COVID—as a highly contagious airborne illness—threw a monkey-wrench into the system. In fact, it isn’t hyperbolic to say that it broke the system. Yet, a broken system is one that can be re-imagined and re-built from the ground up, and PASS, the non-profit organization dedicated to the health and safety of adult performers, is doing just that.
A Brief History
PASS was created as a part of the Free Speech Coalition (FSC), the adult industry trade organization, around 2012 when Adult Industry Medicine Health Care Foundation (AIM)—who was originally doing all of the screening and testing of adult performers—went bankrupt. PASS’s Executive Director Ian O’Brien explains, “FSC realized there was a significant need for a testing protocol and services, and PASS was created as a program to standardize that.”
The purpose of the PASS system, as it was conceptualized at that time, was to create a central database that would serve the health and safety needs of the adult industry. Yet, given that there are liabilities associated with owning clinics and laboratories, PASS partnered with CET and TTS, the companies that processed the performers’ STI panels.
Under this model, PASS built and managed a centralized governance system that studios and performers were able to communicate through. One of the beauties of the system, according to O’Brian, was the simple binary pass/not pass structure. “We can check whether or not [STI results] exist in a database that is merely binary,” says O’Brian. “No medical data is accessible; performers are simply cleared to work or not.”
In 2012, this system still functioned relatively well. Unlike today, porn was largely run on a studio model, and these studios were centralized in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Miami, where most of the production occurred. Given this centralization, there only needed to be a few testing partners. But as the industry itself changed over the next ten years with the rise of independent production, the PASS system remained unchanged.
With the diffusion of independent content, “PASS as a system was less directly relevant to being able to access testing,” O’Brian comments. “People needed to access services from all over.” To try to accommodate this changing landscape, “PASS spun off as its own organization earlier this year from FSC.”
CET & TSS Break from PASS
Spinning off from FSC wasn’t the biggest change for PASS in the wake of COVID. While PASS had some issues previously with TSS and CET, disagreements over how to handle COVID was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“Our last kind of public disagreement was over how to handle covid testing,” O’Brian says. “Specifically, they had developed a proprietary [COVID] test that they could roll out immediately and got an emergency use authorization.” While TTS wanted to tie the COVID test and the STI panels together into the non-binary system, O’Brian comments, “We wanted to separate them to accommodate a crew who is now a part of this testing model.” In other words, there was no clear distinction between a clear COVID test and a clear STI test in this system, which didn’t make sense on a porn set where crew members and performers have different medical needs and concerns.
With TSS and CET pulling out of the PASS system, it is currently impossible for performers and crew members to process their testing through PASS. In other words, the system is broken. Yet, the diffusion of the industry made the PASS system, as it was, less relevant than it was. While disputes over COVID pushed the issue, it was becoming more and more evident that the system needed to change. O’Brian says, “We need something focused more explicitly on health for an industry that is wildly changing. My vision for PASS, as it has been crystalizing recently, addresses the diffusion of the industry.”
Separating from FSC has been part of this vision. Dr. Heather Berg, assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis and author of the book Porn Work: Sex, Labor, and Late Capitalism, says, “It is important that a producer trade organization is not producing health policy.” While FSC did what it could, Berg argues, it ultimately has interests that aren’t performer centered. “I think that in any policy making context there are different stakeholders with competing interests,” she says. “The people who should be informing health policy for the industry are performers. First and last. And I think that participation from producers, directors, and agents should be a matter of what performers say that they need.”
The reason for the emphasis on performers is relatively obvious. Valerie Webber, a long-time performer with an academic background in public health says, “When it comes to health and safety, it is beneficial for us to be able to focus on bodies that are involved in the making.” She goes on, “When you are a performer, you have certain insight into what your body is being asked to do, it is more of a felt tangible experience. The managerial class will never fully appreciate the lived experience.” They can’t, these aren’t experiences they have. Webber says, “Even if they are considerate of their performers, they are not having to do the body maintenance. It is not going to be as well-rounded of an approach.” Berg echoes this sentiment, adding, “My dream would be pretty minimal input from management.”
So how can we look at these broader sexual health issues from a sex worker and performer perspective?
O’Brian says that centering performer concerns led to the idea of creating a lab that could process testing samples accessibly and with a fast enough turn-around to be useful to performers’ production schedules (be them independent or mainstream). Specifically, he is interested in “not just the collection of samples, but the actual machinery and technology.” He says, “The reason I wanted to start there is because then you can process anything from anywhere. We have dedicated machinery to be able to process the samples.” If PASS had its own processing lab, in other words, performers could theoretically go to their own primary care doctors and have them send the samples to PASS for processing. While the lab will be in Los Angeles, a performer in Iowa or Maine would have access to what LA and Vegas performers take for granted.
O’Brian priced the lab out to be $500,000, and so they immediately started fundraising. First, with a simple Paypal link that very quickly raised $10,000, demonstrating the interest in a lab like this from the porn community. It is worth noting that performer Lance Hart and Mindgeek, up until this point, have been the largest doners.
While the gap between $10,000 and $500,000 is enormous, O’Brian says that there is a corporate sponsor (whose name can’t be released yet), that has expressed interest in funding the rest of the project. Once PASS has access to those funds, the turnaround time from start to finish is projected to be 3 months. O’Brian says that while he is reticent to commit to a deadline, PASS is hoping to have the lab up and running by November or early December—just in time for XBIZ Los Angeles and AVN.
The lab is only one part of the vision. PASS also strives to build a pilot community center in Los Angeles that can serve as a model for other cities. “Wellness means so much more to this industry than just STI’s,” he says. A community center can be a hub of organization, services, and social space. O’Brian says, “We want to give people direct care and build an infrastructure for a community that is already vibrant.” Under this framework, the lab is an investment in the industry, but also, in O’Brian’s words, “a reinvestment where the dollars go back to a non-profit that wants to provide more services.” The idea is to give performers the tools to craft their own health and safety, and a space to do it.
Berg also touts the virtue of a community space. She says, “It is important to talk about connecting in real life because FOSTA/SESTA has limited sex workers’ ability to share information online.”
Webber agrees. She says, “Building some brick and mortar, as well as virtual community and place for organizing, sharing ideas, and understanding what health and safety means to us, will allow us to meet the needs of people whose needs are currently not being met.”
Sex work has long been on the forefront of radical thinking about work, gender politics, bodily autonomy and more. The very notion of sex work and porn performance forces those issues, causing us to think about work and about health and safety differently. Without wanting to come off as too lofty, O’Brian says, “I want to build structures that people can do the world they want to be revolutionary.” PASS itself, as a non-profit can’t do this, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a home for this sort of activity. He says, “A non-profit can’t be revolutionary, but people can be. We want to do whatever we can to encourage that.”
Berg shares this hope, adding, “What a community center might be able to do is think in expansive ways about how to connect people with practitioners who are trustworthy, how to train medical staff to be sex work competent.” Webber says, “The community center can be a place of creatively sharing ideas and building solutions, a place where people can really connect to one another and think about the industry in broader terms.” And more to the point, she says, “It can be a place of uplifting.”
To learn more and contribute to this project, please go to PASS’s website.
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