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An open letter to NYT in response to their coverage of yesterday’s Cal OSHA hearing by Lorelei Lee


Dear New York Times,

My name is Lorelei Lee and I’m an adult film performer who has worked in the industry for fifteen years. I read your article, “Actors in Pornographic Films Fight Proposal to Enforce Safety Regulations,” and I am writing to say: how dare you.

Nearly 100 of my fellow performers and I took an unpaid day off from work to testify at yesterday’s meeting of the Cal OSHA Standards Board. Some woke at 4am to fly to Northern California. Some drove seven hours from Los Angeles, and some flew across the country from their homes in other states. We were there to speak from our hearts. We were there to make substantive points about a newly proposed regulation that was written without our input, with disregard for our actual safety, and in opposition to the views of doctors and epidemiologists from institutions like the CDC and Emory University. Yesterday’s meeting represented the culmination of years of our efforts to organize and speak out for ourselves, to become part of the political process that wants to regulate our bodies.

We were not, as your article described us, “a parade.” We were not there to put on a show, and our clothes, which your article focused on — pointing out that we were “fully dressed,” as though our wearing clothes was a joke — were not costumes. How dare you gloss over the real and cogent content of our public testimony to focus on our “form-fitting” dresses and “stiletto heels.” We are not cartoons, and your description of us as “colorful” demonstrates both a bias in reporting and an utter failure to hear my coworkers’ articulate and nuanced criticism of the proposed regulation. This regulation would not have been “more stringent” as your article describes, but would have substantially weakened the state-of-the art testing system we rely on, and which your own paper has previously described as a “model for HIV prevention.” This regulation would have pushed our industry underground where workers like me have fewer resources and less protection against all manner of safety violations beyond STI transmission, and, if passed, would have alienated us from the very government body assigned with our protection.

I’m not writing to you simply because I am angered by the mistakes of one reporter. I’m writing to you because the way journalists describe us matters. The way you talk about us has a direct impact on our ability to advocate for ourselves and on the tremendous stigma that we face every minute of our lives. When we are fighting for our bodily safety, this dismissal of our humanity by a journalist amplifies our daily risk of harm. It invites violence against our bodies by implying that we are not real, whole people. You know this. You report about frequent violent crimes against sex workers in your own paper.

I promise you that my coworkers and I already know what most of the world thinks of us. We know that you are surprised to see us out and dressed in daylight. We know that you think we are fictional characters whose voices are always scripted, who only speak in explicit imperatives and double-entendres. We know that most of the world would prefer we not interrupt that fictional image with our actual voices. We know that most of the world will not believe us when we speak anyway.

Time and again we’ve been told that because of the labor we do with our bodies, we must not have fully developed brains as well. We’ve been told that we could not possibly know what is good for us, that we are hapless victims, that we are brainwashed or exploited. We are told by the media and by people we love that they do not believe we value our own bodies.

And yet, we were the ones — adult performers — who created and implemented the protocols we now use to protect our bodies at work. It was performers who, in the late nineties, saw their coworkers dying, saw the people in their community falling victim to both HIV and to a doubled stigma — a stigma that still thrives — that says HIV positive sex workers are to blame for their own seroconversion. To save the lives of the people they loved, performers on all sides of the industry worked to create systems that could keep us safe. For some performers this means using condoms at work, and for some this means a stringent testing system that both protects our medical privacy and enables us to know our status and the status of our partners — something that is rare among civilians. Over the last decade and a half we’ve worked with doctors and epidemiologists, we’ve increased the stringency of our protocols immediately with each new advance in medical science. These protocols are not mandated by anyone except us. How dare you imply that the fact of us wearing clothes is somehow more compelling than our decade-long struggle to protect ourselves and the people we love.

We already know what most of the world thinks of us and yet we continue to fight. We meet at each other’s houses to go over the fine print of draft regulation and to plan our battles. We travel and we take time off from work. We out ourselves publicly and we share the intimate details of our lives with lawmakers. We stand up at the podiums of hearing rooms in front of Cal OSHA or the California State Legislature and we beg them to listen to us. We beg them to work with us to create the kind of regulation that will enable us to care for our families, to live, to keep our bodies and the bodies of those we love safe from harm. We are not above begging, and we know that as long as papers like yours continue to publish articles like this one we will have to continue to beg and plead and pray that we can crack through a thousand years of bias and stigma and be heard. We are not a parade. We are a battalion, and we are fighting for our lives.


Lorelei Lee