Pornstars, Parables, and the Pandemic
May 8, 2020 – David R. Weiss
Here’s the thing about “Good Samaritans”: they are unlikely, unwelcome, offensive bearers of good news. And it’s just possible that in this pandemic pornstars may bear good news for all of us.
Slow down. Before you either sign up for PornHub or quit reading me in disdain, hear me out.
Samaritans, first. Jesus’ parable about the “Good Samaritan” is among his most well known—and most misunderstood. A person traveling along a road between two cities is attacked by bandits and left badly injured at the edge of the road. In need of help. As Jesus tells the tale, first a priest then a Levite come upon the injured traveler. Both pass by without offering aid. (Each has a “legitimate” reason for not offering aid because attending to a person near death would make them ritually impure and prevent them from performing their temple duties. It’s likely that one part of the parable is aimed at critiquing the way ritual purity can override the deeper human duty to compassion, but that won’t get us to pornstars, so we’ll let that slide for the moment.)
It’s possible that as Jesus tells the parable, his listeners empathize with the injured traveler. Many of them, no doubt, have had to travel between cities at some point and knew the perils. It’s also possible that when he told how both priest and Levite move to the other side of the road to pass by the injured traveler, their responses are mixed. Some of them might be thinking, “Just like those ‘holier than thou’ folks to walk by with nary a word!” But others might be more generous, “Well, of course they can’t help; their work in the Temple is too important to disrupt. I sure hope someone else comes along in time.”
Whatever the crowd is thinking, Jesus can count on their unified reaction when he introduces the next passerby: a Samaritan. They will ALL react with disdain and disgust. They may well expect the Samaritan to ransack the traveler one more time to see if the bandits missed anything, but they do not expect—they do not want—the Samaritan to offer any help.
There’s a whole history at play here—one far more fractious than even the Hatfields and the McCoys. Long story short: Jews viewed Samaritans as false-Jews, persons claiming a kinship they had no right to. Samaritans were—hands down—the most despised category of people in Jewish society. Jesus knew this, which is why he placed a Samaritan in this key role in the tale. But not merely to catch his listeners off guard. He did it to place this bit of gospel at the heart of the parable: that sometimes (maybe most times) the life-bearing activity of God shows up in our midst by way of the least expected, least welcome, least wanted characters.
As you may know, the Samaritan—this despised false-Jew—indeed does stop, offer aid, and deliver the traveler to an inn when he pledges to foot the bill for his continued care. At the end of the tale, Jesus asks the lawyer (whose question about “neighbors” prompted the parable), “Who acted as neighbor toward the injured traveler?” The lawyer can’t even bring himself to say, “the Samaritan,” so he merely replies (I imagine in a bit of a grumble), “The one who showed him aid.”
I can relate. I may not despise pornstars, but I wouldn’t place them high on my list of “health care heroes” either. But this parable—if we truly hear it—declares that (whether we like it or not) the life-giving activity of God is so boundless that it will reach toward us often in the most unexpected ways. Even when those ways involve unlikely, unwelcome, offensive bearers of good news. Like Samaritans. Or pornstars.
Porn is fraught work. From producers to actors to viewers, the temptation to engage in dehumanizing, exploitative, oppressive, damaging attitudes/behaviors toward others or to internalize them toward oneself is everywhere. AND YET, the same can and must be said of “Christian” purity culture that makes us so fearful and mistrusting of our own embodiment. That “Christian” view also feeds the temptation to engage in dehumanizing, exploitative, oppressive, damaging attitudes/behaviors toward others or to internalize them toward oneself. The “Christian” fixation on purity—and its abandonment of the ecstatic goodness of bodily-sexual pleasure—plows the field in which porn flourishes. But I’m not here today to have a whole debate on porn.
My simple observation is that as we work to responsibly re-open the economy we don’t expect pornstars to be the ones wearing the white hats (and maybe nothing else!). But what if they are?! Can we recognize that perhaps it is witness to the offensively abundant goodness of God that these contemporary Samaritans will help us map our way back to a working economy?
You see, since the late 90’s the threat of HIV/AIDS has forced the porn industry to take the health of its workforce—pornstars—with unremitting rigor. In the professional adult film industry actors must be tested for HIV and other STDs every 14 days if they wish to be certified to work through the PASS (Performer Availability Screening Services) program.*
Aside from the moral ambiguities of the industry itself, the PASS program isn’t perfect. The 14-day period, set because it works for HIV, doesn’t preclude passing other STDs that might appear inside that two-week window. Also, because most pornstars—like many gig and low-wage workers—only get paid when they show up to work, there can still be an incentive to cover symptoms in order maintain income. And participation is voluntary—and, typically, testing costs are borne by the actors themselves. But many actors won’t shoot scenes with an uncertified actor, so there is also a soft-spoken community ethic: our livelihood depends on keeping each other safe.
Not surprisingly, the PASS program has had to work through, albeit on a smaller scale than our national economy, the logistics of access to testing, database privacy, false positives, isolation, contact tracing, and community education. All these things continue to be works in progress, contested and revised across the terrains of management-labor, public health, and technology.
BUT—we ought not miss this point: we have in our midst, an industry that now has two decades of lived experience making choices to protect the health of its workforce on the far side of normal.
In this pandemic parable, as our economy lies battered by the roadside, it just may be a pornstar coming down the road who stops and tends our wounds. Some folks will, no doubt, recoil in disgust. But I’m telling you, this image matches that God Jesus told us about. A God whose life-bearing activity is so scandalously gracious that it doesn’t hesitate to show up in our midst by way of the least expected, least welcome, least wanted ways. To which our humble response of faith need only be, “Yes, please.”
* The information in this essay relating to the adult film industry and COVID-19 is from an article in STAT, an online project of Boston Globe Media that focuses on the cutting edge stories in health, medicine, and science. Kudos to Derek Blechinger, a former student from Luther college, now a primary care physician in San Francisco, for posting this to Facebook, where it sparked these reflections by me. www.statnews.com/2020/05/08/porn-industry-model-for-reopening-amid-covid19/
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.