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The Porn Industry’s Condom Problem

By Dr. Pisaster | Pajiba Dirty Talk | October 19, 2010 | Comments ()


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Last week it was reported that a San Fernando Valley adult film performer had tested positive for HIV. Two porn companies, Vivid Entertainment and Wicked Pictures, have shut down operations temporarily in response to the situation, but the case is making it obvious that the porn industry as a whole needs to start doing more to protect its performers. In mainstream heterosexual porn, it's common practice for performers to get tested for STIs once a month, but condoms are rarely used (on the other hand, condom use is standard in the gay porn industry but testing is not). The testing agency that reported the positive result, the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation, has not released the performer's name, gender, or work history, so there's no telling yet how many other performers may have been exposed to the virus (there is a rumor that the performer had recently moved from gay porn into heterosexual porn, but that stinks of HIV-positive = gay homophobia to me, so I'm discounting it for now). The good news is, AIM maintains a database of sex scenes which allows them to trace the (professional) partners of anyone that tests positive for an STI, the bad news is that hundreds of porn actors may have been exposed due to the unsafe practices of the porn industry.

Not surprisingly, lots of people are calling for the state of California to mandate condom use in porn to protect the health of the performers. The industry, in turn, has argued that its policy of monthly STI testing provides adequate protection for workers. That is, frankly, a load of horseshit. It certainly hasn't worked to protect performers from other infections -- in 2004-2008 59.9% of porn actors (75.2% of men and 53.9% of women) contracted Chlamydia and 32.7% (20.0% of men and 37.6% of women) contracted Gonorrhea (there's a link to a pdf file of the LA County's department of health statistics on STI infections in porn workers here). Additionally, a significant number of female performers who tested positive for Chlamydia or Gonorrhea had repeat infections within a year -- a circumstance that greatly increases that chances of complications from what are otherwise relatively harmless bacterial infections. A total of 8 cases of HIV have been detected in porn actors in that same time frame, and 4 of those performers contracted the virus during film production. The most infamous recent outbreak of HIV in the porn industry occurred in 2004, when three women were infected after filming scenes with HIV-positive performer Darren James (James has since become an advocate for condom use in porn).

If the statistics aren't convincing enough, consider this: there is no way to detect the presence of the HIV virus itself. HIV testing relies instead on the detection of antibodies to the virus, a sign that the body's immune system has identified and responded to the infection. The problem is, this immune response can take anywhere from 2 weeks to 6 months to manifest. During that time an infected person could have the virus present in his or her bloodstream in concentrations high enough to transmit the infection to others and yet still test negative for HIV (in fact, that is exactly what happened with James, who had tested negative before passing on the virus to his coworkers). Most people (96-97%) develop antibodies within 3 months, but that leaves 3-4% who don't show any signs of the infection for a significant amount of time, and anyway 3 months is plenty of time to spread the virus when you're engaging in unprotected sex on a regular basis, as most adult film actors obviously do. Monthly testing is a good idea for people engaged in sex work of any kind, but it alone can't prevent the spread of HIV. The only way to be sure through testing that the disease isn't spread is to require performers to pass a test for the virus a full six months after their last unprotected sexual encounter. That's clearly unrealistic. The next best option, then, is to use protection (along with regular testing), in the form of condoms. Latex condoms don't offer perfect protection, but when used correctly they are highly effective (98-99.9%) at preventing HIV transmission.

The porn industry has expressed reluctance to use condoms on a regular basis for a number of reasons. Primarily they're concerned about their bottom line - customers prefer bareback sex and sales go down when companies use condoms. That's a terrible argument when stacked against the health of performers. Thanks to modern medicine HIV is now more of a chronic condition than a death sentence, but it's still a severe disease that wrecks havoc on the body even with medication, and no one should be placed in a position where their livelihood puts them at risk of contracting it. It has also been argued that because of the way scenes are shot condoms are likely to break and cause painful abrasions, which could lead to other types of infection. Look, I understand that. I prefer bareback myself because condoms can cause an uncomfortable amount of friction, but the gay porn industry has made it work, and frankly, anuses are if anything more prone to abrasion and tears than vaginas. It may mean that the industry needs to adjust the way they film scenes and I don't know, cut down on gang-banging or other types of rough sex that could lead to condoms chafing female performers (or receptive male performers), but consistent condom use in porn is definitely doable. It may not make producers as much money and some customers (and performers) may not be perfectly happy with the change, but it's the ethical thing to do. Another potential issue is that the industry may simply pack up its operations and move somewhere that doesn't enforce condom usage or testing. In that case, it's up to customers to direct their purchasing power toward companies that protect their workers (Wicked claims they use condoms as standard practice, although I haven't had a chance to watch any videos to verify that). I realize that researching a company's practices is a lot of effort when it comes to watching porn, but again, it's the ethical thing to do and ultimately consumers do have much more power to affect what becomes common practice in porn than the state of California does.

Dr. Pisaster has a doctorate in biophysics, not actually anything sexy. She does however enjoy having sex, reading about sex, and talking about sex. Especially when she's had a little whiskey.


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