Debbie does HIV

Most porn viewers think unsafe sex is sexy, but what about stars contracting deadly diseases?

Topics: Sex, Broadsheet,

As much as I enjoy getting academic about smutty topics, I’m often bummed out by feminist debates about the pervasiveness of pornography. That isn’t to say that I’m unconcerned with mainstream porn’s chest-pounding misogyny, unrealistic physical aesthetics or any of the other anti-female offenses identified in women’s studies classes the world over. It’s just that, instead of griping about how these unhealthy visions of female sexuality affect us non-porn stars, I’d like to talk about the health of the actual women in the films. Yes, the porn stars — remember them?

Unfortunately, some sad news out of Porn Valley has made that particular feminist (and humanist) angle especially relevant: Last week, Los Angeles County officials revealed that there have been at least 16 previously unreported cases of HIV among porn performers in the past five years. That amounts to a total of 22 cases since 2004, when five porn stars tested positive. The explanation is simple: As anyone who has ever caught a glimpse of an X-rated film knows, condoms are entirely optional. Sure, there’s an industry standard requiring performers to get tested for STDs every 30 days, but it can take two weeks for signs of HIV infection to show. Just consider the 2004 outbreak: Porn star Darren James tested negative just a few days before going to work and transmitting it to three female costars.

The industry swears up and down that its voluntary monitoring is enough and that the number of infections is low considering the thousands of porn actors out there. (That is true when it comes to HIV, but it certainly isn’t when it comes to every other STD known to man.) Still, as Dr. Jonathan Fielding of the Los Angeles County Department of Health told the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t know of any other industry where people are subjected to that kind of risk.” There have been efforts in recent years to require condom use by law but, whaddaya know, lawmakers are apprehensive about having their name attached to legislation that protects porn stars. Newsflash: People who have sex for a living aren’t considered a sympathetic or family-friendly demographic. There’s no doubt that many sick and twisted people in this country believe X-rated stars are getting exactly what they deserve.

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That brings to mind an L.A. Times article from a few years back that described people from the American Humane Association on a Los Angeles movie set looking after some cockroaches. Even these nasty, hated insects had someone looking after their rights. Meanwhile, actors all over Porn Valley were (and still are) potentially risking their lives on the job.

Admirably, AIDS Healthcare Foundation is staging a protest Monday at Larry Flynt’s Hustler Store in Hollywood to once again call for legislation. Its argument is a compelling one: If hard hats are required on construction sites to protect workers, why not mandate condoms on porn sets? After all, most workers have basic legal protection against, you know, death on the job. The truth is that most actors will go without condoms unless it’s absolutely required, because it’s a way to stay competitive, it’s what the audience wants. But regulation would fail to diminish that demand, and it could drive unprotected shoots underground.

Speaking of the audience, they are perhaps the most important players in this game of sexual Russian roulette. The industry simply delivers what porn watchers want: condomless sex. Understandably enough, most viewers are a little too focused on getting off to consider the ethical implications of their search for bareback porn. 

I guess what I’m saying is: Regulation is great, but it’s not enough. If as conscientious consumers we can commit to fair trade coffee beans, free range chicken and local produce, we can cope with condom porn, right?

Tracy Clark-Flory
Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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