In the wake of the 13th International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, it seems as if the only really safe sex is with yourself. The headlines out of South Africa trumpeting the almost medieval toll AIDS is exacting worldwide, as well as the possibility that spermicidal agents such as nonoxynol-9 may actually increase the likelihood of HIV transmission, may make you want to forgo any knockin' boots with a flesh-and-blood partner. Maybe it'd be best just to lay in a supply of Bacardi and invest in one of those fully functional sex dolls until the plague blows over.
Sound extreme? Well, at least you have the option. It's not like your livelihood depends on engaging in sexual relations with all and sundry. Sure, you might think you're Buffy the Man Eater or Tim Meadows the "Ladies Man" on "Saturday Night Live." But let's cut the crap, folks. Most of us are more Woody Allen than Wilt Chamberlain, more Margaret Cho than Angelina Jolie. Unless you luck out like Darva Conger, queen of the homely homebodies, no one's going to pay your sorry ass to get naked for Playboy, much less to have sex on demand.
But for America's sex workers, having sex on demand pays the light bill, the car note and the monthly rent. Whether they work in the adult-entertainment industry, churning out sex tapes for you to watch while smearing your fat bod with baby oil, or do you the ultimate favor of enabling you to reach what the late Madeline Kahn called the "sweet mystery of life," they risk infection with HIV and any number of other lesser diseases. Just like everyone else, they take pride in their jobs. But unfortunately, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn't monitor their work environments. Sex workers are the ultimate independent contractors. In the final analysis, they're the ones responsible for taking the precautions that may save their lives, and yours.
Just what are those precautions? What is safe sex for them? That depends on the type of sex worker involved.
Take Patrick, 25, for example, a gay call boy in San Francisco who advertises his services over the Internet. Patrick (who asked that his real name not be used) explained that he always uses condoms for anal intercourse, will not do drugs with clients and excludes the possibility of "barebacking," a term he defined as any unprotected anal sex. He does engage in water sports, but he refuses to "drink pee," though he said that was more a matter of personal preference. He requires the use of gloves for anal fingering, and he will not "lick ass." That said, his one departure from his "safer sex" regimen is that he does not use condoms for oral sex.
"I've sucked hundreds and hundreds of uncovered dicks, and I'm HIV negative and never got an STD [sexually transmitted disease] from a client," he said. "It's a risk assessment. I've found that most men don't use them, and I don't unless the client requests it."
Patrick pooh-poohed the possibility of being exposed to something via unprotected oral sex, stating that giving head is a relatively low-risk activity and that in any case most of his clients are "pretty low-risk folks.
"I think there's an effort to scare people [about unprotected oral sex], instead of giving them good, honest information so they can make decisions as adults," he said.
He also cautioned me against drawing too many conclusions based on his activities. "I know some guys who use condoms for oral sex. But an important point for you to keep in mind is that talking to a couple of sex workers doesn't mean you've taken the temperature of the entire community. There are as many approaches to this as there are sex workers."
Still, Patrick's attitude toward oral sex mirrors the attitude prevalent in both the gay and straight porn industries, where blow jobs are usually performed without condoms. When Patrick uses a condom for anal penetration, he prefers Japanese condoms, which he said are given out free at local clinics like the St. James Infirmary in San Francisco. He also carries nonlatex condoms for those allergic to latex and avoids the use of spermicidal lubrication products with nonoxynol-9 because they "irritate the lining of the rectum."
In fact, most sex workers I talked to are way ahead of the curve on the use of lubes or rubbers with nonoxynol-9, a detergent that kills HIV in lab conditions. Many in the porn industry avoid products with n-9 because they say it causes "wood problems" on the set -- numbing a man's dick so he can't achieve a hard-on. And both male and female prostitutes say that they limit their use of products with the agent because they've long regarded it as an irritant.
"That's not news!" exclaimed Carol Leigh, aka "The Scarlot Harlot," a San Francisco prostitute who acts as the spokesperson for COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), an advocacy group for sex workers with chapters in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle. "We've known that for 10 years. Oh yes, it's an irritant and it's very problematic for us."
Leigh, who has been a sex worker since before the start of the AIDS crisis, said she uses some lubrication containing nonoxynol-9, but only very lightly. As for her other precautions, she regularly uses latex condoms like Trojan Ribbed or Crown for all forms of penetration, including oral sex.
"I had gonorrhea in my mouth very early on in my career, before I used condoms for oral sex," she explained. "Basically I use condoms for everything. It's difficult with the criminalization [of prostitution]. In order to negotiate around safe sex, you have to make it clear that you're going to use safe-sex techniques. However, that's actually a crime -- to negotiate around sexual services. What it takes to keep me safe I would be arrested for."
Leigh pointed out that some clients derive a thrill from engaging in "risky" sex and try to bribe sex workers into forgoing condoms. And prostitutes undergoing economic hardship may be tempted to cut corners in order to get paid.
Dennis Hof, owner of the Moonlite Bunnyranch in Carson City, Nev., agreed that the criminalization of prostitution hampers the drive for safer sex. Fortunately for Hof, that's not a problem he has. Prostitution is legal in most of Nevada, so his brothel, perhaps the largest in North America with almost 250 licensed women, operates in the open, with plenty of scrutiny from local health officials.
"At the Bunnyranch, our girls get tested for HIV every 30 days, every seven days for gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis," he told me. "Then it's all condom usage -- even for oral sex. They're also trained on how to inspect a client. We actually have the Health Department come in and tell a girl what to look for. It's not 100 percent -- but by inspecting a man and making him use a condom, it helps take the risk out of it."
Hof said that the testing the brothel does is mandated by state law. And registered prostitutes are required to have cards signed by a health provider indicating that they're disease-free; otherwise, they don't work. Police check the cards once a week, and if the women are not cleared, Hof gets slapped with a substantial fine.
"It's just good business," said Hof, who calls himself the "Eagle Scout" of prostitution. "The customers know my girls are checked properly and timely. Legalization does that. The guy that's out there dealing with illegal prostitutes, massage parlors, etc., he might as well be playing Russian roulette and have the gun to his head. Because he's going to get something, and he's not going to like it when he does."
JenLynn Sweet, who worked for Hof from July 1999 to January 2000, said she found the safety precautions required of Nevada's brothels reassuring. Sweet, an erotic dancer and writer who lives in Las Vegas, has worked as both an adult-film actress and a legal prostitute. On the whole, she found legal prostitution as epitomized by Hof's Bunnyranch to be the safer environment.
"I absolutely felt safer working at the bordello," Sweet told me. "I was able to find video roles where condoms are used, but it takes a lot of hunting around. Most directors prefer the actors not to use condoms. I quit doing videos after less than 10."
She continued, "There is an organization called AIM (Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation), and just about every adult video company complies with its standards. What AIM does is keep records of PCR-DNA tests for all of the film stars. These tests check for HIV and are done monthly. Without the test, you won't find a role in adult film or video. The problem is that now that everyone feels safe and secure, the adult performers tend not to use condoms in their scenes.
"Most of the porn stars I met at the Bunnyranch were amazed at the precautions we took there," she added. "I was always amazed at the precautions the adult-film industry doesn't take."
Located in Sherman Oaks, Calif. -- in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, porn center of the universe -- AIM was founded by industry veteran Sharon Mitchell two years ago as a sort of industry watchdog after a series of incidents in which porn stars tested positive for HIV. Essentially, AIM now sets the industry standard, administering HIV tests on a monthly basis for about 500 or so persons, either approving them for work because of a negative PCR-DNA test or quarantining them because of a positive result and notifying adult-film performers who may have been exposed to HIV through that individual. When longtime porn star Tony Montana recently tested HIV positive, for instance, Mitchell placed the compliant actor on quarantine, tracked down through AIM's database those he may have exposed to the virus, placed them on quarantine pending future tests and warned anyone who had worked with them to come in for testing as well.
AIM also provides a number of other services, such as testing for other STDs, counseling and support groups and handing out free condoms and Inner-Lube, a lubricant not yet on the market that contains a mild 0.1 percent concentration of nonoxynol-9. But as laudable as AIM's efforts are, Mitchell admitted that at best the group is "putting a Band-Aid on a shotgun wound" when it comes to HIV and STDs in the porn community.
"The majority of the large companies will not shoot unless they have a current PCR-DNA test from us in their files," Mitchell said. "Of course, these tests are only as good as the day they're drawn. But if they have it on file, it releases them from a certain amount of liability.
"Of the folks we test, only 17.2 percent use condoms. That's alarming because part of the population gets paid more for high-risk sex acts like anal sex without a condom. So even with AIM Health Care in place, we have a tremendous amount of denial. With the people who don't use condoms, we find chlamydia and syphilis resurfacing every one to three months. They're spending the extra money they're making for working in noncondom productions on meds at the end of the month."
AIM has other problems: a highly transient population of workers, rinky-dink, amateur productions and renegade companies that flout AIM's growing industry clout and a chronic lack of funding. But most I spoke to in the porn industry felt that AIM was better than nothing.
In fact, attitudes in the adult-film industry seem to be gradually changing, in part as a result of Mitchell's constant prodding and in part as a result of periodic crises in which performers turn up HIV positive. Major porn companies such as Vivid and VCA have instituted "condom only" policies, and porn giant Metro did the same, only to backslide recently to a "condom optional" policy. And an increasing number of porn stars insist on the use of condoms in their sex scenes.
One of these, porn superstar Chloe, who has starred in about 300 films and won eight Adult Video News Awards in the past two years, told me that it was only at first that she got any flak for her decision.
"I've been in the industry for a little under five years," she said. "When I first came in, I was a noncondom player and I had 10 cases of V.D. in my first year -- stuff like chlamydia and gardnerella. I've been using a condom only for the last three years and have had one infection of chlamydia since. So I'm an avid condom user and like to see others use them as well.
"This industry hates change," Chloe added. "Back in my second year, I wasn't that popular. So I did lose a lot of work in the first three or four months of being condom only. But you just have to stick with it. It comes down to your personal safety and health vs. making money. For me, my personal safety and health were more important."
Of course, her success helps in her resolve. When she puts her foot down now, producers and directors have to comply. As has been noted in a lot of reports on the porn industry, female stars are better paid and generally have more personal freedom than their male counterparts. For instance, Tony Tedeschi, one of the few big-name male stars in straight porn to insist on condoms, still loses income because of his stance.
"I use condoms in every shoot," he told me. "Yes, I do get shut out of work because of it. But it's something I feel strongly about. Not just to protect myself, but because of the message that's being sent out.
"A lot of people nowadays, the only sex ed they have is adult videos. If they see all these people having unprotected sex, they assume it's OK. If we set a bad example, someone could catch something because they imitate the behavior they see in our films," Tedeschi said.
Some porn flicks do show condom use, despite complaints that condoms are an aesthetic turnoff for viewers. Mitchell commented that the Crown brand is favored in the industry, since a Crown-wrapped willy looks like a "well-lubed dick." One might expect the see-through Crown rubbers to waylay any arguments against their use on porn sets.
But the average porn outlet is awash in a smorgasbord of titles, presenting any number of risk-filled sexual activities: colossal gang bangs with ranks of amateurs plucked from the streets, rough, prolonged anal sex and extreme "gonzo" videos in which you might witness anything from a girl gulping down a wineglass filled with the jizz of a dozen men to a vast orgy scene with participants leaping gleefully from partner to partner. Many straight-porn directors constantly push the envelope to see what they can capture on film. Safe sex is not exactly their highest priority.
Jim Steel, a writer, director and producer of gay porn for Odyssey Group Video in Los Angeles, takes a dim view of the attempts of the straight side of the industry to regulate itself. Though he gives kudos to Mitchell (whose organization mostly caters to heterosexual pornsters) for doing what she can on her side of the fence, he thinks straight porn still lags behind gay porn on safer sex.
"Let me put it to you this way," he said. "I'm 42 years old. And from when I graduated from high school at 18 and came out, everybody I know is dead. So, as far as I'm concerned, until they find a cure for HIV, if you see a dick go into a hole, it should be covered with a condom. To do anything else is putting people at risk."
Steel said that, unlike straight porn, gay porn does not require testing, mainly because producers already use condoms on all productions and for the most part do not allow cum shots in the mouth or on the face. However, as in condom-only straight productions, condoms are not required for blow job scenes.
"It's not as common a practice on the gay end as it is on the straight end to have the test," Steel added. "But I think the test is ridiculous anyway. If you're not asking them to do anything unsafe, what business is it of mine as a director to know what your health is?"
Actually, to an outsider such as me, it seems as if regular testing for STDs and HIV along with consistent condom use, even for oral sex, would be the safest bet. These are the guidelines followed at Dennis Hof's Bunnyranch, and he says that during his tenure the brothel has had to deal only with rare cases of chlamydia in newcomers.
However, Patrick from San Francisco insists that those who avail themselves of the services of sex workers also bear some responsibility in all this. His comments could also apply to those who consume pornography.
"Since the advent of AIDS, I've seen so many stories that portray sex workers as these disease vectors," he said. "And I'm so sick of that. It's a really horrible stereotype. We were carrying HIV into the general population, supposedly.
"The reality is, clients are adults who make decisions about the kinds of sex they're looking for. If there's unsafe sex going on, clients are the ones demanding it. They're not these innocent little disease-free victims who are getting infected by villainous sex workers. That's a complete fabrication. We're all adults here."