Porn's last taboo: Protected sex

The industry is resisting a push for condom-only smut and not just because it makes far less money

Published August 25, 2009 10:10AM (EDT)

You won't find "Debbie Does Condoms" or "Jenna Loves Prophylactics" on offer from any of the major porn studios, but that could all change thanks to an ongoing campaign to require rubbers in hardcore flicks. From the outside, it seems a rather admirable way to protect porn actors from the consumer push for risky bareback porn, as I wrote a couple months back. The approach seems basically humanist – or even feminist, considering that female porn actors are most at risk for contracting HIV in straight porn. But, I'm finding that there are actually some Magnum-sized issues with such legislation.

Late last week, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation filed an official complaint against 16 pornographers for producing films featuring unprotected sex and promised to raise hell until condoms are mandated throughout the industry. This is just the group's latest war cry: Earlier this summer, shortly after a performer tested positive for HIV, the organization staged a protest and once again called for legislation. They say the industry's voluntary testing program leaves open a dangerous window: Once a month, actors take the PCR-DNA test, which can detect HIV  within two weeks of infection. Since 1998, the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation has reported five HIV cases among actors in straight porn. That's a relatively low number, industry insiders point out, given the cosmic amount of condomless sex that has gone on in that time -- but many, myself included, are disturbed by the idea that five infections over 11 years is considered adequate (particularly with regards to the four cases that were a part of a 2004 outbreak, in which it seems clear there was on-the-job transmission).

It isn't that the industry as a whole is opposed to tightening its voluntary prevention system -- plenty of people in the biz actually support a transition to twice-monthly testing -- but there has been an overwhelming outcry against mandating condoms. It isn't just the bigwigs, who know that condom porn makes much less money, either. Some female porn stars argue that condoms make their job tougher: Belladonna wrote on Babeland's blog, "If I were required to use condoms, my performance would most likely suffer, and in the end I would suffer." For others it can be an issue of comfort: "For the women, there are just four words: rubber rash/friction burn," veteran performer Nina Hartley wrote on her Web site. Remember, porn actors don't get down like most folks; the sex they have is more like a three-ring acrobatic act that lasts for hours on end. Ernest Greene, a longtime director and Hartley's partner, explains on his blog:

[A single scene amounts to] over two hours of intercourse in various positions with constant stops and starts during which male performer’s erections rise and fall, condoms frequently tear or unravel and the degree of latex abrasion on the internal membranes of female performers’ vaginas lead to micro-abrasions that make them more vulnerable to all kinds of STIs. Most condom-only female performers eventually abandon condom use, not under pressure from producers, but rather because of the constant rawness and end-on-end bacterial infections produced by countless hours of latex drag.

Add to that the issue of enforcement. There isn't any practical way for the state of California – which, maybe you've heard, is in pretty bad shape – to monitor such a requirement. You might say: No biggie, at least more companies would use condoms more often, right? Only, industry insiders worry that an unenforceable condom mandate made from the outside could potentially undermine the voluntary testing system that the straight side of the industry currently has in place.(The gay side of the business is condoms-only, testing optional.) They worry that unreliable condom use paired with less testing -- not to mention the previously mentioned "micro-abrasions" -- could potentially put performers at greater risk.

I could spill a couple thousand words about ways to make sure that a condom mandate didn't undermine the current testing system, but the truth is that so much of this debate simply comes down to the very unsexy issue of California state employment code. Most porn performers are considered contract workers, but in order to be supervised by California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, they would have to be reclassified as employees. As Greene told Adult Video News, "Under California law, it is illegal to require – I cannot underscore this heavily enough – it is illegal to require HIV testing or in fact any knowledge of the HIV status of any potential employee as a condition of employment. In other words, no producer would even be able to ask a performer if they had been tested, if such a law were to be enacted." To do so would be considered employment discrimination. "It'll be testing or condoms, take your choice," he says. Unless, of course, the industry voluntarily adopted a condom-plus-testing policy, but that's unlikely to happen unless consumers demand it.

That brings me right back to the same conclusion I came to before: It's all about the audience. For those ethical porn consumers out there -- and I'm convinced they do exist, despite past reader comments to the contrary -- it's possible to vote with your dollars. (Of course, much of what gets traction online is pirated material or free teasers for for-pay content, in which case the consumer vote is less direct.) The best middle ground solution I've come across is one suggested by Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation founder Sharon Mitchell shortly after the 2004 outbreak: Why not promote a "seal of approval" that advertises a porno's ethical production values? The gold standard might be requiring rigorous two-week testing and actively defending workers' right to perform with or without a condom. It would be a disclaimer of sorts -- essentially, "no porn stars were harmed in the making of this movie."

I can already hear some of you heaving exasperated sighs. Surely, you think I'm being a Pollyanna when it comes to the general porn audience: They want fantasy, not politics! But I see it as an issue of keeping the rather unerotic reality of disease from getting in the way of fantasy.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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