Making condoms disappear

A porn company attempts to edit rubbers out of its final product. Will this settle the industry's safe-sex debate?

Published January 26, 2014 12:00AM (EST)

  (<a href=''>microgen</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>/Salon)
(microgen via iStock/Salon)

It appears impossibly sleek and glossy -- even taking into account the poolside setting, blazing sun and liberal application of tanning lotion. To be clear, this "it" is a penis, and it bears the characteristic gleam of a condom -- except there is no visible lip. The latex sheen seamlessly transitions into the matte effect of unsheathed skin.

This is a scene from Falcon Studio's "California Dreamin'," allegedly the first porn film to digitally remove condoms in post-production. The performers wore protection while shooting and, through a combination of lighting and editing tricks, the rubbers were erased -- for the most part. Clearly, it is an imperfect art, but in some scenes the condom is undetectable. This technological trick seems like just the solution to the acrimonious debate over mandating condoms in porn. This way, performers are protected and viewers get the rubber-free porn they demand, right? If only it were that simple.

Sex educator and director Tristan Taormino says this technique is unlikely to take off. "The way the porn economy is right now, I just think it’s not economically feasible for most people." Sure, there are "big web companies" that appear to be rolling in money, she says, but their success is a result of having a constant stream of new content. That hamster-wheel business model leaves no time for advanced post-production techniques.

Axel Braun, who was recently named best director by Adult Video New for the fourth year in a row, agrees. "To do it right is extremely difficult, time consuming, and impossibly expensive," he says. It would involve an animation technique called rotoscoping, and editors would have to "match the color, texture and wetness of the genitals" -- for each and every frame. "Given that a sex scene is on average 20 minutes long, and even subtracting a generous 10 minutes between oral and climax which are always condom-less, you'd still have 10 minutes left," he said. "At 30 frames per second, that's 18,000 unique frames per scene, times five scenes per movie."

That amounts to 90,000 frames. "We're talking easily about one hundred thousand dollars," he says.

It appears that a simpler approach than Braun recommended was used in "California Dreamin'." Chris Ward, president of Falcon Studios, a gay porn company that relies on condoms rather than testing, declined to discuss the specifics of the technique -- in order to maintain a "competitive advantage" -- but emphasized that the lighting during filming was crucial. "The amount of time in post, for shots that require it and still photography is not huge, mainly because we work on the set itself to minimize the presence of condoms." It is possible, therefore, to minimize the appearance of condoms without dropping 100K.

Whether it's possible to do so and satisfy customers is another question. Ward says he's gotten mixed reactions from viewers. "Many love it -- they are glad our actors are safe and they do not have to have condoms in a starring role in their erotica," he said. "Others say that this is 'fake' barebacking and they do not like it." Ward admits that viewers are unlikely to mistake the film as a genuine unprotected film. The condom, he says, is there, "but it's not giant and distracting."

Even Braun's more rigorous approach to digitally removing condoms is unlikely to satisfy those who want to see real-deal unprotected sex. As Alexander S. Birkhold wrote in a critique of Los Angeles County's condom mandate, "A scene digitally altered to eliminate a condom fundamentally changes the expression of the film," he argued. "Bareback sex represents hypermasculinity, risk, and sexual freedom and constitutes a unique sexual identity. If a performer or viewer knows a scene or video has been shot while performers were wearing condoms, the thrill, danger, and very meaning of bareback sex have been blunted."

Post-production sorcery also fails to address the objections of porn insiders, which concern more than just consumer demand for rubber-less porn. There are free speech arguments, the belief that testing is a more effective way to protect performers and the practical objection that performing with condoms for hours on end can cause abrasion and irritation.

It doesn't even address all of the concerns of condom advocates. As reported in a 2004 memo by Thomas L. Garthwaite, director and chief medical officer of Los Angeles County, public health experts and industry insiders have "questioned whether there was an obligation to show consistent condom use to encourage the same practice among viewers." This debate isn't just about protecting performers, for some it's also about porn's social influence -- and that concern certainly isn't limited to condom use. Every aspect of this debate is more complicated than it at first seems.

There are problems no amount of Photoshop can fix.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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