The human immunodeficiency virus, up close. Via NIAID
Last year, when the AIDS Healthcare Federation (AHF) poked their heads into pornography and started the initial push for Measure B, a rarely enforced law that requires condoms to be used in pornography produced in Los Angeles County, high-minded reformers like AHF president Michael Weinstein seemed to have an obvious misunderstanding of how porn works. Like Marie Antoinette’s debunked “Let them eat cake” quip, Weinstein’s “Make them wear condoms” solution to the potential spread of STIs in the business was misguided at best. Weinstein—who I like to imagine wearing an intricate ball gown and a towering wig—doesn’t understand the comparative rigor that professionally produced sex scenes entail. The risk of sexually transmitted infections can’t be neatly solved by a few pieces of latex, in pornography or out of it.
Last week’s news that an adult performer named Cameron Bay tested positive for HIV has brought concern over porn practices back to mainstream attention, but you know what no one is talking about? The heterosexual end of the adult industry has not had a single case of performer-to-performer HIV transmission since 2004. In the few cases since 2004 where an adult performer has tested positive for HIV, porn performers’ self-imposed screening process overseen by the Free Speech Coalition, a nonprofit trade organization, has worked. While incredibly frequent testing has not prevented the rare occasion when a performer has acquired HIV offset, it has successfully prevented them from continuing to perform in sex scenes for long enough to pass HIV on to other performers.
Why not just add the extra preventive step of mandatory condom use? Well, condoms have been known to break even when used properly under typical conditions. But porn, if you’ve ever seen it, rarely features common condom-use cases. Where typical heterosexual intercourse involves three to 13 minutes of penetration, adult films require an average of 45 to 90 minutes. The penises of adult performers are larger than average, and the speed of thrusting is generally more intense. Because sex on a porn set is basically bigger, longer, and harder, potential sexual transmission of Hepatitis C is more of a concern than during a typical recreational sexual encounter. Syphilis can absolutely be transmitted even if a condom remains intact, as contagious syphilitic sores can appear on parts of the body not covered by a condom.
The first thing that needs to be removed from the thinking around sexually transmitted infection prevention is the concept that any sex can be entirely safe. There is no such thing as safe sex. Safer, yes. Safe, no. Declaring even abstinence completely safe is questionable because lack of ejaculation has been tentatively linked to prostate cancer.
For Cameron Bay, the diagnosis is life changing. But despite the terrible news, she has helped track potential exposures. Cameron should be applauded for this. If I had a company, I’d offer her a desk job (distributors, producers, and sex toy manufacturers, I am looking at you). To my knowledge no other performers working in the heterosexual pornographic film industry have tested positive, implying that Cameron acquired HIV outside of the adult industry and did not transmit it to any other performers. Public speculation about what specific activities in her personal life could have exposed her to this infection is rude and a horrible way for the adult industry to repay her for being so open with her test results and recent sexual history.
While the AHF was busy getting Measure B passed and California State Assemblyman Isadore Hall was proposing AB 332 and now AB 640 (laws that do or would require condom use in adult films, in addition to the already existing California Occupational Safety and Health Adminstration regulations) the adult industry has continued to take steps to improve its self-imposed testing system. Neither use of barriers or our testing system are completely failsafe. In one ideal world, we all use condoms that never break or fall off and syphilis just doesn’t exist. In the other ideal world, all potential adult performers are tested, quarantined for a month before being retested, and never engage in any potentially risky behaviors off set. The problem with both ideals is that human error and human irresponsibility will always exist. The AHF cannot prevent adult productions from moving out of the jurisdiction of Los Angeles County or California entirely, and the adult production studios cannot put all of the performers on an island somewhere with no exposure to potentially infected sexual partners or dirty needles.
The most grounded and realistic things I’ve heard being said in all of this are coming out of the mouths of performers, and neither the AHF or the Free Speech Coalition (the organization which is now responsible for keeping STD test records in a way that does not violate the HIPAA Privacy Act and dealing with tracking of potential exposures in the event of a positive test) seem to be doing much listening to us.
In my ideal world, the people who are supposedly concerned with the health and well-being of adult performers would listen to us as a group. They would actively hear our concerns and communicate useful information. Rather than government mandated condom use and the avoidance of those laws, adult performers would continue to use regular testing and have an actual option to use a condom whenever they please. We would also all receive enough basic education to understand that there will always be a risk, with condoms or without.
Basic sexual education used to be provided to every performer entering the adult industry by AIM (Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation), which closed in 2011. When a performer came in to AIM for the first time they were shown a Porn 101 video. The people who handled paperwork and took our blood gently suggested that we get vaccinated for Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, and HPV if applicable. For my first year or so in the adult industry, the phlebotomists there would ask how I was adjusting to Los Angeles and whether I was having trouble coping with the stigma of working in porn. While we do have the FSC and their PASS system for verifying the validity of tests, we no longer have the support and education that AIM provided. Whatever faults Sharon Mitchell (the founder of AIM) had, her involvement in the organization governing performer health is sorely missed. She advocated for performers in a way that other groups do not, possibly because Sharon Mitchell had been a performer herself. Maybe those of us who are adult performers need to organize and educate each other now, but we aren't going to make anything safer by sitting around and being told to eat cake.
Previously - Feminism and Me