Roughly three years ago, porn star Brett Rossi learned a troubling secret from her then boyfriend Charlie Sheen. He had contracted HIV. "When Charlie decided to be honest that he had HIV, I obviously was invested in the relationship emotionally," Rossi says. "This was someone I cared about, but I also cared about my health and safety."
Like most people facing medical news, Rossi panicked and then went on the Internet. She took an HIV test (she tested negative) and then learned that HIV-negative partners of "mixed-status couples," which are relationships where only one person has HIV, were taking a drug called as PrEP, also known as Truvada. When taken properly after 30 days, PrEP reduces the risk of HIV infection by over 90 percent. Rossi immediately sought the little blue pill. "It's kind of like birth control," Rossi says. "You have to take it consecutively."
Rossi has since broken up with Sheen, but she's now campaigning for other adult performers and sex workers to take the life-saving medication.
Over the past four years, the adult industry has faced growing government and public scrutiny over how they perform sex. The ruckus started in 2013, when porn star Cameron Bay tested positive for HIV. She insisted she contracted the virus through porn, but the Free Speech Coalition, the adult film industry's trade association, told Rolling Stone that Bay's scene partners tested negative for HIV.
Her story, though, became part of the argument for Proposition 60, a measure that would have required condoms on all porn sets. A majority of California voters rejected the law on election day this month, but the porn community spent months of time and money campaigning against the law. "If we would have known about PrEP treatment back then it would have saved the industry so much of a headache," Rossi points out.
Truvada has become a common conversation amongst gay porn stars in New York and Los Angeles, but Rossi has heard few women discuss the drug. She has started talking talking to her peers about taking the medication, but most of them have shut her down. I had similar experiences: When I reached out to other porn contacts for this story, they all either declined to comment or didn't respond.
Rossi has chosen to speak out publicly about the drug to decrease the stigma surrounding PrEP. The drug prevents HIV, but Rossi believes adult performers fear the drug because of its association with the virus. "It's really sad," she says. "I think HIVand anything that revolves around discussion of HIV, people shy away from it… I think people are afraid of the stigma."
She understands their mindset. Before Sheen revealed his diagnosis, she believed that straight people rarely came in contact with the illness. "HIV has a perception," Rossi explains. "I do think a lot of straight people think they can't get HIV."
Four decades into the HIV epidemic, AIDS organizations continue to fight the dangerous stigma that HIV is a disease for gay men and drug users. In the UK, the Terrence Higgins Trust reports that 55 percent of straight men diagnosed with HIV were diagnosed late, when the virus had already begun its war on their immune systems.
Based on her experiences in the adult industry, Rossi believes many other straight porn stars and sex workers also hold these dangerous assumptions. "It's not just a gay disease," she says. "It's not just an anal disease." She's chosen to speak out about PrEP to also educate people about the reality of HIV. As she says, "[PrEP] is why I'm HIV negative."