These Porn Actors Are Working to Destigmatize HIV

With services under threat and effective sex ed still a myth, HIV positive performers are using their platforms to educate and advocate.

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Nov 23 2018, 1:05pm

Photo courtesy of Jason Domino

The 1st of December marks World AIDs Day, which means the coming weeks will bring an influx of red ribbons and articles commemorating those who died at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Understanding the devastating impact AIDS had on LGBTQ communities in the 1980s is crucial, but there is a tendency to talk about HIV as a thing of the past. It isn’t: around 36.9 million people worldwide were living with HIV/AIDs last year, and there were around 5,000 new infections every day, although mortality rates are thankfully much lower. East and Southern Africa is by far the hardest-hit region (with some countries in the region imposing age restrictions on buying contraception, for example), whereas black, trans and gay male (MSM) people are still disproportionately likely to contract the virus overall. And so HIV education for those vulnerable groups in particular is even more important. But the virus can affect anyone – a fact largely obscured by the homophobic panic of mainstream media, which used the AIDS epidemic to demonise gay men. As a result, HIV+ women in particular are all too often rendered invisible.

In the UK, treatment has advanced astronomically over the last few decades – contraceptive drug PrEP is currently being trialled by the NHS, while ART (antiretroviral treatment) suppresses the viral load of HIV positive people on medication to ‘undetectable’ levels, meaning they can’t transmit the virus even through unprotected sex (you should always rubber up regardless, folks!). However, reports of over-subscription and limited access to those in need are trickling out about the NHS PrEP trial, and it’s not surprising that, while awareness of HIV may be high, understanding is low.

England still doesn't deliver effective, mandatory sex ed in schools, although Wales and Scotland recently introduced LGBTQ-inclusive lessons. Meanwhile, mainstream media and entertainment treats HIV as either a historical footnote or glosses over the subject entirely – a fact proven once again by the recent Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, which arguably neuters his radical legacy by creating a pleasant, ‘safe’ narrative that won’t piss off Middle England – or, of course, hinder its box-office numbers. So, if we can’t trust sex education or a supposedly faithful biopic of an HIV+ icon to tackle the subject, what can we trust? The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is gay porn.

For starters, a handful of HIV+ porn stars have sex on-screen to demonstrate in extreme detail that treatment works. But in addition, performers like Jason Domino build initiatives like The Good Porn Project, which goes a step further by also tackling issues like transphobia and sexual racism. His first porn scene was with an HIV+ partner, Tony Parker, although he wasn’t told beforehand. (“Tony thought I had been told – that’s what had always happened in the past”). Domino admittedly “freaked out,” (“My HIV knowledge was really rubbish back then”) but quickly realised that Parker was undetectable. In other words, Domino needn’t have worried.

Years later, as part of The Good Porn Project, he recreated his original scene with Parker as a kind of educational tool, but Parker had since become detectable again. “I was on PrEP so we knew it would be fine,” recalls Domino, but little did he know the scene was to become somewhat of a landmark. “That actually became the first recorded evidence of PrEP preventing transmission from a detectable partner. We could show right there on-screen that PrEP works.”

This isn’t the first time that Domino has used on-screen fucking to concisely communicate PrEP's efficacy. A few years ago he founded Porn4PrEP, which fuses sexual health advice and activist toolkits with sex scenes starring HIV+ performers, and continues to advocate for treatment. This wasn’t always the case: when Domino first discovered the treatment he kept quiet until a close friend contracted HIV. Then he realised the devastating consequences of silence. “I knew I wasn’t protecting anybody by keeping it quiet. The guilt that you feel when someone catches HIV and you haven’t been talking about PrEP is so extreme,” he says, his voice stricken with sadness.

There’s no shortage of HIV+ porn performers in the gay porn industry in particular, but lingering stigma and a lack of education means some actors choose not to disclose their status. Hans Berlin, who last year came out during a Grabby awards acceptance speech, puts it this way: “There are still some dumb people in the industry – and that shouldn’t be an insult. There are places in the world, even countries like the United States, which don’t have much sex education, so there are people who are still fearful of HIV+ performers.”

His own entry into porn was unconventional; he came into the industry in his mid-30s after years of pursuing an acting career. “I’m literally that story of the unsuccessful actor ending up in porn,” he laughs. Since coming out he uses his platform to educate and to raise awareness of the fact that HIV+ performers pose no risk if they’re ‘undetectable’. Even if detectable, PrEP can protect: “In the porn industry you can’t really make anyone take PrEP, but if you’re negative and taking it then the HIV status of your partner shouldn’t matter any more.”

Berlin does say he was initially afraid of disclosing his status, but the hate messages he expected never came. Instead, both the industry and the media more broadly welcomed him, warmly. Unfortunately the same can’t be said of his personal life. “I still get it on dating apps,” he laments. “Someone recently asked if I was drug and disease-free, so I told him to read my bio – all the information is in there. He blocked me soon after.”

Terrence Higgins Trust, the leading UK HIV prevention charity, concurs that unconventional approaches to activism work. “We definitely need to be creative in how we get this message out there,” says Marc Thompson, the organisation's health improvement lead. “We’ve found that the most powerful way of amplifying the message is sharing the stories of couples who know for themselves that HIV can’t be passed on because one of them is HIV+ and on effective treatment, and the other is negative. [Porn activism] is another example of that; if it draws attention to this important message, then great.”

We're in the middle of a crucial time to keep that activism going. National HIV Testing Week is currently underway, and it’s easier than ever to get home testing kits. It’s important to show that PrEP works, as the reports of NHS trial oversubscription are threatening to undermine progress. Women are also often lacking from these discussions, but organisations like Sophia Forum are aiming to counter this narrative. It may have seemed unthinkable a few decades ago, but HIV is no longer a death sentence; complacency could always change that.

Berlin is hard at work on a musical love story set in the world of gay porn, whereas Domino is a renowned sexual health advocate consistently using his platform – and his experience – to fight stigma. “Education is so fear-led, and that scares people out of being tested,” he says. “Information and empowerment is so much more important and sex workers are doing the work, but sex worker activists don’t get invited to activism awards. We’re the first to disappear from the list. Companies are worried about funding and respectability, they think we inherently damage that. At the end of the day, it’s just discrimination.”

But these are people with lived experience, and their voices matter. HIV+ performers and activists are crucial to the discussion, as are allies with real knowledge of the industry like Domino. Both the media and the government seem reluctant to listen, writing a narrative that's both dangerously out-of-touch and rooted in a fear of openly discussing sex. “There are so many cultural factors that make it difficult for some people to talk about sex,” admits Domino. “You can listen to your doctor, but that’s really clinical advice. Ultimately it’s about listening to us, because people are talking about sex work without listening to sex workers. There’s something seriously wrong there.”

@jake2103

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

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