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California-Based Porn Actress Tests HIV Positive, Prompting New Debate Over Health Safety for Heterosexual Adult Film Actors

June 17, 2009

Safer sex has never been a hallmark of heterosexual porn films. Standard practice in the U.S. heterosexual porn industry is for actors to get tested for HIV once every 30 days, and condom use during filming is all but unheard of. So the recent revelation that an actress in the industry has been diagnosed with HIV probably shouldn't come as a surprise. It has made waves in the national media, however.

On June 6, a Southern California-based adult film actress being referred to as "patient zero" tested positive for HIV. That revelation set off a wave of inquiry and a back-and-forth with the porn film industry regarding the prevalence of HIV and the safety of adult performers' working conditions.

The Los Angeles Times has followed the frenzy. Health officials initially said that at least 16 adult film performers had tested HIV positive since 2004, and that 60 to 80 porn performers contract gonorrhea or Chlamydia in a typical month. However, officials have since retracted those numbers, saying they can't be sure that those people were actually adult film performers.

Legendary porn publisher Larry Flynt Publications issued a statement defending the porn film industry's practices to prevent HIV transmission, which involve prohibiting performers from working until they get the results of their most recent HIV test.

Officials at the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation (AIMHF) -- a clinic founded in 1998 to provide adult film actors with regular HIV testing and other support services -- remain relatively unconcerned that this incident alone portends a rash of new HIV infections in the industry. The recently diagnosed actress worked in films "very infrequently," according to Brooke Hunter, AIMHF's administrator. The actress's most recent partners have thus far all tested negative for HIV, the Los Angeles Times reports. However, the recent media spotlight that's been shined on safety practices in the industry has prompted AIMHF to put forth plans for reforms.

A 2007 profile of the U.S. porn industry published in the medical journal PLoS Medicine stated that in gay porn, condoms were the norm. (A 2008 report out of Great Britain, however, suggests that barebacking in gay porn may be making a comeback.) By contrast, makers of heterosexual porn films have generally eschewed onscreen condom use.

It was only a few years ago, in 2004, when then-successful heterosexual porn actor Darren James became the center of an HIV outbreak that left three of his female costars infected and shut down film production in San Fernando Valley's lucrative porn industry for a month. Events of the past week have spurred James to tell his story to the Los Angeles Times -- and to urge the porn industry to require condom use on shoots.

"I'm thinking, I'm invincible ... That's just the way our mentality was," said James of the straight porn industry in the interview. "It was, you get the test, you're clean." In response to the recent news that another porn performer has tested positive, James adds, "I predicted it would happen again."

The adult film industry and its attendant health care institutions believe their methods of protecting their workers are sound. However, as Darren James says of his experience: "In between the tests ... other people, you don't know what they're doing."

Many who work in the HIV community are well aware of what James is talking about: Even a person's recent HIV-negative test results are unreliable if the person has had unprotected sex (or was otherwise exposed to HIV) since the test was conducted. Testing and knowing your HIV status is an important step -- but testing is not prevention (even if it's a PCR test, which can detect HIV infection that has occurred within the past 14 days, instead of the typical four to six weeks). The only fully effective way to prevent HIV during sex is to use condoms correctly. In most heterosexual porn companies, condom use is optional.

Regarding the pervasiveness of unprotected on-screen sex in the heterosexual adult film industry, Jonathan Fielding, M.D., M.P.H., the health officer for Los Angeles County, summed up the issue like this for the Los Angeles Times: "You wouldn't send someone to work on a high-rise building without a hard hat, so why are we allowing these performers to perform without condoms?"

Read's collection of articles on the adult film industry for even more insight into this debate.

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