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Why the Porn Industry's HIV Problem Is Our Problem, Too

By Kellee Terrell

October 25, 2010

For the past two weeks, the media has been buzzing about the adult film performer in California who tested positive for HIV. Inappropriately dubbed "Patient Zero," the individual has been identified as a male actor who worked in both gay and straight porn, which appears to be a rarity with male performers. This discovery has prompted four studios, including Vivid Entertainment and Hustler Video, to shut down production while they test anyone who has had unprotected sex with the actor. As of yet, no one has tested positive, but given that it can take up to 90 days to seroconvert, retesting will most likely happen in the near future.

HIV infections in the porn industry are not a new phenomenon. While testing is voluntary, some studios require their actors to be tested every 30 days and have documentation from the Adult Industry Medical (AIM) Healthcare Foundation showing that they do not have HIV or any other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). But clearly, this method isn't foolproof, especially if the actor has had unprotected sex in between tests. In 2004, Darren James, who was unaware of his HIV status, unknowingly infected three actresses. Twenty-two performers are reported to have tested positive for HIV since James, including a female performer who tested positive last year.

Other STDs, such as gonorrhea and chlamydia, pose a problem in the porn industry as well. The Black AIDS Institute wrote:

According to a 2007 article in the PLoS (Public Library of Science) Medicine Journal, between January 2003 and March 2005, approximately 976 performers were found to be infected with 1,153 STDs, including chlamydia and gonorrhea. And according to a 2009 ABC News report, L.A.-county officials have counted more than 3,600 cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea among performers since 2004.

This most recent incident has brought back into light the long-standing pleas of some HIV/AIDS advocates for state officials to mandate condom use on porn sets. In a statement, AIDS Healthcare Foundation's president, Michael Weinstein, stated:

That a performer tested positive for HIV today -- and that more may be infected -- was totally preventable. It is also living proof that testing is not adequate protection against HIV/AIDS and other sexually-transmitted diseases among porn performers. How many more people have to be infected with HIV before Los Angeles County steps in to do its job and protect performers' and the public's health and AIM stops being a "fig leaf" for the industry?

Many porn executives make the argument that viewers don't want to see condoms in porn -- it takes away from the fantasy. And even though porn is a billion-dollar industry, it has taken a hit in the recession. With amateur stars posting online videos for free and studio movies being pirated, studios may feel that barebacking is necessary for them to stay afloat.

Former and current adult industry stars have been going on the record about this debate. Jenna Jameson, a former adult star and current owner of her own studio, told RadarOnline.com that she was "dumbfounded" by the lack of condom use on sets:

The fact is that safe sex is not continuously practiced in the adult film world. It's something that's left up to the performers and usually the women say yes or no and I think a lot of the women feel pressure to not use condoms because they're in fear of not getting hired by that company again. It's very sad and disgusting.

However, feminist porn star Madison Young told Salon.com that while she uses condoms if they are not the set, she doesn't believe that condoms should be mandatory for all adult actors:

Making condoms mandatory for all adult films is just as confining and dis-empowering as eliminating condoms as an option for performers. There needs to be an element of choice, and the choice shouldn't be that if you want work you don't use condoms and if you want to use condoms then you don't work.

Adult film actress Magdalene St. Michaels told the BBC that the story does not worry her and she believes her risk is low of contracting HIV at work:

There's more chance of catching a disease by picking someone up in a bar than there is shooting porn. At least everyone in the industry is tested regularly. There's always going to be a slight risk to what we do -- but it's a calculated risk and we're all aware of it.

The only black-owned pornography studio in South Africa wants to be an exception to the condomless rule. The New York Times reported that Tau Morena is producing adult films that promote safer sex:

The movie, "Mapona," which means "naked" in the Sotho language, drew its cast from volunteers who answered audition calls on a sex Web site aimed at the growing black professional class.

The producer, Tau Morena, said in media interviews that the site's 30,000 members had complained that all the X-rated movies in the country were made in the United States, Europe or Asia.

He said the movie had "a gentle message about safe sex" because young black South Africans still have a "negative attitude towards condoms." The sequel, he added, would be distributed with safe-sex material.

While it is obvious that not using condoms on porn sets is a safety hazard, I have often wondered: How much of a safety hazard is it for viewers to consume condomless porn? How much does watching bareback sex influence or reinforce our desire to mimic that same behavior in our own lives?

Some experts would say there is a connection between the two. This summer I had the opportunity to interview D. Dennis Flores III, from Emory Healthcare in Atlanta. He and two other researchers -- Barbara Blake and Richard Sowell -- put together an interesting study about young men who have sex with men (MSM). Their study found that despite the HIV prevention information that is available to young MSM, it has failed to reach them at a young enough age. Flores believes that because sex education curriculum in schools is so heterosexist, young MSM tend to use the Internet and gay porn to teach themselves about anal sex. He also said that, by the time safer sex messages have reached young MSM, it's too late: Unprotected sex has already become a normal part of their sex lives by that point. Of course, more research needs to be done on the topic, but these data make for an interesting theory.

I am not so naive as to believe that if the porn industry were to make condom use mandatory, that act alone would completely revolutionize how Americans view safer sex or condoms. But it cannot be denied just how powerful media is -- just look how it bamboozled everyone into believing that the down low is fueling HIV/AIDS in black America.

Perhaps now is the time for the porn industry to make some changes in terms of safer sex practices -- not just for the sake of their own employees, but for the sake of all of us.

Kellee Terrell is the former news editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.

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