A guestblog: HIV outbreak in the porn industry

This is a guestblog from Audacia Ray of Waking Vixen and author of Naked on the Internet.
This past week it was revealed that there are some new cases of HIV within the adult industry in Los Angeles. The LA Times and LAist have both covered the story, as have adult industry media outlets AVN and Xbiz. A stunning majority of straight porn companies do not require condoms and actively discourage their use – in the business this is called “condom optional” which is euphemistic for “you either perform without a condom or you don’t perform for this company.” The gay porn industry has slightly different standards than the straight porn business. Gay porn companies do not require testing, with the idea that it is an invasion of privacy and HIV shouldn’t prevent people from working/having sex, but the more reputable companies require condom use. The Gay Video News Awards (GayVN) will not consider a film for an award if there is “barebacking” (sex without a condom) in it.
I worked in and around the sex industry (porn and other sectors) for several years, so my take on the news of recent HIV cases and the dynamics of health, safety, and responsibility within the porn business is colored by my experiences in and frustrations with the business. I directed and produced a bisexual feature porn film, The Bi Apple, which was shot in NYC in summer 2006 and released in February 2007. It went on to win a Feminist Porn Award for Hottest Bisexual Scene and was nominated for Best Bisexual Video at the GayVN Awards (where, by the way, it was pretty fun to be the lone girl director). The company I made the film for required performers to be negative for HIV, chlamydia, and gonorrhea, and I required all performers to wear condoms for vaginal and anal sex and the option to use condoms for oral sex (no one opted to negotiate condom use for oral). I also paid for tests for the performers who weren’t working regularly and didn’t have a recent test on hand.

Since an outbreak of HIV in the business in 1998, the heterosexual California-based porn business (which includes both boy-girl and girl-girl scenes – yeah, I know) requires performers to be HIV negative, and many companies also require clean bills of health on chlamydia and gonorrhea. Performers get tested every 30 days using the PCR test; the ELISA test is more common among “civilians.” The PCR tests for the presence of HIV itself, while the ELISA tests for the presence of HIV antibodies, and PCR can detect HIV within a much shorter window period (9-11 days) than the ELISA test (1-3 months). Most performers use the services of the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation (AIM), where they have to pay for their own tests – $120 covers HIV, chlamydia and gonorrhea; sometimes there is also a lab fee depending on the testing center.
With the reports of another incidence of HIV infection coming out of porn valley this week, the HIV infection count in the straight business has reached 22 cases since 2004. So what’s going on? The straight porn industry regards testing as prevention – and while testing and knowledge of your partners’ status is certainly part of a risk reduction strategy, testing is not prevention. Porn production companies argue that the appearance of condoms in porn reduces the fantasy for the viewer, and as a result condom mandatory videos sell fewer units. Yep: sales are more important than sexual health. Both male and female porn performers are disempowered to demand condom usage because most companies actively discourage condoms (even though the option to use condoms is often written into their model release or contract). The reality is that unless the performer is a major star and has leverage or produces his or her own films, performing without condoms is a sure way to get booked frequently and work a lot. Condom mandatory performers work less and get paid less.
Directors who I’ve talked with about their reluctance to enforce a condom mandatory policy on their productions sometimes sheepishly say that the companies they work for won’t have it. Other times they tell me that the performers themselves feel safe enough with the testing policies and don’t want to use condoms for a variety of reasons. I believe that it is the producer and director’s responsibility to step up and advocate for their workers and protect their health. If this means enforcing a mandatory condom policy that the performers complain about – that’s part of being the boss. If a performer had become infected with a STI while on my set, I would have not forgiven myself for that kind of negligence. And that’s what the “condom optional” policy is – negligence, piled on top of blatant disregard for sexual health and a lack of respect for the performers as people.
Are directors and producers going to step up and make condoms mandatory? Probably not. Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and herpes are all accepted as hazards of the trade, something that happens to everyone at some point. HIV is a big deal, but 22 performers infected over five years is still a pretty small number – clearly not a big enough one for producers and directors to shift the way they run their productions. As a sexual health and rights advocate, I find this really appalling.
This is a guestblog from Audacia Ray of Waking Vixen and author of Naked on the Internet.

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