What porn can teach us about safer sex

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Shame and misinformation surrounding sex are unfortunate when they prevent people from following their desires or experiencing pleasure. But it’s just plain dangerous when they put people’s health at risk. And that’s exactly what might happen this November in LA County.

On Election Day, Los Angeles residents will go to the polls to vote on Measure B, an initiative that would mandate the use of condoms in the adult film industry. This seems like a pretty straightforward decision, right? Condoms = safe sex. Isn’t that what our middle school family life classes taught us (if they weren’t too busy teaching us abstinence)?

Well, here’s the catch. There’s no such thing as completely safe sex. Condoms are only 98% effective when used perfectly. When you account for human error, condom effectiveness goes down to 82%. If having sex is my job, those aren’t exactly the odds I would want. Those aren’t great odds even for having sex in real life, which is why many people choose to use other forms of birth control in addition to condoms. And as Nina Hartley and others in the industry have pointed out, having sex in your private life isn’t the same thing as having sex in porn. In a porn shoot, the actors are often having sex for hours at a time. Over time, the friction from latex can actually cause vaginal and/or anal abrasions, which make it more likely for STIs to spread. So even though we think of them as the ultimate in safer sex, condoms in porn have the potential to do more harm than good.

Many in the adult industry claim that people having sex in porn are actually safer from STIs than those having sex in the general population of LA. Why? Testing! People in the general population typically get tested for STIs about once a year, and many people never get tested at all! Performers in the porn industry are required to get tested for STIs at least once every 28 days, and many choose to get tested more often than that. Actors must provide a clean bill of health from the testing facility before every shoot, and they also undergo a physical inspection by the production manager and their co-performer(s).

Results? According to the CA Department of Public Health, from 2008-2011, there were 6,447 new cases of HIV reported in LA County, and only two of those were adult performers, neither of whom contracted the virus on set. There have been zero HIV infections on porn sets since 2004, and only a handful of other STI occurrences, all of which were dealt with promptly. In a group of people that probably have more sex than much of America, those are pretty impressive statistics. It seems to me that us laypeople (pun intended) could learn quite a bit about safer sex practices from the LA porn industry.

My biggest concern here is that people will vote blindly on Measure B based on their biases instead of facts. There’s a very unfortunate culture of shame surrounding porn, which makes it likely that people will vote on gut reaction and support Measure B, rather than taking the time to explore all the nuances of the situation. Although there are certainly several good arguments for Measure B, what sways me most is that the main opposition to the initiative is coming from people who are actually in the porn industry. Most feminists would agree that we need to trust women to know what’s best for their own bodies. I think the same principle applies to performers in adult film. Who better to advise a vote on this initiative than the people whose bodies will be directly affected by its outcome?

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15 Comments

  1. Posted October 15, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    While it’s great that HIV and STD transmission rates are lower in the adult film industry as compared to the general population. The normalizing effect that pornography has on the sexual practices of the wider population can’t be overlooked. I think that if condom use in the porn industry is required, it will help normalize the use of them in the outside population.

    • Posted October 15, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

      Absolutely it’s an important normalizing effect, but I think that mandating them is a bit of a heavy-handed solution to the problem that causes more problems than it prevents. In the end, this seems to come back to consent (doesn’t it always?) in the same way that the birth control debate does. I think we should be providing people with access to as many choices as possible and letting them make their own decision on what’s best for themselves.

    • Posted October 15, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

      More importantly is how adult film stars feel. My understand from talking to some is that they don’t want condoms to be mandated. It’s painful to have that many hours of sex with that large of a penis with a condom. The testing mandate makes STI transmission extremely low.

  2. Posted October 15, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    Although this is GREAT, and I intend to bring up a similar topic soon in my blog, http://antifembots.blogspot.com/, I would like to point out that birth control pills are also not entirely effective; I was actually conceived while my mother was on birth control, haha. Other than that, great job!
    Fellow feminist,
    Bari H. Stanger

  3. Posted October 15, 2012 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    There are a few problems with forcing adult performers to use condoms in order to “teach” the rest of the porn-watching population that they should use condoms in their personal lives, the main problem being that porn fans generally won’t buy porn where all the participants use condoms. The industry tried going “all condom” twice before, after (minor) HIV outbreaks in 1998 and 2004. They quickly discovered that their sales plummeted, and the majority of them went back to making condoms optional, the sole exception being Wicked Pictures, which mandates condoms. But what most people don’t understand is that Measure B is not just about condoms, though that’s the only form of “protection” used in the summary of the ballot measure. If one reads the entire measure, one finds that anyone shooting under a “Public Health Permit” as Measure B would require must use not only condoms, but all of the “barrier protections” described in California Code of Regulations Title 8, section 5193, which include *but are not limited to* ” gloves, gowns, laboratory coats, face shields or masks and eye protection, and mouthpieces, resuscitation bags, pocket masks, or other ventilation devices. Personal protective equipment will be considered ‘appropriate’ only if it does not permit blood or OPIM to pass through to or reach the employee’s work clothes, street clothes, undergarments, skin, eyes, mouth, or other mucous membranes under normal conditions of use and for the duration of time which the protective equipment will be used.” YOU try having sex in a hazmat suit!!!

  4. Posted October 15, 2012 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the post! I was unaware of this measure– and the fact that there is such a discrepancy in HIV and STI rates between the porn industry and the general population.

    I can understand why we might want to see more condom use in porn– imitation is a pretty powerful learning mechanism! In teaching a human sexuality class at a liberal arts college, I was surprised at how many of my students had learned most of what they knew about sex from porn. This was true of students who had comprehensive sex ed in school and those who did not. Monkey see safe sex, monkey do safe sex? However, I’m not sure that we should be looking to porn to replace, or even supplement comprehensive sex education. Particularly when this would implicate the well-being of adult performers (the complete opposite of what the measure presents as its goal).

    • Posted October 17, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      Katie and some others: The problem with forcing adult performers to use not only condoms but latex gloves, dental dams, goggles and face shields (yes, that’s ALL part of California Code of Regulations Title 8 Sec. 5193, as used in the text of Measure B) as a type of “sex ed” for the masses is two-fold: 1) Most porn fans don’t like to see condoms (and certainly not all that other equipment) in their videos, and will seek out videos made outside of California and without all those “barrier protections” to get off with, and 2) forcing performers to use all that apparatus changes the erotic message attempting to be conveyed by the video, and the Supreme Court has been very clear that the government cannot compel a private entity (person or company) to present a “message” (speech) that is different from the message it wishes to present… and which, in the end, it will not be able to sell anyway!

      • Posted October 17, 2012 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

        “1) Most porn fans don’t like to see condoms (and certainly not all that other equipment) in their videos, and will seek out videos made outside of California”: I could not give a shit what the entitled white guys who are porn consumers like and don’t like, nor where they “go” to get their porn. Consumer choice is not the primary issue here anyway. Porn will simply not be produced in LA; more producers will decide to make the porn elsewhere. Consumers will not even have a choice.

        “2) the Supreme Court has been very clear that the government cannot compel a private entity (person or company) to present a ‘message’ (speech) that is different from the message it wishes to present”: Oh, right, I forgot that “private entities” like corporations are supposed to have the same “free-speech rights” as people. Yeah, bullcrap. In any case, the government compels such things all the time: nutrition labeling and cigarette warnings are just two small examples of messages I’m pretty sure the Big Ag and tobacco lobbies would love to do away with.

  5. Posted October 16, 2012 at 12:26 am | Permalink

    “And as Nina Hartley and others in the industry have pointed out, having sex in your private life isn’t the same thing as having sex in porn. In a porn shoot, the actors are often having sex for hours at a time.”: I’m sympathetic to this argument, but I can’t help but think … whether you have a condom on or not, fucking for “hours at a time” can not be really good, healthy, or normal for anybody’s poor frigging vagina. How about the industry quits being generally disgustingly inconsiderate to their female stars’ comfort and health? How about they start making more porn where women actually get off and don’t exist for the cum shots? So, yeah, I can see it being a bad idea because the bunch of asshole male directors you work with probably don’t give a shit that your vagina’s burning like fire or torn up because you had to use a condom all day. It’s pretty sad that the industry’s lack of caring for women’s sexual comfort, much less sexual interest or gratification, has to have its own special consideration in the condom debate. I think it underlies what is effed up about mainstream porn labor conditions.

    Also, 98 percent effectiveness is really high, 82 percent is very good, and neither of these are any reason to scoff at condom use itself. (Is this percentage the effectiveness at preventing pregnancy, or at at preventing STD transmission, or both? Obviously, female porn actors would probably not be concerned with the pregnancy-prevention aspect – they would already be using another method.) I don’t think condom effectiveness is even relevant to this debate – encouraging greater use in the general population is nothing but a win.

    Anyway, I wasn’t fully aware of what was happening with this referendum, so thank you for the timely post.

  6. Posted October 16, 2012 at 12:38 am | Permalink

    I really enjoyed that you lay out both sides of the argument in your post about this issue. My thoughts on the issue broadly surround the question as to why the voting LA public or the government have any say on the issue of wearing condoms? How is that even possible? Second, I do feel as though it is important for porn to embrace safe sex in order to provide a model for how non-porn industry sex should occur. Images of unprotected sex make a statement that these actions are allowable with random strangers, when the reality is that you should be careful no matter what, even if you are in a long term committed relationship. Can you really trust your partner ever? It’s a disservice to the general (porn-viewing and non-porn viewing) public to make them want to do the same with partners who are not being tested every 28 days.

  7. Posted October 16, 2012 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

    “Many in the adult industry claim that people having sex in porn are actually safer from STIs than those having sex in the general population of LA.”

    Huh… Here is a recently study (www.fair4la.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/High-CT-and-GC-incidence-and-reinfection-in-AFI-2011.pdf) showing that…

    The rate of gonorrhea and chlamydia in the adult industry is over seven times higher than in the general population of sexually active adults. Compared to the Los Angeles community at-large, performers are up to 64 times more at-risk for gonorrhea and 34 times for chlamydia.

    • Posted October 17, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      Sorry, Jennifer, but that’s not correct. The problem began when the primary adult industry testing clinic, AIM, began testing not only adult performers but anyone who walked in off the street, including prostitutes and others with active sexual lifestyles. However, when AIM reported its positive test results to the health department, the health department statisticians didn’t differentiate between the results of adult performers and the results of everyone else; hence the figures produced by the health department are far higher than they actually are for the performer population.

      • Posted October 17, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

        Sorry; that should read “active sexual lifestyles.”

      • Posted October 18, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

        Cool story, Mark Kernes of the AVN Media Network… I would love to see a source for your claims.

  8. Posted October 19, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    I think people underestimate how much they actually learn about sex from porn (especially if you’ve had an abstinence only education at school), in particular men. I’m sure we’ve all slept with men who refuse to put a condom on before sex because it “ruins the moment” or “it’s not sexy”. I’m not saying that porn performers should jeprodise their sexual health for our education (which is clearly lacking), but it would be interesting to see what effect it would have on the image of the use of condoms in sex.

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