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Porn Director: I Was Totally Against Mandatory Condom Use in Sex Flicks, Until Now

Here's why this director changed her mind.
 
 
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“My chlamydia and gonorrhea test results aren’t back yet,” a 19-year-old I’ll call Cheryl said in a raspy whisper, her small hand covering her cellphone as the nurse at the clinic waited on the other end.

“Well, when do they think the results will be in?” I asked, trying not to sound panicked. My entire cast and crew was in the next room waiting for the results, which would clear her to perform hardcore sex on camera with a male costar.

“Probably not until Monday,” Cheryl said. “I’m so sorry, Nica.”

“Fuck,” I whispered, walking into one of the dark, empty rooms on the soundstage. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

I was already several thousand dollars over budget due to production disasters and “no call/no show” performers. It was crucial that I finish the movie, but by law, there was only one way I could allow Cheryl to perform a sex scene without a current STD test: by allowing her costar to wear a condom.

I’d been told many times that condoms in porn meant certain death to sales. Conventional wisdom suggested that nobody wants condoms in their sexual fantasy. Porn was supposed to be an escape, not a public service announcement or a reminder that sex is dangerous or risky.

This was prior to 2012, when the controversial Measure B made condoms mandatory in porn — a law recently upheld, though it is still being fought by adult film producers who believe it’s catastrophic to our industry. For a long time I agreed with them, and though I’ve long struggled with the subject, here’s how much I didn’t want a condom in my film that day: I replaced Cheryl.

Actually, it was the president of the parent company who made that decision, but I’m the one who accepted it and had to break the news to Cheryl, who was surprisingly gracious about it. I’d come to porn hoping to change the way it was made, but that day, I felt like a scumbag.

* * *

I compare my career ascension in porn to falling into the rabbit hole,à la “Alice in Wonderland.” While working as a litigation paralegal and moonlighting as a journalist seven years ago, I got an assignment to write about the making of a fetish video. In order to do the job right, I decided to audition for a role in a spanking video and perform in it myself.

The experience was life-changing: Instead of feeling degraded, I’d left the shoot feeling oddly euphoric and — even more oddly — empowered. I began working for other adult film studios, including a small, unknown lesbian porn company whose owner operated out of his modest Encino, Calif., home. After using me as a model for several shoots, he offered me a job as creative director. My mission, he explained, was to transform his company from a niche studio into the “leader in lesbian erotica.” It meant quitting my job at the law firm and taking a huge pay cut, but I felt destiny knocking. Within a year, the studio was the talk of the adult industry and I was being hailed as a trailblazer in a “new era” of adult films.

And so, along with “suburban mom,” “journalist” and “paralegal,” I added “pornographer” (a label I proudly, defiantly claimed) to my résumé. My overnight success gave me the confidence (or was it arrogance?) to think I might change not only what kind of movies fans watched but also how adult performers would be treated on set.

I’d heard stories of performers forced to have sex on dirt roads and in back alleys, on dirty carpets infested with fleas, and on semen-stained couches. I’d heard tales of porn “stars” being denied access to soap and showers, and given no food or drinks after 12 or more hours on set. Most adult performers also accepted as par for the course that they’d be sexually harassed not only by producers but also the lowliest members of the studio’s production crew.

Not on my set. It was time to borrow a playbook from the corporate environment I’d left behind.

My first rule: No one on my crew can “hit on” the talent. I explained to them that doing so places the performer in a tricky position, much like when a boss asks his secretary out and she agrees for fear of losing her job.

“Our performers are naked, and you are clothed,” I reminded my bewildered crew. “You’re in a position of authority, and you’re not to abuse it.” This rule made me instantly unpopular with male crew members, but I didn’t care. If they broke it more than once, they were fired.

Another rule: Nude performers would never be told to sit, lie down or perform sex acts on unwashed or unprotected surfaces. Counters and desktops would be thoroughly washed with anti-bacterial soap or spray, and beds and couches would have clean linens — either straight from the washing machine or brand-new from the store (I provided these myself). It was alarming how strange and even unreasonable my crew found these requests to be, despite the fact that staph infection was a constant problem on adult film sets and performers routinely canceled shoots citing a “spider bite.” (“Spider bite” had become something of a euphemism for “staph infection” in the adult industry.)

But the one thing I didn’t insist on was condoms. It was a given that we didn’t use them; that’s what our mandatory 30-day STD tests were for. It was the “industry standard,” and while I didn’t hesitate to question other industry standards that might place performers in harm’s way (or just create an unpleasant environment), for some reason the condom issue sounded no alarms for me.

Perhaps that’s partially because I’m allergic to latex myself. If I have sex with a man who’s wearing a latex condom, within 24 hours of the encounter I’ll be in the throes of a painful urinary tract infection requiring powerful antibiotics. In my off-camera sex life I rely on STD tests, so why not rely on them at work, too? I’d performed in adult films myself and felt fine about simply verifying my scene partner’s current, negative STD test.

But there may have been a deeper, darker reason for my refusal to consider the question of condoms. While I’ve always said I wasn’t in porn for the money, the truth was that as my success grew I was increasingly concerned with career failure. I wanted my movies to keep selling, and on a practical level, I wanted to continue paying my rent and my child’s school tuition. I had worked hard to get where I was, damn it, and I wanted to build on that success, not sabotage it.

Which is of course what happens to many people who finally “make it.” They start drifting from the values and ideals they once stood for, and which may have even directly resulted in their success. I cherished the image I’d built of caring about performers’ welfare, but if “taking it too far” was going to threaten my chance to stay in business, why not just hide behind the old way of doing things? Why was I so hell-bent on being a saint? I suddenly (conveniently) wondered.

I actually kept a box of condoms on set in case a performer should request one. I’d assembled “hygiene kits” filled with items like baby wipes, shampoo, tampons, nail clippers, deodorant, douches and spermicide, so why not include condoms, just in case? But on the rare occasions a performer asked for one, I felt anxiety, even as I smiled and handed one over: Would I get in trouble with my studio for allowing it? What would it mean for sales? Why was the performer asking for a condom, anyway — didn’t she know it was a “condom-free” shoot? Why didn’t she tell me she had issues with it before accepting the role?

So, when the Measure B “condom law” was passed in November 2012, I loudly objected, along with thousands of other adult industry producers. Measure B was both dangerous and absurd, we argued. First of all, our testing system works, we reasoned, because we had successfully kept HIV out of the talent pool since 2004. Secondly, the condom law would simply force pornographers “underground,” where they could no longer be monitored or held accountable for violations in safety protocol (as if everyone in porn was already held accountable for any number of random, unethical behaviors). Our hard-won testing standards would erode as performers opted not to share their STD test results, or even to test at all. And not only that, what if the condom were to break and you didn’t know your scene partner’s HIV status? What if you were (like me) allergic to condoms and the condom law would end your career as a performer?

I made these arguments more than once, and I believed them, but on a deeper, quieter level, I felt conflicted. What I knew was that, despite the validity of these “what if?” scenarios, and despite the fact that our testing system had been successful at keeping HIV out of the porn talent pool for nearly a decade, it had been far less successful in keeping out other STDs. I knew that condoms would help prevent the spread of diseases like chlamydia and gonorrhea, both of which are so common in the adult industry that a performer who learns he or she is infected doesn’t even bother to alert recent scene partners to their possible exposure. And while porn’s most commonly transmitted STDs are admittedly “curable” with a course of antibiotics, they can still have some fairly serious complications (e.g., infertility and increased vulnerability to the HIV virus.)

I also couldn’t help noticing that while some performers seemed all but immune to porn’s most common STDs, others seemed to struggle with “dirty tests” constantly. I knew this because sometimes I’d try to book a certain performer only to be told by her agent that she wasn’t available until she could “take her medicine and re-test.” Even if I’d been told the same thing about the same performer multiple times within the span of a few months, I wouldn’t miss a beat. “Tell me when she’s up and running again,” I’d say, and simply ask if one of my alternate choices was available instead. While I was vigilant about keeping my set staph-and-sexual-harassment-free, apparently chronic cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea — some of which might have very well been transmitted on my set — didn’t faze me.

But after a few heavily publicized HIV scares in the past few years, including four within the past few weeks (none of which turned out to have been contracted on set, nor transmitted to other adult film performers in the course of shooting a scene), it has become harder for many of us to avoid the question of whether condoms might not be such a bad idea. In terms of sales they’re risky, but when considering performer safety, is there really a solid argument against a testing/condom combination? Yes, some producers might continue to shoot condom-free porn anyway, but is that any excuse for the rest of us to avoid taking steps to protect our performers?

Now, as the president of my own production company (which partners with the online broadcasting network AEBN.net), I’ve been given an opportunity to follow my own conscience and to control my own career and financial future. Should I refuse to bow to “the Man” and go underground like many of my peers have already started to do? Shoot without legal film permits and operate in the shadows? Or do I search my soul for truths that don’t stem from a need to rebel against authority or protect my own bottom line?

I’ve concluded I want my performers to be safe more than I want to be “the most successful porn director.” I want them to leave my set feeling good about participating in my movie and to never look back on it with regret. I don’t want them to experience a surge of fear and shame when they learn their next STD test results. And most of all I don’t want to encourage them to be nonchalant about their health.

“What if?” arguments aside, condoms, along with a current, valid STD test, will do a pretty good job of ensuring that performers on my set will go home without anything new to worry about.  Are condoms foolproof? No. Neither is an STD test, even if it’s a very recent one. But would requiring condoms and a test make for a safer work environment? Yes — by a very wide margin.

But what if nobody buys my “condom porn” movies? What if my competitors continue to shoot “bareback sex” in secret locations, avoiding detection and forcing me out of business?

That’s a possibility I fear. But nowhere near as much as I fear exposing already vulnerable, stigmatized performers to preventable STDs on my set. Not as much as I fear being directly responsible for a performer’s inability to pay their rent as I go on paying mine, indifferent to their struggle. I don’t want to live that life. I don’t want to be that person.

Yet, I do believe there are valid First Amendment arguments in favor of condom-free porn. As an artist it bothers me that I can no longer film completely nude bodies or “all natural,” explicit lovemaking, even when shooting monogamous, married couples. It bothers me that those of us with allergies to condoms will not be accommodated and will be completely shut out of performing. I believe there should be room for accommodations; there should be exceptions made if, for example, adherence to certain rigid health and safety standards can be verified. Just as mainstream directors are allowed to put actors and stunt people at increased risk as long as increased safety protocols are followed, a similar provision could apply to the adult industry so that we might maintain our right to freedom of artistic expression. (Some of us do actually venture to make art, believe it or not.)

But the catch is, we have to prove we’re responsible enough to follow such rigid safety standards and to take rules and laws seriously. (Not just those we “want” to follow or have imposed on ourselves.) We have to show we can operate within the law and not angrily threaten to break it when there’s a ruling we don’t like. We have to demonstrate that we care about the health of those we work with more than we care about making a quick, sleazy buck. If we want legal rights and protections we have to accept the reality that, like any legitimate business, we will be supervised, held accountable and penalized if we don’t conduct ourselves professionally — and ethically.

We have to do something that an industry obsessed with being forever young, wild and free is loath to do:

We have to grow up.

Nica Noelle is a writer, producer and director of adult films. She won the 2012 Adult Video Network (AVN) Award for Best New Line, and her transgender-focused film, "Forbidden Lovers," won the 2013 Feminist Porn Award for Steamiest Romantic Movie. She has a blog on HuffingtonPost.com and her "safe for work" website is NicaNoelleStudios.com.

 
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