Sex & Relationships

Should the Porn Industry Require Protection?

Making condoms mandatory, most agree, contradicts what porn should be about: Choice.

Should porn performers use condoms? Surely the answer’s obvious.

After all, responsible adults know condoms protect against a litany of life-threatening diseases. Porn performers have more sex with more people; so surely they have more need to use condoms.

But some of the biggest names in porn are against mandating condom use -- despite being the ones at risk. What’s their reasoning?

Porn: It’s a Dirty Job

The condom question arises because sex gets messy.

Working in porn, performers have frequent exposure to sweat, semen and ‘santorum’ (Google it!). As a result, bacteria and viruses spread between performers faster than kooties at daycare -- making porn a high-risk occupation.

That risk was proven in 2004, when performer Darren James tested positive for HIV. In the window between tests, he’d had sex with 12 performers, who then exposed another 22.

Within 30 days, the circle of exposure had spread so fast it lead to a virtual shut down of porn production, and by the end, it was revealed that James had infected three female performers. It demonstrated how dangerous a single infected performer could be in the ‘porn pool.’

Put a Rubber On It

Critics attacked the porn industry, demanding mandatory condom usage and beyond. The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health even petitioned for latex gloves and eye protection (medical fetishists were thrilled!).

But the porn industry argued it was already self-regulated -- and the Darren James HIV tragedy proved the system worked.

In five previous years, no performer had tested positive for HIV. Compare that to almost 16,000 heterosexual Californians living HIV positive -- without having unprotected sex with multiple partners on a daily basis.

Sharon Mitchell, director at the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation, claims porn performers test positive for STDs ten times less than the national average.

But just because the statistics make it appear that porn is safer than ‘regular’ sex, it’s not actually safe. HIV is just the worst of many dangers a performer faces.

Goes with the Territory

In an interview with Rolling Stone, porn prodigy Sasha Grey coolly admitted that getting an STI on the job was as common as “catching a cold.” By 21 -- already an industry veteran -- she’d caught chlamydia once and gonorrhea twice.

Porn legend Belladonna now tests co-stars three days prior to shooting -- and admits, “It’s damn good to finally not have to spend every week at the doctor’s office, clearing up an STD.”

Most performers rely on standard 30-day testing -- more than enough time to catch something nasty between tests. And Belladonna warns: “People don't care. They'll work knowing they have an STD.”

Also worrying are things AIM don’t test for -- like herpes. Sharon Mitchell estimates that 50% of porn performers have HSV-1 or HSV-2. Italian Stallion Rocco Siffredi claims every performer does.

Why Risk Raw?

So STIs aren’t just a risk in the porn business -- they’re a ubiquitous part of it. Surely condoms are the way to go?

Surprisingly, performers like Belladonna argue no.

“Condoms just don’t feel good to suck on, or take in the ass. If required to use condoms, my performance would suffer.”

Porn producer Ernest Greene agrees:

“Condoms are fine for ordinary folks, but they’re not suited to porn. I allow two and a half hours to shoot a typical boy-girl sex scene. With constant stops and starts, condoms frequently tear -- and abrasion on female performers’ vaginas make them vulnerable to STIs.”

“Even condom-only female performers eventually abandon condom use -- not under pressure from producers, but because of the constant rawness and endless bacterial infections.”

For porn performers, exposure to STIs is just part of the job.

“It’s a high risk job,” Belladonna admits, “but there are many high risk jobs out there. Construction workers, oil riggers, stuntmen…”

Greene agrees: “The term “safe sex” is an oxymoron. Whatever measures are taken, sex is never risk-free.”

Both admit that there’s no way to make the porn industry 100% safe but argue that testing, not mandatory condom use, is the safest system.

Nevertheless, Belladonna argues more could be done.

“If the 30-day window were shortened, we’d better prevent the spread of infections like HIV.”

She cites her own experience as proof.

“Since I started testing three days prior, it’s been over five years since I’ve contracted chlamydia or gonorrhea.”

But AIM testing costs performers about $130 each time -- which isn’t affordable for most performers on a bi-weekly basis.

And regulating the porn industry more, whether requiring more frequent testing, or use of condoms, risks an industry exodus; resulting in unregulated porn producers who might not just ditch condoms, but abandon testing too: The worst of all possible worlds.

It’s All About Consent

Currently, the industry polices itself -- better than state regulators could.

And that’s despite attitudes towards safe sex in the industry running the full gamete; from veterans like Belladonna, who prefer not to use condoms, to a number of performers who refuse to use anything else. Neither camp is necessarily wrong.

“All the porn I’ve appeared in uses safe-sex practices,” argues Vid Tuesday. “I burst the fantasy bubble of viewers who think you can run about having sex all willy-nilly without regular STI tests and/or barriers.”

Among such divided opinions, SexIs’ own Nina Hartley perhaps best expresses the nearest thing to consensus: “If a performer wants to use condoms, that’s great -- but we don’t think it should be mandatory.”

Making condoms mandatory, most agree, contradicts what porn should be about: Choice.

While stars like Buck Angel won’t make porn without condoms, industry veterans like Belladonna wont make it with -- and both believe they’re doing the best thing for their health. Surely both deserve the freedom to make that decision for themselves.

As porn consumers, we must support that freedom by encouraging production in an environment in which every performer -- whether a veteran like Belladonna, or shooting their first scene -- has the authority to choose to condoms or not -- without pressure.

Good sex is all about communication, education and consent. When it comes to condom use in pornography, those values remain all important.

Roland Hulme is a British writer currently living and working in New York.