Personal Health

Will Health and Safety Regulators Ruin the Porn Industry?

Should porn performers be required to wear goggles and latex gloves, and use condoms and dental dams for all body-to-body contact?

On Oct. 23, 2010, 24-year-old Derrick Burts learned that the confirmation HIV test he’d taken at the Adult Industry Medicine (AIM) clinic had come back positive. The clinic promptly alerted Porn Valley studios about the existence of a positive test, referring to Burts as “Patient Zeta” in order to protect his identity. Production stopped while dots were connected, tests run and shooting dates calculated.

Social networking sites, personal Web sites, and the Twitterverse came alive while anxious industry insiders speculated about who Patient Zeta might be. The signal-to-noise ratio became even more intense when it was rumored that the quarantined performer was a man who performed in both gay and straight videos, a still controversial choice.

When the identity of Patient Zeta was revealed shortly afterward, it was Burts himself who made the announcement -- to the mainstream press.

As Burts explained it, AIM hadn’t set up a doctor’s appointment for him by November 24, so he decided to seek assistance from AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), an organization he says he’d been cautioned against contacting. He was so impressed by the care he received from AHF that he contacted its organizers, outed himself as Patient Zeta, and offered to sing its praises, along with endorsing mandatory condom use.

“AIM promised they would help me set up a doctor and get treatment,” Burts told reporters. “They did none of that.”

Given that the AIM staff has historically included people who have worked in front of the camera as talent, most notably 19 years from its executive director Sharon Mitchell, such accusations are especially serious. Although AIM insists it offered counseling, test results, and resource and treatment information, there’s not much that can be said on record in its defense.

“The difficulty in response is that he has a right to medical privacy,” said Jeffrey Douglas, one of the attorneys for the clinic. “Any person who is a patient, no information can be revealed about their treatment or even their identity without a medical waiver of privacy. AIM can not respond to any allegation by anyone concerning what treatment they received, due to medical privacy laws.”

Burts, on the other hand, has had plenty to say, including that he must have contracted the virus on a porn set because his only off-camera sex was with his fellow porn-performer girlfriend, whose negative status he generously volunteered. AHF has also had plenty to say since October, none of it praising the efforts of AIM. Indeed, Brian Chase, assistant general counsel for AHF, insisted that Cal-OSHA tighten its blood-borne pathogen standard. In a petition to the agency, he stated that “The adult film industry has steadfastly refused to take any steps to protect its workers from diseases spread by blood-born pathogens,” and “the adult film industry seems to think it can ignore the law.”

What Burts and AHF haven’t been as enthusiastic about discussing is the performer’s ad as a male escort – or the fact that the set he insists is responsible for his condition was both gay, and included condoms.

The truth is that the vast majority of male/male videos require condoms during anal penetration as a matter of course, in part because the incidence of HIV is higher among men who have sex with other men. Neither side of the industry tends to use condoms during oral sex, although they do occasionally make an appearance.

Straight porn, on the other hand, has largely relied upon regular STI testing using the PCI-DNA test for HIV, a more expensive but more prompt and precise test than the commonly offered ELIZA or Western Blot.

AIM argues that its monthly testing has kept infected porn hopefuls from entering the industry and helped those who have tested positive for a variety of common STIs to begin treatment.

Some have suggested that given the number of sexual acts adult performers can participate in during their careers, the overall rate of STI and bacterial infections --and the rate of HIV, perhaps especially -- is within reason, especially considering the realities of off-camera sex. Nonetheless, Cal-OSHA remains under intense pressure from AHF, which nurses a longstanding grudge against the explicit video industry. Pink Cross has served as an energetically porn-hostile, faith-based AHF cheerleader of sorts, with histrionics-inclined Shelley Lubben as its most high-profile prodigal daughter.

Caught between a market-driven business model and the potential of trying to sexy-up “specialized clothing or equipment worn or used by an employee for protection against a hazard,” are the people actually getting down and dirty: the performers.

While many, including performers, assume “specialized clothing or equipment” simply means a condom, those who’ve read deeper into the primary documents insist that, as written now, porn performers would be required to wear goggles and latex gloves, as well as use condoms and dental dams for all body-to-body contact.

While this scenario has the potential to make big bucks for the latex fashion fetish crowd, the average Jack Six-Minute-Pop will likely find it distracting in the extreme. Even women, regardless of their tolerance/enthusiasm for porn or safer sex, will raise a confused eyebrow. After all, in what way would this resemble the kind of sex the average club-hopper has with a total stranger in the bathroom, let alone between two or more adults who know and like each other?

The ideal outcome of this unfortunate situation would be for all sides to maturely and responsibly address at least one of a number of serious issues related to sexuality, especially for sex workers: how to best allow them to feel reasonably safe while plying their trade – and not feel pressured by either extreme.

For those wondering, performers are not of one mind about how to best minimize infections.

“MILF” performers Anjanette Astoria and Rebecca Bardoux responded to a questionnaire on the subject by stating that they each support testing. Astoria believes “it is the ultimate act of selfishness from AHF to pit governmental agencies against adult film,” adding that “I think they want to shut down what was discovered in adult film: a way to stop the spread of HIV in highly sexually active people. There is an old saying...if you can measure it, you can manage it. AHF simply does not want to measure it, as the next step is to manage it. Keeping the public uneducated is their real mission here and everyone needs to be very brave and face up to the fact that this amazing controlled culture of porn has yielded some amazing results."

Bardoux isn’t as conspiracy-theory minded, but agrees that she doesn’t think making condoms mandatory would change much. “Unless they say it is illegal to sell porn without condoms, then you have the Internet,” she said. “Who is going to police this? The questions go on and on.”

Producer/director/performer Dave Pounder holds a strong pro-condom opinion, saying, “Condoms don’t make a scene any more difficult for women to perform in, so the net effect is greater protection from both STDs and pregnancy. For males, it makes the scene more difficult to do, so most males would rather not use them. I believe that males who can’t perform with a condom simply shouldn’t be in the business.”

Pounder joins Protecting Adult Welfare (PAW) Foundation cofounder and AVN Hall of Famer William Margold in calling for twice-monthly testing. Margold also proposes testing for “immune system debilitating drugs” and ignoring “confidentiality issues,” saying that “anyone who enters into the adult industry should fully understand that when their privates become public viewing material, they should fully expect to lose their privacy.”

Bisexual gay porn performer Tony Buff, who uses his private physician instead of AIM, says he’s never felt pressured to perform without a condom – although he has had men in his private life try to talk him out of using one. “I always use a condom for anal or vaginal sex,” he observes,” I use gloves for fisting, piercing or other invasive procedures, avoid performing oral sex if I have a wound in my mouth, and avoid receiving oral sex if I have any unhealed cuts or puncture wounds to my genitals. As a man who has sex with men, engages in fetish/SM activities and understands the risks associated with these actions, I employ these safer sex techniques primarily to avoid contracting HIV or Hep-C.”

Obviously, there is plenty to discuss – but engaging in the current mainstream political chic of trashing those who don’t agree and encouraging the spread of fear and shame is not the best way to have the discussion or to save lives.

Theresa "Darklady" Reed is a writer, activist, event impresario and web radio personality. Visit her NSFW website or follow her on Twitter.
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