No Sex Is Safe
Mandating condoms is meaningless. None of the current porn HIV cases came from at-work fucking.
"It makes your skin go cold."
The porn actress on my computer monitor looks away as she describes what it’s like to hear that a fellow performer has tested positive for HIV. Her posture shifts, as if her flesh ripples at the idea.
"We all understand that its a life-changing event. It’s not taken lightly."
The adult film industry is currently under a production moratorium following a third confirmed positive HIV test. I wanted to understand what this looks and feels like from an insider’s perspective, but of all the industry members I contacted, only one agreed to speak with me on the record: American girl-girl performer Sovereign Syre.
In an industry where reputation is money, talking to the media isn’t something many are keen to do. Instead statements are issued by groups like the Free Speech Coalition (FSC, the trade association for the industry) and Performer Availability Screening Services (PASS, the industry testing and result reporting service, formerly known as APHSS). The most controversial, and widely reported, quotes come from AIDS Healthcare Foundation president Michael Weinstein.
This is problematic not only because of the lack of industry voices, but because many in the industry accuse Weinstein of deliberately distorting the truth to promote his agenda. In an interview with RadarOnline, Weinstein announced a fourth industry HIV seroconversion (positive result), calling the current situation in Porn Valley "an outrage and a slow motion crash that led to multiple infections based on the negligence of pornographers and Los Angeles County." Then, driving home his message: "All of these infections would have been prevented with the use of condoms."
The problem? There is no confirmed fourth HIV positive performer. At least none that FSC/PASS can confirm. Diane Duke, the CEO of the Free Speech Coalition issued the following statement on Monday:
"None of the testing facilities, nor the doctors associated with the facilities, have any results of a fourth performer testing positive. This information came from AHF, which is currently trying to push regulation on the industry and has, on many occasions, reported false information to the media to advance their political agenda. Just last month AHF started a media frenzy and industry scare over false information of a positive syphilis result claiming an "outbreak" when in reality no performers were positive for syphilis. It is extremely likely that this situation is more posturing for AHF’s political agenda. Again, we have no evidence of a fourth performer testing positive for HIV. "
Here’s what we know for sure. On Friday September 6th, FSC/PASS announced that a third performer had tested positive for HIV; in light of this, they reinstated a production moratorium, which is still in effect. This came weeks after the shut-down that resulted from performer Cameron Bay’s positive HIV test. Shortly after her announcement, her boyfriend, performer Rod Daily announced his own positive status via Twitter. The ensuing investigation found no evidence to suggest that she contracted the virus on-set. All of her scene partners tested negative through the window period recommended by the PASS medical advisory council, at which point the moratorium was lifted.
But then FSC/PASS announced a new positive test in a performer. A third HIV seroconversion. On the heels of that announcement, Michael Weinstein came forward to announce that he knew of a fourth case. He claimed the male performer confirmed his HIV status to AHF, though there is no other evidence of this infection.
Weinstein and AHF are the public face - and wallet - of Measure B, the law mandating condom use in anal and vaginal penetration on LA County pornography sets. AHF is the largest global AIDS organization, a non-profit which in 2011 reported over $200 million dollars in pharmaceutical revenue alone. And it’s lead by a man who believes all work toward an AIDS vaccine should be stopped completely
Weinstein’s insistence that condoms should be mandated hinges on one assumption: that the porn industry is pretty much a cesspool of infection.
In fact, there hasn’t been a single case of performer-performer HIV transmission in heterosexual pornography since 2004. And when performers have tested positive after contracting the virus off-set, the industry testing system in place has successfully identified cases and protected other performers.
So, back to the third HIV positive performer. It was announced today that all of Performer 3’s professional partners had all tested negative. Additionally, as in the case of Cameron Bay and Rod Daily, all evidence indicates that she contracted the virus off-set. In today’s release, PASS noted that,
"Despite the fact that none of the three recent cases resulted from on-set exposure, the doctors have elected to conduct additional investigative work prior to lifting the moratorium. While the third performer’s positive test is not linked to Mr. Daily or Ms. Bay in the workplace, we’re investigating to see if there was possible personal contact and if other people who perform in the industry were exposed privately."
With all of this hysteria over HIV running rampant through the adult industry, maybe the elephant in the room is easily missed. Industry cases of HIV in heterosexual porn are coming from performers having sex off-duty. No amount of legislation claiming to protects workers on-set will have any impact on that.
Sovereign is frank, exasperated: "Statistically speaking, compared to the rest of LA, you’re still more likely to be killed by a shark than you are to get HIV on heterosexual porn set." (The majority of gay porn is shot with condoms.)
"And here's my thing: Given current testing protocols, I don't know how condoms necessarily make it any safer. It will never be completely free of risk."
She outlines the testing protocols. Up until recently, a performer had to pay $120 to be tested every twenty-eight days for gonorrhea, chlamydia, and HIV. But, there have been changes since the syphilis scare this summer (which turned out to be bunk) and the introduction of testing for blood-borne hepatitis.
"Now it’s $145 and it tests for gonorrhea, chlamydia, HIV, syphilis, Hep B and Hep C, and trichomoniasis, which is mainly a vaginal bacterial infection. And that’s every month."
She mentions that there’s talk of going to every two-week testing. I ask if the tests are paid for out-of-pocket. They are.
"I don’t perform boy-girl, I’m a girl-girl performer, but even if I am boy-girl, the most dangerous part of my day is when I get in my car and drive to set. It’s hardly anything that’s happening once I get there."
Clearly, these testing protocols are far above and beyond what your typical civilian outside the industry does for their own sexual health. And it seems pretty clear to you are statistically more likely to pick up some crotch rot in your personal life than under the lights of a professional porn set. After all, aside from being a health threat, sexually transmitted diseases are really bad for business. The adult industry has serious ethical and financial motivations to protect the health of their performers.
"What I think is ethical is to let people have a decision about how they would best feel safe. Me, for example, I love condoms. I use them in my private life, for a variety of reasons. I don’t mind them, they don’t hurt me, I’ve been with male performers that have enormous penises and it was crazy sex. They never broke or caused chafing." Sovereign mentions this last bit in the context of other performers, like Stoya who have come out against mandated condoms, citing physical discomfort, barrier malfunction, and lack of coverage.
"I don’t want to take away that woman’s right to say that she doesn’t want to have to work with a condom. If it’s really uncomfortable for her, I don’t want her to feel like she has to use one. Because to tell you the truth, I think that with the amount of testing that goes on in the population, the condom really is just an emotional symbol."
And yet, the media circus continues. During our interview, I wondered out loud if there are any other industries that are regulated by outsiders in such a specific, paternalistic fashion. We couldn’t think of any. Who is Michael Weinstein to come in and tell performers that it has to be condoms or condemnation to injury by "slow motion crash"? Why all the pearl-clutching vitriol and condemnation?
"It’s moral panic. People seem to be under this paranoia that we’re getting paid money to do nothing and be lazy and be bohemians. And at the end of the day I think people are jealous in a way because performers are free in a way. We’ve made the choice to shake off the [American] value system. By taking on the stigma I’m basically saying that I don’t care about your social mores anymore."
But alongside that moral panic is a public with a ravenous appetite for pornography. To blatantly steal from Oscar Wilde, Americans will always be fond of adult performers. They represent to them all the sins they have never had the courage to commit. And Sovereign, with her effortless, animalistic sexuality and devastating phenotype, is surely a popular target for vilification and worship alike.
"I think about this a lot. I do. Being in porn, when you see people 'you slut this' or 'you slut that,' you finally realize how ham-handedly most people handle their own sexuality. Like I’m supposed to be offended when someone calls me a slut. What’s wrong with that? So I enjoy sex.
"But there’s an assumption that no, that makes you bad. It’s a really backwards morality. Porn is so looked down upon because sexuality is something that we systematically erase from human culture."
And it’s poisoning the response to these recent events. The newly HIV positive performers should have triggered a conversation about sexual health and safer sex education, while reaffirming testing protocols and supporting the affected members of the community. Instead, the talk has focused on more worried demand for outsider legislation based on false claims of disease-ridden Bacchanalian orgies and poorly-informed opinions.
It does more harm than good to promote the stigma of HIV that occurs when we treat it not as a virus, but as an indictment of character, like kind of biological condemnation. In reality, you get the HIV virus through contact with HIV virus. It doesn’t choose its victims. It doesn’t refuse to replicate inside the bodies of good samaritans. It’s an equal opportunity infectious agent and it’s far more common outside the adult industry that inside. It’s not a porn problem, it’s a people problem.
Nowhere is the tangled relationship between Americans, pornography, sexuality, and disease more prevalent than in our cultural response to the performers who have recently tested positive for HIV. Nor elsewhere do we find such a characteristic power struggle between panicked morality and monetized sexuality.
The framing of this issue by AHF and Michael Weinstein infantilizes the adult industry and shames its members. Money spent pushing condoms on adult performers in heterosexual scenes would be better served teaching sexual health and safer sex practices, thus equipping individuals with a the necessary information to mitigate the risks inherent in all sexual contact as they see fit. There is no such thing as safe sex. Only safer sex. Condoms, while wonderful, are not foolproof. No matter how much Michael Weinstein wishes that they were.