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The Counterproductive Condom Conjecture and Other Fallacies

Sady Doyle has a piece in the Atlantic about how the latest case of HIV in the porn industry has revived public concern about the lack of condoms in straight porn. An actor tested positive for HIV last week. The news sparked panic in the industry because he has reportedly worked with dozens of big stars in an industry where condoms are the exception rather than the norm. No one knows how many people the actor may have exposed to HIV. Several major studios have halted production until his partners can be notified, tested, and re-tested.

As Doyle notes, California law already requires condoms or equivalent protection on all porn sets. In practice, the regulation is difficult to enforce because actors fear being blacklisted if they complain about unsafe working conditions.

“It’s something that’s left up to the performers and usually the women say yes or no and I think a lot of the women feel pressure to not use condoms because they’re in fear of not getting hired by that company again. It’s very sad and disgusting,” retired performer and producer Jenna Jameson told RadarOnline in the wake of the positive test. Performers don’t always get even a nominal choice. Some companies have a blanket “no condom” rule.

Doyle speculates that enforcing the rule might drive porn out of state, overseas, or underground–beyond the reach of regulators. That’s the standard industry threat, but it seems highly unlikely. California is only one of of two U.S. states where it’s legal to shoot hardcore porn, so it’s no like the companies have unlimited relocation options.

The big studios didn’t leave the state en masse when California adopted the bloodborne pathogens standard, which mandates condoms on set, over a decade ago. Why should we take them seriously this time?

Condoms are not going to drive Big Porn underground. The big studios are highly diversified enterprises with multimillion-dollar distribution deals with major satellite TV companies and hotel chains. Some of the biggest retail chains in the country distribute their products. They have branded strip clubs where stars perform live for their fans, merchandise, lucrative reality TV tie-ins, and more. Such are the fruits of operating in the above-ground economy.

Industry publications love to boast about how mainstream the industry has become, and indeed it has. Big Porn is not going to be driven back underground over condoms. It’s not even worth worrying about.

Besides, there are already already profitable condom-only companies making straight porn in the U.S.. Wicked is one of the largest and most profitable studios in the industry and it has been an all-condom shop for years. BangBros does just fine with condoms.

Right now, companies that are willing to break the law have a relative advantage over their law-abiding counterparts. However, if the rules were enforced consistently, no one would be at a disadvantage. Consumers would just get used to condoms, as they have in the gay porn industry. 

Doyle also floats the theory that condoms might somehow be worse than nothing for porn-style sex. We’re supposed to believe that straight porn is a magical land filled with magical sex where barebacking is safer than condoms? I know they’re selling fantasy, but come on… 

I’ve yet to see any empirical research to support this theory. I have never heard this position advanced by an independent public health professional.

As far as I can tell the notion that condoms are in any way counterproductive is pure conjecture based on anecdotes from people with a financial stake in the status quo. The argument seems to have originated with industry insider Ernest Greene and his wife, porn legend Nina Hartley. They claim that porn sex is so rough and prolonged that condoms cause more abrasions than unprotected sex. I couldn’t find any independent confirmation of that.

It’s true that abrasions can make it easier for HIV to get into the body. However, in order for condoms to be worse than nothing they’d have to fail all the time, or almost all the time–which doesn’t seem to be the case. Rough, unprotected marathon sex causes a lot of abrasions, too. So, logically, an even a barrier that might break would be better than nothing.

Absent real evidence, this bizarre theory doesn’t deserve serious consideration in any policy debate.

Sure, some actors find condoms uncomfortable, but perhaps they should find jobs that don’t involve sex with multiple partners. There are plenty of performers who can cope just fine. Latex allergies also keep some people out of nursing, which is unfortunate, but hardly a reason to do away with latex gloves in health care. If you can’t handle the personal protective equipment, you can’t do the job.

I seriously doubt that Hartley and Levine are advancing the “counterproductive condom” conjecture good faith. They are leading spokespeople for the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation (AIM), which says one thing when talking to talent and another when addressing journalists and regulators. AIM is the industry-allied clinic that runs straight porn’s testing program.

If you’ve heard of AIM, you probably know it as that clinic for porn stars. AIM’s free online videos Porn 101 and Porn 102 provide frank advice to aspiring performers about the risks of porn and the steps they can take to protect themselves. In the videos, AIM founder Sharon Mitchell and Hartley advise performers to bring their favorite brand of condoms and lube to every shoot. Mitchell’s earthy advice on changing condoms between orifices: “New hole, wrap the pole.” (“Re-wrap the pole” doesn’t scan as well.)

At no point do the AIM videos claim that barebacking might be safer than condoms. Because that’s crazy talk.

Mitchell has said in several interviews that she always used condoms in her career because she was a big enough star to demand them. In another AIM-produced segment, BDSM and fetish star Anastasia Pierce says that she always uses condoms in her professional and personal life. The video even reviews different brands of flesh-colored condoms that are less conspicuous on camera. These are reportedly available in a range of colors to match any member.

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AIM clearly does not take the counterproductive condom conjecture seriously when real clients are looking to them for health and safety advice. It’s just a cheesy thought experiment they trot out to impress contrarian journalists and sympathetic politicians. 

Doyle also repeats the claim of the past chair of the AIM Foundation board and adult film maker Greene (aka Ira Levine, husband of Nina Hartley) that porn performer are not subject to Cal-OSHA rules because they aren’t employees. That’s just not true. Cal-OSHA has successfully fined porn companies for violating the bloodborne pathogens standard on set. Hollywood actors are also considered employees of the production companies they work for, even though they are also free agents working on contract.

In some contexts, AIM spokespeople will claim that their testing program is good enough to make condoms superfluous because they do such a good job of keeping HIV out of the talent pool. We are reminded that actors have to get tested every 30 days in order to work. In other contexts, AIM will insist, correctly, that it has no power to compel anyone to do anything, and merely provides information.

Well, either the industry is regulating itself or it isn’t.

At any rate, the industry isn’t regulating itself very well. Testing does not provide the level of protection that we expect employers to offer their employees. A performer could test negative in the morning, get infected on a date that night, and work for 30 days before his or her next test. In 2004, Darren James infected 3 of the 14 actresses he worked with after his initial false negative test through AIM. Two of those actresses also got false negatives from AIM shortly after being infected and worked with HIV. It was just a matter of luck that they didn’t infect anyone else.

Porn is a legal industry in California. Porn producers must be held to the same standards as other employers. Saying that porn is above the law just because it’s porn is tantamount to saying the actors are second-class citizens.

[Photo credit: zetabase, Creative Commons.]


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