The porn industry doesn’t need goggles, but it does need more condoms

It will take a cultural shift to make the porn industry safer.

Internet Culture

Published Feb 23, 2016   Updated Feb 29, 2020, 11:12 am CST

A proposal to require porn actors to wear condoms and “barrier protection for eyes, skin, mouth and mucous membranes” was voted down last week in California. Unsurprisingly, porn producers strongly opposed the regulations—threatening that the industry would be forced underground and/or out of state if condom measures passed.

The current industry status quo requires performers have sexually transmitted infection (STI) test results less than 15 days old before filming, but does not typically mandate condom use.

The HIV test preferred by the industry has a “window period”—the time in between infection with HIV and detectability—of 13-28 days Additionally, there are many small studios and independent performers who do not use the system preferred by industry organizations—a window period of 90 days. According to a 2012 study, undetected asymptomatic oral and rectal infections with gonorrhea and/or chlamydia are common in the adult industry, affecting 28 percent of performers. Accordingly, the Centers for Disease Control recommends that the adult industry adopt, in addition to regular performer testing, use of condoms and HIV preexposure prophylaxis (or PrEP) as industry standards.

Some performers, such as Nina Hartley, have claimed that using condoms in a porn scene is too uncomfortable to do regularly enough to make a living. 

Defenders of the status quo point to the adult industry’s excellent track record with HIV and STI prevention. And some performers, such as Nina Hartley, have claimed that using condoms in a porn scene is too uncomfortable to do regularly enough to make a living: “[I]t’s 30 to 60 minutes of thrusting. It doesn’t matter how much lube you use, it’s uncomfortable…I could handle two to three condom scenes a month. But actors are paid by the scene, and I couldn’t do three in a week.”

Producers have attempted to frame the issue as being about the performers’ bodily autonomy. In their live twitter coverage of the California OSHA hearing, Harlot Magazine quoted a representative of the Free Speech Coalition:

Though some performers may genuinely prefer to work without condoms, the argument that sex in porn is too physically exceptional for condom use is overstated: The standard unit of time for appointments with an escort is one hour and escorts commonly see clients more than just a few times a month (it is also standard for escorts to use condoms). Porn producers, however, have a clear interest in discouraging condom use; when Vivid Entertainment began requiring condoms following an HIV outbreak in 1998, their sales dropped 30 percent. It is imperative to separate, as best as possible, the financial interests of porn producers from the health and safety issues of performers.

It is true that there are many small business owners represented from minority demographics in the adult industry. This is not, however, because porn happens to be especially progressive or empowering. This is because in marginal sectors of the working class relationship to capital tends to be more unstable. Sex workers are not typically “employees”, as such: nearly every sex worker is an “independent contractor”. With changes to the adult industry brought on by new media, more and more often porn performers have to engage in some degree of content production and distribution (e.g., “content trade”). Performers who produce and distribute content could therefore seem to share common interests with major porn producers; however, changing the practices of the industry as a whole could help prevent independent performers from needing to engage in riskier practices in order to compete with major producers in the porn marketplace.

The proposed regulations in California were absolutely overreach; “barrier protection for eyes, skin, mouth and mucous membranes” are far more than the CDC recommends and could plausibly impede the production of saleable pornography. Likely if regulations this stringent had been passed on a state level, it would have indeed pushed production from California to Nevada and other states.

Regardless of the level of risk for performers, it is irresponsible for the porn industry to promote men’s fetishization of unprotected sex. 

However, the suggestion that standardizing condom use in porn would, by itself, drive porn underground or out of business is absurd. The companies that make up the $10-billion-dollar-a-year industry are not going to suddenly become criminal organizations in response to a sensible health regulations. In Japan, where genitalia must be totally censored in pornography by law, the porn industry is even more profitable than it is in the United States—despite uncensored international pornography being readily available online. In order to prevent production from moving to another state and to ensure compliance among the many small, independent producers around the country would, however, require a condom policy be effected on a national level—not just in California.

Regardless of the level of risk for performers, it is irresponsible for the porn industry to promote men’s fetishization of unprotected sex.

Porn affects people’s’ sexual attitudes and behaviors. This can be seen in the rise in popularity of anal sex among straight couples since the proliferation of porn on the Internet began, for instance. In general, erotic preferences are behaviorally conditioned. Researchers have even been able to condition erotic fetishes for clothing and scents in male rats through behavioral reinforcement. For men, the development of erotic preferences has a social dimension. According to a 2008 study on the on the social development of male sexuality, “sexual activity is a key path to masculine status, and other men are the audience, always imagined and sometimes real, for one’s sexual activities.”

The erotic object gets conflated with its social meaning—with the gaze of a man’s peers; masculine sexual socialization (e.g., going to strip clubs, watching pornography) conflates these as much as pursuing a trophy wife or girlfriend. Erotic interest is as much directed towards the individual woman as the idea of who a man becomes through how he acts upon her. The proliferation of pornography idealizing unprotected sex, “creampies,” etc. thereby serves as social instruction to fetishize riskier sex as a type of conquest. This affects performers’ health too: there are countless adult performers who work as escorts and have clients attempt to pressure or coerce them into unprotected sex.

At a minimum, major porn studios and trade organizations should seek to voluntarily standardize condom use. 

At a minimum, major porn studios and trade organizations should seek to voluntarily standardize condom use. It is an ethical imperative, both in terms of protecting performer health and in terms of culturally normalizing safer sex. In other industries, one wouldn’t make the argument for a worker’s right to choose to be exposed directly to hazardous materials without protection; it is understood that workers need protection precisely because of the power dynamic involved in financially incentivizing risky work. While porn industry representatives shed crocodile tears over the supposed violation of bodily autonomy that is safe sex, nothing is said about the coercive power dynamic of an industry which “hires only actors willing to work without condoms.” It will be possible to standardize better industry practice without putting sex workers at risk or out of work, but a cultural shift will be needed in the industry on a national level.

Rebeka Refuse is an adult entertainer and moderates Trans Housing Network. She can be found on Twitter or Tumblr at @jobhaver.

Illustration via Tiffany Pai

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*First Published: Feb 23, 2016, 4:16 pm CST