Should condoms be mandated for porn stars?

Kent Sepkowitz makes the affirmative case:

Twenty-two cases of HIV in porn actors have been discovered in the last six years; that, plus a high-profile, though limited outbreak in 2004, piqued such concern that California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a branch of the Department of Labor, is now formally hearing a request from an AIDS advocacy group to require porn actors to suit up before copulating. The concern is that the absence of condoms places porn workers at undue risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. The activists propose government-mandated protection (e.g., condoms) just as safety regulations were enacted in previous generations for those workers stationed at assembly lines or picking grapes.Naysayers argue that it is beyond the reach of government to dictate who wears what when consenting adults go about their business in front of cameras and crew—plus there is a less-emphasized but probably critical concern that the presence of condoms may chill porn’s “sizzle.” Furthermore, they point out that the porn industry encourages actors to submit to regular HIV tests and exams, though many doubt the industry’s sincerity. The problem, however, is that HIV tests in newly infected (and contagious) people may come up negative for the first days or even weeks after infection—a phenomenon referred to as the “window period.” The 2004 outbreak investigated by the CDC was attributed to this route of transmission, demonstrating that screening itself, even if carried out diligently—which is debatable—may fail to prevent spread. (For those interested in reading about sex as written by a nonemotive, wonk-speaking robot incapable of prurience, titillation, or innuendo, the CDC article is a must.)

Another possible advantage of interposing a condom into the ongoing riot of porn conjugation is the off chance that some viewer, somewhere may absorb the message about safe sex. If the cool porn guys are doing it, maybe I should, too: a teachable moment, the ultimate example of monkey-see, monkey-do. Admittedly this assumes that the fellow renting porn from his hotel room after a long day of airports, meetings, and bad buffet food is indeed educable on these matters and will use a condom the next time he encounters a partner, but hey, you never know. Certainly the push against movie stars smoking cigarettes on screen was born of a similar hope and dream.

From a public-health perspective, the necessity of adding condoms into the mix is extremely compelling—such a move would, perhaps more than anything else, normalize protected sex. For those producers, script writers, and directors worried that fans will flee their fave porn site because the guys are sheathing up (thereby reducing the overall kinkiness quotient), fear not. NASCAR watchers didn’t jump ship when the seat belt was mandated. Even if you feel trapped in a latex nightmare—dental dams, eye gear, disposable gloves—I promise: There still is plenty of kink and danger to go around. Plus, guys, a real man will stand by his product even if—especially if—small concessions are made in response to this or that annoying reg.

The crux of the issue, though, is this: Are porn stars humans? We go to great and absurd lengths to “humanize” our traditional movie stars. Since Hollywood began, we have had interest in Greta and Marilyn, in Marlon and Clark, in Tom and Katie. An industry has evolved to show us their “true” selves—fan mags and talk shows and the like. But we are completely unwilling to humanize or even pseudo-humanize porn stars. We impute to them the same inner life as their soul mates in manufacture, Barbie and Ken—room-temperature mannequins without thought, motivation, introspection, or sore feet. Their resolute unhumanness extends, of course, to their nonprimate anatomic parts, their endurance and passionless gymnastics, their over-lit human faces. We don’t want to know anything about them—not about their children or their girlfriends or their budding interest in Scientology, much less whether they drive a Prius.

But humanize them we must for their sake and for ours. The simple fact is that porn isn’t going to disappear: It has been with us for thousands of years. (The big discovery from excavating Pompeii was not the size of the chariot wheels.) The porn industry is just that—an industry—and it serves a purpose, however difficult to characterize or endorse. It is flippant to allow our discomfort with the specifics of the enterprise to translate into impatient neglect and scorn. Acknowledging that porn stars have risk for disease humanizes them as nothing else can and is perhaps the only way to liberate them from the dungeon of our collective fantasy life.

I think any condom-mandate could be tricksy to enforce. In theory, these days anyone with a webcam, PayPal account, some Astroglide and a dearth of inhibitions can be a porn star. Moreover, the San Fernando Valley porn stars don’t file their taxes as “porn stars”. To wiggle around California’s outlawing of sex work, they’re technically actors, whose acting gigs just-so-happen to to involve lots of formulaic, really uncomfortable looking sex-scenes. So I’m not sure how legislators could phrase their condom-mandate in such a way as to not acknowledge the actual status of the work going on in San Fernando.

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