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The Condom: Friend or Foe in the Adult Film Industry?

Acting in porn isn’t like mining coal or building skyscrapers.

That becomes obvious when looking at labor safety debates. Sure, the adult film industry a lucrative business, and healthcare advocates say they’re trying to hold it accountable for its employees’ well being. But porn performers aren’t lining up to support measures that would require the use of condoms and barriers on set.

Perhaps because this is where workplace safety intersects with deeply personal health decisions.

“I’ve not met a single performer who is actually in favor of the mandate,” said Jiz Lee. Lee – who is genderqueer and prefers the personal pronouns they and them – primarily performs in San Francisco-based queer porn. “Compare that to many vocal performers who are 100 percent against it. This is the biggest issue for performers, because their opinions are not being heard.”

But proponents say barrier use in porn is all about making performers safer at work. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation is one of the chief backers of a ballot initiative in Los Angeles that will let voters decide whether issuing permits for porn sets should be linked to condom use. The group is trying to get a similar measure on the countywide ballot.

“We plan to use this campaign as an opportunity to raise awareness about safer sex in general, and to focus specifically on worker safety and fairness, particularly the safety of these adult film performers,” said Michael Weinstein, president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, in a written release. “We also will cite the backing of most major medical and public health associations regarding condom use in adult films.”

This isn’t the first attempt to stop unprotected sex in California-filmed porn. In 2004, after an AIDS outbreak, many studios began to shoot films using condoms. That move was not popular with viewers. Last year, Cal/OSHA began work on a proposal for extensive workplace safety guidelines. Cal/OSHA representatives likened the rules to those that nurses and doctors must follow to avoid contact with bodily fluids. As that debate unfolded, porn production in the San Fernando Valley was halted temporarily when one actor tested positive for HIV.

On face value, condoms seem like a reasonable workplace safety measure. They are proven to prevent the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, and they’ve become visual shorthand for safer sex. So why is there so much resistance in the adult film industry, particularly among performers?

Porn has become a web-based business, and uniform condom use would require worldwide cooperation, said Diane Duke, executive director for the Free Speech Coalition, a trade group for the adult film industry. Because so many consumers prefer condom-free porn, demanding barriers could cripple the industry in Los Angeles.

Regular testing for HIV is already the porn industry norm. Safeguards have prevented transmission of HIV between performers for the past five years, Duke said.

More importantly, mandatory condom use in porn also might create other, less obvious health risks.

“Sex on the set can be a lot different than sex off set, as performers have to often perform for a longer period of time than even they themselves (do) when in the privacy of their own bed,” Lee said. A shoot can include more than an hour of penetration, they said, and it can feel like a lot longer.

One possible result? Irritated skin or rashes that can make it easier for some sexually transmitted infections to get a foothold. Lee also worries that barrier use could lead to an end of regular testing – which could, in turn, make rates of infection higher.

Lee acknowledges that in the queer porn where they most regularly work, the use of barriers seems more common.

“I think that living in San Francisco has influenced my sexual health practices and shaped my views on barrier use – most specifically that performers should be encouraged to do what feels safest to them, and be provided the resources to make the best judgment for themselves,” they said.

The debate over the Los Angeles ballot initiative may soon be moot. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich filed a lawsuit claiming that only the state of California, not the city or county, could adopt and enforce the proposed condom mandate.

LESLIE WILBER is a journalist who has covered police misconduct, courts, high school sports and other disastrous things. She lives in Denver and is an editor at The Precarious, a new online magazine to which we wish the best of luck.

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