News Sexual Health

Porn Stars Back to Work but Controversy Persists Over Industry Handling of Prevention

Martha Kempner

Last week the porn industry voluntarily shut down production on movie sets around the country after an unnamed actress initially tested positive for HIV. While it turned out to be a false positive, the incident exposed the ongoing controversy around industry handling of the possibility of spreading infections on set. 

Last week the porn industry voluntarily shut down production on movie sets around the country after an unnamed actress initially tested positive for HIV. While it turned out that her results were inaccurate (a false positive) and that she does not, in fact, have the virus, the incident called national attention to the ongoing controversy around how the industry handles the possibility of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) being spread on set.  Producers insist that the industry is capable of regulating itself and keeping its performers healthy but some public health and AIDS advocates vehemently disagree. 

The industry began a self-imposed system of testing for STIs in 1998 after production companies faced lawsuits from several actresses who became infected with HIV on set. Industry leaders created the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation (AIM), essentially a nonprofit clinic that offered health tests to performers and kept a record of the results. The clinic was supported by contributions from production companies.  According to the New York Times: “Producers agreed not to hire performers who had not been tested in the last 30 days, and the clinic investigated the sources of infections, coordinated halts in filming when actors tested positive for HIV, and hounded performers who had been exposed to get tested.”

Industry leaders argue that the clinic was successful in its mission and point out that since 2004 (when an outbreak shut down production) only five performers have tested positive for HIV. Some public health officials, however, disagree that this system of self-regulation is working. According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, “about a quarter of all performers are diagnosed with an STD [sexually transmitted disease] each year” and “the rate of chlamydia and gonorrhea are seven times higher than those in the general population.” In December 2010, L.A. County Health officials closed the AIM clinic saying that it was not properly licensed. Though it briefly reopened earlier this year under a new name, the clinic permanently shut down in May leaving the industry scrambling for a new way to regulate STI prevention.

In August, the Free Speech Coalition (FSC), the trade association for the adult entertainment industry, launched a new online program and database referred to as the Adult Production Health & Safety Services (APHSS.org). The program will provide performers with referrals to participating health care facilities and then keep records of their test results. Right now, however, the database still needs to be “populated” with information. Still, FSC points out that the clinic at which the unnamed actress received the false positive test result was outside this system. 

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Despite this new system, some advocates believe that testing is too little, too late.  Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) said: “Testing just acts as a fig leaf for producers, who suggest that it is a reasonable substitute for condoms, which it is not.”  

While both California and federal workplace safety rules require porn stars to use condoms if they are exchanging body fluid through sex, AHF and others say that the industry has largely ignored these rules. Brian Chase, the organization’s assistant general counsel suggests that the industry operates in a legal gray zone: “When you’ve got a situation like that, you’ve got a lot of industry participants who feel they don’t need to follow the law,” he said.  And California health officials admit that they are not equipped to enforce these rules.  Over the years they have issued only a handful of fines which have not led to any changes in industry behavior. 

In February, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to draft an ordinance which would mandate condom use in adult films and enforce the rule by linking the requirement to the issuing of film permits. Oddly enough, in May the council voted unanimously not to pass such an ordinance.  AHF is now spearheading a petition to get a similar rule on the city’s ballot in 2012 and put the question of whether porn stars should practice safer sex to the voters.  

Industry leaders warn that such a requirement would simply drive production – which brings in $13 billion annually – to other states and even other countries. They argue that condom use in porn movies hurts sales and producers will be unwilling to make this change. Others suggest that this is not an issue that requires government intervention as porn stars are adults who understand the risks of their profession and assume such risks voluntarily. It will be interesting to see how the voters of Los Angeles react to this question. 

In the meantime, now that the test result has been found to be a false alarm, actors and producers have gone back to work (without condoms).

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