HIV in the Porn Industry

Nina Hartley is Good Vibrations’s best friend in the adult movie industry, and I talked to her just a few days after the news had been released that one of porn’s leading men, Mark Wallice, had tested HIV-positive. That by itself wasn’t such big news — straight adult performers have tested positive or developed full-blown AIDS in the past, and it actually doesn’t happen as often as one might expect from a group who are sexually active and who rarely use condoms. Performers in the adult industry follow something like a strategy for HIV prevention; internal ejaculation is rare, and performers get regular HIV tests. Performers who test positive can’t work. This isn’t optimal — but it’s better than nothing.

But Wallice’s case is different; allegedly he tested positive a year ago and falsified his results. He continued to work — that is, to have unprotected sex — and reportedly several of his on-screen partners have now tested positive also.

Time will tell whether this situation will become the full-blown scandal we’ve recently seen in upstate New York, where an HIV-infected man transmitted the virus to several young women. (The case is the subject of a thoughtful cover story in this month’s Harper’s.) In New York, the women were “innocent” — more innocent, anyway, than most people would be willing to describe the women in porn. But in or out of pornography, “promiscuous” or not, sex educators and AIDS educators have been warning people for years that every act of intercourse ought to be accessorized with a condom. That the young women in New York didn’t insist on safe sex is a social tragedy that implicates gender roles and the difficulty of getting good sex ed and AIDS information into the schools, along with the young man who didn’t disclose his serostatus before hopping into bed. That a man whose job is fucking could lie about his HIV status and infect others (whose job is also fucking) goes well beyond tragedy.

Most of the people who infect others with sexually transmitted conditions don’t mean to do it; mostly they’re in denial or they simply don’t know they have a disease that can be passed. When politicians pass laws to criminalize such people, they conflate the few — the sociopaths, the vengeful — with the many who are unaware, uneducated, and confused. At the same time, they often neglect to fund programs that will help root out and deal with this ignorance and confusion. These sorts of laws are about as compassionate (and useful) as the ones which sent people to the poorhouse for the “crime” of poverty — and on top of that, the prison system in the US is doing a miserable job handling inmates who have AIDS.

But what are we to think of someone like Wallice, a central player in an industry that has had to take HIV seriously — enough, at least, that it requires all performers to have regular tests? It’s hard not to think of his actions as at the very least criminally negligent. What interests me more than long-distance mind reading, though, is the way the porn industry has conceptualized AIDS — for this background actually facilitated Wallice’s actions.

By the late 1980s, when I began studying sexology, gay and bi porn producers, directors, and performers had seen the writing on the wall. More and more movie sets were equipped with condoms. Safe sex wasn’t universal, but it was definitely an issue; for over a decade it’s been far easier to find gay and bi porn with condoms. Not so with the heterosexual side of the business. At first AIDS wasn’t an issue at all (except to those performers who smelled the coffee early on and quit). Then John Holmes, the King, died of AIDS. As rumors of his illness spread within the industry it became clear that no matter how Holmes (and other infected performers) got the virus, it could be spread on the set. Hence the practice of regular testing, a dubious condom indeed.

Wallice is the first performer to really show the industry how full of holes that condom is — not by testing positive, but by lying about it. What if the industry had, instead of making testing mandatory, made condom use mandatory? Several of Wallice’s co-stars might still be healthy, and more than that, people who watch porn would have had a decade of erotic safe sex images to view and internalize. Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an AIDS service organization in New York City, is no longer very aptly named, since women are now becoming infected at a higher rate than men. It has conducted research which showed that safe sex information that includes explicit visual images is far more effective than any other kind. You can read about it, you can hear about it, but nothing gets the message across (short of doing it yourself) like seeing it. More heterosexuals have access to, and consume, porn as part of their loosely-defined sex education than have received good AIDS education. So the adult industry, through denial, dropped the ball when it could have spent the last fifteen years doing a lot of good by normalizing the idea of sex with condoms.

According to Nina, they’ll all be normalizing it now. “Every major porn producer is going all-condom, all the time,” she told me in late May. My first thought is a cynical “I’ll believe it when I see it,” but if it’s true, it’s about the only silver lining in what is otherwise a pretty despicable situation.

“Consumers don’t want to see condoms,” the industry moguls have said. “It turns them off. Porn is supposed to be fantasy.” Too damned bad — and frankly, fellas, consumers want to see sex. If you can’t make condom use sexy, maybe you guys ought to be putting your filmmaking talents elsewhere. Consumers who want unclad fantasy material can rent those super-hot Japanese adult animation videos. The fact is, porn is made by real people, and they aren’t getting paid enough to risk HIV. The real fantasy here — on the part of consumers, producers, and even many actors — is that HIV would never intrude into this small community. The current wake-up call is too late, but better late than never. Let’s hope the porn business doesn’t just hit the snooze alarm.

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Dr. Carol Queen

Carol Queen has a PhD in sexology; she calls herself a "cultural sexologist" because her earlier academic degree is in sociology: while she addresses individual issues and couple's sexual concerns, her overarching interest is in cultural issues (gender, shame, access to education, etc.). Queen has worked at Good Vibrations, the woman-founded sexuality company based in San Francisco that turned 35 years old in 2012, since 1990. Her current position is Staff Sexologist and Good Vibrations Historian; her roles include representing the company to the press and the public; overseeing educational programming for staff and others; and scripting/hosting a line of sex education videos, the Pleasure-Ed series, for GV’s sister company Good Releasing. She also curates the company's Antique Vibrator Museum. She is also the founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture, a non-profit sex ed and arts center San Francisco, and is a frequent lecturer at colleges, universities, and community-based organizations. Her dozen books include a Lambda Literary Award winner, PoMoSexuals, and Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, which are used as texts in some college classes. She blogs at the Good Vibes Magazine and at SFGate's City Brights bloggers page and contributes to the Boston Dig. For more about her at carolqueen.com.

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