What porn can teach us about safer sex

Ed. note: This post is part of the second round of the Feministing “So You Think You Can Blog” contributor contest (background here). Stay tuned all week as our six finalists take turns turns covering the blog and giving us a sense of their personal contributor style. The winner of the contest and newest member of the Feministing team will be announced next week!

Shame and misinformation surrounding sex are unfortunate when they prevent people from following their desires or experiencing pleasure. But it’s just plain dangerous when they put people’s health at risk. And that’s exactly what might happen this November in LA County.

On Election Day, Los Angeles residents will go to the polls to vote on Measure B, an initiative that would mandate the use of condoms in the adult film industry. This seems like a pretty straightforward decision, right? Condoms = safe sex. Isn’t that what our middle school family life classes taught us (if they weren’t too busy teaching us abstinence)?

Well, here’s the catch. There’s no such thing as completely safe sex. Condoms are only 98% effective when used perfectly. When you account for human error, condom effectiveness goes down to 82%. If having sex is my job, those aren’t exactly the odds I would want. Those aren’t great odds even for having sex in real life, which is why many people choose to use other forms of birth control in addition to condoms. And as Nina Hartley and others in the industry have pointed out, having sex in your private life isn’t the same thing as having sex in porn. In a porn shoot, the actors are often having sex for hours at a time. Over time, the friction from latex can actually cause vaginal and/or anal abrasions, which make it more likely for STIs to spread. So even though we think of them as the ultimate in safer sex, condoms in porn have the potential to do more harm than good.

Many in the adult industry claim that people having sex in porn are actually safer from STIs than those having sex in the general population of LA. Why? Testing! People in the general population typically get tested for STIs about once a year, and many people never get tested at all! Performers in the porn industry are required to get tested for STIs at least once every 28 days, and many choose to get tested more often than that. Actors must provide a clean bill of health from the testing facility before every shoot, and they also undergo a physical inspection by the production manager and their co-performer(s).

Results? According to the CA Department of Public Health, from 2008-2011, there were 6,447 new cases of HIV reported in LA County, and only two of those were adult performers, neither of whom contracted the virus on set. There have been zero HIV infections on porn sets since 2004, and only a handful of other STI occurrences, all of which were dealt with promptly. In a group of people that probably have more sex than much of America, those are pretty impressive statistics. It seems to me that us laypeople (pun intended) could learn quite a bit about safer sex practices from the LA porn industry.

My biggest concern here is that people will vote blindly on Measure B based on their biases instead of facts. There’s a very unfortunate culture of shame surrounding porn, which makes it likely that people will vote on gut reaction and support Measure B, rather than taking the time to explore all the nuances of the situation. Although there are certainly several good arguments for Measure B, what sways me most is that the main opposition to the initiative is coming from people who are actually in the porn industry. Most feminists would agree that we need to trust women to know what’s best for their own bodies. I think the same principle applies to performers in adult film. Who better to advise a vote on this initiative than the people whose bodies will be directly affected by its outcome?

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