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What Can We Learn From the Porn Industry About HIV?

Before getting naked and having sex in front of a camera, porn stars have to go through three checks - all for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases

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If you want to shoot a real, budgeted, professional porn, you have to do a few things. No, not the things you’re thinking. Before getting naked and having sex in front of a camera, porn stars have to go through three checks—all for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. The New York Times writes:

First, they show each other their cellphones: Each has an e-mail from a laboratory saying he or she just tested negative for H.I.V.,syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea.

Then they sit beside the film’s producer, Shylar Cobi, as he checks an industry database with their real names to confirm that those negative tests are less than 15 days old.

Then, out on the pool terrace of the day’s set — a music producer’s hilltop home with a view of the Hollywood sign — they yank down their pants and stand around joking as Mr. Cobi quickly inspects their mouths, hands and genitals for sores.

That process keeps the porn industry relatively free of HIV. Medical consultants for porn say that something like 350,000 sex scenes have been shot since 2004 without condoms without a single case of HIV being transmitted on set.

So what can we learn from porn about HIV management? Outside of porn, if 350,000 sex scenes happened in people’s bedrooms, the rate of HIV infection would probably be higher – particularly in certain communities with high rates of HIV. The New York Times writes:

When the virus first enters a high-risk group like heroin users, urban prostitutes or habitués of gay bathhouses, it usually infects 30 to 60 percent of the cohort within a few years, studies have shown. The same would be expected in pornography, where performers can have more than a dozen partners a month, but the industry says self-policing has prevented it.

Regular tests—and they mean regular, once every 28 days, or even once every 14—seem to be the key to success in the porn industry. If anyone tests positive, almost all studios stop filming until all the partners of that performer are retested. This happens, too. In 2004, the Times writes, a positive test shut down all filming for three months. In more recent years, positives have popped up here and there, and are often traced to boyfriends and outside relationships.

Often, the Times reports, actors use condoms more frequently in their personal lives than they do on set. One actor, who goes by the name of Stoya, says that she always uses a condom off set. “If I get gonorrhea, we have to cancel the shoot, the crew is angry at me, and that’s unprofessional,” Stoya told the Times. “And besides, it’s gonorrhea — yecch. So I use condoms in my personal life.” Her co-star, James Deen, also told the Times: “If I’m having sex off camera for fun, and it’s not someone from the industry who tests all the time, then it’s condoms, condoms, condoms all the way.”

Of course, all health professionals say that sexually active adults should always use condoms. In fact, in California, officials are trying to make shooting porn without them illegal. Producers have fought back – arguing that shooting scenes showing condoms is a pornographic death blow. Basically, they say, no one will watch. And the sales data seems to agree. Here’s the New York Times again:

Vivid Entertainment shot with condoms for two years after a 1998 H.I.V. outbreak, and sales dropped 30 percent, Mr. Hirsch said. Producers have threatened to leave the state, taking the jobs of 1,200 actors and more than 5,000 crew members with them.

But regular testing, and a strict policy of keeping everybody clean, seems to be working. While it’s unlikely to work for non-professionals – no one is going to ask everybody in New York City to get tested every 14 days – it is a good reminder that the first way to deal with HIV is to know whether or not you have it.

More from Smithsonian.com:

HIV in 3-D
In 45 States, It’s Illegal to Keep Your HIV Status Secret

 

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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