Few perishable items have had as unlikely a second act as the humble condom. For decades, it lurked in the shadows with girlie magazines, aphrodisiac powders, and oddball sex devices. Then in the 1980s, AIDS hit and condoms suddenly entered the fast lane. In 1987 alone, right after Surgeon General C. Everett Koop started the pitch for condom use, sales rose 20 percent nationwide and have increased steadily ever since. The key to our HIV global control strategy rests not on vaccines, pills, or saltpeter but rather on the surprisingly broad shoulders of our old friend the rubber.
Indeed, so central is its perceived public health role that recently a serious debate has emerged in California over whether to dispatch the condom into a previously latex-free zone: hard-core pornography. Twenty-two cases of HIV in porn actors have been discovered in the last six years; that, plus a high-profile, though limited outbreak in 2004, piqued such concern that California's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a branch of the Department of Labor, is now formally hearing a request from an AIDS advocacy group to require porn actors to suit up before copulating. The concern is that the absence of condoms places porn workers at undue risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. The activists propose government-mandated protection (e.g., condoms) just as safety regulations were enacted in previous generations for those workers stationed at assembly lines or picking grapes.
Naysayers argue that it is beyond the reach of government to dictate who wears what when consenting adults go about their business in front of cameras and crew—plus there is a less-emphasized but probably critical concern that the presence of condoms may chill porn's "sizzle." Furthermore, they point out that the porn industry encourages actors to submit to regular HIV tests and exams, though many doubt the industry's sincerity. The problem, however, is that HIV tests in newly infected (and contagious) people may come up negative for the first days or even weeks after infection—a phenomenon referred to as the "window period." The 2004 outbreak investigated by the CDC was attributed to this route of transmission, demonstrating that screening itself, even if carried out diligently—which is debatable—may fail to prevent spread. (For those interested in reading about sex as written by a nonemotive, wonk-speaking robot incapable of prurience, titillation, or innuendo, the CDC article is a must.)
Another possible advantage of interposing a condom into the ongoing riot of porn conjugation is the off chance that some viewer, somewhere may absorb the message about safe sex. If the cool porn guys are doing it, maybe I should, too: a teachable moment, the ultimate example of monkey-see, monkey-do. Admittedly this assumes that the fellow renting porn from his hotel room after a long day of airports, meetings, and bad buffet food is indeed educable on these matters and will use a condom the next time he encounters a partner, but hey, you never know. Certainly the push against movie stars smoking cigarettes on screen was born of a similar hope and dream.
From a public-health perspective, the necessity of adding condoms into the mix is extremely compelling—such a move would, perhaps more than anything else, normalize protected sex. For those producers, script writers, and directors worried that fans will flee their fave porn site because the guys are sheathing up (thereby reducing the overall kinkiness quotient), fear not. NASCAR watchers didn't jump ship when the seat belt was mandated. Even if you feel trapped in a latex nightmare—dental dams, eye gear, disposable gloves—I promise: There still is plenty of kink and danger to go around. Plus, guys, a real man will stand by his product even if—especially if—small concessions are made in response to this or that annoying reg.
Underneath the condom debate is an even larger financial story. Porn is an enormous business. Although accurate numbers are elusive, most estimates place annual income from pornography at $5 billion—shaming traditional Hollywood pics, which clock in shy of $3 billion. And because most of the action is filmed in California, specifically in the San Fernando Valley, the state has an interest in preserving porn's tax revenue ($36 million a year), jobs (12,000 in California, 20 percent of whom "engage in direct work-related sexual contact"), and product (about 11,000 films a year sent out along the Internets and into adult video stores and hotels nationwide).
The crux of the issue, though, is this: Are porn stars humans? We go to great and absurd lengths to "humanize" our traditional movie stars. Since Hollywood began, we have had interest in Greta and Marilyn, in Marlon and Clark, in Tom and Katie. An industry has evolved to show us their "true" selves—fan mags and talk shows and the like. But we are completely unwilling to humanize or even pseudo-humanize porn stars. We impute to them the same inner life as their soul mates in manufacture, Barbie and Ken—room-temperature mannequins without thought, motivation, introspection, or sore feet. Their resolute unhumanness extends, of course, to their nonprimate anatomic parts, their endurance and passionless gymnastics, their over-lit human faces. We don't want to know anything about them—not about their children or their girlfriends or their budding interest in Scientology, much less whether they drive a Prius.
But humanize them we must for their sake and for ours. The simple fact is that porn isn't going to disappear: It has been with us for thousands of years. (The big discovery from excavating Pompeii was not the size of the chariot wheels.) The porn industry is just that—an industry—and it serves a purpose, however difficult to characterize or endorse. It is flippant to allow our discomfort with the specifics of the enterprise to translate into impatient neglect and scorn. Acknowledging that porn stars have risk for disease humanizes them as nothing else can and is perhaps the only way to liberate them from the dungeon of our collective fantasy life. With a little luck, who knows—maybe we soon will turn on the tube and hear Dick Nasty tell Dave that funny story about the dumb-ass director who told him he would never make it in this great business of ours and that perhaps he should look for a job as a dental hygienist.
Slate V: The world's best condom ads