The case for bringing condoms to adult films.

Health and medicine explained.
April 7 2010 10:06 AM

That's a Wrap

The case for bringing condoms to adult films.

Jenna Jamison. Click image to expand.
Porn actress Jenna Jameson

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

Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.