If Measure B Passes in California, Porn Stars Will Have To Wear Condoms. Will You Still Watch?

What Women Really Think
Oct. 25 2012 3:18 PM

Porn Stars May Soon Have To Wear Condoms. Will You Still Watch?

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This protester wants condoms in her porn. Do you?

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Porn stars James Deen and Jessica Drake are filming a sex scene. But this is no ordinary porn shoot—it is set in the dystopian near-future where Los Angeles county voters have approved a government measure forcing pornographers to protect against the transmission of blood-borne pathogens. As Deen and Drake get it on, a surgical-masked health inspector stands on the sidelines monitoring the activity. The director is swathed in a Hazmat suit. Drake dons a protective mask and latex gloves; Deen straps on goggles and unearths a purple latex sheet. He prepares to go down on her. “Oh my god! Stop the scene,” Drake cries out. “He’s choking on my dental dam!”

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

Jessica Drake knows what safe sex really looks like on a porn set: She’s a director and contract performer for Wicked Pictures, the only mainstream porn production company that requires condoms on set for anal and vaginal intercourse. (I once watched Drake enforce this rule while directing a soft-core scene in her home; the performer opted to tuck his penis between his legs instead of donning a condom for insertion.) The text of Measure B—the condom initiative on L.A. county ballots this November—would enforce a regime similar to Wicked’s. Drake told me that she appreciates Wicked’s rule, but she doesn’t think it should be imposed on everyone, which is why she co-starred in the anti-B ad. Still, if Measure B is adopted as law, porn producers would have to take a blood-borne-pathogen training course, post a sign on set, and enforce condom use for anal and vaginal sex. No masks, no goggles, no dams.

Those who oppose Measure B have raised many arguments to shoot down mandatory condoms—they’ve said that regulating porn sets constitutes wasteful government interference; that a regular testing regime is safer than latex; that a willful porn industry will go underground or skip town before enforcing a Magnum on every tool; and that performers always have the choice to use a condom if they wish. And then there’s this little assumption about people like you and me: Consumers don’t want condoms in their porn, they say. They are so unsexy that they make sexual intercourse between superhuman bodies like Deen and Drake practically unwatchable. Porn viewers will seek out foreign films and amateur videos before they’ll accept their favorite stars wrapped in latex. “I wouldn’t mind using condoms more,” performer Lily LaBeau told me earlier this year. “It’s just not what people want to see.” (Proponents of Measure B counter that condoms can be erased in post-production.)

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Backing up LaBeau are porn producers hesitant to shake up a lucrative system that works for them (even if it inspires the occasional syphilis outbreak). The industry adopted condoms for a brief period following a 2004 HIV outbreak; most producers went back to bareback, complaining that the wrapped-up fare just didn’t sell.

In some markets, though, condoms do sell. Condom use is normative in gay porn (mandatory testing is not). Porn producer New Sensations has no company-wide policy mandating condoms, but it markets one line of “romance” DVDs that employ condoms in the service of targeting “women and couples.” (In one explicit rom-com, a condom magically appears on Xander Corvus’ penis right before he penetrates Allie Haze; a few positions later, he rips it off and ejaculates on her stomach. Best of both worlds.) Wicked CEO Steve Orenstein told Jezebel that while “a lot of people in the industry feel that condoms drive away consumers … we haven't noticed a problem because of our condom policy.” Actually, “A lot of performers respect and are supportive about the fact that we do require condoms and prefer/request to work with us because we do make condoms mandatory for our shoots.” And a lot of fans “tell us all the time that they love and respect the fact that we DO use condoms in our productions.” (Wicked, however, has joined the industry in a united front against the L.A. county measure; Orenstein has previously called for a more collaborative approach with the government.) And performer Carmen Valentina has testified that performing with condoms doesn’t turn off her fan base. “I [asked] my web members and twitter followers when I shot for Wicked what their thoughts were of the scene and condoms in general … the majority claimed they did not care,” she wrote on one adult forum. “There were a few that did NOT want to see condoms at all in any scenes and were quite vocal about it but the majority seemed at the very least indifferent to it.”

So how pervasive is the anti-condom stigma, really? And how big is the market for protected porn? In lieu of any scientific studies on the matter, I conducted a highly unscientific survey instead. I asked a group of male and female friends for their thoughts on the aesthetics of condoms in porn. My findings were similar to Valentina’s: Most people expressed ambivalence (“not a deal-breaker”) or mounted defenses of the sexiness of safe sex (“condoms make the porn look more like the kinds of sex I actually have—and that makes for hotter fantasies”), but those who rejected condoms in porn seemed … particularly energized by the issue. These viewers—all of them men—announced that condoms are just “less sexy,” “understandable, but ugly” and “UNWATCHABLE, FOR SURE.” “Who cares about condoms in porn,” one 27-year-old guy told me over email. “You watch it just to get off … caring about that would be like caring about the nutritious value of fast food when all you want to do is stuff your face.”

The attitude of porn consumers like my UNWATCHABLE, FOR SURE friend—and the unsexy PSA performances of stars like Deen and Drake—undercut the industry’s rationale that performers are always empowered to use a condom if they prefer. Former performer Satine Phoenix unpacked that dynamic in a debate with Deen over the measure. “When I first started doing porn, I was told, ‘you can ask for condoms if you want,’ but after being in porn for a little while, it’s harder for a girl to ask for condoms,” she said. “We have these grandiose ideas in porn that you have all these options but the reality is you don’t, because if you don’t do something, there’s another girl that will.” Writing in the Daily Beast in favor of Measure B, performer Aurora Snow said that the pressure is sometimes more explicit. Directors have attempted to coerce her to perform with untested actors on set. When she resists, she fears for her job. “Will they hire me again? I don’t know. That’s a risk I take when I speak up for my own safety concerns,” she wrote.

Porn actress Rebecca Bardoux dismissed Snow’s opinion, saying that Snow “knew what the situation was with the condoms before she came in.” According to Bardoux, if you agree to enter the porn industry, you agree not to use protection. And some female performers, like Nina Hartley, Stoya, and Dana DeArmond, actually prefer that. They’ve said that in the intense and extended sex scenes of the porn industry, latex can be irritating and painful, and they’re fighting for their choice to go condomless. Porn producers tend to be extremely supportive of this choice.

The battle over Measure B feels in some way passé. The potential legislation has the porn industry concerned that condoms could undermine its business model, but the internet is swiftly taking care of that. People who still buy porn tend to be pretty old-school viewers who demand the porn they’ve always seen, or new consumers who are looking for something specific—maybe even sex with condoms. The rest of them will just take what they can get, for free. One friend who responded to my survey put it this way: Condoms or no condoms? “I let Google decide.”

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