Sex

Condoms in Porn: A Solution in Search of a Problem

California’s Prop 60 proposes to require condoms in porn. But to what effect?

Posted Sep 06, 2016

Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

An intensely politicized debate is raging about whether porn performers should be required to use condoms in sex on film. In California, Prop 60, a proposed law on the ballot in November, will require condoms in all commercial porn filmed in the state.

Concerns over STIs in porn have led to substantial rules in porn made in the United States. Performers are currently required to have frequent testing, at their own expense. But these rules have largely worked. There are very few instances of on-set infections. Those that have occurred are sad, unfortunate tragedies.

Others have written extensively about the complex industry issues involved in this proposed law. But an important question and subtext in this debate is whether watching condomless porn impacts a person’s ACTUAL sexual behavior. If you are into watching lots of porn sex without condoms, does that mean when you get the chance to have actual sex with another person you are less likely to use a condom?

There’s no clear answer, mostly because this is a complex situation and the decision to use condoms is impacted by a lot more than the porn you watch. You might like such porn BECAUSE you prefer not to use condoms — so which came first, the chicken or the (condom-covered) egg? The role of drugs and alcohol has a greater disinhibiting impact on whether a person chooses to use, or demands that you use, a condom during sex. Many gay men have reported in research that masturbation to arousing porn helped them to avoid going out and having unsafe sex. The existence of satisfying, arousing condomless porn might be a release valve, reducing unsafe sex. For others, it might be one part of an unhealthy cycle of behaviors.

There’s not a shred of evidence that changing a person’s porn habits actually reduces risky sexual behavior. Think about that. California proposes to spend millions of dollars on this law – when there’s no evidence that it will actually have an effect, as an intervention in support of safe sex. Instead, there are a number of well-supported interventions which reduce the chance of unsafe sex and STI transmission, starting with education, accessible testing, access to preventative means, and drug and alcohol treatment.

Via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Via Wikimedia Commons

Ask yourself an important question – what is it that this law is actually trying to do? If it is intended to reduce transmission of STIs on porn sets, is the required use of condoms going to actually reduce this risk, lower than it already is? If it is to protect adult performers from harm, then are there similar laws, to protect other performers and entertainers, such as professional athletes, football players from the risk of concussion?

In many ways this proposed law appears to be more of a moralistic attack on porn and sex, as opposed to an actual public health intervention. Such laws have been championed for years, by people who are specific anti-porn activists. If public health were actually the issue, there are far more cheaper, and better proven ways to achieve this. Instead, this law appears to be a tactic intended to restrict and affect the porn industry, by those who oppose porn. It's perfectly fine for them to oppose porn - they have every right to do so. However, it might be more honest with voters, for them to be transparent about their motivations and intent.

An effective way to manipulate people is through fear. And for decades, fear of HIV/AIDS has been used to shape sex education, and sexual stigma throughout the country. Fear of STIs such as gonorrhea or syphilis rarely trigger the emotional impact of HIV. Because of the history of AIDS, discussion of HIV is also intrinsically connected to the stigma of male homosexuality. But the question about HIV has changed, though you might not know it. The medication known as Truvada, or PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis), appears to effectively prevent the transmission of HIV. Taken regularly, or even just taken a few hours or a day before unsafe sex (and for a day or two after), this medication reduces HIV infections dramatically. In multiple studies of it, there have been no transmissions, even in couples not using condoms, where one partner is HIV+ and the other is not. A single incident of HIV transmission on Truvada may have been identified, which appears to relate to a relatively rare strain of HIV not affected by the medication.

But Truvada and this prevention strategy hasn’t taken off or gotten much attention. Why? Because, at their core, many people would just really rather you be afraid of sex. They’d ultimately prefer you not to have that sex that they don’t like. Bizarrely, the California foundation which opposes porn without condoms has also resisted and opposed people using Truvada. Some gay male porn stars are strong advocates for each other taking PrEP as a means of reducing the risk of HIV in their industry and in society at large. Others are afraid that they could be forced to take the medication, in a requirement that exists in no other professions. Like any other medicine out there, Truvada has side effects and risks. It’s not a magic pill, and no one should think so. It’s not a vaccine and doesn’t prevent other sexually transmitted infections. But for the first time, it offers options regarding HIV and a way to respond to the fear, panic and stigma around HIV.

“For years, we’ve made [HIV-positive] guys the ones responsible for safe sex, and if a transmission happens, it’s their fault. That mentality has been a harsh but unavoidable burden on poz people, and is the reason many still choose to only date other poz people. With PrEP, an HIV-negative person can now more equally share the responsibility. Going forward, PrEP will make it so that we are all responsible for preventing HIV, and as more people get on the drug, we will all be helping end it.” –Eric Paul Leue

The most effective strategy to make porn safe for performers, is for performers — male, female, trans and everyone — to have the opportunity, information and right to make the best decisions for themselves about their behaviors and the risks associated with those behaviors. The same is true for everyone.  

When young people are learning about sex from watching porn, they definitely could be at risk of learning inaccurate information and poor behaviors. The rarity of condoms in porn could have an impact on young people's sexual behaviors. But, this impact is mediated by the degree of real, accurate sex information that youth has been provided. It's a strange tactic to try to force an entire industry to change, rather than provide real-world, accurate sex education to young people.

If you are a person who likes condomless porn, and you have unprotected sex in situations where you don’t know the status of your partner, you should do the same thing. More important than to stop watching such porn is what you do in real life to minimize your risk and contribute to a safer world. Take responsibility for your behavior and your own risk. Talk to your doctor about whether PrEP and other means can prevent and minimize your risk. That’s the smart, safe, and ethical thing to do if you are going to engage in high risk sexual activities. If you don’t do that — don’t blame porn.

The above essay is excerpted from my new book, Ethical Porn for Dicks, available on Amazon. Follow me on Twitter for more such discussion.