Danger on the Set

A porn star's early retirement has industry insiders talking STDs

Belladonna, the unique and popular porn performer whom I profiled earlier this year ("AVN Adult Entertainment Expo: Day 4), shocked fans last week when she blogged that she would no longer be performing. Her announcement came after she returned home from the set of a movie and discovered an enormous rash on her ass. Her doctor told her it was probably a herpes outbreak, but he'd test it to be sure. Belladonna knew she had herpes; she had contracted it five years ago while working in porn. For her, it was the tipping point: Until now, she had only experienced outbreaks on her labia, but what if the herpes spread to her ass, her mouth, and other parts of her body? On the one hand, she's not alone: Some insiders think that nearly every performer has herpes. But in another sense, she's all alone. Her post shined a light on one thing no one wants to talk about in porn: STDs.

The porn industry doesn't fall under the watchful eye of any government agency; it is self-regulating and has created certain rules that performers are required to follow. The Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation, known as AIM (aim-med.org), is a nonprofit organization that does all the STD testing for the porn industry. It was founded in 1997 as the centralized place for HIV testing, and today it provides full STD testing and treatment as well as other medical services. The industry now requires that all performers arrive on a set with an AIM test no older than 30 days with negative results for HIV, chlamydia, and gonorrhea. While AIM tests for other STDs, performers are not required to disclose those results; Belladonna's post broke the silence about herpes and other risks.

So why doesn't everyone use condoms to protect themselves? The gay-male-porn industry adopted a widespread policy of mandatory condom use, but the straight-porn world has not followed suit. At the height of an HIV outbreak in 2004, which infected four performers, there was a quarantine period, followed by announcements from some companies that they'd be condom-only. By 2006, the policies were abandoned, and nearly all straight porn shot today is condom-free. The rationale is that consumers don't want to see condoms in what's supposed to be a fantasy. Some producers claim that movies with condoms sell drastically fewer copies than movies without them. Performers themselves have mixed opinions. Many would love to use them for every scene, but don't out of fear of losing work. Others, including women, say that it makes sex less comfortable or more difficult. Some male performers find that condoms hamper their ability to maintain an erection—thus the scenes take longer to shoot.

"I'd like to put a condom on everyone who walks in the door, but this is the porn industry, and I know that's not going to happen," says Sharon Mitchell, the executive director of AIM and a former performer. Mitchell says porn stars have a lot more sexual partners but get fewer STDs compared to others in the same age group. According to her, AIM tests about 2,000 people each month, and only 2.8 percent test positive for an STD. That's well below comparable national rates: In the U.S., about 22 percent of people ages 15 to 24 get an STD each year. (The CDC groups 15- to 19-year-olds and 20- to 24-year-olds. The majority of porn stars are 18 to 24, which overlaps the two age categories.) Mitchell says AIM has treated about 25 to 30 percent of performers for HPV and now vaccinates both women and men with the HPV vaccine.

If everyone is being rigorously tested, why do people still become infected? We're dealing with a group of people who are at a stage in life not known for great responsibility. Says Belladonna: "People don't care—they'll work when they know they have an STD. Many live paycheck to paycheck." Mitchell agrees and says that about 30 percent of performers resent the fact that they have to test monthly: "They think it's just a pain in the ass and that they are immune to everything." Here's a typical scenario that explains how STDs still get passed around: Two days ago, Susie had unprotected sex with her boyfriend/a stranger/a friend who gave her chlamydia. Today, she arrives on a set with a clean test she took two weeks ago (still valid for another two weeks). She has no symptoms (since many people with STDs don't have symptoms), so she does her scene and infects John and Mary, and they both go on to work with others. All this continues until the next time one of them gets tested.

And then there's herpes, the trickiest of all STDs. Ninety percent of Americans have been exposed to HSV-1 (the virus that causes most cases of oral herpes), and more than one in five Americans are infected with genital herpes (most often caused by HSV-2). Mitchell estimates that about 50 percent of performers have either HSV-1 or HSV-2. The problem with herpes is that it's treatable but incurable, plus you could be on the verge of an outbreak, have no symptoms, yet still infect someone. One of the reasons Belladonna got so ruffled by her rash is that she hasn't caught another STD in four years. She attributes this to her personal policy of requiring anyone she works with to have a current test that's three days old or less. She chooses to work only one or two times a month (women can work every day and guys can work twice a day). Belladonna called me last Friday with good news: The rash was a skin infection, not a herpes outbreak. But that hasn't changed her mind. She says she plans to make one more movie—a big feature for her own company—then retire from performing.

As a porn director, I want to create a safe environment for my performers, and part of that means I don't want anyone getting an STD on my set. But aside from locking performers up in quarantine before testing them, how do I ensure they're safe? Perhaps paying for everyone to have a more recent test? Belladonna's three-day testing rule shows that the more often you test, the better your chances. Mitchell agrees that if testing happened every 15 days instead of 30, the stats would be cut in half, but she still maintains that "it's safer here than anywhere else: You can see a person's current test results. In the bar at the corner, you can't do that."

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