Here Come the Condom Police

Monitoring gay bathhouses and mandating condoms for porn actors are quick fixes that won't replace the long, hard work of HIV prevention.

At gay bathhouses in the Bay Area, monitors pop in on the “playroom” irregularly—“every 20 minutes, every 40 minutes, every hour,” one manager says, trying to make sure patrons are having sex safely.

“You put the condom on or get the hell out,” a monitor at one such club said, upon discovering a couple violating the rules.

William Woods and his colleagues talked to these bathhouse monitors, as well as managers and patrons, about their safer sex monitoring programs, detailed in a recent article in the academic journal Sexuality Research and Social Policy. Some bathhouses enacted aggressive monitoring because “they sincerely care about their patrons’ health,” Woods said. These bathhouses in the Bay Area often were “at the table when the guidelines that are in place were developed, so they have a personal stake in them.” In other cities bathhouses were under threat of closure from state health departments, and their monitoring programs, some implemented so the clubs could remain open, were only lackadaisically enforced.

The attempted policing of HIV transmission has been in the news a lot lately. Soon after four porn stars revealed they had been infected with HIV in early September, calls for laws requiring condom usage on set began to spring up again. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a public advocacy group at the forefront of the debate, argued for a previous law that voters passed in Los Angeles, saying that the adult film industry should protect its workers despite economic pressures to the contrary. They say condom usage is an occupational health measure for porn stars and should be as routine as requiring construction workers to wear helmets. Until filmmakers’ feet are held to the regulatory fire, many advocates believe actors will face an untenable choice between the risk of HIV infection or losing work in a latex-phobic industry. In response, adult filmmakers threatened to move their operations to Nevada. A “sexodus,” some called it. Industry representatives complained that compliance with condom laws would mean less viewer interest in their films.

The law eventually died a procedural death in the California Senate but the story is far from dead: Recently, newly infected adult actors themselves pleaded for improved industry condom usage, the flash of cameras glinting off of the tears on their cheeks.

Not all adult actors support mandatory condom legislation, though. I talked with Grace Evangeline, a retired adult film actress with credits like Sexy Cougars and Like Father Like Son #3.

“Performers need to be able to make the decision on using a condom and the companies should respect it,” she said. Performer autonomy was not Evangeline’s only argument against mandatory condom usage. “Porn isn't normal sex. It lasts longer, the male talent are above average in size, and it requires positions most people don't perform in a normal situation. Male talent must become erect, then during the shoot, they become limp, and [are] required to become erect again, on and on. I'm not a male, but I would think this would be more difficult with a condom.” Evangeline supports voluntary condom use and frequent HIV and STD testing.

Adult actress Alana Evans also advocates publicly against legal condom mandates. I spoke with her on the phone, and she said that in the current climate of the porn industry, “If I’m condom-only, I know I’m not going to get hired.” She did not think requiring condoms by law would fix that problem. Just as some adult filmmakers circumvent HIV testing laws, she said, slack enforcement would undermine condom laws as well. “Most [filmmakers] don’t get permits anyway. It’s not like requiring condoms will make it happen.” Evans said she fears that condom laws could lead to a de-emphasis on testing, which is one of the reasons “the sex I am having is a heck of a lot safer than having sex in the general population,” where HIV testing is less common.

Evans recalled “a wake up call” she got one month into her 15-year adult film career. Shortly after meeting with adult film actor Marc Wallice to consider performing together, Evans learned Wallice was infected with HIV but had been showing filmmakers falsified negative test results for months. Several female actors ended up infected by Wallice, but Evans was lucky not to have been exposed. At the time, she said she was impressed by how actors and filmmakers came together “like a family” to stop HIV transmission. “It was all condoms all the time,” she said, and industry leaders encouraged frequent testing and HIV education campaigns. Evans hopes such grassroots efforts will emerge again.

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Tim Lahey, MD, is an infectious diseases specialist and associate professor of medicine at Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine. He writes regularly at MedMurmurs.

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