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Safe sex on the set

Condoms need to be required for porn actors. Not only are sexually transmitted diseases a workplace safety issue, they're also a public health concern.

October 25, 2010

When members of the porn industry and state officials gather in Oakland on Monday for a meeting sponsored by California's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, they will discuss how best to keep adult film performers safe from sexually communicable diseases. The answer, of course, has long been clear: It is to vigorously enforce, and if necessary strengthen, existing rules requiring condom use for adult performers.

The issue resurfaced for the umpteenth time this month when a porn actor tested HIV-positive, but that's no guarantee that anything will change. In 2004, an HIV outbreak among pornography actors prompted a drive to make condom use the norm, but the San Fernando Valley-based porn industry has been recalcitrant.

That porn actors' work leads them to contract sexually transmitted diseases is not in dispute. Since 2004, more than 4,000 people who identified themselves as adult film performers in Los Angeles County have tested positive for chlamydia, gonorrhea or syphilis. But this is not just a workplace safety issue; because porn actors do not live in a bubble but are wives, husbands and members of the Southern California community, those who become infected also pose a risk to public health.

Nor is labor law in dispute. Both federal and state labor laws specifically require the use of personal protective equipment or barriers against blood or bodily fluids in the workplace, such as the gloves and masks used by medical technicians. Or, as Cal/OSHA officials say, employers must have "enclosure control plans." The office has inspected porn operations and cited several for violations, but the refusal to comply is firm. No state law specifically requires condom use; it may be time for that to change.

Makers of pornographic films and many of the actors who flout the law are adamant that their voluntary system of monthly testing at a health clinic is sufficient. But they confuse early detection with prevention. The analogy would be if construction workers were routinely checked for concussions rather than required to wear hardhats.

If condom use does become mandatory in California, filmmakers who make heterosexual porn say business will suffer and they may leave the state. (Condoms are standard in gay porn.) And although some probably would, many would not; some 5,000 crew members who work in the porn industry also work on mainstream Hollywood productions and are not in a position to leave. Besides, that's no excuse for ignoring reasonable health and safety laws.

Before porn producers pack up, they should remember that many states will not welcome their arrival if they can't show that they're willing to take precautions to protect public health. Enforcement can follow wherever they go.

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