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The Porn Industry Is Still Needlessly Scared of HIV+ Performers

In the U.K., proper education around HIV has significantly decreased stigma around HIV+ porn performers. Stateside, we’ve still got a long ways to go

In early 2019, the power players of porn descended upon Las Vegas for the annual AVN Adult Entertainment Expo, an event known for its mix of panel talks and hardcore parties. For Valerie Webber, a PhD candidate, porn performer and board chair of industry STI testing system PASS (Performer Availability Screening Service), one panel in particular caught her eye: HIV Stigma and Prevention in the Porn Industry.

The primary talking point was research that unequivocally shows someone can be HIV+, but take medication to lower their viral load to “undetectable” levels. Basically, the long-stigmatized virus is no longer a death sentence, and science has irrefutably proven that undetectable people can’t pass the virus on, not even through unprotected sex. The last few years have also seen a huge rise in the accessibility of Truvada (also known as PrEP), an HIV prevention drug proven to be 99 percent effective when taken as prescribed. PEP, the HIV equivalent of the morning-after pill, can also significantly lower transmission rates. 

These innovations have changed the sexual landscape for HIV+ people and their partners — to quote panelist and porn performer Bella Bathory: “I know for a fact that if someone is HIV+ and undetectable, I can fuck them, eat the shit out of them, fist them and drink their blood and I will not contract HIV.”

The adult industry nonprofit organization Free Speech Coalition (FSC) organized the event, but ironically, it soon became a lightning rod for the HIV stigma it sought to dispel. “A lot of misinformation, speculation and accusations circulated on Twitter and industry gossip sites after the event,” Webber tells me. “HIV+ performers were described as irresponsible and destructive. They were compared to loaded guns or boxers with knives. It was all very panicked and hateful.”

Many of these tweets have since been deleted, but a 2019 Jezebel article summarizes a few. As one unnamed performer wrote, “Let’s talk about the elephant in the fucking room: Are we just going to let it be ‘okay’ for HIV+ performers to be allowed to perform within the industry?” According to Bathory, some HIV+ performers were outed, doxxed and pushed from the industry as a result of the panel. 

Meanwhile, the PASS testing system — an industry standard for most mainstream porn studios — currently bars performers if they test positive for HIV, even if their levels are undetectable. Prior to the panel, this wasn’t the case. “We’ve known for a while that HIV+ folks in the industry aren’t being served by us, and our current system isn’t meeting their needs,” explains Ian O’Brien, PASS’ executive director. “An idea being floated around the time of the 2019 AVN panel was the creation of a system specifically for HIV+ performers and what that might look like. It’s an idea we were toying with.”

The backlash after the panel stopped this from happening — in fact, testing became stricter after the conference due to the chaotic fallout. “There was so much fear created around this idea of undetectability that one lab added antibody antigen testing — which wasn’t previously PASS protocol — to their testing for the sole purpose of screening out HIV+ folks,” explains O’Brien. “That hostile policy was created solely because we broached the conversation.”

By merely debating potential solutions to this exclusion, both “FSC and PASS were accused of secretly and knowingly allowing HIV+ performers into the PASS database,” continues Webber. “There were even accusations — again, seemingly deleted — that this was part of a concerted effort to ‘infiltrate’ the straight performer pool with HIV, to use the industry for HIV drug experimentation or to destabilize the porn industry.” 

It’s clear HIV stigma in the U.S. porn industry is alive and well, but worldwide, this isn’t always the case. Performer John Thomas was diagnosed as HIV+ in 2010, but that didn’t stop him grabbing the European gay porn industry by the balls in 2019. In just a couple of years, he’s racked up plenty of accolades, including a prestigious Grabby for “Best Bottom.” “My status hasn’t stopped me getting work, at least not that I know of,” he tells me. 

European companies usually have different testing requirements, but in the U.S. as well, plenty of gay studios have operated outside of the PASS system for decades. (It’s an opt-in system, but most mainstream, heterosexual studios require it). “In the European model, your status isn’t disclosed to other performers,” Thomas continues. “When I was working with Timtales, I disclosed my status [to the studio] as part of my application process, and only filmed with other models who were happy filming with HIV+ models. They weren’t told that I was positive, and I wasn’t told whether they were positive or negative. I think anyone on set who was HIV- was on PrEP anyway.” 

As a gay man growing up in the shadows of wildly homophobic U.K. laws, Thomas had HIV stigma drilled into him from a young age. “There’s still a persistent association with HIV and gay men in particular,” explains Thomas. But there’s also a silver lining: Because gay men have been the targets of such stigma, many of them have also become de-facto experts on the latest innovations in HIV treatment. “Partly because of that, there’s better knowledge amongst gay men of what ‘undetectable’ means,” he continues.

Advocates have aimed to bridge this knowledge gap amongst non-queer porn communities with initiatives like the PPSD Pledge, which encourages porn performers, creators and studios to actively pledge non-discrimination against HIV. “The idea is to place pressure on particular American straight porn companies,” says Jason Domino, a key advocate behind the pledge. He’s been regularly meeting with PASS representatives to “nudge them in the direction of supporting undetectable performers, but they’ve really been slow,” he explains.

Lost in the shuffle of these debates are HIV+ porn creators themselves. There are a handful of successful, undetectable performers in the U.S., but almost all are gay, and therefore, they’re likely to be working with studios outside of PASS. It’s also clear that speaking openly about such a controversial issue is still taboo — one undetectable bisexual performer I spoke to asked not to be quoted over fear what that would mean for their career. 

Again, this is largely due to lack of education around what “undetectable” actually means, particularly in the U.S. “The important thing about HIV campaigning in the U.K. is that the rise of education has made it no longer feel essential for me to disclose that I’m undetectable,” says Thomas. “I stopped disclosing my status with hook-ups because I knew I could confidently go home with them [without risk]. Before that, if I was in a bar, I would tell someone I was HIV+ and then go to the bathroom. That way, if they didn’t want to have sex with me then I wouldn’t have to actually see them walking away.”

Activists have campaigned for decades to make HIV education freely available, and at least within some communities, there’s an understanding that undetectable performers can’t pass on the virus. But for now, people like Thomas feel the PASS system takes us back to the days where stigma overshadowed everything. “People are still being outright rejected,” he says. “And for something that isn’t really a problem.” 

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