There are no vaccines against HIV/AIDS, herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis. Yet these sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are virtually unknown in legal Nevada brothels.
Similarly, pornographic filmmaking involves frequent and extended sexual performances that put actors at remarkably high risk of pathogenic transmission. Professional performers meticulously follow strict industry-wide rules to reduce the danger.
Porn performers and Nevada sex workers are passionately aware and intensely careful about protecting their bodies amid the risks of their profession. After all, they’re risking their lives and livelihoods every day.
Brenna Sparks, an adult film actress, recently shared two important lessons she’s learned from her job: “Get tested often and wear protection.”
As the world rushes headlong to reopen the economy under the menacing shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to look beyond our biases for important lessons from an unlikely source — the legal sex industry.
Safeguards of Legal Prostitution
“The world’s oldest profession” is the common description of the salacious commercial sex business. In the U.S. it’s largely hidden underground except for a few counties in Nevada. There, 21 brothels employ around 200 licensed prostitutes who entertain the fantasies and desires of hundreds of thousands of mostly male customers each year.
Setting aside the debate over its morality, the tightly regulated legal prostitution industry is considered safe for three important reasons.
— The use of condoms was mandated in 1988.
— Testing has been mandatory since 1986. Workers must be tested weekly for gonorrhea and chlamydia, and monthly for HIV and syphilis.
— Most brothels, unofficially, require prostitutes to remain on the premises for the entirety of their work shifts — which typically last 9 days or more. Isolation is unpopular, but it reduces the risk from external unprotected encounters.
The result of these safety practices is astounding. STI infections are exceedingly rare in the Nevada brothels — almost non-existent.
To help maintain these safety levels, brothel owners can be held legally liable for customer HIV infections traced back to an infected worker. The threat of lawsuits, fines, and imprisonment is a compelling incentive to keep the industry clean and safe.
The pornography industry
The porn industry on the other hand, is no paragon of health. In fact, it has experienced multiple HIV outbreaks, requiring filming to completely shut down and quarantine all mainstream performers until the entire community was cleared. Further, the prevalence of viral and bacterial infections in the adult film acting community is reported to be 3 to 13 times higher than the general population.
With that said, they do employ some sensible safety practices that we can learn from.
— Aggressive Testing: The foundation of their safety platform is thorough and frequent testing. All members of the mainstream performing community are required to be tested bi-weekly.
— Registration: The Performer Availability Screening Services (PASS) organization tracks all performer test results and dates. Directors have secure access to the database and will never hire talent with positive or out-of-date test results.
— Contact tracing: When a member tests positive, all performers who have been in contact are immediately pulled from work, notified, treated, retested, and monitored until certified clean.
— Isolation: For their own safety, mainstream performers don’t work with amateurs outside the community. In addition, most self-impose dating, marriage, and relationships with fellow members only, who are not offended by the stigma, and accept the considerable risks.
The Achilles heel of the porn industry is extremely low condom use. Consumers of pornography don’t want condoms in their sexual fantasies, so performers are generally required to work without protection. In this industry, the almighty dollar trumps the safety of the workers.
The solution to COVID-19
Experts tell us that one day we’ll have an effective and widely available vaccine. Let’s hope it’s soon. Until that time (many would argue even after that), we need to find and follow proven practices that keep our risk of infection, transmission, and death to a minimum.
1. Wear masks: A mask is the condom of respiratory transmission — it protects you and those close to you. Like condoms, masks are not perfect, but they will block most COVID-19 transmissions. If everyone wore a mask when close to others (as Nevada sex workers do with condoms), we would reduce airborne transmission rates to astoundingly low levels. Lives and livelihoods would be saved.
2. Personal responsibility: Like porn performers and sex workers, you need to make a conscious decision to stay safe and healthy and keep others safe as well. You do that by staying close to your community and socially distant from the rest. Wash your hands often and stay home If you’re feeling ill or test positive.
3. Testing and tracing: Frequent and widespread testing gives healthcare officials the ability to pinpoint infections quickly. Subsequent tracing of those who were contacted arrests the spread before it explodes. Registration like the adult film industry requires won’t work in a broader context due privacy regulations, but officials can identify exposed individuals through interviews and tracing apps.
4. Isolation. Right now, mingling with strangers and dating is a bad idea. Stay home as much as you can and keep your social and love lives virtual and monogamous. Spend money — the economy needs it — but if you’re going out, be smart, be safe, and stay alert to the dangers.
Why don’t we all set aside our biases, carve away the stigma, and look closely at the sensible safety practices from legal sex industries that have been relegated to the fringes of society? They’re filled with honest and experienced people that have been fighting and winning against viral exposure and infections for decades. While they may not be virtuous models of morality, they can teach us valuable lessons on how to be safe.
We can learn. If we’re willing to listen.