Hallie Lieberman is a journalist and author, with a PhD in the history of sex from the University of Wisconsin.
Throughout a major metropolitan area, a deadly virus is spreading. No effective treatment exists. In one industry, workers are terrified to go to work – just by doing their jobs, they risk exposure. A vaccine is years (or even decades) away. It looks like it’s the end of a multibillion-dollar business. But instead of throwing up their hands and admitting defeat, the industry creates a system for tracing outbreaks, implements a protocol for testing and successfully keeps workers safe.
The year was 1998. The location: Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. And the industry was porn – but parallels abound for how to bring people back to work amid the new coronavirus pandemic.
On Jan. 7, 1998, a porn performer in L.A. tested positive for HIV. The adult industry quaked.
It was the height of the porn boom: the worldwide web was growing rapidly; VHS and DVD sales were still a huge market. In that year alone, nearly 5,000 new performers made their debut in L.A.'s porn industry, which already employed thousands of other workers. If HIV spread through the business, not only would it lose millions of dollars, the lives of its performers would also be in jeopardy.
Enter Sharon Mitchell, a former porn star turned “HIV genealogist,” who worked for the organization Protecting Adult Welfare in the 1990s. Called upon by the adult-industry trade group Free Speech Coalition (FSC) to investigate the outbreak, Ms. Mitchell went into full detective mode, asking the infected female performer for a list of everyone she had had sex with over the previous six months. After consulting with researchers at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and the University of California Los Angeles, Ms. Mitchell tested all of the partners of the infected performer she could track down with a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which can detect the genetic matter of an HIV infection weeks before the standard antibody test. While she was in the process of testing, three more performers in the industry tested positive for HIV. Finally, she found the person who she believed to be “patient zero”: a male performer who had refused to come in for a test. “He had forged test results from a public-health clinic in case he was asked,” Ms. Mitchell later told The Lancet medical journal.
Ms. Mitchell ordered everyone who had worked with an infected performer to quarantine for 30 days, or until they had a clean test. Her decisive action worked. The HIV outbreak was limited to just six people.
We can learn from how the porn industry handled a virus spreading within its ranks. Having witnessed the devastation of earlier HIV/AIDS outbreaks in major U.S. cities, the L.A. porn industry took immediate, decisive action, shutting down production and choosing workers’ lives over profit. They turned to experts at top universities to determine the best tests. They conducted contact tracing to ensure that they tested everyone who was exposed. But that’s not all they did: Ms. Mitchell implemented a system to prevent the spread of the virus in the future.
Porn producers could have required that all performers wear condoms. But porn was (and still is) an industry built on fantasy, and many directors and performers would not have complied. Instead, Ms. Mitchell standardized testing in the porn world, creating the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation (AIM), which tested performers for HIV and other STIs. Before working on set, performers were required to show test results from AIM that were less than 30 days old. Ms. Mitchell said that the compliance rate was 98 per cent. When an actor or actress tested positive, any performers who recently worked with them were informed and not allowed back on set until they had cleared their own tests.
Although the program wasn’t perfect, the Lancet reports that by 2004, six years after it was implemented, AIM had administered 80,000 tests with only 14 positive results. That year, after a number of performers tested positive, AIM shut down filming for 60 days. In 2011, the FSC took over the testing program.
Current protocol requires performers to be tested for HIV and other STIs every two weeks. Results are uploaded to the Performer Availability Screening Services (PASS) system, which is accessible to producers and directors. The system does not show actual test results, just a green checkmark if the performer is approved to work, and a red X if they are not. If a performer tests positive for HIV, the FSC mandates a production hold until all performers who had contact with the infected person are notified and retested. Once it’s been determined there is no risk, production resumes.
According to FSC spokesperson Mike Stabile, there hasn’t been an on-set transmission of HIV in more than 15 years.
To be sure, COVID-19 is much easier to transmit than HIV and affects the entire work force, not just porn performers. Yet we can still learn a lot from the porn industry about how to keep workers safe from COVID-19.
First, we must prioritize safety over profit, and be willing to shut down production whenever doing so can keep workers safe. We also have to listen to scientific experts as to whether or not it’s safe to reopen businesses that can’t maintain physical distancing.
Testing should be mandatory for businesses that require employees to work in face-to-face situations, and we should prioritize the creation of databases that allow us to clearly see whether or not employees should be allowed back to work. This database could indicate whether or not an employee has an up-to-date, clear test. To maintain privacy, a database would not need to show the employee’s prior medical history or any personal details beyond their work status.
What is the porn industry currently doing to combat coronavirus? The FSC has closed down production on film sets, and while it’s planning to implement coronavirus testing in the future, Mr. Stabile says that knowledge about the virus isn’t yet complete enough to guarantee that testing will ensure workers’ safety.
“The people within the industry … are suffering. We want to get them back to work as quickly as possible," Mr. Stabile said. But the industry won’t reopen "at the expense of health.” That’s a message all businesses should take to heart.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.