Fact Check: Do Condoms Actually Increase STD Risk For Porn Performers?

“The shortest porn scenes require an absolute minimum of ‘half an hour of hard thrusting by a well-endowed young man. It's hard enough to deal with [without] condoms. Add latex to the mix and I'm down to being able to work with a man once a week at best, to say nothing of the damage it would do to my private life and intimacy with my husband.’” – Porn actress Nina Hartley on the use of condoms in pornography

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Next month, voters in California will decide whether to enact a law requiring pornography performers to wear condoms during films in an attempt to reduce their risk of contracting and spreading HIV and other STIs. This issue has stoked a lot of controversy and has generated a number of articles and opinion pieces arguing both for and against the ballot measure. One article in particular, entitled “Why Porn Sex is the Safest Sex,” caught my attention, and not just for its provocative title (which stems from a quote by porn actor James Deen, who argues that condom regulation is not required in his industry because “the safest sex you can have is in the adult film business”). If you read the entire article, it goes on to suggest that use of condoms during porn actually makes the performers less safe. Needless to say, I thought this claim merited a fact check.

The only “evidence” offered in support of this idea are a couple of quotes by well-known porn actress Nina Hartley. Hartley claims that in the context of a porn set where sexual activity is intense and goes on for a long period of time,"condom burn is a real issue. The friction from the latex, even with lubrication, is painful and breaches the integrity of my mucosal membranes, putting me at greater risk for disease transmission." So is “condom burn” a real thing? If it is, there certainly isn’t any research on it because I couldn’t find any journal articles reporting on “condom burn” or “latex burn.” That said, it is certainly true that having rough sex for an extended period of time could lead to genital trauma and pain for both partners; however, it is rather silly and irresponsible to imply it is the condom that is causing the problem in such cases. A very long and intense intercourse session can lead to pain, soreness, and mucosal disruption regardless of whether condoms were used because there would be a large amount of friction either way.

In addition to the general issue of friction, if someone experiences burning after sex with a latex condom, the culprit could potentially be a latex allergy, in which case substitution of polyurethane condoms would be advisable. Another contributing factor could be inadequate lubrication. If having sex for a very lengthy period of time, lubrication may need to be applied several times and in large amounts, not just at the beginning.  

So do condoms really have a negative impact on the safety of porn performers? Assuming proper use, it is hard to see how that could be the case. But will condoms do much to enhance their safety? There would undoubtedly be some benefit for particularly high risk activities, such as anal sex. However, there are legitimate questions to be raised about the overall magnitude of the benefits gained. Research has found that high intensity sex is related to an increased risk of condom breakage [1]. Thus, the nature of the sexual activity that takes place on a porn set may increase the chances of condom failure. Along these same lines, because male porn performers are more well-endowed than average, they may have a harder time finding condoms that fit properly. Research has found that poor fitting condoms have a higher likelihood of breaking [2].

In addition, there are many STIs that can be transmitted even when a condom is worn because some viruses just hang out on the surface of the skin in areas that are not covered by condoms (e.g., HPV, herpes). Plus, the California ballot measure will only require condoms during vaginal and anal sex, but not during oral sex—and there are many infections that can be spread through oral sexual contact (e.g., gonorrhea, chlamydia, HPV, herpes, etc.). Thus, even if this ballot measure passes, it will not come anywhere close to eliminating the potential infection risks faced by porn actors and actresses.

In short, will this new law really make porn performers any less safe, as some have suggested? That just does not seem plausible. But will it make them significantly safer? That one is somewhat more debatable, given that the benefits are dependent upon the way the condom is used and the nature of their sexual activity.

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[1] Rugpao, S., Beyrer, C., Tovanabutra, S., Natpratan, C., Nelson, K.E., Celentano, D. D., & Khamboonruang, C. (1997). Multiple condom use and decreased condom breakage and slippage in Thailand. Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes & Human Retrovirology, 14, 169-173.

[2] Reece, M., Dodge, B., Herbenick, D. Fisher, C. Alexander, A., & Satinsky, S. (2007). Experiences of condom fit and feel among African-American men who have sex with men. Sexually Transmitted Infections, 83, 454-457.

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