Over the summer, veteran porn producer Tristan Taormino was looking for performers for her new movie. A casting agent recommended a woman named Cameron Bay, and Taormino put her on her short list.
Less than two weeks later, Taormino found out Bay had HIV. It shook her up -- imagine if Bay had been on her set, she thought to herself, possibly transmitting the disease to the other performers.
That was the moment, Taormino says, that she decided to make a fundamental change in the way she does business and become one of the few straight porn producers to require condoms on her set.
"It just struck me we need to take a step back and look at how we can give people the safest work experience possible," she says. "I can no longer roll the dice on my set."
Taormino knows she's going to get heat for her decision from within her own industry.
Even with three recent cases of HIV among performers (Bay is one of them) many porn producers and performers are still fighting against mandatory condom use. According to the Free Speech Coalition, which represents the adult entertainment industry, when they tried using condoms nine years ago after another HIV outbreak, the $14 billion-a-year business saw revenue decline as much as 30%.
The industry group says in the recent cases, the performers did not contract the virus at work and didn't transmit it to any other performers. After the HIV cases were revealed, the industry shut itself down temporarily and required all performers to be re-tested for sexually transmitted infections. The moratorium ended Friday and performers went back to work.
Porn producers say performers are protected on the job because they have the option of using condoms if they want to. Plus, performers are tested for sexually transmitted infections every two weeks, and producers have access to the testing service's database that says whether performers are clear to work.
In November, Los Angeles County passed an ordinance requiring condom use on porn sets, but industry insiders say the rule is not well enforced and often ignored.
"We support choice for performers, as well as the successful testing system that has been in place since 1998, which have resulted in no on-set transmission of HIV in nine years, nationwide," Diane Duke, the coalition's CEO says on the group's website.
Many performers agree.
"We all take a risk going to work every day," performer Danny Wylde wrote in a blog post. "It's a managed risk. And it's something I choose to participate in so that I can get a paycheck at the end of my day."
But Taormino worries that the risk is perhaps not so well managed. She points out that the HIV cases, plus some recent cases of syphilis and hepatitis, show testing isn't foolproof. First, performers can become infected during the two week window between tests. Second, because of the nature of the HIV test, a person can become infected with the virus and still test negative for 7-10 days, according to the Free Speech Coalition.
Taormino says she'll require condoms even if she loses some viewers -- but she's not so sure she will.
"I know there's a lot of talk about how porn watchers don't want to see condoms and sales will plummet and everyone's going to be miserable," says Taormino. "But I'm not buying it."
Taormino, co-editor of "The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure," does however, buy a different argument: some female performers say condoms are irritating and after a full day on the set they end up with abrasions inside their vaginas, and bacteria and viruses could find their way into the tiny cuts.
Dr. J. Craig Strafford says he's heard about this from many of his female patients -- he calls it "floor burn."
"This complaint is legitimate. It's a real physiological problem," says Strafford, a past vice president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists who runs reproductive health and sexually transmitted disease clinics in Ohio.
"It's like when you fall off a bike and get a scraped knee. It could get infected if you don't clean it up," he says.
He says one solution might be to use a condom that's not made of latex, since some people find those irritating and abrasive, but non-latex condoms are often not available in the larger sizes male performers need.
But Strafford is clear: Even with the "floor burn" concern, it's still safer to use a condom.
"Not using condoms is not an option," he says.
Taormino agrees there's no easy solution for "floor burn," but condoms are still a must.
"I know it feels like I'm going out on a limb, but I hope that others will join me," she says.