The Guardian: Derrick Burts’ brave stand on HIV

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The Guardian this week is running a batch of old stories relevant to the Measure B movement in Los Angeles. This article about Derrick Burts which came out in 2010 is worth re-examining in that context.

from – When I read that porn actor Derrick Burts had launched a campaign for mandatory use of condoms in adult films, my first thought was: why hasn’t there been enforced condom usage before?

Burts, who tested positive for HIV in [October 2010], has performed in both straight and gay flicks. With Burts now publicly speaking about how he contracted the disease after a period when his name had been withheld, some interesting details have spilled out on safe sex practices within adult entertainment. According to that LA Times report:

Although straight porn performers must show negative HIV test results before filming, the gay porn industry does not have the same restrictions, although condom use is typically required.


Why isn’t there comprehensive testing and compulsory condom usage for all in the adult entertainment industry? Should there be any difference in health and safety standards based on the gender of the people performing?

Interestingly, too, the fees paid for gay acts are higher than for straight sex: “He [Burts] said he earned $200 to $800 for filming a straight scene and $1,000 to $2,000 for a gay scene.”

Does the difference in fetching price merely reflect demand and supply? Or do the higher fees for gay porn factor in greater occupational hazards of a less safe workplace, so to speak?

The missing subtext, I would argue, is that the porn industry commoditises sex as danger – and risky sex sells. The industry’s rationale for delivering value is utterly cynical. Lax standards for filming gay porn – based on a calculation that gay audiences are more open to dangerous practices – betray a callous indifference.

Supporters of the industry may argue that just as with ordinary consenting adults, its decisions pertaining to sex are a negotiation of pleasure, value and risk. This is not different from a sporting endeavour or any other business enterprise with physical dangers, moral ramifications and opportunities for satisfaction. Actors like Burts, who agree to perform after informed consent, cannot be heard to say that they are victims of an evil cabal.

But even where an individual embraces a career path of what may seem like sexual bungee-jumping, they are still entitled to protection from systems of public health and safety. Mandatory use of condoms constitutes a minimum standard of care in all the circumstances. At the very least, there is a societal interest in ensuring that reasonable efforts are made to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

Although this story was huge tabloid fodder when it initially broke, at the time of Burts’ diagnosis, it is an indication of how far we have come with HIV and Aids that there has not been even more hysteria in the press. Lifesaving antiretroviral drugs have made HIV care and management somewhat similar to chronic illnesses like diabetes. And compared to many places in the developing world, there would be ready access to such drugs in a place like California. The sense of dread about HIV, that once galvanised hardliners into seeking prosecutions for criminal action for negligent or culpable transmission of the virus, seems to have lost most of its force.

Nevertheless, HIV continues to be at the sharp end of our anxieties about sex and morality. The porn industry, by offering up a true-to-life drama about the disease in the case of Derrick Burts, has touched off unhealed fears. The real scandal, however, must be that an industry built around sex does not observe basic public health standards. As unsexy as it may be, perhaps it’s time for more regulatory supervision to avoid wholly preventable infections.

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