Syphilis shock for adult industry

Debate rages over how to protect performers.

by Jennie Kermode

The adult film industry was left reeling this week after the discovery that an unnamed Los Angeles performer has syphilis, with a further five cases suspected. Following a recent outbreak in Budapest that left 16 people with the disease, the incident has further inflamed debate over how to regulate sex on screen.

Although no wider outbreak has been confirmed there as yet, it is widely rumoured that the Los Angeles patient continued to participate in sex scenes for several weeks after diagnosis, using a fake certificate to pretend he was disease-free. Similar incidents in the past have been blamed for HIV outbreaks in the industry. A voluntary moratorium on shooting has been called while medical investigations into the current case are ongoing.

Los Angeles legislators have recently moved to try and make condom use in the industry a legal requirement. This has been resisted by many producers and performers, who claim that it will put off their audiences and also that it may increase risks by making some performers lazy about taking regular tests. Research suggests that overall disease rates in the industry are lower than in society at large. Similar arguments were raised within the gay porn industry in the late Eighties, however, and it has now shifted almost entirely toward the use of condoms with no noticeable negative effect on sales.

Where there used to be a clear line between pornography and other parts of the film industry, the taboo against real sex in mainstream films has gradually been eroding, meaning that condoms could also become an issue for Hollywood. Lars Von Trier has advocated the importance of real sex in mass market erotica, and it is rumoured that Shia LaBeouf has agreed to this in Von Trier's next film, Nymphomaniac.

Although not as deadly as HIV, syphilis is a particular worry for the industry because of the relative ease with which it can be transmitted, including through kissing in the presence of infected lesions. It is relatively easy to treat if caught early, but late diagnosis may necessitate ongoing antibiotic treatment. Some specialists are concerned that individuals who fail to keep up with long courses of treatment may breed drug-resistant strains.

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