Promoting Healthcare for the Porn Industry

In 1998, former porn star Sharon Mitchell founded the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation in order to raise awareness about health issues among porn performers. NPR's Scott Simon speaks to her about keeping those in the adult-film industry safer, healthier, and happier.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, the people who turned "Snakes On a Plane" into "Snakes On a Train."

But first, when you think of adult films, you often expect just a string of plotless and pointless couplings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADULT FILM)

SIMON: (As character) Imagine my luck getting a big hunk like you right off the bat. Sometimes I have to cruise(ph) that floor for hours.

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) You do?

Unidentified Woman: (As character) Mm-hmm. Oh, yeah.

SIMON: Not medical information or professional advice.

SHARON MITCHELL: So if you're working in this industry, we suggest that you get the HIV tests, along with Chlamydia and gonorrhea every month. We really want you to have thought about why you're doing this. Is it for the sex, the money or the attention?

SIMON: For more than 20 years, Sharon Mitchell worked in adult films as a performer, director and producer. She went on to get her Ph.D. from the Institute for the Advance Study of Human Sexuality. In 1998, she founded the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation, which now oversees testing for sexually transmitted infections and updates actors in everything from herbal stimulants to a recent syphilis outbreak among porn stars working in Central Europe. Sharon Mitchell joins us in the studios. Dr. Mitchell, thanks so much for being with us.

MITCHELL: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What are the ways in which you try to keep performers in the industry safe - or at least safer?

MITCHELL: Well, really, the type of performances that they're doing - basically, they walk on the set and it's wall to wall sex, and the type of sexual encounters they're having are extremely high risk - much, much higher risk than when I was involved. And when I was involved, I had the choice to use a condom, the choice to do whatever sex acts I preferred. Today, anyone pretty much with a handful of Viagra and a Hi-8 camera, hey, I want to be a porn director and producer, you know? And they can literally go about this and sell these things on the Internet, so they recruit very young people.

And my concern is: Are you ready to do this? If you don't want your family to know, if you're going into the area of teaching school, really think long and hard about this because this is something that will follow you around, so be prepared for that.

SIMON: If I might try to talk about some of the health concerns because there have been HIV outbreaks, haven't there?

MITCHELL: Yes. When I founded the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation in 1998, there was actually an actor who was knowingly and willfully infecting women with HIV. And finally, I caught up with him and realized that he was going to county health clinics and getting anonymous testing, and he would put someone else's name on this test. And not everyone was testing and the tests weren't centrally located back then. Denial is the backbone of pornography when it comes to health care.

SIMON: Why not just require all actors to use condoms?

MITCHELL: Wouldn't that be wonderful? I am a clinician that serves a world that I know very, very well because I come from it, and I know the pressures that these talent members go through not to use the condoms. They're offered more money; they're told, look, these films will not sell if there are condoms on it.

SIMON: Not to get graphic, but you'd think in these days of computer enhancements and special effects, it would be no more necessary to endanger a performer that way than it would be to require Tom Cruise to jump off a 12- story building.

MITCHELL: Absolutely, Scott. But they're not looked at as performers. They're looked at as commodities; they're looked at as body parts that are going to be edited into a product that's going to make money. And this industry - albeit mainstream as it's become - they're not going to say, okay, let's go ahead and spend half-a-million dollars. You know, let's just digitally edit out the condom, which can be done, obviously, but they just don't want to spend any money.

SIMON: In helping porn performers, are you just enabling them to do something that is destructive?

MITCHELL: You know, some days I feel like I'm sweeping back the ocean with a broom. I wake up and I think, this is amazing, I mean, we do catch a tremendous amount of HIV that would have ended up in the industry, and I can literally say that I save lives. We've put a lot of people into rehab, we help a lot of people leave porn and get an education, we have a scholarship program, and with all this, some days, you know, when I see a young girl walk in and I just know that she's just going to get run over by all these producers and agents and types of things that she probably hasn't experienced or even thought of experiencing, I think am I just fattening them up for the kill? What am I doing?

SIMON: Sharon Mitchell, executive director of the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation. Nice meeting you.

MITCHELL: Thank you so much.

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