How the coronavirus pandemic is changing the pornography industry

Elise Solé
·9 min read
Face mask and condom through camera lens
The coronavirus pandemic could change the business of pornography. (Photo: Yahoo Entertainment)

In an average month, Alex Jett stars in and directs 15 to 20 sex scenes for pornographic films. But with a March 15 moratorium on the adult entertainment industry because of COVID-19, the 30-year-old Californian has been working remotely, shooting home videos with his three roommates, also adult performers, as freelance projects.

Just as in Hollywood, the coronavirus pandemic has stopped production of the multibillion-dollar porn industry, pushing performers into dual roles as star-director in DIY home content, ironically while the demand for XXX-films increases with home isolation, according to statistics from the website PornHub. Taking into account mask and social-distance requirements, performers, whose incomes hinge on physical contact and exposure to bodily fluids, wonder when, if at all, it will be safe to work again.

“[Right now], I don’t even know how you shoot porn without it being insanely high risk,” Jett tells Yahoo Entertainment, later adding, “There’s a lot of panic in the industry, more so for production than performers, who have other avenues of generating revenue ... basically, all you need is a cell phone and you can make money if you’re attractive and well-known.”

From what we understand about COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus pathogen, it’s spread through respiratory droplets from sneezing, coughing or talking, or by touching a contaminated surface and then touching the eyes, mouth or nose (though the CDC recently noted it “does not spread easily” through surface contact). However, there is not much information on whether sex is a risk — a small Fertility and Sterility study of 34 men with mild COVID-19 symptoms did not show traces of the virus SARS-CoV-2 in semen. But a JAMA Network Open study of 38 semen samples from men hospitalized with the virus found six that contained SARS-CoV-2. But the small sample size suggests more studies are needed “about virus shedding, survival time and concentration in semen,” wrote the study authors.

The porn industry’s best defense against the coronavirus might be its commitment to safer sex — in California’s San Fernando Valley, where many adult films are shot, the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health requires that employees (although not independent contractors) wear condoms and that cleaning crews wear gloves. Sex performers also undergo mandatory STD testing every two weeks, thanks to the Performer Availability Scheduling Services (PASS), created in the late 1990s by former adult film actress Sharon Mitchell and administered by the adult industry trade association Free Speech Coalition (FSC).

Test results are stored in a centralized database that indicates negative scores with green checks and positives or missed appointments with red Xs. Quickly, and without viewing personal health information, producers learn who has work clearance and performers have peace of mind about their scene partners. According to Mike Stabile, FSC director of communications, PASS has greatly increased the number, quality and frequency of tests.

“If someone tested positive for HIV, the whole industry would shut down,” Stabile tells Yahoo Entertainment. The database would also be removed to signal unsafe working conditions. There have been 15 shutdowns since 2004, when a performer tested HIV positive after traveling abroad, “a major turning point for the industry,” says Stabile. “The [business] shifted to a condom-only protocol for about a year, while the system was reconfigured to make it more effective and safer. Since then, there have been a few cases where performers have tested positive, but none have been related to work on PASS-regulated sets.”

PASS is currently active to allow performers to shoot from home with live-in partners — and because, as Stabile points out, COVID-19 is not an STD. “We didn’t want to compound one public health crisis with another,” he explains.

Related: How More Women in Porn Production Could Help Curb the Stigma

The system has normalized safer sex to extremes: Many performers relentlessly advocate for sexual health and are even apprehensive about sex with industry outsiders — otherwise called “civilians” — who generally don’t get tested as frequently. The shame-free transparency is why talent usually dates one another and thus avoids awkward relationship conversations about sexual history. Stabile says it’s also not uncommon for performers who date outside the business to ask partners to undergo the same testing.

That process could inform pandemic protocol, including in Hollywood (film professions have discussed smaller film sets, daily testing and remote meetings, according to the Los Angeles Times. And this week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom held a roundtable meeting with film and TV executives).

“A porn set is not any different in terms of risk than a Hollywood love scene,” says Stabile. “The biggest issue [with COVID-19] is going to be saliva.”

The FSC’s COVID-19 Task Force meets twice a week with performers, agents, lawyers and health experts to brainstorm reopening guidelines and has hired an industrial hygienist to write porn-specific recommendations. Stabile says a separate medical panel will organize testing regulations.

A post-COVID-19 world could have smaller porn sets with downsized crews, including hair and makeup. Rapid testing was once considered for its capability to produce COVID-19 results in minutes, says Stabile, but a New York University study raised concerns about accuracy. And routine temperature checks might not work on presymptomatic or asymptomatic carriers.

For now, everyone waits. Steve Orenstein, the owner of Wicked Pictures, told Yahoo Entertainment in a statement that the studio “has been on a complete production hold for more than two months. We are currently working with the Free Speech Coalition, other major adult studios, and online content producers to determine not only when production can resume, but also what new protocols need to be instituted to mitigate the risk of exposure to COVID-19. ... We will not resume production until there is enough verifiable information to make informed decisions.”

Silhouetted adult-film actors present an award during the 2017 Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas
Silhouetted adult film actors present an award during the 2017 Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas. As for the 2021 event, says AVN's CEO, "The safety of every individual attending the AVN Show is of the highest importance." (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Tony Rios, chief executive officer of publication Adult Video News (AVN), which hosts a yearly trade show and an awards ceremony known as the “Oscars of porn,” told Yahoo Entertainment in a statement,
“The safety of every individual attending the AVN Show is of the highest importance. We will adhere to any protocols set by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, as well as state and local government.”

For Bree Mills, vice president of the premium streaming service Adult Time, the zeitgeist has inspired a new sex scene — the company is streaming a subscription talk show with sexy guest performances and monologues, with elements of Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything,” using videoconferencing software for scenes with multiple performers. On May 29, the brand will host a competitive virtual sex show and launch a studio showcasing original short films from independent adult filmmakers around the world. The psychology of quarantine, she adds, could dictate nuanced narratives around themes of isolation and longing.

To help performers financially, the FSC is providing monetary aid through a $150,000 emergency fund with donations from production companies, law firms, fans and performers. Actors have their own rhythms, juggling multiple projects they launched before the pandemic — Kendra Sunderland gets by on paid website subscriptions, selling pre-worn clothing to fans and through a website called OnlyFans, for content creators to interact with fans. Sunderland speculates that the industry will adapt to the pandemic. “[We’ll be] having more conversations about health,” she tells Yahoo Entertainment. “Hopefully, people will take this seriously — if you don’t feel well, don’t come to set.” A representative of OnlyFans declined to comment when reached by Yahoo Entertainment.

During this waiting period, performers decide which jobs are worth the risk. Silvia Saige, who formerly worked in radiology and stand-up comedy and is now an adult film actress, calculated her decision to drive from her home in Los Angeles to Arizona to shoot a sex scene in a hotel, her first since March 8. “I know [my co-star] and her daily habits, so there’s a personal trust,” she tells Yahoo Entertainment.

Actress-writer-director Kayden Kross and her colleagues are producing home videos with resources provided by Vixen Media Group, which distributed $250,000 worth of package deals to performers working from home, including cameras, lingerie and sexy props. “We are all extremely optimistic,” Kross tells Yahoo Entertainment of life after COVID-19. “The great thing about the adult entertainment industry is, you can always pave your own path. ... Overall, I’m seeing a lot of cohesion from peers in the industry, and we have all built a great support system, given the situation.”

And many just want to return to work. “My dad joked, you better have a plan B,” Jett tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I don’t have a plan B ... any profits I’ve made went into buying [camera] equipment.”

Noting that employment options for mainstream video jobs during the pandemic are limited, Jett adds, “I have this set of skills and no way to apply them to anything else ... this has to work out.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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