DENTAL DAMNNNN

Why is queer porn so enthusiastic about safer sex?

via Shutterstock

When you’re a porn performer whose job is to arouse viewers with seemingly spontaneous sex, condoms can be a literal boner killer. Many performers hate using them (the friction they cause rubs actors raw). Consumers hate seeing them (self explanatory). And the industry’s rigorous testing system for infections offers an effective way to keep performers disease-free—over the past dozen years, not a single performer has reported contracting HIV on a mainstream set.

So it’s no surprise that few straight porn companies make regular use of condoms—and the ones that do typically treat them as a necessary evil, editing their films so condoms magically appear on penises at the moment of penetration, with no acknowledgment of how they got there. Even gay porn, where an HIV-fueled sense of social responsibility made condoms de rigueur for decades, has moved away from condoms on set, with a combination of testing and the prophylactic drug PrEP supplanting barrier protection. This resistance helps explain why the porn industry is so adamantly opposed to Proposition 60, a controversial bill up for a vote this month in California that would force performers to wear condoms on set. Protection should remain a choice, performers say, not a mandate.

But while the entire adult industry is united against Proposition 60, not everyone thinks condoms and barrier protection have no place on porn sets. In fact, there’s one corner of the porn world where latex-fueled safer sex isn’t merely tolerated—it’s actively embraced.

In this genre, not only are condoms seductively slid onto penises, but performers happily use dental dams, place condoms on sex toys, and even don latex gloves for fisting and fingering. In the world of queer porn—a genre that primarily features women and trans performers, and celebrates non-heteronormative sexuality and gender presentation—extensive barrier protection is adamantly, enthusiastically portrayed as sexy.

Given the rest of the adult industry’s feelings about barrier protection, this is already an unconventional stance—but it’s even more interesting considering that, compared to straight and gay porn, many of the sex acts featured in queer porn have a relatively low risk of STI transmission, even without any barrier protection at all. So why the aggressive enthusiasm?

To answer that question, it helps to first appreciate just how keen queer porn is about safer sex. Crash Pad Series, one of the preeminent queer porn companies, includes a conspicuous sexual health section on its website encouraging “the use of fluid barriers such as condoms, gloves, and dental dams.” And Indie Porn Revolution, which launched in 2003 as NoFauxxx, puts forth a mission statement explaining that protection is featured in most scenes as a way to “eroticize and normalise the use of safer sex supplies in our true sex lives.”

As Jiz Lee, a queer, non-binary porn performer and the online marketing director for Crash Pad’s parent company, Pink and White Productions, told me, “I used to joke that one of my own definitions for queer porn was whether or not I could use a dental dam on set.”

What does this enthusiasm look like in practice? It depends on the performers and the scene. In an early Crash Pad episode featuring Lee and two other actors, Lee dons black latex gloves on each hand as they simultaneously penetrate both of their partners. A few dozen episodes later, an actor slips on bright purple gloves in preparation for fisting his co-star, who clads a condom-covered strap-on. A more recent episode features a performer pegging her co-star—but not before she, too, slides a condom onto her silicone cock prior to penetration.

But while queer porn may serve as a kind of accidental advertisement for safer sex methods, the genre’s embrace of barrier protection stems less from a desire to educate and advocate than from one to accurately reflect the sex happening in the queer community, says Courtney Trouble, the founder of Indie Porn Revolution.

In a phone interview, Trouble told me the company’s safer-sex manifesto—penned in the early aughts, as they were figuring out what kind of porn they wanted to create—was never intended to be a reaction to, or rejection of, anyone else’s porn. “In the queer community, we practice safer sex,” they told me. So why not practice it on set?

Trouble stressed, however, that there’s no mandate for barrier protection on any of their sets (though testing is strongly encouraged for all performers), and not everyone opts to bring latex into their scene. Unlike their straight industry peers, who frequently opt to go barrier free, many of the performers they’ve worked with “come to set and say, ‘Safer sex barriers is how I choose to have sex, and I want to use them in this scene.’ And we say okay.”

Queer porn’s embrace of safer sex might also stem from the fact that it often features “amateurs” shooting an occasional scene rather than professionals showing up day in and day out for long shoots—when your porn sex more closely hews to your at-home sex, barrier protection feels less like a nuisance. But straight and gay porn feature their fair share of “amateur” performers, too, and few embrace latex barriers as enthusiastically as queer performers. Which leads me to wonder if there might be some inextricable relationship between safer sex and queerness.

It’s a connection Trouble has noticed. ”Regular old queers know more about lube and safer sex than a lot of straight people,” they told me. The link is similarly strong for Lee, who began exploring queer sex in their early twenties in San Francisco, around the same time they were developing an understanding of safer sex generally. As a member of a group at Mills College called the Safer Sex Sluts, Lee learned that safer sex means more than just condoms on penises right as they were learning to think of sex itself outside the heteronormative penis in vagina framework. Those two concepts have felt connected ever since.

But while safer sex in queer porn may just be an amplification of safer sex practices within the queer community, there’s still the question of where that connection between queerness and latex initially came from. Ultimately, it may boil down to gender.

Women and people assigned female at birth are often raised to see sex as a riskier proposition than men are. If you’ve spent your formative years being told that sex is a minefield of unwanted pregnancy, potential consent violations and sexual assault, and, yes, STI transmission, you might be more primed to embrace anything and everything that will keep you as safe as humanly possible. Lee, for example, noted that embracing safer sex granted them “permission to be more promiscuous” and “access to a celebration of sexuality.” In this framework, barrier protection is a “signifier of pride” that allows female-socialized people to reclaim the ability to take up sexual space and assert their agency in an erotic situation.

This mentality is a stark contrast to the associations many people have between condoms and unwanted pregnancy, HIV, and STIs—all the worries that accompany IRL sex, which people turn to porn to avoid. And this positive framing may help to explain why queer porn consumers are more accepting of barrier protection as well. With a lower likelihood of disease and unwanted pregnancy, barrier protection doesn’t serve as a mood killing reminder of ever present danger: Instead, it’s a proactive, positive assertion of sexual freedom and agency.

Which, of course, can ultimately be said for queerness itself.

Queerness—and, by extension, queer porn—is an identity built on the principles of freedom, choice, and authentic expression of identity. When Lee has worked with more mainstream directors, they told me, the experience has often been one in which performers come together to realize a director’s vision of what’s sexy (including, but not limited to, how safer sex is practiced on set). In contrast, queer directors are more likely to give performers the freedom to decide what sexy means for them—and how, precisely, safer sex practices are incorporated into that sexiness. The ethos of authentic representation that shaped Trouble’s initial queer porn manifesto is, fundamentally, an ethos of freedom of sexual expression. “Their body, their choice,” is how Trouble sums it all up.

Which is why, even as queer porn embraces and promotes barrier protection, some performers on queer sites opt to go barrier free. “We’re not going to question the validity of how someone practices safer sex,” said Lee. “We want to give them as many tools as possible so that the sex they have is as safe as it can be for them”—even if that means negotiation, relying on STI testing, or shooting a scene with an exclusive, monogamous partner rather than employing more visible methods of safer sex. For many queer performers, opting to use barrier protection may be a way to signify and celebrate their sexual agency—but it’s the agency, more than the protection, that’s the most important safer sex method of all.