What Porn Can Teach Us About Self-Quarantines

Our industry stops everything during viral scares, for days or weeks at a time. It’s taught us how to live with systemic uncertainty.

Downtown Los Angeles skyline at sunset.
Downtown Los Angeles. Choness/iStock/Getty Images Plus

A couple weeks ago, I was at rehearsal in Manhattan for an off-off-Broadway play. We were still proceeding as if COVID-19 might be easily contained, but one of the other actors was already stressed about a possible shutdown, and the loss of social liberty that might follow. It was frightening to him.

Around then, I realized I have a fairly unique perspective in the current novel coronavirus situation. As a pornographer, I’m used to “moratoriums,” as we call them, or quarantines, as the rest of the world is calling this one. An industry advocacy group, the Free Speech Coalition, calls for work stoppages when a positive HIV test comes back from a porn performer. They can last a day or weeks. Given the false positive rate of the tests we use to screen for HIV, and the volume of testing that happens in the professional adult performer pool, I expect one every 18 to 24 months. The system is voluntary, but it’s widely observed by the industry.

Obviously, this pandemic is on a much larger scale—and involves a much more easily communicable disease—than a biennial occurrence of a positive HIV test among porn talent (and these regularly turn out to be false positives, at that). And the current economic trauma people around the world are experiencing far exceeds a typical porn shutdown. But I think my community has some experience here that may be useful for others struggling with systemic uncertainty for the first time. I recognized the fear my fellow actor described—and I knew where it came from.

“Most people don’t know porn production, and sex work, in general, is a blue-collar job,” said Kimberly Kane, a director, performer, and occasional escort. “In the porn industry, we don’t have a union, paid overtime, matched 401(k), or anything that comes with an entry-level corporate job. Porn performing is a gig-economy job.”

“When our jobs stop,” she told me, “we don’t know when they’re going to start again, and there is very little safety net.”

I know this well. The first time a moratorium was called during my career, I panicked. My routine was turned upside down. I worried about money. I wanted to know who the performer who tested positive was, whether their confirmation test had been run yet, and whether I had been exposed. Because of health privacy laws, strict measures are taken to protect the privacy of talent who test positive for HIV.  We don’t know who it is unless the performer chooses to announce themselves, and nobody gets to know how serious the situation is until that confirmation test comes back.

The first time, I wrote about my fear, and that helped. It affected every aspect of my life: My boyfriend at the time put condoms on his fingers to digitally stimulate me, because we were told small cuts on the fingers could be a potential (albeit very rare) point of HIV transmission, until we knew there was no exposure and life could continue normally.

Of course, that first moratorium wasn’t the last. The economic uncertainty became easier to manage; I learned to keep stronger savings to tide me over if shooting was interrupted (an option that isn’t available to everyone). And now—as a production company owner and director—I know to stockpile a few weeks’ worth of content before launching any monthly subscription features. I learned that some things are simply out of everyone’s control. I learned how to relax about that and focus on what I can control. We all learned to prepare for the unforeseeable.

These kinds of experiences mean porn producers may have been more ready for the coronavirus than most. “I am isolating as much as possible to ‘flatten the curve,’ ” Kane said. “I am focusing on digital platforms, and I’m ramping up solo- and fetish-based content that I can shoot at home.”

“We are not deeply impacted by the self-quarantine, and our small staff will work from home during this time while we keep informed with the latest news,” said Shine Louise Houston, a queer porn filmmaker and co-founder of Pink and White Productions. “We keep a short backlog of content and compilations for release in the event of production delays.”

Many of us are thinking about how necessary porn actually is during long periods of quarantine, and sorting out ways to keep releasing content and providing entertainment where we can. “We encourage people to stay at home if they can, and welcome fans to enjoy porn through pay sites,” Houston told me. “Adult creators are largely independent artists and laborers, and watching adult films online can be a safe way to enjoy sexuality during times of social distancing.” (Another thing you can do to support performers is to follow their affiliate links to sites you might patronize—affiliate links are those extra complicated ones with affiliate ID numbers, like you might find on a performer’s Twitter. You can ask performers directly if they have an affiliate link you should be using; it provides them a commission.)

In the meantime, while we all weather this, porn performers come equipped with some time-tested tips from our industry’s past infection scares. Mickey Mod, creative director at BDSM-themed empire and performer at large, said to focus on community. “Be honest about your fear; you’re not alone,” he said. “Even if social engagement in a physical sense is limited, simply letting people know how you are and what you can do to help goes a long way. A phone call or FaceTime or Skype from a friend can be vital.”

Kane has found solace in games via video chat. “To manage my stress levels, I’m playing Dungeons and Dragons on Google Hangouts with a group of friends and preparing my garden for spring.” Google Hangouts are one of the ways performers—frequently on tour, or traveling to one of the cities professional productions are happening in—keep in touch with friends and family, as many others are now discovering, even when they’re in the same place. We are pros at digital solutions for loneliness. (Google has just made some premium Hangouts features free.)

In moratoriums, Mickey Mod would learn a new skill. “YouTube is a wealth of knowledge. Learning a new skill can be done at your own pace,” he said. Mickey built up existing skills like motion graphics and coding, and started learning watercolor during moratoriums.

I have a few tips to add. Work from really anywhere in your home that isn’t your bed—you want to preserve your sleep routine; sleep is vital. Keep brushing your teeth and bathing as you always do, even if hygiene doesn’t seem like a priority. It’s good for your mental health. For those who aren’t working right now, maximize use of free education programs—you don’t know when your next injection of resources is going to be. Get smart about rationing food—eat the perishable stuff first. Again, you don’t know when your next injection of resources is going to be. This worked from me.

And as a sex-advice columnist, I feel compelled to add: If you’re co-quarantined with a partner and pregnancy is a potential concern, turn to frottage, hand and fingers, and oral when you run out of condoms. If you’re alone or with platonic partners or family, remember masturbation is a great stress reliever. Stay safe and wash your hands first.