Glass talks representation of HIV/AIDS in gay pornography with Dr João Florêncio

AFTER RUNNING for the last two weeks, BFI’s annual BFI Flare London LGBTQ+ Film Festival which celebrates new and classic queer cinema has come to a close. The festival programme has included film screenings, club nights, as well as talks and discussions around the subject of queer media. Glass attended Mediations in an Emergency: HIV/AIDS in Film, TV and the Media, which was a series of talks discussing the representation of HIV on screen. After watching Dr João Florêncio’s presentation on representation of HIV within gay pornography, Glass caught up with him with some further questions on the subject. Dr João Florêncio is a lecturer in History of Modern and Contemporary Art and Visual Culture at The University of Exeter.

Dr João FlorêncioDr João Florêncio-Lecturer in History of Modern and Contemporary Art and Visual
Culture at The University of Exeter

To what extent do you think gay porn normalises unprotected sex and what consequences do you think this has?
Unprotected sex is normalised in porn today, in the sense that the majority of gay porn today does not involve condoms. I’m not sure it does in the sense of normalising the behaviour, but I think it does actually show unprotected sex in the context of a post-AIDS time with PEP, PrEP and antiretroviral drugs. That unprotected sex among gay men is a thing and people do it. It does not necessarily mean that it is fetishising HIV transmission or anything like that, in the sense that it is showing people having sex today, Straight porn also never really adhered to condoms and that has never been an issue.

It was never a cause of moral panic. It’s only gay porn that seems to be a cause of moral panic. This goes back to moral judgements on gay men’s sexuality and sexual behaviour, which I think really is where the kind of negative reactions to bareback gay porn come from. The notion of bareback porn seems quite dated because it was originally a sub-genre of gay porn and now it’s the majority of gay porn. Unprotected sex is quite common today, but I doubt it’s a consequence of people watching porn. Porn speaks to our fantasies rather than things we actually do. It’s like asking, do violent video games turn teenagers into serial killers?

I think that is a super-reductionist understanding of how media operates. We’re not just passive victims of images. There’s information, people should know the risks they take and how to manage them. It’s not porn’s responsibility to function as sexual education. Porn is porn. If people are taking risks without knowing they’re risks, that’s not an issue with porn, that’s an issue with a lack of proper sexual education and education about relationships.

What measures do you think porn studios should take to protect their models?
I think porn studios already do take a lot of measures to protect their models because in many places they’re regulated businesses. There’s famous cases in the US, where lawsuits where brought against studios for violation of health and safety of their employees. I’m not sure if the industry has to police or enforce that because models will make their own choices and will be aware of the risks they may or may not be taking and if they’re HIV-Positive they’re likely to be on effective medication and be undetectable. People who are not HIV-Positive will be most likely on PrEP, so I don’t think the risk of HIV transmission is high in gay porn.

Why do you think some gay porn studios such as Treasure Island have chosen to publish content eroticising HIV?
I think for Treasure Island Media in particular, it’s about the sense of transgression that sells because porn is a make-believe world. It beats real sex and negotiates the reality of sex with fantasy. Even the eroticism of HIV transmission is outdated now because what is interesting about bareback porn is the eroticisation of the exchange of bodily fluids and what people might get out of that. I think the issues around intimacy and immediate connections with someone though the sharing of bodily fluids like that’s really exacerbated in the porn context because porn is a hyperbole of our sex lives.

Most of our sex lives are boring, but porn presents the exaggeration of everything you imagine your sex life to be. Certainly, today in 2018, it doesn’t make sense to talk about HIV in porn in the context of all the recent developments, its more about the sense of deep intimacy that those exchanges of bodily fluids mediate.

What do you think about the lack of reference to HIV in most bareback porn?
You often see disclaimers at the start of porn films saying that the models are all over 18 and they know the risks that they are taking. I should hope that people working in porn and people that don’t have sex professionally knows the risks that they are taking and how to manage those risks. I don’t think we should expect porn to have that responsibility to alert people for sexual transmitted infections. Sometimes they do if there are health complaints or legal frameworks depending on where they’re being produced, but it’s not their duty.

A film featuring a serial killer will not alert you of not becoming a serial killer. I think ultimately porn has raised these red flags because it’s about something that is quite personal to everybody. It’s very difficult for people to talk about sex and engage with explicit representations of sex, so the immediate response is to condemn those images on what they’re representing or whether or not they should be showing what they are showing.

If its consensual and if people know what they are doing and they are not being exploited as workers which can be the case, but I don’t think is the case at all times, If they are working in respectful and consensual conditions, I don’t think there should be warnings about the risks.

What steps can the gay porn industry take to reduce HIV stigma?
I think a way of fighting HIV stigma is actually showing people having sex and showing that it is a normal thing. This may contribute to an understanding that people who may have HIV have sex and have the right to have sex and have the right to live a fulfilling sexual life. They should continue what they’re doing-showing people having sex on their own terms.

How do you think people everyday can help reduce HIV stigma?
I think we can start by realising that we’re not in the ‘80s anymore and people with easy access to treatment in countries that provide treatment, people should realise that in countries where people have access to treatment, HIV is something that some people live with and they can live healthy lives like everybody else. Remembering the history and not forgetting the issues of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but realising that we are in a very different historical moment. Also, fight for people in our country and for other people in countries that don’t have access to the information or treatment to have access to it.

by Tom Halford

The BFI Flare: London LGBTQ+ Film Festival is an annual event in London

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