LOS ANGELES—In a long piece just published on Salon.com, noted adult director Nica Noelle has followed Tristan Taormino with a public announcement (on a well-trafficked mainstream site) indicating her intention to henceforth make her sets condom-mandatory.
Throughout the article, which recounts a bit of her history as well as the broad strokes of the recent HIV cases, Noelle engages in a fierce internal debate on the practical, professional and ultimately personal decision-making that she has experienced choosing whether or not to use condoms on set. Like a lot of people both in and out of the industry, she is a tad confused about the law, and appears to misspeak what is actually legally required of her at one point, but her real conflict seems to be with her conscience rather than the will of the state.
A serious filmmaker, she recounts the several strict rules she has always insisted upon for her sets. The intent, she makes clear, was always to make a difference. “My overnight success gave me the confidence (or was it arrogance?) to think I might change not only what kind of movies fans watched but also how adult performers would be treated on set,” she writes.
Rules included no fraternizing by the crew with talent, and another that insisted that “nude performers would never be told to sit, lie down or perform sex acts on unwashed or unprotected surfaces.” Simple staph infections, she had learned, were an endemic problem.
"But the one thing I didn’t insist on was condoms,” she confesses. “It was a given that we didn’t use them; that’s what our mandatory 30-day STD tests were for. It was the ‘industry standard,’ and while I didn’t hesitate to question other industry standards that might place performers in harm’s way (or just create an unpleasant environment), for some reason the condom issue sounded no alarms for me.”
The confessions continue. Originally in it not for the money, success eventually jumbled her sense of purpose. “I wanted my movies to keep selling, and on a practical level, I wanted to continue paying my rent and my child’s school tuition,” she writes. “I had worked hard to get where I was, damn it, and I wanted to build on that success, not sabotage it.”
Her newfound fame put her at odds with her reputation. “I cherished the image I’d built of caring about performers’ welfare,” she recounts, “but if ‘taking it too far’ was going to threaten my chance to stay in business, why not just hide behind the old way of doing things? Why was I so hell-bent on being a saint? I suddenly (conveniently) wondered.”
Even the box of condoms she always kept on set became an albatross of sorts, if anyone actually asked to use one. “I felt anxiety, even as I smiled and handed one over: Would I get in trouble with my studio for allowing it? What would it mean for sales? Why was the performer asking for a condom, anyway — didn’t she know it was a ‘condom-free’ shoot? Why didn’t she tell me she had issues with it before accepting the role?”
As with Taormino, Noelle says the recent HIV cases changed everything, though for her it was also about more than HIV, but all STDs. “What I knew was that, despite the validity of these ‘what if?’ scenarios [surrounding risks associated with condom use], and despite the fact that our testing system had been successful at keeping HIV out of the porn talent pool for nearly a decade, it had been far less successful in keeping out other STDs. I knew that condoms would help prevent the spread of diseases like chlamydia and gonorrhea, both of which are so common in the adult industry that a performer who learns he or she is infected doesn’t even bother to alert recent scene partners to their possible exposure.”
But it was the HIV scare that tipped the scales for her and others, making it “harder for many of us to avoid the question of whether condoms might not be such a bad idea. In terms of sales they’re risky, but when considering performer safety, is there really a solid argument against a testing/condom combination?”
Now that she is a company owner, and not just a director for hire, she reasons she has “been given an opportunity to follow my own conscience and to control my own career and financial future.” She has decided she doesn’t want to be that person who looks the other way, who sends the performer home rather than use a condom. (That comment is a reference to the beginning of her essay, where Noelle tells of sending a performer home when her test results hadn't come through, rather than have her use a condom; it's a compelling story but doesn't jibe with industry policy that all performers must have a clean test whether or not condoms are used.)
“I’ve concluded I want my performers to be safe more than I want to be ‘the most successful porn director,’’’ she states. “I want them to leave my set feeling good about participating in my movie and to never look back on it with regret. I don’t want them to experience a surge of fear and shame when they learn their next STD test results. And most of all I don’t want to encourage them to be nonchalant about their health.”
Still, even with that, she is conflicted, and expresses her dismay that it has to be all or nothing. “As an artist,” she explains, “it bothers me that I can no longer film completely nude bodies or ‘all natural,’ explicit lovemaking, even when shooting monogamous, married couples. It bothers me that those of us with allergies to condoms will not be accommodated and will be completely shut out of performing. I believe there should be room for accommodations; there should be exceptions made if, for example, adherence to certain rigid health and safety standards can be verified.”
In the end, she seems resigned, conflicted and purposeful all at once, as well as frustrated at what she sees as the industry’s inability to, as she puts it, “follow such rigid safety standards and to take rules and laws seriously. ... We have to show we can operate within the law and not angrily threaten to break it when there’s a ruling we don’t like.”
Taking (perhaps unwittingly) a page from the Michael Weinstein playbook, she adds, “We have to demonstrate that we care about the health of those we work with more than we care about making a quick, sleazy buck.”
In essence, she concludes, “We have to grow up.”