Discussing pornography like I did recently is probably not a popular subject. It won’t win me any Pulitzers for blogging. But after hearing this story on NPR’s “All Things Considered” I realized that ex-porn actress Sharon Mitchell is as close as one can get to being the Mother Teresa of the pornography business.
Born in 1952, Ms. Mitchell joined “the biz” in its infancy: 1974. She appeared in two thousand or so adult films before retiring in 1996. In a business where the average starlet has a career of months, not years, Ms. Mitchell somehow survived. She was cited numerous times for her acting ability in an industry where it was not valued. But Sharon Mitchell is atypical in many other ways. The caricature of a porn worker is someone with low self-esteem, possibly drug addicted who expresses her hostility at the world by letting it all hang out on film. Not Ms. Mitchell, or should I say Dr. Mitchell. Because this legacy of the adult film industry is no high school dropout. She has a PhD in Human Sexuality.
There is no denying being in porn could be very risky business for a porn actor or actress. This world in particular is rife with the potential for acquiring sexually transmitted diseases. Some like AIDS can kill. Add in the frequent numbers of sexual partners porn actors are exposed to and the risk of contracting disease can be very high. Porn consumers further stacked the odds against performers. Films where condoms are used routinely bomb in the adult box office.
The adult film industry could be awash in STDs but it isn’t thanks primarily to Dr. Sharon Mitchell. In 1998 a large HIV outbreak among porn actors and actresses called for some real leadership. The business was not going to dry up. It was too profitable. It was Dr. Mitchell that stepped up to the plate. She founded the nonprofit Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation. Pretty much all porn producers in California require a current clean “bill of health” from the AIM Foundation before an actor or actress can be cast in a film. Dr. Mitchell’s foundation facilitates the tests and provides the certificates. The tests cost over $100 a month. While that seems expensive it includes a battery of the most sophisticated tests available. The certificate gives actors a very high assurance that they will not contract a STD on the job.
It is not a perfect system. Perhaps you’ve read of the recent case of porn actor Darren James, who tested positive for HIV. But because a rigorous system is in place the possibility of widespread infection was quickly contained. And this was because producers are voluntarily keeping detailed lists of who was filmed having sexual relations on the set, and when. As a result of this outbreak porn producers are voluntarily limiting new productions until they are sure this outbreak is contained.
It’s hard though for many of us to think charitably of anyone in the pornography business. And that’s why I consider Dr. Mitchell something of a modern day saint. Mother Teresa cared for the most destitute, sick, impoverished and forgotten people in the slums of Calcutta. Dr. Mitchell is candid that many of those in the porn industry have major mental and psychological problems. Nonetheless she cares enough about these people to do what she can, perhaps because she was one of them. While they choose to have an adult film career she can lay excellent odds that they will not end up dead from their choice. And because they can get tested at her central facility they don’t have to suffer any embarrassment or feelings of shame.
Some would probably fault her for not doing more to reduce risks. Arguably she could be crusading for all producers to require use of condoms on the set. But at some level it’s unrealistic to be too hard on porn producers. They are after all in business and are trying to meet demand. And the movies where the actors use condoms aren’t selling.
Clearly Dr. Mitchell is not living in poverty. But she is ministering and protecting a class of people who are often scorned, marginalized and abused. You can bet you won’t see any religious organizations funneling their charitable contributions to these people.
In the final analysis one can only affect change in the realm of the possible. Dr. Mitchell chose her own peculiar ministry to protect arguably one of the most scorned classes in our society. She may have been a porn actress, but she is very much a humanitarian. No one else will say it but I will: thank you Sharon for caring where no one else would give a damn. I strongly suspect somewhere up in heaven Mother Teresa is looking down on you and smiling.