Breaking Down the Barriers: Adult Film Star Rocco Steele Tackles HIV Stigma

Author & Curator: 
Mark's List
Although research and support for the HIV/AIDS community has come a long way since the 80s and 90s, a great deal of ignorance and stigma still exists—even within the gay community. With celebrities such as Charlie Sheen and Danny Pintauro (Who’s the Boss?) recently bringing HIV/AIDS into the entertainment headlines, perhaps now is the perfect time for a new, more enlightened conversation on the subject.

In honor of World AIDS Day, Mark’s List recently spoke with adult film star Rocco Steele, who has experienced his fair share of ups and downs with addiction and living with HIV.  He has, however, used these personal experiences as a catalyst to promote HIV awareness and education. 

With Charlie Sheen’s recent disclosure of his HIV Positive status, the discussion about HIV has now entered mainstream media. As an advocate for HIV awareness, what do you think is the most important information for the general public to know?

This is a discussion I could have for days, but the thing I find most surprising is that HIV is still widely misunderstood. I think the most important thing for people to know is that, if properly managed on an effective med regiment, an individual can live a full and healthy life if positive. Nowadays, meds are so advanced that an HIV positive individual can become "undetectable," thus staying off complications that can lead to AIDS. People living with HIV should no longer be treated as pariahs. Those days are gone. But you'd be surprised at how we still treat one another even within our community. Those outside of our community are seriously under-educated about it. I find this disturbing some 30 years after the epidemic began. 

I think the most important thing for people in and outside the gay community to know is this: Know your status and get tested regularly. There is nothing more dangerous than a person who has regular unprotected sex calling themselves "negative" but not knowing their recent status by getting tested frequently. These individuals could seroconvert (the period of time during which HIV antibodies develop and become detectable) with no knowledge and walk around with a high viral load. This happens quite a bit.

Much like Caitlyn Jenner has done for the Transgender community, do you think having a famous face like Charlie Sheen associated with HIV is a good thing? 

I don't think we can parallel the two. Caitlyn Jenner is a very brave and courageous woman who, as she navigates through her new life, is all about openness and honesty.

I do believe that what happened with Charlie Sheen has started a dialogue and that is a good thing. We don't know the exact truth as it relates to Charlie Sheen. We can only go off of what he is telling us now in light of being outed. I do think it forces us to re-examine our belief systems regarding who can and cannot get HIV. So regardless of whether he got honest voluntarily, it probably does make the heterosexual community realize that it's out there and not just something the gay community has to deal with.

You’ve been open and honest about your positive status and other addictions in the past.  Are you in a good place?

I'm in an amazing place right now. I have always been very spiritual and live a life of self-examination, so as soon as I found out about my status three years ago, I was able to reconcile the feelings I had very quickly. I had a healthy perspective from the start. I owned it and wanted to get on meds immediately so that I could get my viral load down as low as I could so my body would be healthy and my ability to transmit would be reduced. I became undetectable after 30 days on meds. I take my meds religiously and I don't drink any alcohol or take any drugs. I see my doctor regularly for lab work and I am effectively managing my HIV.



With your experiences as an adult film star you know all too well about the risks of HIV.  Where ‘bareback’ sex on film is concerned, what goes on behind the scenes to educate everyone involved in the project about the risks? What are some of the precautions in place in terms of testing?

Most studios I have worked for are very strict about safety. Obviously, condom studios such as Falcon are non-negotiable about it and very careful. Bareback studios, for the most part, will not pair an HIV positive model with a negative model unless there is full disclosure and the negative model is on prep and agrees to the scene.

With my own studio, I shot both condom and bareback but made sure everybody was aware of my status and that negative models were on prep if it was a bareback scene.

PreP has become a hot topic of discussion in the gay community.  Do you think the introduction of PreP has cannibalized promoting safe sex?

I'm not going to lie; I am worried about what PreP is going to do to our community. We cannot deny the benefits it has for preventing HIV transmission, however, now with an increased number of individuals having bareback sex, there has been a dramatic increase in other STDs. I have read a lot and spoke to several doctors, and there is definitely a concern about what long-term effect this is going to have.

Is it cannibalizing safe sex? There is definitely an increased amount of people having bareback sex as a result of PreP. We know this to be true. I also believe there is a portion of our community that will always prefer condoms, so I don't think it has completely cannibalized. But I think that PreP and its widespread use has happened relatively quickly over the last two years or so, and I think we need to stay on top of it. We need to keep educating around effective prep use as well as the risks involved if not used responsibly.

When you hear people say bareback porn is ‘dirty’ or ‘slutty’ what is your initial reaction? What do you want people to know about bareback porn?

I think people are definitely entitled to their preferences. I am definitely not a proponent of bareback porn. In fact, I prefer doing condom scenes over bareback scenes. I did bareback porn because that's where most of the work was when I started.

Will we ever see you in another adult scene?

I am taking a break right now and shifting my focus. I am working on some other projects right now that need my attention. I'm not leaving the industry and people will definitely see my face and hear from me, that's for sure.

What are some of the projects you are working on to increase HIV awareness and understanding?

Mainly I am just trying to become more outspoken about HIV awareness and education. My experiences over the last 18 months have taught me that there needs to be more of this. I grew up as a gay man during the onset and height of HIV and AIDS back in the 80s and 90s. Back then we were always talking about it and were always aware of it - because if you didn't, you died. I feel we, as a community, have forgotten about how this profoundly shaped our community. I don't want to see us repeat history by not learning from it.

Some people might say that I did a disservice to the community by doing so many bareback scenes and I'm worried that might be partially true. I can only move forward and use my standing to now teach the facts around HIV and PreP so people who follow me and listen to me will be able to make educated decisions around their behaviors.

More information about HIV/AIDS

Read more about Rocco Steele

(photos via Facebook)

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