The LA Times reported today that AHF (AIDS Healthcare Foundation) filed complaints against 16 production companies that refrain from using condoms in their films.
My article, “Business Before Pleasure?,” was originally published on the Advocate website in an edited format on August 12, 2009. It was removed from their website today.
Here is the UNABASHED draft as submitted to the Advocate.Business Before Pleasure?
by Matt Siegel, The Unabashed Queer
To some people, the phrase “workplace safety” evokes hot dog condiment reds and yellows, hard hats, and safety goggles. Others may hark back to Meryl Streep donning a shag haircut as Karen Silkwood, a nuclear power plant worker who blew the whistle on poor and un-enforced safety measures. Audiences gasped as our heroine’s daily plutonium self-check set off power plant alarms, indicating that she, too had been exposed to the radioactive element.
Like Ms. Silkwood, porn performers face dangerous exposure every time they go to work… albeit a different kind.
The porn industry operates like an adult version of the CBS reality show Kid Nation; the one where a gaggle of children settle into a ghost town with no adult supervision and have to create their own system of governance. In the porn nation, a gaggle of adults (with at least one pseudonym each), settle into the San Fernando Valley with essentially no government supervision and have to create their own system of on-set HIV prevention. The children of Kid Nation have parents and a slew of legal documents to look out for their best interest but who’s looking out for the average 18 year-old porn star wannabe?
The majority of straight studios (and a handful of gay ones) require monthly HIV/STD testing from the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation (AIM). Almost every straight studio frowns on condom use; it’s actually more of a scowl than a frown.
The major gay studios, on the other hand, require condoms but not testing. However, there are still gay bareback studios that rely only on “serosorting,” a controversial attempt at preventing HIV transmission by matching performers by HIV status. Very few studios require both condoms and testing.
The recent hullabaloo around an HIV “outbreak” in the adult entertainment industry began on June 10, 2009 with one confirmed HIV case in a porn actress known as Patient Zero. After a hasty initial investigation, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, led by Dr. Jonathan Fielding, released data to the LA Times indicating that there were 16 unpublicized cases of HIV among porn performers since 2004. Five days later, the LACDPH backpedaled, upping the number of cases to 18, but recognizing they had no way to confirm how many of the 18 were actually porn performers.
“All previously unpublicized cases involved either a non-performer or an aspiring actor or actress who tested positive, then dropped out of the business,” Dr. Sharon Mitchell, founder of AIM, said in a statement to the LA Times. Patient Zero engaged in unprotected sex both on and off camera in the week between the “expiration” of her most recent test and the time her new results came back. Through AIM’s extensive online database, which keeps track of test results, shoot dates, cast lists, scene pairings, and sexual acts performed, all of the performer’s on-set sex partners were able to be contacted and have tested negative at this time.
Outbreak or not, the recent media attention surrounding Patient Zero has once again placed the porn industry’s workplace safety methods under the microscope to the chagrin of (most) of the porn studios. AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) is calling for mandatory condom use across the board and, on July 16, sued LACDPH for “abdicating its responsibility to perform its main function — which is to protect public health.” Presuming that porn performers have sex off-camera, too, AHF is looking to the county department to quash the spread of STDs from the porn workplace into the general public.
According to the county department’s own data, between 2004 and 2008, among 2000 porn performers there have been 3000 cases of various STDs. With that said, the county department recommends, but does not require, condom use on porn sets.
“Right now it’s the policy of the county of Los Angeles and the state of California to look the other way,” says the president of AHF, Michael Weinstein.
LACDPH responded to AHF’s lawsuit with a statement declaring its support of “state legislation and the regulatory role of Cal/OSHA (the state Division of Occupation Safety and Health) as the most appropriate means to regulate the practices in the adult-film industry.” Cal/OSHA is responsible for enforcing state laws and regulations in the workplace such as the blood borne pathogen standard, which requires employers to protect workers exposed to blood or bodily fluids on the job.
According to the LA Times, “since 2004, five adult entertainment companies have been cited [by Cal/OSHA] for a variety of violations.” At least two of those companies were fined over $30,000 each for violating the blood borne pathogen standard mentioned above, by allowing workers to engage in unprotected sex.
An AHF spokesperson indicated to The Advocate that the AIDS advocacy group might be “addressing” Cal-OSHA, legally, in the future.
“I’ve had Chlamydia and Gonorrhea probably five or six times in the last five years,” straight porn star Christian XXX aka (simply) Christian and formerly known as Maxx Diesel, reveals, like a soldier leading a verbal tour of his battle scars. “It happens. You take a week off and you retest.”
“If a girl only wants to work with a condom, she can seek out that work, same for men. Granted it will be much less work,” says Tony Malice of JM Productions, a straight porn production company. Straight performers will be hard-pressed to find a company that will allow condoms, but HIV-positive people are flat-out prohibited (unofficially) from working in straight porn.
The prohibition of HIV-positive performers in the straight porn industry goes without saying. AIM is touted, as Christian XXX puts it, as “the first line of defense…If you test HIV-positive, guess what, you don’t get to be in porn. We weeded you out of our business, our circle.” Veteran straight porn Director, Ira Levine, echoes Christian XXX: “On a number of occasions AIM has been able to stop people who were HIV-positive from getting into the industry.”
One of the potentially fatal flaws of depending solely on AIM testing, as Dr. Jonathan Fielding explained to the LA Times, is the window period. Even using AIM’s early detection PCR-DNA test which has a 24 hour turn-around in results, Fielding says “it takes nine to 11 days after exposure for HIV to show up on HIV tests. Let’s say you’re infected on Monday, tested on Wednesday and perform on Friday. You would show up as negative but you’re not negative.”
Ira Levine, who ardently supports the current testing-only model, acknowledges that the test is most effective “to screen out obvious situations within a magnum of ten days.”
“Even if we tested them every day it wouldn’t eliminate the risk entirely, and at some point, cost-wise, it doesn’t provide any real increase in protection, it just costs people a lot of money.”
Tony Malice also admits that there exists a “kind of honor system” among performers because of the window period. It conjures images of naked women French-manicured, pinky-swearing that they haven’t fucked in the last two weeks.
While only relying on AIM testing without physical barriers may sound sketchy, until recently, gay bareback-loyal studios like Hot Desert Knights, which completely bars condoms from its films, simply took the performer’s word on his HIV status.
In February 2008, David Gardner, President of HDK, announced a partnership with AIM that would require testing for its performers.
“We always serosorted them [the performers] according to what they told us their status was, [but] since the advent of the PRC/DNA HIV test, which shortens the window from time of infection to time of a positive test… it was time for us to take this step.”
Thought by many to be the evil stepchild of the condom-using gay porn industry, Gardner took a moment to shake his finger in their faces for not testing performers, leaving them vulnerable to other STDs.
Stephan Sirard of NextDoorMale.com is one of the very few studio heads in the industry that requires condoms on male performers and monthly testing for all: straight or gay, male or female, for partnered or solo scenes.
“Condoms break. Condoms come off. And with testing there are window periods. Combine both for best practices. Studios that don’t use condoms and don’t test should be in court for murder.”
By and large, the industry, gay and straight, asserts that its rolodex of methods to prevent HIV have proven successful. “Both systems (condoms only and testing only) have their flaws but our system works at least as well as the other system,” says Ira Levine. “We’d have a huge body count by now if it didn’t.”
Condom, bareback, gay, straight —when the defense rests, the same threats emerge. If the government tries to make any regulations, the production companies will immediately up and move causing the state to lose billions of dollars in tax revenue. Or, if the government tries to regulate, porn will go underground and/or abroad which would invite more risky behavior on set.
“So let them move,” says Michael Weinstein.
“I don’t think that’s the basis on which we decide what public policy should be. These people are fabulously rich. Larry Flynt has made a large fortune by exploiting young people. His wife died of AIDS. He watched her wither and die. Shame on him. Why should we care whether their profits go down? Why would we put that on a higher level than the health of these young people?”
While there may be a mass exodus of porn companies from California, Stephan Sirard says he won’t be moving anytime soon. In fact, he welcomes government regulation.
“I would love it,” he says. “I open my arms. I can be the guinea pig. Use me as an example.” Sirard claims the real reason studios don’t want to test has to do with cost and lack of organization: “They’ll have a harder time finding performers; they’ll have to spend more time coordinating and scheduling their shoots around testing.”
Kent Taylor, co-owner of gay porn company, Raging stallion, says there are two reasons the major gay studios resist required testing: privacy of performers and the potential to “legitimize” bareback sex.
“It shouldn’t be web-based; I think it needs to remain private. Anybody with a sign-in can look up any one of those results. You’re tested and your results are up there forever so anyone can see whether it’s curable or not.”
An AIM spokesperson tells The Advocate that only agents and producers can view the database. HIV results are not published–if someone tests positive, they are removed from the database. Other STD results, negative or positive, are posted.
More importantly, Taylor says, “we are terrified [testing] will open the door to expectable bareback porn.” Sirard calls that bullshit, but Taylor points to bareback gay porn DVD’s currently on the market that indicate on the cover that all of their models are AIM tested.
JakeCruise.com promotes videos like the ones Taylor is referencing. Cruise’s bareback films (he also has condom films) are prominently marked as such on the front. On the back, not so prominently at the bottom, in tiny letters, they read: “All bareback models tested using PCR/DNA tests for HIV, the adult industry standard for safer sex without condoms.”
Additionally, each of Cruise’s three websites contains a message regarding his methods of protection.
“It is not the safest way to have sex,” Cruise admits, “but it is much safer than not testing at all.”
Cruise concurs with Sirard regarding the high cost and logistical roadblocks of testing: “We have some models we can’t work with because they live two hours away from testing centers so it can be impossible to get them tested and it’s time consuming and expensive. Two models could cost between three and four hundred dollars to get tested. Most of the models don’t have the money so they’re not going to pay for it.”
While major gay studios aren’t necessarily opposed to the possibility of enforced condom use across the board, they might be frightened by the implications of more government involvement, period.
The use of condoms on gay porn sets has made the issue of HIV status a moot point to some producers, enabling a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” sentiment. New government regulations and procedures could lead to required testing which stands to jeopardize the legality of HIV-positive performers to work in gay porn as freely as they have.
“It would definitely diminish the talent pool,” Kent Taylor admits.
Though there are no scientific statistics, there is a quiet acknowledgment among adult industry professionals that a significant number of gay male porn performers are HIV-positive. A survey conducted by TheSword.com of nearly one hundred gay male performers says 30% of them responded as being either HIV-positive or status unknown.
Sirard doesn’t hesitate to call his fellow gay porn producers out on what he calls a lack of business responsibility.
“The director knows, the studio knows, but they don’t want to talk about it. These studios are pairing positive and negative performers and using condoms as the only barrier.”
“HIV and STDs are a difficult topic to broach even amongst friends,” says Michael Stabile, The Sword editor who ran the survey. “Add the business element and it’s that much more awkward. But the performers definitely want to.”
“We don’t currently ask [about HIV status],” says Kent Taylor. “We assume everyone is [HIV-positive] and if they say they are not, we assume they are lying.”
In further defense of not testing, he says that his company’s philosophy is that “people are adults and they need to make their own decisions,” though Raging Stallion makes the decision for their performers to wear condoms.
“We choose not to make porn that could put performers at risk in any way, shape or form,” Taylor adds. That is if you don’t consider Gonorrhea, Herpes, Syphilis, Chlamydia, and Hepatitis A, which can all be orally transmitted, risky.
Hugh Klein, Research Associate Professor in the Prevention Sciences Research Center at Morgan State University, reports that used correctly every time, even if condoms are 99% effective, someone who has sex two times a week is going to have between one and three risk exposures every single year.
“I think it’s less necessary to have testing with condoms,” Klein says, “but is it necessary? Yes. The use of condoms does not negate the need for testing.”
There is no doubt that the studios would like to keep their performers safe. How safe, though? What level of risk are the studios willing to allow their performer to assume? How much money will they devote to their performers’ safety?
Kent Taylor is nervous. Like most of the other porn companies, he just wants to be left alone.
“This is a huge, huge, super complicated, multi-facetted conversation that…coming to the surface this could change so many things. It could devastate a huge part of the California economy, it could really fuck with gay porn–it could fuck with straight porn. The whole thing is a house of cards as it is right now.”
“The gay market could take the lead in this,” Stephan Sirard says hopefully. “They could say, ‘You guys do what you want but we’re going to test and use condoms.’ Maybe that would change the vision of the straight market.”
“My assets are not in my bank account, my assets are the performers.”