article

10.13.10

The HIV Porn Scare

An anonymous porn actor’s positive HIV test is sending ripples of fear across the adult industry—and the tight-lipped reaction of the clinic that conducted the test isn’t helping, porn performers tell Richard Abowitz.

When porn star Bobbi Starr learned of the possible positive HIV test of a fellow performer in her industry on Tuesday, she went straight to the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation clinic in the San Fernando Valley. She was there to get retested, but also to find out which adult performers were on the HIV quarantine list, so that she could avoid working with them in movies. The clinic, which conducts mandatory monthly testing for porn actors in the Valley, told her only that if she was quarantined, she would have been notified already.

“I am frustrated, to be honest,” Starr says. “I want to know who is on that list. And AIM won’t tell us, because AIM is only looking out for themselves, despite what they say about being there for the talent.”

Performer Courtney Cummz echoes Starr. “AIM should let us know who is impacted, because we could have shot content with them and they forgot to add to the list,” she says. “Or they could be one of my friends’ booty calls. You just don’t know.”

So, far little is known publicly about the latest HIV scare to embroil the adult industry beyond the clinic’s confirming to the Los Angeles Times that a performer tested positive there on Tuesday. UPDATE: The actor in question has been identified as a male performer who appeared in both gay and straight adult films. As a result, more than half a dozen companies have temporarily suspended shooting films. It’s an eerily familiar situation for the industry, which attracted media attention last year when an aspiring female performer tested positive, also at the AIM clinic.

As with previous HIV scares, many in the adult industry are questioning the status quo of AIM controls. But some others, whose numbers include performers, agents, producers, and directors, are far more worried that the result of the latest positive test will be a government intervention in the lucrative porn business via the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration or Los Angeles County, where the industry is largely based.

Adult director John Stagliano, owner of Evil Angel, one of the largest distributors of porn in the country, notes: “I worry about the government stepping in and driving the industry out of the state.” Adult talent agent Mark Spiegler has even wider geographical worries: “People say California OSHA, but there is something everywhere in this country. And what is going to happen is that this industry is going to go to outsourcing like any other industry. It is already cheaper to shoot in some other countries. And if you put in a lot of new rules, you are going to see a lot more of that.”

“The first thing you think is, ‘Who is the last person I worked with?...Every time we work, we play Russian roulette with ourselves.”

Starr, who is a client of Spiegler’s, sees things differently. “I am a big fan of CA/OSHA,” she says. “I think condoms should be required. I work without them because otherwise I would not work. I knew that when I got in the industry. But who would not want to feel safer? I would be happy to see condoms made mandatory.”

Cummz points out that while gay male porn uses condoms, that side of the industry is not as consistent about testing. “It is past time for OSHA to come in and regulate us, both gay and straight,” she says. “This is the second time. This happened last year. It is time for condoms to be mandatory and for testing. It is time for OSHA to get involved.”

In the late 1990s, many adult companies moved to make condom use in films the industry standard. “It didn’t work. People didn’t want that,” says Spiegler.

Evil Angel never made the switch to condoms, and Stagliano thinks fans rejected them on aesthetic grounds. “Condoms are ugly,” he says. “They put something between the performers that is totally artificial and that ruins the fantasy.”

These days, of the major adult companies, only Wicked routinely shoots with condoms.

How people see HIV depends on their role in the industry, on some level. Fans have clearly said no to condoms. Yet some prominent female porn bloggers and many porn performers—though frequently not for attribution, for fear that expressing such thoughts could cost them work—say they would be happy to see condom use made law.

Today, adult performers are required to be tested for HIV once a month. Performers checking each other’s “AIM tests” has become a pre-shoot ritual in porn. But HIV is hardly the only risk they face. According to one current performer, an extra vial of blood is now being drawn for the occasional “syphilis month,” which AIM has begun to check for in addition to HIV, after an outbreak about a year ago. Some diseases, like herpes, are not tested for at all. Many performers—though again, not for attribution—say they believe contracting herpes is an inevitable consequence of being an adult star in 2010.

After a positive test, AIM—a nonprofit whose online mission statement says the clinic is dedicated “to care for the physical and emotional needs of sex workers and people who work in the adult entertainment industry”—claims to notify everyone who has done a scene with an infected performer. This follows as many generations of exposure risk as AIM deems necessary. The obvious problem with this system, Starr, Cummz, and others note, is that when someone tests positive, any performer he or she has been with could still be working with a good test until their month is up. That is where trust comes in: A performer has a good test and no one else knows that he or she is on the quarantine list.

“People have been known to cheat on quarantine,” says one award-winning adult performer. “It has happened.”

Or people on a quarantine list might simply not get a message from AIM in time before they work again. “You just don’t know,” says Cummz. In this way the risk circle for HIV can spread quickly, as those people go on to shoot with perfectly valid test results from AIM. So the clinic, by keeping the quarantine list secret, leaves no one trusting any current AIM test. That is why at least six adult production companies so far have stopped shooting altogether.

Another sore point: Most adult performers found out about the latest positive test through rumor or the media, not AIM. “I first found out from my girlfriend on Twitter, and it was a traumatic situation, as always,” says Cummz. “The first thing you think is, ‘Who is the last person I worked with? Who is hurting now? Are my friends OK?’ You have to think about it from every angle. Every time we work, we play Russian roulette with ourselves.”

Though the clinic confirmed the positive test to the Los Angeles Times, it has, as in previous scares, chosen to offer even less information to the public than the little given to performers. AIM refused to respond to a request for comment from the Associated Press. When contacted by The Daily Beast for an explanation of the HIV quarantine protocol used, an AIM receptionist said that all media had to go to voicemail and hung up the phone. A second attempt to reach the clinic resulted in this paradox: One Jennifer Miller, who was in a meeting, was the only one able to talk to media, and this Jennifer Miller “is always in a meeting.”

Still, whatever the failures of AIM at being forthcoming, Spiegler and Stagliano both argue that the media distorts any attention paid to porn. Says Stagliano: “People are already using the term ‘outbreak,’ and it may just be one person who could have engaged in private activity outside the business. That has been known to happen.” Spiegler notes that attention is almost always drawn to the AIM clinic because the system has worked: A person with HIV was prevented from making films. “That seems to be what happened in this case,” Stagliano says. “We will just need to wait for more information.”

Plus: Check out more of the latest entertainment, fashion, and culture coverage on Sexy Beast—photos, videos, features, and Tweets.

Richard Abowitz has chronicled the rise and continuing fall of Las Vegas for over a decade. He is the author of hundreds of articles for Las Vegas Weekly. Abowitz is perhaps best known for writing the Movable Buffet blog and continuing print column for Los Angeles Times. In addition to covering Vegas, Abowitz has been writing about music and culture for Rolling Stone since 1996. In December 2009, Abowitz launched GoldPlatedDoor.com to be an honest broker reporting on all things Vegas.