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12.10.10

How Did Porn Star Derrick Burts Get HIV?

The straight man who sparked porn’s HIV panic did gay scenes and had a male-escort ad. Richard Abowitz on how money woes are forcing guys to go “gay for pay”—and putting actors at risk.

Derrick Burts, a baby-faced 24 year old from suburban Los Angeles, had barely begun his porn career when he got the devastating news: The routine HIV test he’d taken at the Adult Industry Medical clinic (AIM), had come back positive.

That was two months ago. Per industry protocol, AIM immediately notified the porn community that an infected performer was working in their midst, and the bombshell announcement temporarily brought the mainstream porn industry to a virtual standstill. Burts remained anonymous until earlier this week when he announced at a press conference that he was the so-called Patient Zeta at the center of the lurid guessing game.

But that didn’t put the matter to rest. The new question became: How did Derrick Burts, who says that outside of work his only sex partner was his girlfriend, get infected? The answer to that question may reveal some hard truths about the porn industry. Burts’ girlfriend tested negative. And no HIV-positive performer has stepped forward to admit to working with Burts.

When it comes to working in a sex industry, however, “straight” is a flexible term. Like many male porn actors, Burts sometimes went “gay for pay,” performing in both straight porn with women under the name Cameron Reid, and gay porn with other men under the name Derek Chambers. The reason for two distinct names is that in the porn industry, doing both gay and straight porn—called “crossing over”—is both relatively common and also fairly taboo. Many female performers believe that the risk of contracting HIV during a scene is vastly increased if their male partner participates in gay porn. In October, when the alarm bells were first sounded about the still anonymous Patient Zeta, porn star Courtney Cummz told The Daily Beast she was “terrified” by stars who cross over, and thought the Occupational Safety and Health Administration should step in to prevent it.

“You hear rumors about straight performers all the time. Male performers do things in their private life and you just don’t know it.”

"It comes down to safety,” she said. “I think OSHA needs to come in and they need to seriously regulate this, because every time [someone tests positive for HIV] it’s because a performer is going to the same-sex side. I am not attacking the gay industry, because I like to watch gay porn myself. But I will not work with an individual that does gay porn." Another female porn star interviewed this week agreed, saying she worries so much about men who cross over that she watches “a lot” of gay porn simply so she can recognize who does it and avoid working with them. (She said that, because of the different names they use, she uses their tattoos to help her keep track.)

For all the legitimate worry, outbreaks in mainstream straight porn remain surprisingly rare, especially considering the volume of content shot and high-risk behavior filmed. Last year a performer turned up positive, sparking a panic, but no one who worked with her was discovered to be infected. According to porn insiders, the last known outbreak where a positive performer is known to have infected others was in 2004.

Still, the fear keeps everyone on edge, and while Cummz and other female performers insist they’re not anti-gay, the topic remains a hot potato in the tiny community, where being closed-minded about sexuality makes you a heretic. Few are willing to go on the record about their concerns with crossing over. But statistically, their worries are valid. For one thing, according to a recent study by the CDC, men who have sex with men are 44 times more likely to contract HIV than men who don’t. But perhaps the larger perceived problem is that HIV testing standards are completely different in gay porn than they are in straight porn. While most of the straight porn industry mandates a monthly HIV testing regimen, a significant portion of the gay porn world uses condoms—yet doesn’t require its performers to get tested.

“In the business, the last thing you want to do is insult either side,” says porn star Raylene, who happened to be on set with Cummz yesterday. Raylene was explaining why, for all her intensity in October, Cummz now no longer wanted to discuss her views on crossover performers. For that same reason, Mark Spiegler, the industry’s top female talent agent (he represents big draws like Belladonna, Kimberly Kane, and Kristina Rose) declined to make any of his clients available for this story. But Spiegler freely admitted that he would not allow any of them to work with a recent crossover. “I keep track of guys currently doing gay porn. In the gay industry you have to assume a lot of them are positive when the HIV policy is don’t-ask-don’t-tell. So I won’t let anyone work with Spiegler Girls who did gay porn in the last three months.” But he’s careful to add, “I have no problem with people having done gay porn. It is just a safety issue. A lot of guys, not that they will tell you, start out in gay porn and then they transition into straight porn. I am fine with that.”

Spiegler estimates that 15 to 20 percent of straight male performers have done at least one gay film. Porn star Christian XXX thinks the percentage is probably much higher. One of the few performers who will talk openly about working on both sides of the industry, Christian got his start in gay porn under the name Maxx Diesel and still performs occasionally with transsexuals. As for the two performer names, he admits: “To be honest I did not plan to be open about it. I wanted to work in straight porn. I didn’t want people to not hire me because of the stigma of gay porn.” But his distinctive look resulted in his name change, fooling no one. “I’m an anomaly. No one else is going to come forward because of the stigma. More women refuse to work with me than any other guy in the industry. It isn’t personal and it is not homophobia; it’s ignorance. It is the stigma of gay porn. I am attacked every day by somebody.”

Given the stats on HIV and gay men, and the disparate testing standards between the two industries, how could it be ignorance to want to avoid men who cross over? The answer, says Christian XXX, lies in the private lives of male porn stars. “To be in straight porn you have to be a little perverted, a little kinky—you can’t be a normal dude,” he says. “The business attracts guys who get turned on by things that are outside the norm. I would say 75 percent of guys in the straight porn business have either done gay porn, done a guy off camera, or done a she-male.” In other words, just because a straight porn actor hasn’t done gay porn doesn’t mean he isn’t having sex with men. He may have even gone gay-for-pay off-camera—working as an escort to avoid being seen in gay porn. Christian points out one of the industry’s dirty little secrets: the growing number of straight male porn stars who work as prostitutes for men on the side. “I am not going to out anybody,” he says, “but I could name a lot of straight male porn stars who escort, and some pretty big names.”

Is that how Burts got infected? He says that outside of work he only had sex with his girlfriend, but then admitted to the Los Angelses Times that he had an advertisement on a popular male escort website. (He claimed he never actually took any appointments.) But the AIM clinic, where Burts was tested, contradicted his story, telling the Times that “Burts must have contracted HIV in his personal sex life.”

Escorting—for both male and female porn stars—has become an increasingly important part of earning a living for performers. The recession and the rise of free Internet porn has dealt a one-two punch to the for-profit porn industry. Women can earn more working as an escort than they can for shooting a scene, and sometimes do the movies simply to build their personal brand so they can charge more as prostitutes. But when straight male porn stars escort for men, it’s just the opposite: They try to keep it quiet. Says Raylene: “You hear rumors about straight performers all the time. Male performers do things in their private life and you just don’t know it.”

Christian XXX, puts it this way: “No one, male or female, is getting out of porn and going back to flipping burgers. They are going to attempt to continue making money within the porn industry. Scenes, webcam, websites, and definitely escorting fits that bill.”

Ultimately, Christian XXX argues performers have to be responsible for their own safety. The sentiment is echoed by Raylene. Among those she works with regularly is at least one current crossover. “But I know about it,” she says. “And I know he gets tested and he safely does the gay porn. If you’re honest with me and I know what you are doing and you’re tested, I am going to work with you. You have to be responsible. But there is always risk and you always worry. That’s why we’re paid the big bucks for this work.”

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.