09.02.11

Porn’s New HIV Problem

Another HIV scare—the second in one year—has shuttered California’s adult-film industry. Richard Abowitz on why an exploding number of young, new male performers may be to blame.

There was a time when porn was a clubby little industry. The studios were all in Southern California. The filmmakers knew their performers, and the performers, to a large degree, knew each other. Through databases and word-of-mouth, everyone was fairly aware of who they were working with. But in the past few years, this familiarity has vanished—and taken the industry’s sense of security with it.

This week the porn world suffered its latest HIV scare. It was the second such incident in less than a year—in December, male porn star Derrick Burts tested positive for HIV, sending fear rippling through the industry. Few had heard of Burts when he was identified as “Patient Zeta,” and when this newest patient is identified, there’s a good chance that few will know him or her very well, either.

It’s a sign of the changing nature of the industry. As porn continues to expand in nearly every way—from the number of performers to the variety of studios to the increasingly far-flung locations of the shoots—the people involved have less and less idea of who they’re working with.

“Just a few years ago, I would know any guy in the business,” said one female performer who asked that her name not be used for fear that she would lose work. “And if I did not, I could find out about him with a phone call to friends. I knew if he was sketchy and I didn’t want to work with him. There used to only be a dozen big-name guys in the business, and I’m talking less than 10 years ago. But the Internet, the crossovers (guys who do both gay and straight porn), and the move of the industry away from California has changed that. Now, I show up and it’s all these druggy-looking 18-year-olds who no one knows anything about.”

Another performer who used to shoot exclusively in California now finds she travels as far as Brazil to work. She says it’s reached the point where she no longer knows any guy she works with before the day she meets him to shoot a sex scene.

Of course, the explosion in new male talent began years ago, but at least there was a relatively well-trusted database that performers could rely on to help keep them safe. But that database was maintained by the Adult Industry Medical clinic (AIM) in Los Angeles. AIM, which was the medical testing center for virtually the entire industry, closed in May under the financial strain of lawsuits after the Derrick Burts scare. When AIM was open, if a performer tested positive, a quarantine list could be swiftly generated showing who that performer worked with, who those people he worked with had worked with in turn, and so on.

This shuttering of the AIM database caught the industry with its proverbial pants down, and this is the source of much of the current confusion and fear, according to the adult-industry trade group Free Speech Coalition. “We are putting a system into place to replace AIM, but it is not fully functional yet,” says Diane Duke, the Free Speech Coalition’s executive director. On Aug. 28 the group called for an industry shut down until further notice.

But according to adult star Kristina Rose, the fears plaguing the industry began before the shutdown of AIM.

“I’ve been in the business four years,” says Rose. “I’ve seen it spread out to Florida, Vegas, and everywhere. Also, I have seen the number of male talent increase dramatically. They are all young, good-looking party guys. Honestly, I prefer the good old days when it was the dream team of a few guys you could trust.”

As for its geographical dispersion, Rose says that directors outside of California often operate more under-the-radar, and male performers are frequently chosen based on who’s willing to work for the least amount of money. Her agent, Mark Spiegler, perhaps the most powerful agent in porn, no longer allows any of his clients to do bookings outside of California.

The current scare provides an illustrative example. The rumor is that between two HIV tests, a negative and a positive, a not-particularly well-known male performer in Florida managed to shoot scenes with as many as 13 women. A well-placed source in the industry told The Daily Beast that the actual number of women may, in fact, be as high as 20. Meanwhile, the advocacy group AIDS Healthcare Foundation has filed a complaint with Florida health authorities over the production company they think is responsible. That company shoots in Miami, has offices in Canada and Los Angeles, and is based out of Luxembourg.

Widespread condom use could do wonders for safety in such an unwieldy environment, but Christian Mann, General Manager of Evil Angel, one of the large, traditional Los Angeles-based porn companies (and a volunteer member of Free Speech Coalition’s board implementing the new database system) has been in the business for decades and says the industry will never go condom-only. “If the AHF [AIDS Healthcare Foundation] succeeds in turning California into a condom-mandatory environment, what you will see is a lot of production in many scattered places…If the production scatters, that will make the problem worse.”

“Condoms won’t appear in porn,” Mann states flatly. “Production will just leave California.”

Kristina Rose agrees and thinks producers need to work harder at screening their performers. “Male talent should not be able to show up at 18 with a test and get thrown into a scene,” she says. “Why not slow down and give them time to prove themselves before putting them in riskier scenes?”

"There used to only be a dozen big-name guys in the business…Now I show up and it’s all these druggy-looking 18 year olds who no one knows anything about."

But the point of no return may have already been passed. Porn blogger Mike South notes that thanks to the Internet, cheap production costs, and male-enhancement drugs, the increasing number of male performers and the geographic spread of the industry is inevitable.

“There is too much shooting going on for any database to track,” says South. “And they aren’t going to use condoms. It comes down to personal responsibility. You have to work with responsible people, and that is not easy in porn. And it is going to get even harder.”

UPDATE: The Associated Press is reporting that the performer who tested positive for HIV has now retested negative, and that the industry has lifted its moratorium on adult-film shoots. "The industry will be abundantly cautious as we try to nail down the reasons for what now appears to have been a false positive result on a previous test," said Free Speech Coalition's Diane Duke.