08.20.12

Porn Film Biz Rocked by Syphilis Scare

The industry calls for a moratorium on shooting, as reports emerge that one actor has the STD—and may have continued working with the disease. Richard Abowitz reports.

The lobbying group for the adult-film industry is calling for a nationwide moratorium on shooting in the wake of a syphilis scare. Last Thursday, the adult industry trade publication XBIZ sent shock waves through the porn world by quoting two agents announcing that the unidentified performer had tested positive for the STD and allegedly worked for weeks shooting scenes, using a doctored test. By the following day, LATimes.com was reporting that the Los Angeles County Health Department was looking at a cluster of five possible syphilis cases related to the adult industry.

Over the weekend, the Free Speech Coalition (FSC), the lobbying group for the adult industry that also established porn’s STD-testing protocol and database, called for a nationwide moratorium on shooting. While the moratorium is voluntary, it is expected that porn producers represented by the association will adhere to it. The FSC is working with doctors to determine the length of the hiatus, and to arrange for syphilis testing of performers who may have been exposed to the disease.

In the absence of more specific information, performers were left panicked, bewildered and furious—with the most damming vitriol focused on the male performer who allegedly worked with syphilis. Typical was Kristina Rose’s reaction. The diminutive porn star sent a Tweet: “I think the next person to lie about their test should be tortured & killed. If u agree please RT.” And, close to 40 of her followers swiftly did Re-Tweet that message, including some of her industry peers.

The issue of doctored tests strikes a particularly raw nerve in the adult industry, because a performer who cheated the old system is believed to have been behind a serious HIV outbreak that infected a number of porn stars in the ’90s. The current testing database was created last year by FSC in response to the sudden shuttering of the longtime clinic that served the adult industry, amid lawsuits and a controversy over alleged leaked medical records. The syphilis case is the first major test of FSC’s new system service, APHSS (Adult Protection Health and Safety Services).

Reached for an exclusive phone interview with The Daily Beast on Sunday night, Diane Duke, executive director of FSC, denied that the performer fabricated his tests. “There have been a lot of rumors,” Duke says. “I would say the performer did not cheat the system. I would say other factors were at play.” Asked to elaborate, Duke demurred for now. “More information on that is probably going to be revealed in the future,” she says. The two talent agents who made the claim about the fabricated tests in the XBIZ article did not respond to requests for interviews.

“The performer who was positive for syphilis has come forward and is working with us to initiate the partner identification, evaluation, and treatment,” says Diane Duke, executive director of the porn industry’s lobbying group.

Duke also says at this time the FSC knows of only the one positive performer, and has been unable to confirm the reports that others have tested positive.

For the adult industry, this scrutiny of their testing system could not have come at a worse time. The industry is currently fighting a ballot initiative and other attempts within Los Angeles County and City to mandate condom use in adult films. The Los Angeles Times last week wrote of a new report issued to the mayor and city council on ways to enforce a condom ordinance. It is widely believed among adult-film producers that their audiences do not want to see condoms in straight porn (condoms have been commonplace in gay porn for years).

The industry argues that the testing system is not only sufficient, but that mandating condoms would dangerously compromise performer safety by superseding testing. “If the condom ordinance were in place, then our testing protocols would not be as widely accepted and followed. And we would not be able to protect the performers,” Duke says. “The thing that is so wonderful about our industry is that we do have protocols that are in place and we have a system in place to make sure people are tested and taken care of. The average person on the street doesn’t have that access.”

According to Duke, the performer who tested positive for syphilis is now cooperating with the FSC. “The performer who was positive for syphilis has come forward and is working with us to initiate the partner identification, evaluation, and treatment.” She adds, “I think what we will find is that the system that is in place worked. We have a positive performer and we also have a network in place to make sure everyone else is tested and treated.”

Still, there are many unanswered questions about the unnamed performer, especially if—as sources and reports indicate—he was diagnosed in July with syphilis, yet only this past weekend was meeting with FSC to identify partners. Also unclear is if he did, in fact, work in scenes after tests showed he was infected with syphilis. Asked about that again, Duke answers carefully: “Not that I know of. You know that is all going to be figured out as we start looking at the partner identification. I think if the person was positive for syphilis the person was not aware of that.”

In fact, whoever the performer (and word is that he will come forward in the next couple of days), a syphilis outbreak may have been a problem waiting to happen. Many performers and industry observers argue that the system in place was created with such a focus on HIV prevention that other health risks are ignored. Industry blogger Mike South has been reporting on the syphilis scare and is a longtime critic of FSC. He notes that the most surprising thing about this story is that the person even had a syphilis test. “Until recent years they only tested for HIV,” South says. He notes that the testing system currently only requires monthly checks for HIV, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. Many risks like Hepatitis C are not tested for at all. “We never test for herpes,” South says, “because if we did 75 percent of the performers would be out overnight.”

Duke responds that while the industry does not offer monthly tests for syphilis, this is not a breach in the protocols, which do include biannual checks for the disease: “The CDC recommends once a year for testing for syphilis, but we do twice a year. September and March are the months we test for syphilis.” Had the performer not turned up positive with syphilis, any such infection, Duke argues, would have been discovered anyway during regular testing in September. Still, Duke notes that current circumstances are causing that policy to be reexamined. “We will probably change our protocols during this time where syphilis seems to be a lot more abundant, to make sure we test more frequently. It could be monthly. I can’t say yet,” she says.

Indeed, the September syphilis test may have happened sooner, even without the positive performer to speed the clock. The United States syphilis scare is only half the story. Currently, there is also a syphilis outbreak among performers in Budapest, the San Fernando Valley of European porn. Reports are that at least 16 performers have been infected, but the number may be as high as 100. Sources tell The Daily Beast that Budapest will continue its current moratorium on shooting until at least Sept. 3. During that time, all performers will be asked not only to retest but to also get treatment for syphilis.

Duke resists using the word “outbreak” for what is happening in the United States, as she insists only one confirmed positive case exists at this time. But she accepts the word outbreak as applying to Europe. Because of the frequent interaction of American and European performers, Duke also realizes that any number of people could be infected who never interacted with the anonymous male. “Yes, that is absolutely possible,” she says. “It is possible somebody came over from Budapest and may have infected performers. That is why we are making sure everybody is tested.”

She says FSC’s decision to ask for an industrywide shutdown was not a response to Europe, however, but rather a result of the U.S. performer who tested positive. “When we got together over the weekend with the doctors, we all agreed that the most prudent strategy to move forward would be to call a moratorium to make sure the performers are protected. We don’t know if there are additional cases of this. But we know there is one, and so that was enough for us to make sure we had the safeguards in place for everyone else,” she says. “We are going to be testing the entire population. If there are additional people positive for syphilis, we will find them.”