Entertainment

09.12.13

How Will Porn Solve Its HIV Crisis?

As many as four performers may have been infected in the past month, but the industry is divided over whether its current testing system is enough to stop an epidemic. Richard Abowitz on the factions and the fear.

How many porn stars have tested positive for HIV in the past 30 days? The answer is almost certainly three, maybe four, or there could be more.

In August, performer Cameron Bay came forward as having contracted HIV, prompting a moratorium on shooting that lasted six days. Earlier this month, another performer, Rod Daily, who was romantically linked to Bay, took to Twitter to say that he too is HIV-positive. Then, at the end of last week, Free Speech Coalition, porn’s lobbying group and administrator of its testing system, identified a third HIV-positive performer. This prompted another moratorium. That moratorium was still in place on Monday when AIDs Healthcare Foundation head Michael Weinstein, the group pushing for laws requiring condoms in porn, announced that he had been contacted by a fourth HIV-positive performer.

The FSC has said the third performer is not ready to release her name and has also expressed doubts about the existence of the fourth potential HIV-positive performer. Weinstein would answer no questions about the fourth performer, insisting that is the person’s wish.

Of course, the inability of the FSC to offer a definitive answer as to the number of porn performers who tested positive for HIV has resulted in increasingly loud complaints about the value of the FSC-administered system dubbed PASS (Performer Availability Screening Service). Porn insiders are increasingly among those who doubt the FSC’s claim that PASS does a better job keeping performers safe than mandatory condoms. While no poll has ever been done of porn-star opinions on condoms, just a year ago there was still overwhelming industry support for PASS. That has certainly changed in the past couple of weeks.

Influential porn blogger Mike South is among those in the industry who has recently come out in favor of mandatory condoms. “I am doing so reluctantly,” South says. South argues that the porn industry has failed so spectacularly at self-regulating that he sees no alternative to the government getting involved to mandate condoms.

Tom Byron, a well-known performer who says he has long felt guilty working without condoms, claims the past weeks have caused him to make up his mind to take a stand in favor of mandatory condoms. “I’ve been on the fence like everyone else trying to justify the bullshit that testing works and all of that,” Byron says. “But at the end of the day I don’t think that applies and I don’t think it ever applied.”

Certainly there are still many performers who are strongly opposed to mandatory condoms. The popular Kelly Shibari, who describes herself as a plus-sized porn star, estimates that she has shot 200 scenes over the last seven years without ever using a condom.

Shibari says she feels sufficiently protected by industry self-regulation. And, like many fans, she does not appreciate porn with condoms. “It is a total bummer,” Shibari says of seeing a condom in porn. “When I watch porn I want to watch the ejaculation. Porn is not sex education. It is fantasy. The minute you introduce something like barrier protection you ruin what is supposed to be a fantasy scenario.”

It is a point echoed by Christian Mann, the general manager of Evil Angel; he is also vice president of FSC and the chairman of PASS. “There won’t really be a large viable market for condom-positive porn,” Mann says. “You can’t force producers to make a product the market doesn’t want.”

Kelly Shibari, who describes herself as a plus-sized porn star, estimates that she has shot 200 scenes over the last seven years without ever using a condom.

Mann also argues that the PASS system is basically sound. “I think what has so many people concerned is still statistically a very small anomaly type of situation given the amount of production that’s gone on in this community for the past 15 years.”

The internal friction between the factions for and against mandatory condoms, however, has focused attention on the appropriateness of the connection between FSC and PASS. South, for example, points to an inherent conflict between being an industry lobbying group responsible for porn’s image while at the same time overseeing a medical system meant to keep performers safe from HIV—the most image-sensitive issue in adult films. South says, “How can you trust anything they say?”

Typical of the atmosphere of confusion and accusation, South argues the third infection proves the first moratorium was lifted by the FSC too soon. Mann claims the decision to lift the moratorium was made by medical professionals working with PASS and not by the FSC. For now, Mann says the moratorium will remain in place until the same medical professionals say to lift it.

“No industry likes to be regulated,” says Michael Weinstein of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the group that has been pushing for mandatory condom use in porn. “But this is the only industry I know of that has its public relations overseeing its health and safety.”

Mann admits there is a perception problem, though he says that’s the extent of the problem. He would like to see PASS and FSC eventually separated. But he argues the situation arose innocently in the convoluted history of earlier failures to set up a standardized industry-testing system. Mann still thinks the PASS system remains safer for performers than condom laws. “All condom laws will do is drive the industry underground,” he said. “Maintaining the testing protocols is going to be more difficult when that happens. People who are complaining what the industry is doing now does not work, I think, will find it works even less if condom laws pass. I think it will be less effective.”

PASS works by providing the industry with the names of performers who are cleared to work. Clearance is determined by a having a current test entered into PASS. A performer not being listed by PASS could have tested positive for an STD, or the person might have left the industry, been tested by a clinic not participating in PASS or simply didn’t bother testing that month. There is no way to know. In the case of a performer testing positive for HIV (or any STD), medical privacy laws still apply, meaning that PASS has no ability to release the name of the performer to all the other people in the system. That is the case currently with performer number three.

“While every performer would like that person’s name,” Mann says, “that doesn’t stop the medical staff behind the testing facility from conducting its genealogy. Because the doctors do know who the person is; the doctors are conducting the genealogy. It is just that HIPPA privacy laws make the name not accessible to everyone.”

Many performers, of course, don’t see it this way; they want a name on account of all the sex they know is not included in the PASS database: private-content trades, escorting, and the occasional swinging wildness that can surround porn in 2013.

Weinstein from AIDS Healthcare notes: “There is too much parsing if it [the HIV infection] was on set or off set. Are they crossover? Are they escorting? All of this is trying to say the core of it is safe and that doesn’t make sense. That makes testing even more precarious.”

Mann is sure, however, that porn will continue to be shot without condoms even as he admits that the end of the industry as he has known it for years in Southern California may be at hand. “The industry will figure it out. If the industry has to, it will move its production out of Southern California. It will be a more illicit business with less control and less oversight than what we have now.”

For now it is an industry consumed by accusation, fear, and disease even as a moratorium has brought business to a standstill.