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Performers “Scared Shitless” to Talk?

Porn Valley – Higher risk means higher profits for porn. But “underground” production – and a distaste for condoms – may be killing the industry

You’ve never seen so many big musclemen, all standing around in a sweltering Northridge parking lot, nervous, chatting, waiting for the satchel-toting nerd from the county health department to arrive so the meeting at “Str8-Up Studios” can begin. They’re porn stars, men of worldwide envy and unnatural girth. And they’re about to hold a private session about the industry’s second HIV outbreak. They brush past a reporter who asks, Isn’t it risky to shoot films in strange lands with women outside of the industry’s network of HIV-tested performers? “Mmmm,” one of them answers, nodding his head affirmatively. They’ve made a vow not to talk to the press. They’re scared shitless.

Maybe things had gone too far.

It seems each HIV outbreak in the industry correlates to a nihilistic new frontier in porn performance. During the 1998 scandal that had eight performers eventually testing positive for the virus that causes AIDS, “D.P.” – double penetration, one in the backdoor, one in front – was the rage. Critics blamed this risky business for the resulting infections, but instead of pulling out, producers continued to push the envelope. The latest outbreak, now mostly contained, is believed to have spread HIV to four performers so far via an even riskier new stunt, the “D.A.” – double anal, two large men, one over-stretched orifice. Grabbing new dollars requires new thrills – but contemporary porn is taking bigger risks than just pushing the body to its (seemingly unreachable) limits. If you consider the origins of the latest HIV outbreak, you might be asking if porn has suicidal tendences.

Typical footage shot in Brazil, a leading country in South America for HIV infection: An American actor penetrates the anus of a petite Brazilian girl – young and usually otherwise unknown to the adult epicenter of L.A.’s “porn Valley” and its HIV-testing system. He pulls out and tugs on her cheeks to show the camera her thin-skinned anal abyss, outstretched and pulsing with varicose vulnerability. Maybe he’ll ejaculate there, and show it off likewise. Then another unknown actress might scoot up and lap up the excess, then share it in a kiss with the first female, passing the stuff back and forth for what’s known as a “snowball.” This is how not to do safe sex, kids.

(“Don’t try to go home and do this with your girlfriend,” warns one industry insider.) In fact, it could even be seen as a form of “bug chasing,” that gay underground sport of going “bareback” with a stranger just for the thrill of risking your life.

“You create a Russian roulette environment,” says Phill Wilson, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Black AIDS Institute.

“It’s getting bigger and bigger,” adds Joey Serio, talent manager at Adult Staffing Services. “When was the first D.P. done? It wasn’t that long ago. It’s now double anals. And then what’s next?”

It’s easy to blame industry greed and lust for its indifference and even enthusiasm for stunt sex and the resulting crisis, but the truth is that the market – just like America’s huge appetite for drugs and super-sized fast food – supports this perilous sport.

(“Any niche sexual act is on the market because there’s a market for it,” says Adam Grayson of Search Extreme, the self-proclaimed “Library of Congress of porn.”)

Since the latest outbreak began April 13, porn industry leaders have been in crisis mode about how to feed the market beast without sacrificing their people. The debate should lead to the obvious: Mandatory condoms, more frequent HIV tests, a 60-day quarantine for performers who have gone abroad, and an end to ejaculating in the anus and vagina (“cream pies”). But, fearing lost business, many adult film studios have resisted outside attempts at reform. The clout of the industry and its demanding fans – mainstreamed via pay-per-view, major hotel chains and online mail order – is extraordinary. No, it won’t use condoms. No, it won’t do biweekly testing. No, it won’t quarantine performers who have gone overseas. No, it won’t end cream pies. Not even in the face of proposed state regulation, a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study of the HIV crisis, and a looming obscenity crackdown by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

“The porn business will cease to exist if condoms are enforced,” says adult entertainment magnate and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. “People just don’t like to see them being used in the films. I don’t think that will ever become a reality.”

Not over porn’s dead body.

“This is all about the money,” says Dr. Sharon Mitchell, executive director of the Adult Industry Medical Heath Care Foundation (AIM). “The non-condom films sell more and are picked up for distribution more readily. These people will head for the hills if they mandate condoms. Since this outbreak, there has been such a popularity of people just pulling up and saying, sure they’re on hiatus, but they could be shooting in Thailand, Budapest, or Prague already. They can find cheaper talent overseas.”

Even as the $9-billion American porn industry came to a halt as a result of the outbreak, there were reports that at least one male performer and possibly others broke their voluntary quarantines, with a handful of performers even leaving the country. This week the industry exhaled when AIM announced that 21 performers on its quarantine list, mostly men, were cleared and could go back to work almost a month early. The move paved a way for the voluntary production moratorium to be lifted. The sex will go on.

AIM and Adult Video News (AVN) recommended the work stoppage, particularly for 53 performers who had sex with patient zero, porn star Darren James, or his partners. Three women who had D.A. scenes with James, some involving internal vaginal ejaculation, tested positive. And, as feared, foreign production stepped in to fill the void of quickly produced, revolving-door smut: British producer Ben Dover offered quarantine-era releases with “plenty of anal and D.P. scenes,” states AVN. “They’re all new girls,” Dover’s partner, Howie Klien, told AVN. “These titles are pretty dirty. I think they’re better than ever.”

The adult film game is often said to be “like junior high school.” AIM’s Mitchell and AVN’s staff of writers weigh in like counselors – not quite the enemies the government and the mainstream press are made out to be, but elder voices of reason nonetheless.

The industry has mainstream muscle to back up its resistance. There were 11,000 releases in 2002, and 800 million video rentals – more than two rentals a day for every man, woman, and child in the United States. The industry employs 1,200 actors and generates more than $36 million in state taxes. Heiress and TV star Paris Hilton crossed into porn last year, home-movie style, when a private sex tape hit the Internet. Porn star Ron Jeremy must have passed her going the other way, as he’s being featured on the WB’s Surreal Life, a reality show. Popularity makes the porn game hard to tame. It is America’s favorite one-handed pastime.

Industry backers cite two big problems with government regulation. One is the market, which demands nasty, risky sex. The other is the nature of the business, which, to use the business’s own phraseology, is often “underground.” While a state law might effectively regulate the big studios in adult filmmaking, it might not reach the guy taping sex in his basement. With regulation, industry leaders fear runaway production – not only to riskier locales such as Brazil, Thailand, and the Philippines, but to Joe Six-pack’s home studio in San Diego. That, they say, will only lead to far worse outbreaks.

But even some boosters scratch their heads at the porn biz’s resistance to change after major outbreak No. 2. “The system didn’t work this time,” said Mike Ross, a former adult biz lobbyist. “If it makes sense for a cannery worker to have certain protection on the job, it makes sense for an adult industry worker, too.”

As it is, there are no rules. “They’re the only unregulated industry in California, and they want to keep it that way,” says Brian K. O’Neel, spokesman for Tahoe City Republican Assemblyman Tim Leslie.

A public hearing on a bill authored by Leslie that would regulate the industry with a condom-only policy, biweekly testing, and a provision that would open it up to worker lawsuits, is scheduled to take place June 4 at the Van Nuys State Office Building. So far, O’Neel says, pro-porn forces “have enough clout” in the assembly “that the bill didn’t move forward,” but he hopes the Van Nuys hearing will produce new momentum.

“We do value the people and we do want to offer protections,” he says, noting that the bill was conceived before the latest outbreak. “We were not chasing headlines.”

Even the stars are calling for change. Jeremy proposes that condoms be used on foreign shoots, and Jenna Jameson said in a statement that “any performer coming into the United States from abroad … should have a quarantine period in which they must wait at least 60 days before beginning work again in the industry.”

Mitchell, meanwhile, weighs in on the side of more self-regulation: a 30-day quarantine for performers who have traveled out of country and a government-sanctioned seal of approval that would reward condom-using porn with a stamp on their products. She thinks that large hotel chains and cable companies would rather show condom-only action rather than risk having the reputation of encouraging fatal sex.

The county Department of Health Services might have some ideas of its own as well. It requested that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study porn’s latest HIV problems and come up with safety recommendations. NIOSH spokesman Fred Blosser said the research agency agreed, and that this could result in anything from simple, non-binding recommendations to a request that its regulatory sister, the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration, step in with hard-and-fast rules about sex on the set.

Boosters say self-regulation works, often citing the industry’s .003 percent infection rate before the latest outbreak as safer than that of the general population in the U.S., at 0.8 percent. “It’s safer to have sex in the adult industry than it is with your next door neighbor, who doesn’t get tested every month,” says Flynt. “Our health officials and people in the industry, they panic, and they lose track of what the reality really is.”

Porn reality, however, is less flattering behind closed doors. Talent agent and sometime performer Serio says he’s been on shoots in San Diego where no one asked for the performers’ HIV test results. “If you’re not enforcing it, I can’t work,” he says. “It’s just an unsafe environment. And that’s just San Diego, a few hours away.”

Even in Los Angeles, voluntary enforcement of the testing system is sometimes lax and never foolproof. Some directors, not necessarily tested under AIM’s network, are long-rumored to have “casting couch” sex with newcomers off-camera. Many performers, of course, have sex outside the industry as well. What’s more, performer Lara Roxx, who contracted HIV from James in a double anal scene she says she wasn’t expecting, told AVN that she hadn’t even seen James’s HIV test. (It was negative at the time anyway, since it can take weeks for an infection to register.)

“Testing is company enforced,” explains Serio. “When you go into a shoot, they get your ID. They don’t have to get your test because it’s not by law. I look at the girl and go, ‘Here’s my test.’ And she gives me her test. Sometimes you forget to ask. The industry should have set standards. It takes every company. But not every company will agree.”

Some, like Vivid Video and Wicked Pictures, do require condom use in their films. A vast majority of gay porn makers require the same.

“We made the decision that it’s more important for us to protect the people who work with us day in and day out than to make an extra dime,” says Vivid CEO Steve Hirsch. “It costs more money to shoot with condoms and it affects your sales. There are fewer guys who work well with condoms, and they raise their price. The nature of the condom makes it a little more difficult to shoot the movie and it takes more time. It does cost you financially. That really didn’t play into our decision and we were going to make sure nobody contracted a disease on our sets.”

Some studios allow actors to use condoms ´´ if they so desire. But far too many offer to double young actresses’ pay if they go without.

Darren James, widely regarded as a well-liked, mild-mannered old pro, apparently contracted HIV in Brazil while on location in March with producer T.T. Boy and perhaps others who might have partnered up to get a piece of the footage – a common practice in the adult industry. He had sex with 13 women, one of whom reportedly later tested positive for HIV and who might have contracted the virus from a previous sex scene with a transsexual, according to AVN.

As with previous cases of HIV in the industry, there are doubters who cite the lesser likelihood that men can get HIV from sex with a woman. Indeed, besides James, only women have contracted the disease so far in this outbreak, notes porn star Jeremy.

“In all fairness, it’s difficult to go from girl to guy,” Jeremy says. “Whatever Darren did, it was his business. But there’s a lot of beautiful girls in Brazil, and some of them have dicks.”

Indeed, says a spokesman for a large Brazilian porn operation: “It’s something people come to Brazil for. They can be very good looking most of the time, and it can be a good surprise, too. Some of the best transsexual scenes are done in Brazil with American producers. It’s one of the specialties here. If you want a transsexual movie they come to Brazil.”

No one with direct knowledge of James or his whereabouts in Brazil doubt he’s as straight as they come, however. Those who knew him have said the 40-year-old heath nut would never have had sex with men or transsexuals. He even reportedly tried to leave the industry after a few years in the late ’90s, only to return when T.T. Boy offered him a contract for steady work, including shoots in Brazil.

Brazil is perhaps the most popular location for U.S. porn producers outside North America, with about five percent of what’s on the shelf in the adult section of American video stores having been shot in the tropical nation, according to AVN publisher Tim Connelly. The Independent Online of Brazil quotes a Brazilian performer as saying American crews “often bring in their own male talent but usually hire Brazilian actresses who often moonlight as prostitutes and are willing to have sex without condoms.” Part of the attraction is girls who will do almost anything for $350 or less, while such high-risk sex performances in the San Fernando Valley can cost three times more and up.

“The economy over there is substantially worse, so girls work for significantly less money than they do here,” says AVN’s Connelly. “It’s probably the most money they make for an adult film. Some use condoms, some don’t.”

Considering that the smut du jour involves sex workers, D.A. stunt-work, and a lack of condoms, it’s also a good place to catch HIV. In fact, with a near-one-percent infection rate, Brazil is among the top three South American countries for AIDS transmission.

So it’s not much of a surprise that a majority of Brazil’s own skin flicks employ condoms, according to reports. And you’d think American porn makers would take note and be a little cautious, but if anything they’ve taken the go-for-it attitude of extreme sports onto the sets of Sao Paulo, using performers who had not been tested at the Valley-based AIM, as is the norm for stateside shoots.

But often, American productions eschew condoms in Brazil, usually using on-site HIV testing instead. “All the stuff we’ve seen up here is non-condom,” Mitchell says. “They must be shooting way underground.”

T.T. Boy has made a name for himself directing “ethnic lines” of porn flicks, from Big Bubble Butt Brazilian Orgy to Asia Mania. The world is his oyster. But some who know the short, buff performer, say he’s distraught over the outbreak. He was initially quarantined as someone who worked with a woman who had done a scene with James. And he was not only James’s employer, but also a friend, says Ross.

“T.T. Boy actually is the person paying for Jessica Dee’s medicine,” AVN’s Scott Ross says, referring to one of the HIV-positive actresses. “It was like boom, here you go. Nobody’s making him do it. It’s tearing him apart, this situation.”

Of course, T.T. Boy has his detractors, but insiders explain that everyone in porn, especially the more successful actors and producers, have plenty of haters. (“I think he’s a menace to our business,” says one competitor.) He’s sometimes seen on-screen with his hands wrapped around a starlet’s throat. But Ross warns not to read too much into what happens on the set. “Porn’s a lot like pro wrestling,” he says. “It’s a show.”

T.T. Boy and productions like his that go to Brazil and Southeast Asia certainly do “push the boundaries,” Ross admits. (T.T. Boy could not be reached for comment.) “The idea is you can see women we haven’t seen before. It’s cheaper. And they tend to go further.”

“Something was bound to happen,” adds Mitchell. “Look at the nature of the contact: It’s anal sex with internal ejaculation. It’s very, very high-risk. We don’t know the path of destruction they’re bringing back with them.”

There are also concerns that African-American men like James are more likely to perform high-risk sex in the industry – foreign shoots, gang bangs, D.P.’s, and D.A.’s.

“Actors of color have few opportunities and can be more vulnerable to being exploited,” says Wilson of the Black AIDS Institute. “It is particularly disturbing given what has been the natural trajectory of the epidemic disproportionately affecting people of color.”

Porn defenders say there is a market demand for black male performers.

“Who cares about market,” counters our Brazilian source. “Darren James is worried about the rest of his life. What about the human being in this matter?”

The problem is, in porn, performers are disposable. The average career span is less than three years, says Mitchell. Their lifestyles are fast and furious, and a day’s pay, hundreds or thousands, is quickly spent. Many performers were quaking during the moratorium on production, wondering how they were going to pay their rent. Some women went back to stripping, while some producers offered nude modeling gigs to help out. Jameson helped start an Adult Industry Assistance Fund for out of work actors.

“Americans, Europeans, everybody has to learn from this,” says the Brazilian spokesman. “Look what happens, and look what it caused. It caused a lot of damage in the American market for this business. It’s time for people to stop and see what’s going on and learn the lesson. How can this be done more carefully?
 

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