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Porn: End of a Boom?

Porn Valley- The multibillion-dollar American porn film industry has thrived in California since the 1970s – until two performers tested positive for HIV. Now production has ground to a halt and health authorities are threatening tough new laws that could close it down IT COULD BE ANY doctor’s surgery, anywhere in America. The cloakroom, however, is the first giveaway: each hook is made from transparent plastic and moulded into the shape of an erect penis. Then there is the brightly coloured macaw perched in the corner, and the poster with the words Why Whores Are My Heroes on the wall above the water cooler. Not to mention the sign warning anyone who tries to “solicit patients” that they will be ejected and asked to make a donation to the condom fund.

From behind the counter emerges the kind of female doctor usually seen only in a certain kind of film, ordered at a certain time of night, in a certain kind of hotel.

“We’re incredibly busy right now,” she snaps at me. “But I can give you two minutes. Follow me.” I pass a gold-leafed certificate on the wall revealing that the doctor – of indeterminate age with jet black hair, scarlet lipstick and tight-fitting denim under her unbuttoned white medic’s jacket – is Sharon Mitchell. She holds a PhD from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. She is also, I later learn, a porn star who retired in 1995 after a two-decade career.

This is, of course, no ordinary doctor’s surgery. Dr Mitchell is executive director of the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation, AIM for short, situated next door to an Enterprise car rental outlet in the affluent Los Angeles suburb of Sherman Oaks. AIM exists at the core of California’s $11 billion (£6.2 billion) porn industry – and has also found itself at the centre of a scandal that could result in the same industry’s imminent extinction. No wonder Dr Mitchell is in such a filthy mood.

Sherman Oaks is one of several suburbs that make up the San Fernando Valley, a sweltering stretch of Mojave desert just north of the Hollywood Hills. The Valley is the capital of America’s porn film business – known proudly to its 4,000 or so employees, including 1,200 “performers”, as “the other Hollywood”. It even has its own alternative annual Oscars ceremony, called the Adult Video News Awards. The real Hollywood paid homage to the other one with Boogie Nights, which chronicled the life of a fictitious 1970s performer called Dirk Diggler, and the recent biopic of porn star John Holmes, American Wonderland. It was then, at the start of the home video boom, that the porn makers arrived in Southern California for the same reason as the mainstream film studios: the weather, which allows all-season shooting.

Until recently, the Valley’s 200 or so pornographers were thriving, making billions from DVD sales, internet subscriptions and films-on-demand delivered to hotel rooms. Today performers are out of work, sets stand empty and new releases are on hold. There is talk that the business may never be the same again. The golden age may be coming to a sticky end.

The trouble began on April 12 when a black porn actor called Darren James – star of Little White Slave Girls Part 4, as well as a series that celebrates oversized male genitals – walked into Dr Mitchell’s surgery and took a routine monthly HIV test: the tests are voluntary, but most of California’s mainstream adult video producers demand them. “They log on to our database every morning,” Dr Mitchell explains, showing me the computer in her office, “so they can see who’s been cleared.” The testing is hardly surprising: only 17 per cent of male actors wear condoms, regardless of whether they are performing with women or other men.

James thought he had no reason to worry: although he had recently returned from a shoot in Brazil, he had been given the all-clear on March 17. This time, however, he was handed a slip of paper saying he was HIV positive. The virus, it seemed, had taken a while to appear.

For the close-knit Californian adult film business – “close-knit” being a tasteful way to put it – it was a catastrophe. About 1,200 men and women make 4,000 films each year, each one containing up to six sex scenes. As a result, nearly everyone has sex with nearly everyone else, directly or indirectly, in any given month. James, realising what he had done to himself and his fellow performers, promptly disappeared, later to turn up in San Diego. In the meantime, a 22-year-old Canadian actress with the stage name Laura Roxx also tested positive for HIV. Roxx had decided to become a porn star only three months earlier.

Dr Mitchell posted on AIM’s website a list of performers who had engaged in direct sex with either James or Roxx, and a list of those who had slept with James and Roxx’s sexual partners. The initial list had 65 names on it. “We’re putting those performers in quarantine for 30 days, then we’ll re-test them, then put them in quarantine for another 30 days, just to be safe,” Dr Mitchell says. But for the actors, the studios that make the films and the modelling agencies (the biggest, LA Direct Models, is owned by two Britons who use the stage names Hannah Harper and Ben English), it will be a devastating 60 days. “My business, like everyone else’s, is almost entirely shut down,” says English, who also works as a porn performer. Ed Powers, the veteran Valley porn producer behind the Dirty Debutants series and Global Warming, adds that the only work available for many performers is “solo work and a lot of print work, like Hustler magazine”. And actors’ fees, he says, are falling fast.

More devastating, however, has been the reaction of the California health authorities, who want to force all male performers to wear condoms. There has also been talk of AIM’s health records being supboenaed. Industry veterans predict that the condom rule will force porn producers out of California.

“If it becomes mandatory then the business will go underground and out of state,” says Tim Connelly, publisher and editor-in-chief of Adult Video News, the porn industry’s answer to Variety.

“I worry about it because it’ll be impossible to track partners and keep the extensive databases that we have today. There’s a 0.03 per cent chance of getting HIV in our industry, based on 4,000 movies being made a year, with five to six sex scenes per movie, over six years. You have more chance of getting it by going to a local bar and picking up a beautiful woman who looks like an angel. If you don’t want to get HIV, become a porn actor. You’ll find more people in boxing who have gotten it, probably more people in mainstream Hollywood who have gotten it.” Other industry veterans say condom use is equivalent to showing the stunt wires in Hollywood action films – and that American men will buy their porn flicks from Europe instead, where the actors are latex-free.

California’s health officials, however, say there is no reason why workplace safety rules should not be applied. “You couldn’t imagine a construction company sending a person to a work site without a hard hat,” an apparently straight-faced Peter Kerndt, director of the sexually transmitted disease programme at the Los Angeles County health department, told the Los Angeles Times. “I look at this strictly as an employer-employee issue.”

The HIV scare is the first in six years for the porn industry, but unfortunately for the adult film makers it has had the effect of reminding the American public just how mainstream they have become, thanks to both the internet and an increasingly permissive popular culture. Filmgoers of all ages, for example, flocked to see Boogie Nights; a female Cambridge graduate devised a stage adaptation of the classic porn flick Debbie Does Dallas in New York; the Showtime cable channel broadcast a reality show about the porn entrepreneur Adam Glasser; and a porn actress, Mary Carey, ran for Governor of California, as did Larry Flynt, owner of the infamous Hustler magazine empire.

Oddly, much of this has happened as America’s religious Right, emboldened by the Bush Administration, has grown stronger. The Attorney-General, John Ashcroft, has even launched an obscenity case against a Los Angeles porn company called Extreme Associates, whose films depict simulated rapes and murder. Instead of bringing the charges in Hollywood, where the company could easily argue that its material is not obscene by local community standards, prosecutors made their case in Pittsburgh, a rather less porn-friendly town, where Extreme’s tapes had been ordered by agents. The War on Terror, however, appears to have distracted the Justice Department from other big anti-porn cases.

Even anti-porn campaigners are not convinced that the Bush Administration will shut down the Valley. “That’s very optimistic,” says Diana Russell, professor emeritus of sociology at Mills College in California and author of Against Pornography: The Evidence of Harm. “The result of the proliferation of pornography is that people have become used to it. We live in a pornographic culture, really.” As for the HIV scare, she says:

“There’ll be a lot of effort to minimise this and I don’t think it’ll have any long term effect on the industry – unless it keeps happening.” The industry certainly has money on its side, but just how much remains unclear. “There aren’t any really accurate statistics because the industry’s made up of small, privately held companies,” Connelly says. “But we established that it’s a multibillion-dollar industry: about $11 billion in revenues, we think.”

According to Powers, who claims to have pioneered “point of view shooting” or filming himself having sex with girls, most Valley porn companies are making between $1 million and $1.5 million in annual revenue, with profits of anything between $100,000 and $250,000. “It’s not gloating money,” he insists. “I don’t have a yacht. I don’t wear jewellery. I’m more worried about my family and friends – if someone needs an operation, I can pay for it.”

Fixed costs are undeniably low. Porn films can be made for as little as a few thousands dollars, with directors such as Powers shooting the material themselves in their own homes, some of which have swimming pools and dramatic canyon views. The biggest overhead is the cost of paying the performers. Males are paid only when they ejaculate – typically $100-£250 – hence its being known in the business as “the money shot”.

Females are paid according to the acts they are willing to perform. Distribution is through websites, online DVD retailers, sex shops or video rental outlets.

Competition, however, is brutal and only a few titles stand out. For successful producers, however, the returns can be vast, especially given the cover price of $39.99 for a DVD and the $12.99 charge of ordering an adult film in a hotel room. And the companies that profit from the porn industry are not all sleazy one-man outfits. Last year Americans rented 750 million adult films from high-street outlets and bought many millions more in hotel rooms – cash which goes straight to the bottom line of retailers and hotel chains. Telephone sex also generates about $1 billion a year, with some of the profits going to blue-chip telephone companies.

The porn performers themselves seem to get the worst deal – in spite of the claims of firms such as LA Direct Models, which boasts on its website that girls can earn “15k to 20k a month”. And many performers, especially the women, also end up with emotional and drug problems as a result of their chosen line of work.

To help to ease the current financial strain, Jenna Jameson, America’s biggest porn star, has launched an Adult Industry Assistance Fund to help the men and women who have been put out of work by the HIV scare. The fund was launched with her husband, the producer Jay Gardina. “Jenna and I have made a substantial contribution to this fund,” he says, “which will provide some bridge cash to actresses and actors who have been thrown out of work because of the precautionary measures nearly everyone is taking.”

But back at the AIM surgery in Sherman Oaks, porn actors seem to be worried about more than just money. As I prepare to leave, a well-known porn actor with close-cropped hair and an American football player’s physique, emerges from a back room holding the hand of a young Asian woman.

They are both granite-faced. The star of several bestselling porn vidoes hurtles out of the door and clambers into a battered car with a “Got Porn?” sticker on the bumper – a parody of America’s Got Milk? advertising campaign. He does not want to talk.

Overhead, the 80ft palm trees that line Ventura Boulevard sway in the breeze as the sun beats down on the pavement. It is another perfect day for a porn shoot.
 

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