To some people, the idea of workplace safety evokes visions of hard hats and safety goggles. Others may hark back to Meryl Streep sporting a shag haircut as Karen Silkwood, a nuclear power plant worker who blew the whistle on poor and unenforced safety measures.
Like Silkwood, porn performers face dangerous exposure every time they go to work ... albeit a different kind.
The porn industry operates like an adult version of the CBS reality show Kid Nation; the one where a gaggle of children settle into a ghost town with no adult supervision and have to create their own system of governance. In porn nation, adults -- with at least one pseudonym each -- settle into the San Fernando Valley with essentially no government supervision and have to create their own system of on-set HIV prevention.
In June the press cried HIV “outbreak” in the adult entertainment industry when a porn actress known as Patient Zero tested positive for HIV. After a hasty initial investigation, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, led by Jonathan Fielding, released data to the Los Angeles Times indicating there had been 16 unpublicized cases of HIV among porn performers since 2004. Five days later, the health department backpedaled, upping the number of cases to 18, but recognizing they had no way to confirm how many of the 18 were actually porn performers.
Sharon Mitchell, founder of the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation, told the Times all previously unpublicized cases involved either a nonperformer or an aspiring performer who left the industry after testing positive.
Patient Zero engaged in unprotected sex both on and off camera in the week between the “expiration” of her most recent test and the time her new results came back. Through the health care foundation’s extensive online database, which keeps track of test results, shoot dates, cast lists, scene pairings, and sexual acts performed, all of the performer’s on-set sex partners were able to be contacted and have tested negative as of August 1.
Still, the damage had been done, once again raising a question that resurfaces in the porn world every time a performer tests positive. Is enough being done to protect the performers?
The majority of straight studios (and a handful of gay ones) require monthly HIV/STD testing from Adult Industry Medical. Almost every straight studio frowns on condom use; it’s actually more of a scowl than a frown.
“I’ve had chlamydia and gonorrhea probably five or six times in the last five years,” says porn star Christian XXX, who previously performed as Maxx Diesel in gay porn. “It happens. You take a week off and you retest.”
Tony Malice of JM Productions, a straight porn production company, says the business isn't really set up for performers who refuse to work on camera without a condom: “If a girl only wants to work with a condom, she can seek out that work ... same for men. But it will be much less work."
While straight performers will be hard-pressed to find a company that will allow condoms, performers who test positive are all but banned from working in straight porn. Adult Industry Medical is touted, as Christian XXX puts it, as “the first line of defense ... if you test HIV-positive, guess what, you don’t get to be in porn. We weeded you out of our business, our circle.”
It's different in gay porn.
HIV-positive performers can and do perform in gay porn, because most gay porn studios don't require testing.
The use of condoms on gay porn sets makes the issue of HIV status a moot point to some producers, enabling a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. But rumored government regulations mandating that all California-based porn studios test its performers has studio heads running scared.
Though there are no scientific statistics, there is a quiet acknowledgment among adult industry professionals that a significant number of gay male porn performers are HIV-positive. A survey conducted by TheSword.com of nearly 100 gay male performers says 30% of them responded as being either HIV-positive or status unknown.
Mandatory testing of gay porn stars would all but bar HIV-positive performers from appearing in films.
"HIV and STDs are a difficult topic to broach even amongst friends," says Michael Stabile, the Sword editor who ran the survey. "Add the business element and it’s that much more awkward."
Still, relying primarily on a testing facility like Adult Industry Medical isn't without flaws. One of the potentially fatal flaws, as Fielding explained to Times, is the window period. Even using an early-detection PCR DNA test, which has a 24-hour turnaround, it takes nine to 11 days after exposure for HIV to show up on tests. "Let’s say you’re infected on Monday, tested on Wednesday, and perform on Friday,” Fielding told the Times. "You would show up as negative, but you’re not negative.”
While relying only on Adult Industry Medical's testing and not using condoms may sound sketchy, until recently, bareback-loyal studios like Hot Desert Knights, which completely bars condoms from its films, simply took the performer’s word on his HIV status.
In February 2008, Bill Gardner, president of the studio, announced a partnership with Adult Industry Medical that would require testing for its performers.
“We always serosorted them [the performers] according to what they told us their status was, [but] since the advent of the PCR DNA HIV test, which shortens the window from time of infection to time of a positive test ... it was time for us to take this step,” Gardner says.
Up until making this move, bareback studios used "kind of an honor system," according to Malice, conjuring up images of naked women French-manicured-pinky-swearing that they haven’t fucked in the last two weeks.
Stephan Sirard of NextDoorMale.com is one of the very few studio heads who requires condoms and monthly testing for all: straight or gay, male or female, for partnered or solo scenes.
“Condoms break. Condoms come off. And with testing there are window periods. Combine both for best practices. Studios that don’t use condoms and don’t test should be in court for murder,” Sirard says.
According to a report from the Los Angeles County health department, between 2004 and 2008, nearly 2,000 porn performers contracted almost 3,000 cases of various STDs. That said, the county department recommends but does not require condom use on porn sets.
“Right now it’s the policy of the county of Los Angeles and the state of California to look the other way,” says the president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Michael Weinstein.
The AIDS group is currently suing the department in an effort to make it require condom use. The health department is “abdicating its responsibility to perform its main function -- which is to protect the public health,” says Whitney Engeran-Cordova, director of AIDS Healthcare Foundation's public health division.
California Occupational Safety and Health is responsible for enforcing state laws and regulations such as the blood-borne pathogen standard, which requires employers to protect workers exposed to blood or bodily fluids on the job. According to the LA Times, “since 2004, five adult entertainment companies have been cited [by Cal/OSHA] for a variety of violations.” At least two of those companies were fined over $30,000 each for violating the blood borne pathogen standard mentioned above, by allowing workers to engage in unprotected sex.
Still, five citations in as many years? If the policing seems lax, it's because it's double-edged sword. If the government tries to enforce regulations, the production companies will up and move, taking with them billions of dollars in tax revenue.
“So let them move,” says Weinstein. “I don’t think that’s the basis on which we decide what public policy should be. These people are fabulously rich. Why should we care whether their profits go down? Why would we put that on a higher level than the health of these young people?”
While government regulation might give way to a mass exodus of porn companies from California, Stephan Sirard says he won’t be moving anytime soon. In fact, he welcomes government regulation.
“I would love it,” he says. “I open my arms. I can be the guinea pig. Use me as an example."
Sirard says the real reason studios don’t want to test has to do with cost and lack of organization: “They’ll have a harder time finding performers; they’ll have to spend more time coordinating and scheduling their shoots around testing.”
Studio heads who don't test put it more bluntly.
“We don’t currently ask [about HIV status],” says Kent Taylor of Raging Stallion. “We assume everyone is [HIV-positive], and if they say they are not, we assume they are lying.”
In further defense of not testing, he says that his company’s philosophy is that “people are adults and they need to make their own decisions,” though Raging Stallion makes the decision for its performers to wear condoms.
“We choose not to make porn that could put performers at risk in any, way, shape, or form,” Taylor adds.
That is, if you don’t consider gonorrhea, herpes, syphilis, chlamydia, and hepatitis A, which can all be orally transmitted, risky.
Hugh Klein, research associate professor in the Prevention Sciences Research Center at Morgan State University, reports that if condoms are used correctly every time, even if they are 99% effective, someone who has sex two times a week is going to have between one and three risk exposures every single year.
“I think it’s less necessary to have testing with condoms,” Klein says, “but is it necessary? Yes. The use of condoms does not negate the need for testing.”
There is no doubt that the studios would like to keep their performers safe. How safe, though? What level of risk are the studios willing to allow their performers to assume? How much money will they devote to their performers’ safety?
Kent Taylor is nervous. Like most of the other porn companies, he just wants to be left alone.
“This is a huge, huge, super complicated, multi-facetted conversation that… coming to the surface, this could change so many things. It could devastate a huge part of the California economy, it could really fuck with gay porn -- it could fuck with straight porn. The whole thing is a house of cards as it is right now.”
“The gay market could take the lead in this and say, ‘You guys do what you want, but we’re going to test and use condoms.’ Maybe that would change the vision of the straight market,” Sirard says hopefully. “My assets are not in my bank account. My assets are the performers.”