Porn Faces Reality

HIV outbreak in California porn industry highlights risky business

On March 17, porn star Darren James did what is standard procedure in his line of work: He took an HIV test at the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation (AIM), the organization responsible for testing all performers for HIV, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. In the following days, he took a copy of his results (negative) to the sets where he filmed scenes (some without condoms) with 13 different women. Although the industry's self-imposed rule is to test every 30 days, about three weeks later James got another test (insiders say that he was conscientious, and often re-tested before his test had "expired"). On April 13, Sharon Mitchell, director of AIM, notified James that he had tested positive. Within 72 hours, Mitchell had compiled a primary list of performers who had worked with James since March 17, and a secondary list of performers who had worked with people on the primary list. These performers—53 in all—have voluntarily quarantined themselves until they can be re-tested. On April 15, one of the women James had worked with, Lara Roxx, tested positive.

This HIV outbreak has nearly halted porn production in the San Fernando Valley, and performers have expressed a range of reactions from shock and finger-pointing to fear and sadness. But this devastating turn of events illustrates an important point: AIM's system works. As soon as one person tested positive, AIM was able to track all others who were exposed. This nonprofit organization (aim-med.org), which is not regulated by any government agency, has conducted about 80,000 HIV tests in the past seven years, and this is the first incidence of transmission. (The other positive tests have been of newcomers only.) AIM administers the best test available: the PCR-DNA test, which detects a small quantity of HIV viral matter in the bloodstream. Experts believe that it takes anywhere between 72 hours and 15 days after one contracts the virus for it to be detectable.

This event illuminates issues that touch not only adult-film stars but all sexually active people: issues of risk, personal choice, and responsibility. Gossip and speculation aside, no one knows how Darren James was infected, but most have assumed (although there's no way to prove it) that Lara Roxx was infected by James. Could her infection have been prevented? It's been suggested that if performers engage in risky behavior—like having unprotected sex with people outside the industry or with porn stars in countries that don't have the same HIV testing protocol as the United States—they should not work for several weeks, then re-test.

The most commonsense way to lower (but not eliminate) the risk is for performers to use condoms. Right now, only a few companies (VCA, Vivid, and Wicked) are condom-only, meaning that all performers must wear condoms during vaginal and anal penetration scenes. In addition, several performers have chosen to use condoms in all the scenes they shoot. Industry folks claim that videos featuring condom use do not sell as well as their condom-free counterparts, and that they won't sell at all in markets outside the U.S. Vivid admits that sales have been hurt, but as CEO Steve Hirsch says, "Hey, we'll bite the bullet; we'll make a little bit less money, but we'll be sure that nobody contracts anything on our sets." If the entire industry agreed on condom use, then the market would certainly have to adjust; consumers would have no other choice but to embrace prophylactics as part of their viewing experience. But some claim it would drive producers either underground or to foreign countries. The gay-porn industry responded to the AIDS crisis by going all-condom; however, in recent years, there has been a rise in the production of "bareback" videos, which have found a strong share of the market.

"Performers must take an active interest in their own personal health and safety," says Ira Levine, who directs and produces adult videos under the name Ernest Greene and is the chairman of the board of directors of AIM. When pressed to elaborate, he adds, "There are behaviors, like the one in the disputed scene, where there is likelihood of trauma to the body. I think those extreme scenes are a bad idea to begin with, but if they must go forward, extra protection would be meritorious." He's referring to the fact that the scene between Darren James and Lara Roxx was what even insiders consider extreme: a bare double anal with an internal pop. Translation: She had two condomless dicks in her ass, both of which ejaculated inside her. Compare that to a scene of vaginal penetration with a condom and an external cum shot, and you can see that some things are clearly riskier than others.

Porn is in the business of fantasy, and the majority of producers do not consider it educational or a model for how people should behave. When viewers see actors engage in dangerous behavior in a Hollywood movie—running into a burning building, shooting heroin, or jumping from a skyscraper—there is an understanding that there are pyrotechnics experts on the set, the drugs aren't real, and a thick mattress is waiting to break the star's fall. But when it comes to porn, there are no special effects, just real naked people, genitals exposed and aroused, fucking. In hardcore, that can't be faked, and a rubber cannot be erased in post-production.

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