Porn HIV Scare May Signal Coming Changes

Darren James’s fellow adult industry performers speak well of him, calling him “a real gentleman.” Women liked working with him, and his professional standards were higher than those of many up-and-coming porn stars: he got tested oftener for HIV than the customary once-monthly checkup. This requirement, adopted by most porn companies in the 1990s after two high-profile HIV cases shook the industry, is a nod to safety by people whose work clearly puts them at risk for sexually transmitted conditions.

Now Darren James is at the center of the adult business’s latest HIV scandal, making it likely the gentleman will not work in the industry again. James tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS after a working trip he took to Brazil in March. Porn companies shoot outside the U.S. for various reasons: lower costs, new faces, more exotic locations.

But testing standards may not be as exacting in other places as they are at home in the Valley. The 12 women who did scenes with James between his Brazil trip and his positive test have become the first generation of a possible porn industry outbreak. One of these women, Lara Roxx, tested positive shortly after James’ status became public knowledge. Several others have tested positive in the weeks since.

HIV tests in the porn industry are conducted by the AIM Clinic, founded by former porn star Sharon Mitchell after she’d been at risk during one of the HIV scares in the late 1990s. Now armed with a Ph.D. in sexology, Mitchell has spent a lot of time this week talking to the press — and to the terrified porn performers she tracked down because they had had sex with James, or with someone who had. “The AIM system is set up to detect and prevent HIV in this industry, and it worked the way it’s supposed to” in the James case, says Mitchell.

The adult industry seeks to police itself largely so it does not have to make condoms mandatory, which industry spokesmen say will turn off the fans. Only two companies making heterosexual porn (about 1% of the industry) require condoms; others leave it up to the performers; while most count on negative test results from AIM and a largely closed pool of talent to stop the spread of disease, a sort of huge-scale monogamy among the 1200 or so performers in the business.

This number doesn’t count talent from Brazil and elsewhere, however, nor performers’ partners. As James’ case shows, HIV can enter the supposedly closed system at a variety of points, and then, instead of everyone being safer than a randomly chosen sexually active group, everyone is put at some degree of risk.

Many have criticized this strategy. Voices were raised as early as the mid-1980s that recommended porn performers use condoms. Most of the industry has agreed to a 60-day moratorium until exposed performers’ test results are in. But many charge that the conditions that allowed James to seroconvert won’t change unless porn producers take safer sex more seriously.

San Franciscan Peter Rogers of Cybernet doesn’t see a problem with that; he advocates condom use at all levels and requires they be used in his sex shoots by everyone but couples. “Companies in LA will pay more if you don’t use them, or won’t hire you at all if you insist on them,” he says. “In this country there’s not very good sex education, so people learn about sex from porn.” Rogers is concerned they’re getting an unhealthy message.

But many LA producers see an outside problem that can somehow be avoided. “Many make offensive and dangerously wrongheaded statements about HIV being a ‘gay’ disease,” says Violet Blue, author of The Ultimate Guide to Adult Videos. “In the realm of portraying healthy and safe sex porn often fails, because pornographers want to give viewers fantasy sex they demand.” Blue’s book and website, tinynibbles.com, includes a chart that shows the STD risks associated with many common porn sex practices.

The industry may not be given leeway to self-police for much longer. The LA County Department of Health Services has called in state work site safety regulators California Occupational Health and Safety Administration; reportedly, government intervention might be around the corner. “As in most American employment sectors, sex work involves some occupational risks, which one learns how to control,” says worker injury expert Peter Rousmaniere. But some outbreak watchers worry that because porn and other forms of sex work are considered non-mainstream, OSHA might urge restrictions that would adversely affect the industry’s ability to function at all.

Mitchell is complying with legal requirements, but with a great sense of concern. “We fear government intervention at this time because we feel self-regulation is the best way to go. We agree with Cal-OSHA standards but don’t believe government seizure of records is the best way to get cooperation from this community.” Her concern — that this may drive the industry underground and make performers afraid to be tested — is echoed by others.

Industry insiders Ernest Greene and Nina Hartley point out that porn’s HIV transmission rate has been zero for the past seven years: “AIM has administered literally thousands of tests to adult performers, who have gone on to engage in tens of thousands of on-camera sex acts without a single instance of HIV transmission as a result. This is one of the rare and great public health success stories in the tragic history of the HIV epidemic.”

But this strategy relies on a certain amount of faith. As Hartley and Levine note, it’s far better than doing nothing. But its very success breeds a kind of complacency, even naivete. “I thought porn people were the cleanest people in the world,” Lara Roxx told avn.com’s Mark Kernes.

The effect the outbreak will have on the adult industry remains to be seen, but two angles are especially interesting. First, testing and tracking done by the AIM Clinic make this a true in vivo research project. Perhaps at no other time has it been so clear under what conditions heterosexuals might pass HIV to one another, so this outbreak may have implications for education and testing far outside the borders of the insular porn business.

Second, after 20 years of enormous struggles within the HIV community, the Los Angeles Health Department may have just dealt a blow to the principle of confidentiality in testing. The lives of Darren James and Lara Roxx and the other newly infected performers have just been changed forever, and it’s worth wondering how much more change may lie ahead.

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