ON APRIL 13, adult film actor Darren James got a positive result back from a routine HIV test -- he had passed his last test on March 17 -- given by the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation (AIM). Two days later, Laura Roxx, one of the more than a dozen female performers who shot with James between his two tests, also turned up positive. So far, more than 50 performers have been quarantined from working because of some level of possible exposure. So began the first HIV crisis to hit the porn industry since 1998 when a nearly identical incident happened: an HIV positive male infected five female costars.
In the wake of the 1998 incident, Sharon Mitchell, a former actress, with the support of the adult industry, founded the nonprofit AIM to test performers monthly. At the time, the major companies in the industry agreed not only to mandatory testing, but also to begin using condoms in their releases. Serenity, a Las Vegas resident who is a two-time winner of the Adult Video News Award for Best Actress (the porn equivalent of an Oscar) recalls: 'The last time this happened, the major companies did go condom-mandatory.'
However, over time, in the absence of another HIV incident, some of these companies returned to the old ways. In addition, many new companies entered the market and chose not to require condom use at all. In order to stay competitive, by 2004, only a few of the major companies still required condom use. The free market, it seemed, had voted. 'It [condom use] destroys the fantasy,' says Raymond Pistol, owner of Arrow Productions, a Las Vegas-based company with a back catalogue that includes porn classics like Candy Stripers, Taboo, Devil in Miss Jones and Deep Throat. Pistol mandates performers have current tests on his sets but has never required condoms be used. 'If you look at this incident -- and, I will even say incidents -- they are major aberrations. We [the adult industry] make thousands of films.'
Pistol feels that the current testing system is adequate and notes how quickly the industry responded to James' positive test. 'When something like this comes up, we jump all over it and safeguard people as best we can.' Pistol points out that other occupations have risks, too. 'I worked one summer on a construction crew making a freeway, and we had four people killed in 90 days. There are certain inherent risks you have to acknowledge going into any industry. There are no nonrisky situations in life.'
The weakness in this analogy is that in highway construction or other occupations, once a risk is discovered, everything possible is done to minimize it: safety being the paramount consideration. In this case, though, commercial pressures (which include not only the fierce domestic competition but also condom-free European porn) clearly beat out safety. Still, Pistol argues: 'What has to be pointed out here is that you are much more likely to catch AIDS from someone you meet in a bar than in the adult industry. They aren't tested in the bars.'
Indeed, the AIM testing system has been so successful in preventing HIV infections in porn since 1998 that -- though it may be hard to believe -- some relative newbies to the industry had almost forgotten about this obvious danger when it surfaced again. 'I was shocked,' admits Kat Slater, a director for Hustler who is best known for the series Young Sluts, Inc., which is shot without condoms. 'When I first started directing three years ago, my initial thoughts were the industry must be STD infested because of the amount of f--king going on. But during the past three years there wasn't one case. I mean, continually, everyone passed. Every 30 days, and the tests were always negative, and you kind of just forget about it. So, when it finally happened last week, I was totally shocked because I had stopped thinking about it.'
After she got over her initial shock, Slater -- with the support of Hustler -- canceled a shoot scheduled for the next day. Afterwards, she learned that one of the actors she'd hired for that shoot was placed on the quarantine list for second-generation possible exposure. Slater had planned on using that actor for an unprotected anal sex scene, among the highest risk behaviors for HIV transmission.
'I called my boss and told him I thought we did the right thing. I was really relieved,' Slater says. Still, she has no plans to insist on condoms in her future flims. 'If I was Csar of Porn, I would say everyone needs to use condoms. But the problem is the economics. The last time they tried to require them, it lasted a very short time, because all it takes is one company to not agree. And, if it is not us, the Europeans are doing it [without condoms].'
Interestingly, not everyone concedes that audiences don't want to see condoms. Serenity, for example, notes that her hugely successful and award-winning films were made using condoms. 'My movies always sell quite well, and except for the first boy-girl I ever did, I have always shot with condoms. I felt it was the safer thing to do, which gave me peace of mind and made me more relaxed. But I also felt it was important to show the public that sex with condoms is still fun. The bottom line is that it still feels really good and, in this day and age, it is really quite necessary.'
Serenity is not alone. Vivid, the most successful of all adult film companies, also requires condoms.
But for now, the one thing everyone agrees about is that the adult film industry is unlikely to change its practices and mandate condoms on account of this latest round of HIV infections (the full extent of which will not be known for at least another week).