The Bareback Controversy
This premise is the cornerstone of the entire adult industry because it's a business of providing consumers with the stuff that fantasies are made of, enabling them to visualize experiences they could probably never access in real life.
Perfect bodies, unbridled lust — gay, straight and any combination thereof — it's all out there for the audience to access, if they so desire.
So what happens when fantasies include elements of the taboo and forbidden or even real life acts that are potentially risky and dangerous?
"People aren't that stupid," Hot Dessert Knights owner Bill Gardner said. "It's underestimating the audience. When they go see a movie that's violent, people don't run out and commit serial murders. They know they can't do that and it's a movie."
Palm Springs-based Hot Desert Knights Productions, founded by Gardner and his partner in 1998, is one of the earliest gay "bareback" studios. The movies they make exclusively feature explicit sex scenes performed without using condoms.
"In fact," Gardner said, "I've had people email me and tell me how much they enjoy having the fantasy, precisely because they know they can't go out and do it in real life. And that's OK — there's nothing wrong with that."
On the other side of this controversial and hotly emotional topic, Titan Media President Keith Webb has a very different viewpoint.
Titan, considered in the upper echelon of San Francisco's gay studios, specializes in muscular, masculine models and fetish play,and is strictly condom-only. If possible, it is Titan's policy to avoid using models who are known to have performed in bareback content.
Webb has been a vocal opponent of barebacking and an active supporter of Bay Area HIV/AIDS services and nonprofit organizations.
'Watching a Horror Movie'
"I know gay men that, watching a bareback movie for them is like watching a horror movie," Webb said. "It's not just that they're not wearing a condom. Bareback movies are specifically exploiting and eroticizing the internal cumshot. That's what this is all about. They've made the primary focus of the film the highest-risk sex act that you can perform. They've made a culture of making it hot and cool to risk your life. It just amazes me."
According to Gardner, the content produced by his company does not glorify the internal ejaculation and looking at the HDK website, for the most part, the movie synopses avoid using words like "internal" or "cum dump." However, you'll find "Hung & Raw, Palm Springs," an HDK title that does include internal ejaculations.
But on the back of HDK box covers, there is a disclaimer explaining that the contents contain scenes of unprotected sex between consenting adults for the purpose of portraying a fantasy. The disclaimer advises safe sex practices for viewers and gives information for accessing safe sex resources. As has been documented on sites like GayWideWebmasters.com, HDK also has attempted to fund safe sex resources. Gardener claims the efforts have been rejected, for the most part, because of HDK's association with barebacking.
Gardner and Webb are well aware of the realities of unprotected sex both on and off the set — because both are HIV-positive. Gardner said that he contracted the virus while having sex with a long-term partner whom he knew was positive, and the condom he was using broke.
Webb became infected at 36 years old, during his first year as a performer, by having unprotected sex with multiple partners off the set. A lifelong condom user, he admits that peer pressure combined with personal insecurity, as well as "safe sex fatigue" and the mistaken belief that he wouldn't get it if he only "topped" his partners, all factored into his diagnosis.
Despite being completely opposed on the polarizing issue of barebacking, both men run companies that are in the business of selling fantasies.
As it turns out, none of those fantasies come strictly in black-and-white.
The standard protocol for HIV/STD risk reduction in the straight adult industry is regulated by the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare organization or AIM. Founded in 1998 by former performer-turned-Ph.D. Sharon Mitchell, the clinic was the result of an HIV outbreak among the straight adult performer population.
Performers in the straight industry are required to have documentation from AIM of monthly STD screenings in order to work. To some extent, perceived importance of HIV screening among the talent takes on greater emphasis, probably because HIV is seen as a terminal diagnosis.
While there is a percentage of performers who test positive for other STDs like herpes, gonorrhea, Chlamydia and genital warts, the rates for HIV infection have been consistent since the last outbreak in 2004 — 0.0 percent, or not one case in a talent pool of approximately 1,500 active performers.
In the gay industry, the methods for dealing with HIV/STD status and disclosure are very different and difficult for the straight industry to conceive of. There is no regulated testing and no verifiable statistics for the pool of gay male performers; more than one gay studio head interviewed for this article estimated that up to 50 percent of the gay male performers pool might be HIV-positive.
Part of the logic behind this has to do with disclosure and privacy issues for gay men. Even in a community in which the population is dealing with HIV/AIDS as a day-to-day reality, there is a stigma attached to identifying oneself as HIV-positive.
"You know, in San Francisco or L.A. or New York, it's fine to be HIV-positive," Webb said. "But for everyone else living in Smyrna, Ga., or Woebegone, Ill., it's a huge stigma that could affect their lives."
The stigma associated with being a gay male "porn star" is almost nonexistent. In fact, there's a type of performer prestige within the gay community. But since performing in adult videos is often not their sole source of income, the models have lives outside of the industry to consider. Declaring HIV-positive status could have serious repercussions with employers and business associates.
"They're doing it as a sideline and a lot of the times for fun," Webb said. "They like the publicity and they want to be a porn star. It's a whole different mind-set."
Most major gay studios take a condom-only stance and assume that everyone is HIV-positive. Theoretically, condom use eliminates the need for any disclosure of HIV status unless the performer chooses to do so. Most condom-only studios will not ask for a disclosure, but encourage the models to discuss status and limitations with each other before a shooting a scene.
"It's a very private issue. It's up to the person to decide if he wants to make his condition known or not," said Michael Lucas, founder of New York-based gay production company Lucas Entertainment, Lucas was an escort prior to his career as a performer/producer. Lucas' productions are condom- only.
"I never in my life asked this question," he said. "And obviously I knew, living in Manhattan and having as much sex as I have — I'm sure that a good 50 percent of my partners were HIV-positive. I've had sex with people who were HIV-positive and I had people that had all sorts of diseases. I never got anything and I believe that's because I always use protection and common sense."
I never did or will discriminate against anyone in my life," Lucas said. "First, this is stupid; I mean, how would I know if they were positive or negative? I think this question is absolutely ridiculous and unfair to ask."
Working without condoms presents a totally different scenario.
"We'll have the models talk and they have a discussion in front of someone from the company and we ask them if they have been tested," Gardner said. "And we do sero-sorting, so that we can pair positive-with-positive and negative- with-negative."
He also freely admitted that models are not required to show documentation, but once they have discussed status and parameters for the scene it largely becomes a matter of trust. All models are required to sign a standard model release form with added clauses confirming the awareness and acceptance of potential risk.
"A lot of these models become friends and they stay with us whenever they come out [to Palm Springs, Calif.]," Gardner said. "We don't solicit models. We have an application page at the website, but they come to us and want to be in the movies."
"I'm sure that in your research you came across the terms 'bug-chaser' and 'gift-giver,'" Gardner said further. "I get emails from guys that are negative and want to be converted and from positive guys that want to infect someone. If that's what they say, then we tell them they can't be in our movies. It doesn't make any sense to me, why anyone would want to do that."
Both Webb and Gardner felt that getting tested to be aware of one's status is highly advisable. But Gardner feels that documentation can create a false sense of security on a porn set. Webb also re-emphasized issues of personal privacy and disclosure that accompany a potentially positive diagnosis.
And due to the 14-day incubation window before the virus can be detected, as well as any unknown unsafe sexual activity that might occur outside of production, both men agreed that test results could only be as good as a performer's promise — and, according to Webb, precisely the reason for the entire industry to go condom-only.
Even with condoms, Webb will consult with officials at the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) to seek advice for other types of on-set activities including fetish play and watersports.
Dr. Jeffrey C. Klausner, director of STD prevention and control services for the SFDPH, said some health care officials would like to see broader-based testing for workers in the adult industry overall.
Citing that the system developed by AIM for the straight industry has been effective so far in its prevention of further outbreaks, he pointed to the 2004 HIV outbreak that shut down adult productions in Los Angeles for two months as an indication that the harm-reduction model isn't completely foolproof.
"The current testing strategy doesn't include testing of the throat or rectum. It doesn't include herpes, and people are unaware and somewhat ignorant of the other infections that are going undetected," Klausner said.
Shortly after the 2004 outbreak, AIM's Sharon Mitchell wrote an article that appeared in the New York Times, urging the straight industry to adopt use of condoms.
Back in the 1970s
"With the explosion of the industry, the business has changed drastically," Mitchell wrote. "In 1975 when I started as an XXX-film actor, it was more like the mainstream film business: the same agent who helped me get roles on Broadway sent me out for my first pornographic film.
"Back then, films had to have 'artistic merit' to be shown in theatres legally, so the films had plots. But the San Fernando legalization and the proliferation of video changed things. Films have become increasingly hardcore because that is what sells. Rejection of condom use is purely and simply a financial issue. Filmmakers believe that viewers prefer the 'reality' of unprotected sex. But the reality of unprotected sex is risk of HIV infection."
Less than three years later, in theory and practice, almost all straight adult videos can be defined as bareback movies, with very few producers using condoms.
So is bareback content the gay equivalent of what extreme gonzo is to the straight industry? Is the supposed proliferation of bareback videos an indication that the gay audience wants edgier content with an unsafe twist?
"I think that removing the emotion and looking at it from a strictly business point of view, bareback is really about risk," Falcon Studios President/CEO Todd Montgomery said.
"I think there are people that are attracted to the thought that people are engaging in unsafe sexual behavior, and that sexual behavior could have serious consequences for them," Montgomery said. "And then I think there's a segment of people that just like to see people have sex without condoms."
Falcon has had a condom-only policy since 1991. Montgomery feels that the growth of bareback content has little to do with DVD sales dropping off over the past couple of years, though Falcon's sales have remained level. He figures that the audience that enjoys hardcore bareback videos is unlikely to be interested in Falcon product to begin with.
However, an online survey taken at the Falcon website did indicate an interest from some viewers who voted on what types of scenes they would like to see.
"It ranked number two," said Montgomery. "Military was number one."
Rob Ragan, president/partner at gay video distributor All Boys Video, said he sees a lot of demand for bareback DVDs.
"It's like anything else; if you're not supposed to have it, you want it. That's just human nature. Barebacking is becoming more mainline than condom," Ragan said.
Neither he nor anyone at All Boys endorses the practice of bareback. However, Ragan stressed that the films they sell are a fantasy scenario and not something that should be emulated by viewers in real life.
"I would have no problem if the industry were to make bareback films illegal from a moral standpoint," Ragan said. "But from a business standpoint, I think that because this is the highest revenue generator right now for any type of content, I've got to go with the flow on that."
Still, Mary Gillis feels that bareback is unlikely to overrun the world of gay adult content anytime soon.
"Our customers are constantly telling us what they want, and bareback is one of those things that come up," said Gillis, who is product marketing manager for business-to-business at Sureflix Digital Distribution, parent company of Maleflixxx, a leading provider of gay streaming content through its video-on-demand network.
"The interesting thing is that it's not over and above anything else. We also get a lot of requests for twink, muscle, specific studios, older guys or specific fetish content," Gillis said.
"We don't carry it. We don't stream it. It's a hard one because I don't want to get on a moral high horse about it," she said. "We're a gay owner-operated company and their vision, when we opened up the doors, was that we really did want to ensure that what we have on our network is healthy, intelligent, good quality and smart, and also we have a belief in the protection of the industry, too."
Of more than 200 studios on the Maleflixxx roster, Gillis said only a handful produce bareback lines.
Montgomery is not completely ruling out the idea of producing bareback material, though Falcon is not actively considering any bareback productions at this time.
"Obviously, as content producers, you have to adapt to what is happening in the marketplace," Montgomery said. "Bareback is there, it exists, and if you want to enter that market, you need to be responsible of how you do it. I think you need to understand what bareback is really all about. People that view this content are more than people that like to see sex without a condom. The larger extent that drives it is the risk, and I think you need to figure out how you want to adapt your protocol around safety, to your core customer."
However, he does not agree with the viewpoint that adult movies influence what viewers do in their personal lives.
"I think people make decisions based on a lot of factors," he said. "If someone has the propensity to have unsafe sex, they're going to do that and the same for someone that has the propensity to practice safe sex."
Montgomery feels, with adoption of practices like mandatory testing and documentation, as well as strict adherence to policies allowing performers to choose whether or not to work with or without a condom, there could be the possibility of bareback content being produced by mainline gay adult studios.
Needless to say, Webb, who is proud to be labeled as a "condom Nazi," is adamant about sending a safe sex message in any videos produced by Titan. Titan founder/owner Bruce Cam, who has lost three partners to HIV/AIDS, reinforces the studio's strong stance.
"We've talked about this internally and Bruce Cam absolutely said that he would close down his company before we produce a bareback film," Webb said. "His philosophy is that if Titan made a film and some kid in Iowa watched and ended up getting HIV because of that, he couldn't live with that.
"We will make a movie without a condom the day that they find a cure for HIV," Webb said.
And would HDK's Gardner ever make a movie with condoms?
"We tried to do it once and got a lot of negative feedback. People were upset," he said, "because it was like we had sold out."