HIV Scare In Retrospect: 1

David Houston
A year ago, the adult industry's meteoric march toward legitimacy suffered its most devastating setback to date when a porn star named Darren James returned from a shooting assignment in Brazil and later tested positive for the virus that causes AIDS. Four actresses, in short order, also tested HIV positive.

California politicians from Los Angeles to Sacramento issued hyperbolic ultimatums to the San Fernando Valley-based adult industry. Regulators and public health officials all but threatened to show up on sets to personally roll condoms onto the monstrous moneymakers of the industry's male stars.

Perhaps most devastating for the business, the HIV scare seemed (very temporarily) to inject a dose of reality into the cutesy public appearances by some of the industry's top talent in mainstream music videos, broadcast TV shows and movies.

"Things got hairy there for a while," said Kat Sunlove, the Free Speech Coalition's plainspoken chief lobbyist. "But six months later, it was as though it never happened."

The industry recovered from the scare thanks almost entirely to Sunlove's legislative arm-twisting and to the efforts of Dr. Sharon Mitchell.

A porn star turned Ph.D., Mitchell regularly is beatified in the mainstream press for her efforts to test adult film stars for AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. The Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation in Sherman Oaks, Calif., which she co-founded, discovered the HIV infections last year, and almost immediately Mitchell flew into a frenzy of reforms.

Most notably, she changed the actors' regular STD testing schedule from every 30 days to every two weeks. She set up a website to allow producers to log on at the end of each day and record who had sex with whom. Now, if an actor tests positive for HIV or any other sexually transmitted disease, Mitchell knows in minutes the names of other actors exposed to the disease. She also agreed to help set up similar testing programs and tracking systems for adult companies in other countries.

AIM Donations Rise
Grateful for Mitchell's efforts or fearful of her power in the mainstream media, many leading adult companies stepped up their donations to AIM, which runs almost entirely on donations from the industry and, before the scare, often ran at a deficit. The clinic has been in the black this year and plans to move into a new facility soon that will feature screening rooms for actors to watch videos on STD prevention.

"That's the one good thing that came out of this," Mitchell said. "The industry realized how valuable we are."

While Mitchell readily acknowledges that her system isn't perfect — "Testing is wonderful but it's only as good as the day the blood is drawn," she likes to say — regulation only would have driven pornographers out of state or underground, she maintains.

What is less clear is what, if any, changes adult film companies themselves have made. Those in the industry say the film companies and the producers should be given high marks for voluntarily halting film schedules while medical professionals got a handle on the problem.

"That played very, very well in the mainstream media," Sunlove said.

But with the klieg lights dimmed, few if any companies appear to have altered their policies on safer sex. The biggest companies, Vivid Video and Wicked Pictures, and gay companies such as Titan Media and the Falcon Family of Companies, already were condom-only studios before the outbreak. But companies that claim to be "condom optional" — a term many actresses say is a euphemism for "no condoms, if you want to be hired" — have continued to ignore safer sex practices.

"Honestly, I don't think much has changed at all," porn star and former California gubernatorial candidate Mary Carey said. "This is an industry that quickly forgets the past."

Director Rob Spallone, who does enforce condoms on his sets, said a government mandate is the only way to make safer sex work in the adult industry.

"If everybody in the industry went condom, then we wouldn't have a choice," Spallone said.

But even then, Spallone believes the industry would have problems with STDs, including AIDS, simply because some porn actors prostitute on the side, and because actors are notoriously unreliable causing directors to constantly seek new talent to throw on the set on the fly.

In part two we'll examine the "don't ask, don't tell" policy and Cal/OSHA's response to the crisis.