This story was submitted to XBIZ by adult film director and writer Nica Noelle.
“The first thing I noticed was some kind of rash on the palm of my hand,” explains Marcus Spencer, better known to fans of adult films as simply “Mr. Marcus.”
“I didn’t know what it was, but it never occurred to me that it was any kind of sexually transmitted disease.”
The spots were brown and appeared on his palm. Assuming he was suffering from a skin condition or “stress,” Marcus searched the Internet with the phrase “brown spots on hand.” The search returned links to information on “liver spots” and vitamin deficiencies.
“I thought maybe I had some kind of deficiency, so I started taking men’s vitamins,” he said.
He also began showing his hand to people to ask if they had any idea what the spots might be. Nobody knew.
And why should they have? Syphilis had been so rarely encountered in the Los Angeles porn community that until a few weeks ago neither of the industry’s go-to testing facilities even checked for its antibodies in routine sexually transmitted infection panels. But unknown to Marcus (and those who worked with him during that time), the popular performer was exhibiting common symptoms of the potentially dangerous sexually transmitted disease.
In the weeks that followed, Marcus would continue to puzzle over the spots on his hand – and to perform in adult films. He made no connection between what he thought were symptoms of “stress,” and his job as an adult film performer. He had a recent, clean test from Talent Testing Services obtained on June 13, which would remain valid until July 13. He used that test to perform during this time period.
But before that test expired, Marcus would realize something was wrong with his health that vitamins couldn’t fix, and seek private medical care to determine the cause. What followed was a diagnosis that would ignite a period of confusion, desperation, misjudgments and possible misconduct on the part of both Marcus and one of the industry’s most trusted test facilities. The FSC would call for an industry-wide moratorium on shooting and a controversial, unprecedented “preventive care” strategy that would require every adult film performer, regardless of his or her health status, to receive a shot of penicillin before returning to work.
Overnight, Mr. Marcus would go from being one of porn’s most highly regarded performers to an industry pariah, and a symbol of the fear, distrust and paranoia that has come to define the adult film community.
“Mr. Marcus is like the ‘gateway black dude’ for white girls in porn,” a male African-American performer once joked to me. “They say they won’t do interracial, but they’ll do it with Mr. Marcus. Or they meet him once and they’re like ‘Oh, I’ve changed my mind, I’ll do interracial now.’”
He may have been joking, but he wasn’t exaggerating. In an industry where racism is still openly expressed and white female performers often refuse to “do interracial,” Mr. Marcus managed to strike just the right balance to put white costars at ease. With his curious blend of urban sexual prowess and unexpected spiritual profundity, Marcus effortlessly bridged the racial porn divide, inspiring trust - and lust - in female talent of all colors. It was a reputation he was proud of, and he’d built an entire brand - including books he authored and his “Daddy, Inc.” clothing line — on the strength of that image. His celebrated career in adult films spanned more than 18 years and was still going strong.
That popularity might explain why no one blinked when Marcus arrived to set for a June 24 Bang Bros shoot with a noticeable “rash” on his genitals.
“I knew I had something going on down there, but I didn’t think it was a sexually transmitted disease,” he explained. “My thinking was still coming from the fact that it was a vitamin deficiency or stress-related.”
However, he recalls that a month earlier in May, a female performer had pointed out to him what may have been the first visible signs of syphilis. After noticing what she called a “sore” on his genitals, the performer had declined to work with him.
“It looked more like a skin irritation; not an ‘open sore’,” Marcus said, disputing sensationalized reports of the incident. “It looked like a patch of rough skin, like maybe a reaction to some kind of lube that irritated me.”
If the notion of an STI had crossed his mind, his June 13 test results from Talent Testing Services confirmed he didn’t have one. He was clean. (Talent Testing was not yet testing for syphilis at the time.)
After the scandal broke, stills from the June 24 BangBros scene featuring a nude Mr. Marcus with what appear to be white lesions on his penis would be circulated on the Internet by outraged performers and industry watchers. It was cited as “proof” that Marcus had performed when he knew he was contagious with syphilis.
In truth he had not yet been diagnosed with syphilis, nor did he suspect having it. He’d seen just about every STI in his 18 years in the business, he explained, and his “rash” didn’t look like any of them. He performed the controversial BangBros scene with a clean test he’d obtained just 13 days earlier.
“Nobody said ‘wait a minute, that doesn’t look right,’” Marcus said. “The girl I was working with didn’t mention it and neither did the director.”
But by then Marcus knew something was wrong, and he scheduled an appointment with his private physician for July 11.
“I wanted to go in sooner, but you know doctors always make you wait,” he said.
On July 11, his private doctor examined Marcus and drew blood to determine the cause of his symptoms. The following day Marcus was informed he’d tested positive for syphilis. A day later, on July 13, Marcus returned to his doctor’s office to begin treatment.
“That was the first syphilis test I took, and as soon as we got the results [my doctor] gave me the shot [of penicillin],” Marcus said. “He told me that would cure it and I could have sex again in 10 days.”
On July 14, Marcus went to Talent Testing Services clinic for his monthly STI panel of HIV, chlamydia and gonorrhea.
“Why would you get tested for STIs only a day after you began treatment for syphilis?” I asked him.
“Because I test for STIs every 30 days,” he explained. “The syphilis test was separate, so I still needed to test for HIV, chlamydia and gonorrhea.”
TTS had only weeks earlier added syphilis to their performer STI panel. Marcus’ blood test came back as “reactive” for syphilis, indicating the presence of antibodies for the disease.
After learning syphilis had been detected in his TTS panel, Marcus realized he’d have to test again after he was cured so he could return to work. He insists that he didn’t work, nor attempt to, with the test results obtained from TTS on July 14. In keeping with his doctor’s orders, Marcus did not have sex at all for the next 10 days.
“When you tested positive for syphilis at TTS on July 14, did they say anything to you about what you should do?” I asked him. “Did they tell you that you might have exposed other performers and you should contact them or anything like that?”
“No.” Marcus said.
This struck me as suggestive of a dangerously weak link in the industry’s already loose chain of “safety protocols.”
Regardless of what he knows now, or what almost everyone in the adult film community learned in a recent collective “crash course” on syphilis, in July Marcus had no idea what to do next or what was expected of him, nor did anyone offer to guide him through it. He was alone in unfamiliar, confusing territory where making wrong turns was almost a guarantee.
It’s been a long time since a sexually transmitted disease other than HIV has made front page news and caused an industry-wide moratorium. Most straight performers (and studios producing straight content) have come to be aware that in the event of a talent HIV positive test production will halt, performers will flock to test clinics for fresh HIV tests, and phone calls will be made to anyone who may have been exposed to the virus, instructing them to immediately get tested.
But for other routinely-tested STIs, the industry’s protocol is different – and far less urgent. For instance, if a performer contracts chlamydia or gonorrhea no jaws will drop; no gasps of shock will be heard. The infected performer is not told to contact those with whom he or she recently worked, nor do their costars expect such a call. Although complications for both chlamydia and gonorrhea include infertility, pelvic inflammatory disease and increased risk for HIV, and untreated gonorrhea can spread to the heart valves and even the brain, the two STIs are encountered so frequently that they’re regarded as “par for the course,” i.e., an occupational hazard. In other words, if you work in adult films, you can pretty much expect to get a “dirty test” at some point, and it’s nothing to freak out about.
But when Talent Testing Services became aware that Marcus had tested reactive for syphilis, they offered no guidance as to industry protocol (they couldn’t; there was none), nor did they indicate that syphilis should not be considered on par with the dangers of chlamydia or gonorrhea, but rather with those of the dreaded HIV.
In its defense, Talent Testing Services makes no pretense of providing medical care or advice to performers – a position which has caused tension and discord between the testing facility and the FSC.
By all accounts, Marcus received his diagnosis of syphilis and subsequent shot of penicillin in July. It would be another two weeks before the Los Angeles porn community learned of a syphilis outbreak in Europe, which would ultimately infect dozens of adult film performers overseas.
Marcus returned to Talent Testing Services on July 21. His symptoms had disappeared within a few days of receiving the shot and he was eager to get a clean test and return to work.
But his July 21 test again came back as “reactive” for syphilis, leaving Marcus stunned – and puzzled.
For the first time he began to panic.
“I called my doctor and I said ‘what’s going on here? Why am I still sick? I feel fine but this test says I’ve still got it.”
The doctor assured Marcus that according to his follow-up blood test his RPR levels (indicating the infection’s progress) had gone down. The penicillin shot had worked. But the “reactive” status, he explained, would continue to show up on blood tests checking for syphilis antibodies – possibly forever.
In other words, he may have been cured, but there was no way to show it. Marcus’ syphilis test results would continue to show a “reactive” status. Producers would have to take his word that he wasn’t contagious – an unlikely scenario.
“This is where I started making mistakes because I was trying to understand what I was dealing with,” Marcus explains. “That’s still no excuse and I’m not trying to make excuses. I can only say I didn’t fully understand the situation.”
Confronted with a tricky STI that would continue to doom his tests long after he was cured, Marcus struggled to find a solution. As the days passed with no shoots scheduled, a business deal he’d been counting on suddenly fell through. The financial pressure was building.
“That’s when I said to myself, I’ve got to find some way around this.” Marcus said.
He stared at the print out of his July 21 test for a long time, he said, before attempting the first fold.
“I sat and I looked at it,” he said. “I remember just thinking about it for a long time, just staring at it.”
When he folded the test at the bottom of the page, his syphilis result simply disappeared.
“That’s when I decided to do it,” he said.
Marcus scanned the strategically folded document into his computer and saved it. When the test was printed it would no longer show the “reactive” syphilis status. It could now be emailed to any producer wishing to book him to confirm that Mr. Marcus was “STI-free.”
And, ironically, there exists no evidence that he was not STI-free. There have been no reports to suggest he was still infected with syphilis when he folded the test to obscure the “reactive” result.
Marcus estimates that he performed “three to five times” using the “folded” test; the first of those scenes was shot 11 days after he received the shot of penicillin from his doctor.
He then received a booking request that required him to obtain “a brand new test,” he said.
“Some studios or female performers want you to have a three day test, or to test the day before the scene,” he explained. “So I was like, okay, here we go again – fingers crossed.”
He returned to Talent Testing Services for what would be his third talent STI panel since being diagnosed with syphilis. The date was August 7th.
“That’s the day I started talking to the guy who works there, while I was getting my blood drawn,” Marcus said.
“I told him I got the penicillin shot on July 13 but my test keeps coming back reactive, and is there any way I can show that I’m cured?”
Marcus and the worker had spoken on previous visits, he said, and had developed an easy, casual repoire.
“He said maybe he could leave off the syphilis test when he sent [my blood samples] to the lab,” Marcus said. “I was very interested in that idea, so he said he’d see what he could do.”
When Marcus later returned to TTS for his test results, the worker handed him a hardcopy. As promised, it did not show any results for syphilis, he said.
“It looked like a normal test,” Marcus said. “It wasn’t altered; [syphilis] was just omitted.”
But the worker told him he’d “gotten in trouble” for the special request, Marcus said. The lab had rejected it and tested the blood for syphilis, anyway. The worker told Marcus he would not be able to do it for him again, he said.
“He told me another syphilis case had just come up at TTS,” Marcus said. “He said it was all new to them and they were still learning how to deal with it. Then he told me my RPR levels were back up.”
Although the “reactive” status had been omitted from the test, Marcus’ RPR levels remained listed at the bottom of the page, he said.
He noticed the numbers were higher than when he was last checked by his doctor.
And although Marcus said he was now symptom-free and in possession of a “legitimate” test provided by a TTS worker who knew of his recent treatment for syphilis, he still chose to cancel the scene for which he was booked that day. If his levels were back up, he thought, something must be wrong. Such behavior does little to support a theory that Marcus altered his test results so he could work while infected.
Instead of reporting to the set, Marcus called his doctor to report the heightened RPR numbers. He claimed his doctor said a sudden increase was not uncommon after a recent syphilis infection and was part of the “normal cycle” of the disease. It did not mean Marcus was re-infected or contagious. (In fact, his RPR numbers would continue to decline in follow-up tests, Marcus said.)
In a move that would later serve to further damage his credibility, Marcus in a “post-scandal” interview with the San Francisco Weekly retracted an earlier statement he’d made at an FSC press conference implicating the TTS worker in the “test altering” scandal. This public flip-flopping confirmed for many that Marcus could no longer be trusted, as well as raise new suspicions that the FSC, who seeks to control industry testing protocol, had “paid off” Marcus to “throw TTS under the bus.”
“The FSC didn’t tell me to lie about anything,” Marcus insists. “I just didn’t realize when I told the story it would shift all the attention to [TTS]. I didn’t feel right about that, so I tried to fix it by saying, ‘no it was all me.’”
“Why did you bring up Talent Testing in the first place?” I asked him. “Was it to take some of the heat off of you?”
“Not in the sense of, ‘it’s not my fault it’s their fault’,” Marcus explained. “It was more to try and show people that this situation isn’t what it looks like. It was to say, ‘if I was trying to alter a test so I could infect people, why would [a testing facility] help me do it?’”
Marcus struggles with the knowledge that many of his peers had no trouble believing he was trying to infect them just to make a quick paycheck.
“After 18 years in the business, why would I do that?” he asked. “I’ve spent almost half my life here. These people are my friends.”
But after the news broke and word spread of his “betrayal,” Marcus was shocked to learn how quickly even long-time friends and associates chose to believe the worst.
“It’s hard when there are so many people just waiting to jump on everything you say,” he said, referring to the picking-apart of his statements by both industry workers and the press. “Sometimes I think I should just be silent until things calm down.”
Adjusting to his new status as persona non grata by the industry that once celebrated him hasn’t been easy. After the scandal broke, Marcus retreated to his south bay home to reflect on what may be the end of an uncommonly successful career in adult films.
“I’ve never spent this much time at home, just looking out at the ocean,” he said. “I’m trying to find peace in all this. Even though I wish I could go back in time and do things differently, I’m growing from this, I’m learning. And I want people to know the truth, because we learn from the truth. We don’t learn from lies.”
But for an industry of performers that rely on “clean tests” to feel safe about working without condoms, any form of “test-tampering” is viewed as a severe, and perhaps unforgivable, breach of trust. The integrity of the STI test may be the last thing standing between an industry fighting to keep its autonomy and a looming “mandatory condoms” law. Like burning the American flag, it’s not the physical destruction that causes patriots to recoil, but the threat to that which the flag represents. A performer’s STI test has become for many a symbol of safety and liberty worth fighting for.
It’s a poetic concept Marcus may have no trouble grasping now, but back in July he didn’t have the benefit of hindsight, nor guidance from the industry that now condemns him. He was simply struggling to make sense of an unfamiliar diagnosis, get the proper treatment and return to work to support his family.
“I wish I could have known what steps to take to handle this the way it should have been handled,” Marcus said. “But I don’t blame the industry for the mistakes I made. I don’t blame Talent Testing. I don’t blame anyone but myself. I just hope what happened with me inspires some kind of change. If I had to go through this so the industry could learn and improve from it, I can live with that.”
Editor's note: Nica Noelle reports the following on Sept. 7, "It was brought to my attention by Marcus yesterday that we made an error in the article with respect to the June 12 "clean test" Marcus received. We report in the story that the clean test was from TTS — this is an error. The clean test was from Cutting Edge. I am in possession of the test and I can confirm that Marcus went to Cutting Edge to be tested on June 12. The report/test was generated on June 13, with an expiration date of July 12."