Caution, You Are Entering a No-Condom Zone
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By some accounts, Laura Roxx arrived in L.A. in her late teens and on borrowed money. She wasn't looking for mega fame, just a couple of gigs in adult films and a nest egg to get back home to Canada where she'd been an exotic dancer.
Instead she got HIV.
A casualty of an outbreak that hit the adult film industry in April, Roxx's story and others like it have pushed some California officials to propose putting condoms alongside goggles, gloves and hardhats as mandatory worker protection tools – something the porn industry is likely to fight tooth and nail.
The first regulatory volley came last month when the state of California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health fined two adult entertainment production companies for failing to report workplace illnesses and for breaching state law that requires employers to protect workers exposed to bodily fluids. Evasive Angles and TTB productions, which are owned by the same individual, TT Boy, face a total $30,560 in fines and have appealed the decision. (TT Boy's attorney did not respond to interview requests.)
The April outbreak is linked to a male actor, Darren James, who contracted the disease while working unprotected in Brazil. He later worked with 13 women in California before being diagnosed as HIV-positive. Three of those women, including Roxx, have tested postive for HIV.
Regulators and lawmakers have recently asked the industry to require that actors in adult films use condoms; something that is currently not mandatory even though employers can face penalties for breaking worker protection standards.
"There is no reason that workers in the porn industry should be exposed to serious and even fatal diseases by virtue of employment," says Dr. Jonathan Fielding, Director of Public Health for Los Angeles County. "We wouldn't ask someone working on a construction site whether he wanted to wear a hard hat. It is a condition of employment. Wearing a condom in performing for porn should be compulsory, 100 percent of the time."
Fielding, whose agency has no regulatory authority to make condom use mandatory, has sent a letter to production companies urging them to use condoms and require hepatitis A and B vaccinations for actors.
Some observers fear not only an outbreak among porn actors but that the industry itself could become an infection point for the public at large. But producers argue that condoms are a fantasy busting prop that kills business. They prefer to rely on voluntary actor quarantines and gentlemen's agreements that say producers will only use actors with HIV tests less than 30 days old.
"Most of the industry is going to resist using condoms with whatever means without sounding like ogres," says Mark Kernes, a senior editor at Adult Video News, an industry publication that profiled Roxx's story.
Kernes and others interviewed say most people in the industry have confidence in the testing procedures, the vast majority of which are conducted through a producer/performer sponsored testing program at the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation (AIM), a non-profit group. They say the system failed because James went out of the country and worked unprotected.
But some groups such as AIDS Health Care Foundation have said the porn industry's testing regimen is insufficient.
Because of the need for rapid testing, AIM uses a test known as PCR (polymearase chain reaction), which is the porn industry standard and detects the presence of HIV after about two weeks. Another test, known as the ELISA test, is commonly administered in doctor's offices and can have a detection window of six months.
Though PCR offers a short window of detection, it was not short enough in James's case.
He reportedly took a PCR test immediately after arriving in the U.S. from his trip to Brazil, one week after being exposed. It was negative and he proceeded to work with 13 women.
How does worker safety balance with business interests?
Kernes says many producers have told him that in Europe, where actors wear condoms, sales lag, a contention often parroted by actors.
At the time of the outbreak in April, only two production companies were requiring actors to wear condoms. One of those, Wicked Films, produces adult shows for cable channels including Playboy. Wicked went condom-only after an HIV scare in 1999, says Daniel Metcalf, director of publicity.
"We require condoms because we value sales but put health and welfare of our actors ahead of business interests," he says, adding that the company's policy has received broad support from adult actors. Metcalf says his company's business does well even with its condom policy. He also said he has confidence in the industry's current HIV testing procedures.
In the wake of the outbreak and hints at regulation, the industry has fallen under media microscopes.
Dr. Sharon Mitchell, AIM founder and a former adult film actress with a doctorate in human sexuality, declined an interview saying her group has done some 300 interviews and is "hounded" by some 30 journalists a day.
Those calls may increase if some lawmakers have their way.
In April, California Assemblyman Tim Leslie responded to the industry outbreak by proposing A.B. 2798, which would, among other things, make condoms mandatory and bar anyone with an STD from performing without a doctor's clearance, essentially barring actors with untreatable STDs such as herpes. The bill also proposed making it easier for actors to take production companies to court in the event they contract an STD while working.
Another lawmaker, Assemblyman Paul Koretz, has said publicly that some legislators think Leslie's bill was hastily drafted. Koretz, chair of the Assembly Health Committee, has recommended a study of the proposed bill, which is currently stalled.
In August, Koretz sent out a letter to 185 producers and companies calling on industry to require the use of condoms for all performers of "non-oral" sexual intercourse and adopt 13 harm reduction procedures developed by a UCLA infectious disease specialist.
"This is a sensible request, and failure to do so in my opinion irresponsible and invites the legislature to exercise its authority to mandate more stringent actions to protect public health and worker safety," the letter stated.
Teresa Stark, Koretz's chief of staff, says the assemblyman hasn't determined his next steps and is waiting to hear industry's response.
"He did this to help industry wake up and smell the coffee," says Stark. "He is waiting to see how industry responds to this. It may or may not be Mr. Koretz who actually does the legislation but he feels that the government is likely to do something if industry fails to."
But that's unlikely, says one industry attorney.
"As long as there is proper testing there does not need to be a law," says David Wasserman, a first amendment attorney who represents adult businesses. "These people are attempting to regulate an industry they know nothing about."
If actors are forced to wear condoms, Wasserman says, it will "ruin the fantasy for viewers and people will simply not buy the films." Production companies will be respond by moving to other countries.
Kat Sunlove of the Free Speech Coalition says any legislation forcing condom use will not pass. A former actress who had bit parts in adult films, Sunlove says she recognizes that young actors who insisting on wearing condoms can often be barred from work.
"That is a problem area and at the Free Speech Coalition is working to help educate producers and actors about condom use," she says.
As the pornography industry continues to rake in millions, lawmakers contemplate legislation and actors fret work-related consequences. As for Laura Roxx, she is reportedly sleeping on friends' couches and waiting for the results of subsequent tests to find out what her future holds.
Kelly Hearn is a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and a former science and technology writer for UPI.