Leaderboard 728 X 90

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Case of HIV Sends Panic Through the Porn Industry


We have written extensively about potential pitfalls in the modern workplace. My wife and I have experienced them. (See here and here). You, or someone close to you, probably has, too.

If we think we've got it tough, perhaps we should consider today's porn star. What if we had to step into their, ah, shoes.

At least five major porn studios have shut down after an actor tested positive last week for HIV, according to a report at In These Times. The story has a number of legal angles. And we learn that the people who produce porn have much in common with the people who produce "justice."

Writes reporter Lindsay Beyerstein:

At this point, no one knows how many people the infected actor may have exposed to HIV, or whether he got infected at work. News of the positive test sparked widespread alarm in the industry because the infected man is reportedly a big star who’s dating another big star. Despite its flamboyant public image, the porn industry in Southern California is still a pretty small world. An estimated 1,200-1,500 performers work on-camera.

For those of us wondering when the shelves will contain Debbie Does Dallas Again and Again and Again and . . . well, these could be anxious times. For porn actors, it's an issue with life-and-death implications--and it goes to the heart of the industry's culture. Writes Beyerstein:

A positive test in the industry is especially alarming because the vast majority of straight porn is shot without condoms, despite the fact that California law requires condoms or equivalent protection on porn sets. (By contrast, the gay porn industry is largely condom-compliant.)

The porn profession comes with inherent health risks, and the industry seems to have made a fairly serious effort to address them. The porn industry, however, is dangerously insular--like another profession we write about often here:

In the latest case of HIV, the actor tested positive through an industry-sanctioned program administered by the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation. If you've heard of AIM, you probably know it as the "clinic for porn stars." AIM does provide medical and social services to porn performers, but AIM's true niche in the ecosystem of "Porn Valley" is much more complicated.

AIM is also the STD testing and record-keeping clearinghouse of the San Fernando Valley’s multi-billion dollar straight porn industry, according to Dr. Alexandre Padilla, a professor of economics at Metropolitan State College of Denver, who analyzed the structure of AIM in a 2008 working paper.

“With the help of the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation (AIM), the adult film industry developed a corporate culture to facilitate widespread coordination among members and to make the industry similar to a private club,” Padilla writes.

Is AIM effective? Apparently it is, but the system is not foolproof:

AIM is a private nonprofit whose primary function is to test performers for STDs and make the results available directly to producers, directors, agents, potential co-stars and other industry insiders. Working actors are required to test every 30 days for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Testing isn't a panacea, even if everyone does everything right. The latest infection "shows how testing just isn't equivalent to protection," according to Deborah Gold, a senior safety engineer at Cal-OSHA.

The industry justifies barebacking by saying that AIM does such a good job of keeping HIV out of the talent pool and containing the virus if it somehow finds its way in.

Basic biology presents a major challenge for AIM--and porn stars:

The problem is that there's a window of at least several days between being exposed to HIV and testing positive, during which time the patient is highly infectious. So, a patient can test negative during the most infectious phase of their illness. That's what happened in 2004 when porn star Darren James came back from Brazil with a fresh HIV infection. He tested with AIM and was cleared to go back to work. Before his next test, James had unprotected sex with 14 actresses, 3 of whom contracted the virus.

In 2009, an actress worked in the industry with HIV before testing positive. Luckily, she didn't infect any of her partners, but she easily could have.

The safety of actors in the porn industry has strong legal implications:

AIM maintains a database of all performers and the scenes they've done for each company. If a performer later tests positive for HIV, AIM can look up all that actor's partners. AIM then contacts those people, gets a list of their on- and off-camera partners and tests them.

AIM says it "quarantines" actors who may have been exposed, but the group has no legal power. Some studios have shut down during the investigation, but others are still making movies, presumably without condoms.

The industry group refuses to share information with public-health officials out of privacy concerns. And the industry gets away with breaking state laws:

The latest HIV case is sure to revive the debate about whether condoms should be mandatory. This is a red herring. Condoms are already mandatory in porn in California. The question is why the industry is allowed to break the law with impunity.

It turns out that the porn industry--surprise, surprise--is a lot like the legal profession; it oversees itself. And that kind of arrangement almost always produces poor results, especially for those who are vulnerable:

The industry is fighting tougher rules, citing AIM's testing program as proof that barrier protection is unnecessary. But AIM is responsible for investigating itself if the system fails. If the system wasn't working, would we trust them to tell us?

It's too soon to tell whether the latest case of HIV in the industry represents a triumph or a tragedy for AIM. Maybe the testing program caught the virus before it could spread, in which case this would be a success story. Or maybe the positive test came too late. Given the limitations of the tests, successful containment is a heavily dependent on luck and timing.

Bottom line: Worker safety is too important to be left to chance. The porn industry should not be an exception to that rule.

No comments: