Fear infects LA porn industry after star tests positive for HIV

The fear is back in the San Fernando Valley, home to the American adult film industry.

One day after a clinic that treats most of the business's on-screen "talent" revealed that one of its patients had tested positive for HIV, a frantic search was under way last night for other actors who may have been exposed to the virus on set.

While neither the name nor the gender of the infected performer was being revealed, studios were already showing signs of slipping into panic mode, reminiscent of events in 2004 when an HIV outbreak spread through the industry, closing almost all production for a month. Already yesterday two of the largest porn production houses, Wicked Pictures and Vivid Entertainment, had halted filming pending the outcome of the clinic's investigation.

Not everybody is surprised about the new scare and it comes on the heels of repeated warnings from health advocacy groups that a new outbreak was almost bound to happen, in part because state rules that mandate the use of condoms on set to protect actors and encourage safe sex practices among the public are widely disregarded.

"I knew it was going to happen. And how many years has it been?" Darren James, the adult film performer who was at the centre of the 2004 scare, told the Los Angeles Times. "They went right back to the same habits."

James had tested negative shortly before appearing in a film in the spring of that year. Shortly afterwards a test came back positive. He was among 14 performers who were infected with the potentially lethal virus in that single outbreak.

News of the latest case was broken by the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation, known as AIM, which has traditionally provided healthcare to actors from most of the main studios. A spokesperson declined also to identify the studio that the affected actor worked for.

Spearheading criticism of the industry is the Los Angeles-based Aids Healthcare Foundation, which advocates a tightening of the rules, notably through the introduction of tougher state laws on condom use. Michael Weinstein, the president of the foundation, says this will be the ninth HIV-positive actor to be treated by the AIM since 2004. The clinic and the industry will "do everything in its power to prevent us from knowing who was impacted", he said.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has estimated that workers in the adult film industry are 10 times more likely to contract some sexually transmitted disease than members of the general public. Current federal law requires that porn actors are tested for HIV up to 30 days before showing up for filming.

Whether new laws and scares like this one will be sufficient to persuade studios to change the way they work is hard to know.

"There is no way to make the industry risk-free. Making things safer does not make it safe," the porn star Jeremy Steele said at a hearing in Los Angeles in June. "If you're worried or paranoid, you should not be in this industry."

In August Mr Weinstein and his foundation lodged a formal complaint against Larry Flynt, the legendary free-speech pioneer and owner of the Hustler brand, for allowing on-set talent to perform without protection. The complaint also triggered a large protest outside the company headquarters. Mr Flynt replied, however, that he was delivering "what the consumer wants".

"This is not an underground industry," Mr Weinstein said at the press conference following the protest. "The industry should and can be regulated if the political establishment has the courage to do it. How much blood money do you need?"

Few observers of the pornography trade are likely to be more depressed by this latest development than Mr James. "The actors... they're not getting the protection that they need. There should have been mandatory condoms," he said. "Good grief, it's like my deal all over again. I hate that."

Mr James has become a leading advocate for condom use. At a recent hearing on industry practices he criticised studios for relying too heavily on the law that stipulates health testing 30 days before filming.

"You think you're safe, but you're not. In between scenes, you don't know what other actors are doing. I'm living your nightmare every day."

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