LA's sex business grinds to a halt over Aids scare

The Hollywood porn industry is the biggest in the world. It also prides itself on being the 'cleanest'. But this week one actress's HIV test came back positive. Andrew Gumbel reports on a film community in crisis
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The Canadian porn performer known as Lara Roxx started working in the industry just three months ago, but her career is already over. Sometime last month, the sultry-eyed teenager was hired to fly down to Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley - the epicentre of the US porn industry - to appear in a hardcore production in which she was asked to have sex with three different men at the same time.

Her agent, Daniel Perreault, now claims that he urged her not to do the job, arguing that at 18 or 19 (reports of her age vary) she was too young and inexperienced to take part in a group scene, including a manoeuvre known in the pseudo-technical jargon of the industry as a "double anal".

Whether or not it was elaborated with the benefit of hindsight, his warning now seems eerily prophetic. It was Roxx's bad luck that one of her fellow performers, Darren James, had contracted HIV during a trip to Brazil two weeks earlier, and had yet to be diagnosed. It was her further bad luck that she, in turn, became infected by him.

Her Aids test came back positive this week, just days after James was confirmed with the same diagnosis. And the porn industry has been thrown into turmoil - perhaps its biggest crisis since the Reagan era, when the dangers of Aids first became apparent and the presidential Meese commission made a highly publicised, if ultimately futile, attempt to crack down on smut once and for all.

Jim South, the leading agent of the porn world, calls this crisis "one of the worst". Several high-profile performers, including top industry star Jenna Jameson and Mary Carey - briefly in the news last year because she, along with 160 others, ran for governor of California - have called for a tightening of the porn world's already stringent rules on testing for Aids and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The threat of widespread infection may, ultimately, be just one of the industry's worries. While extensive testing is carried out on Darren James's partners, and his partners' partners, most of the industry has agreed to abide by a two-month moratorium. In a business estimated to be worth anywhere from $2bn (£1.1bn) to $13bn a year, that means tens of millions of dollars or more in lost revenue. Performers, many of whom live close to the edge, are likely to face evictions, family breakdowns and lapses into drug or alcohol addictions.

Even more seriously, the HIV outbreak and the attendant publicity could be just the opening the Bush administration has been looking for to enact its very own version of the Meese commission, or something even more stringent. John Ashcroft, the ultra-right-wing attorney general, declared war on porn from his first day in office, blaming the Clinton administration - rather than the advent of the internet - for allowing it to thrive and grow through the 1990s. In his first year, Mr Ashcroft placed porn on a priority list from which the more immediate national danger of terrorism was glaringly absent.

Last summer, the Justice Department launched the first federal obscenity prosecutions in a decade, arresting two porn producers who specialised in particularly extreme films depicting women being raped and murdered. Another 49 people are believed to be under investigation.

Responding to the HIV outbreak, performer Mike Mudd wrote yesterday: "Wait till the blue meanies in DC hear about this one." He even wondered whether this might not be "the end of porn". Such predictions are almost certainly overstated - HIV outbreaks do periodically occur, the last one dating back to 1999 - but the sense of panic is very real. Some have sought to denigrate James as some kind of aberrant oddball, either because of his long track-record in anal sex videos or because of allegations of oddities in his personal life. Others have retorted that the accusations are without foundation - one porn director described James as "a perfect gentleman" on set.

Some have tried to dismiss the 60-day production moratorium as an exaggerated reaction to a couple of infections and an unwarranted threat to the livelihood of thousands of performers. Others have responded that such lackadaisical attitudes are the height of irresponsibility. Jill Kelly, who runs her own production company, denounced people who intend to keep working as "idiots with no regard to their talent or crew".

The health of porn performers is controlled with remarkable stringency, thanks in no small measure to a former sex actress called Sharon Mitchell, who left the industry after a crazed fan tried to kill her. She poured her energies into establishing a rigorous health monitoring system after emerging from a 16-year heroin addiction. Ms Mitchell's Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation, or Aim, has been ensuring for years that performers are tested for HIV at least once every 30 days.

Because of his specialisation in anal sex, James had been tested every three weeks for the past seven years. Tests conducted on 27 February and 17 March both came back negative. Last Friday, however, his test came back with a question mark, so he was tested again. The positive diagnosis was confirmed on Tuesday, at which point the entire porn industry went into crisis mode.

Ms Mitchell identified 12 women, including Lara Roxx, as "first-generation" performers who had been directly exposed to James. Then she set about identifying the "second generation" - people who had had sex with the 12 members of the first generation. To date, 60 people have been labelled "second generation" and quarantined pending thorough testing.

The best guess about James is that he was infected while having unprotected anal sex with a Brazilian woman on 10 March. Although it is very rare for a man to contract HIV from a woman - the chances are less than one in a hundred - there is some speculation that his immune system was compromised by a bite from a poisonous spider shortly after his arrival in Rio de Janeiro. Another possibility is that he engaged in risk-prone activities - such as needle-sharing or unprotected anal sex with another man. To date, however, there is no evidence to support that theory.

Across the industry, much of the anger and fear has been directed towards Brazil. "Everybody is learning that 96 per cent of the prostitutes tested in Brazil were HIV-positive," director Skeeter Kerkove told the industry publication Adult Video News. "In January I was told by an agent in Brazil that performers there can buy a fake test for $10 if they don't have time to go get it or can't do it. I asked him what phone numbers there are to call [for verification] and he said there really isn't one."

Low-budget director Lex Drill offered similar sentiments. "I was supposed to go to Brazil on May 17 and I couldn't bring myself to make reservations," he told AVN. "Don't ask me why, but I was uncomfortable to begin with, even before this happened, and I have not only cancelled my upcoming trip, I am never going to Brazil."

The problem is not restricted to Brazil, however. For all the precautions taken by companies affiliated with Ms Mitchell's Aim foundation, a minority of porn producers are not so scrupulous and are happy to work with performers who not only do not get themselves tested for HIV but may well be infected. This so-called "gonzo" end of the industry may not be the most significant employer, but it is by far the most extreme and is the likely starting point of any official crackdown. Much of the San Fernando Valley porn industry looks surprisingly like any other American business, with managers dressed in suits keeping strict discipline over their employees, their finances and their business practices. Such "mainstream" porn outfits as Vivid Video or VCA, working out of their well-appointed warehouse-style offices beneath the Santa Susana mountains, tend to regard the gonzo end of the business with disdain.

"I would be mortified if anyone ever got sick in connection with one of my projects," said David Brett, chief executive of Passion Pictures, in a statement supporting the moratorium. "I have to sleep at night and my conscience would not allow me to sleep. I would never earn my living at the expense of some other human being's health and safety." Such attitudes have contributed to a remarkably low HIV infection rate in the porn industry over the years - that and the fact that ejaculation usually occurs on camera rather than inside a sex partner. John Holmes, one of the models for Paul Thomas Anderson's paean to San Fernando Valley mores, Boogie Nights, contracted Aids in the mid-1980s and subsequently died.

In 1998, an anal performer called Marc Wallice was found to have infected at least five women, among them Brooke Ashley, who had had anal sex with at least 40 men in a single film entitled The World's Biggest Anal Gangbang. Wallice was immediately ostracised and accused - wrongly - of having falsified his medical test records. He responded by taking all his money out of the bank and smoking crack cocaine in a hotel room for a month before succumbing to paranoia, calling the police on a group of friends of his and getting himself arrested for drug possession.

The following year, in 1999, a man known as "the Matador of Porn", Tony Montana, also tested HIV-positive. Aim subsequently identified 30 performers who had sex with him during the at-risk period, but all were deemed clear of infection.