Porn movie makers face 'condom raids' by health officials

Film-makers see new ruling as erosion of rights, in spite of the rise of sexually transmitted infections

Los Angeles

Sprawled across the San Fernando Valley is an $8bn film industry that is on a collision course with the Los Angeles city council. The mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, has passed a law that will force performers in adult movies to use condoms. A taskforce of police, nurses and aids campaigners could soon raid pornographic film sets to ensure performers comply. If they don't, film-makers' licences will be revoked.

The legislation is the culmination of a bitter six-year battle between producers and the LA-based Aids Healthcare Foundation (AHF), the world's largest community-based Aids care provider. AHF's president, Michael Weinstein, said: "We don't want Nike shoes made by child labour or workers dying on construction sites, so why would we want to sacrifice adult performers on the altar of the porn industry?"

The porn industry's response is that the condom law is an erosion of rights. Diane Duke, executive director of the Free Speech Coalition (FSC), a pro-porn lobby that opposes censorship and obscenity laws, says: "We are in favour of choice and against government regulating sexual behaviour between consenting adults. The public is tired of the government intruding in their lives and their bedrooms, real or fantasy."

For several years, pornographers have self-regulated, insisting on 30-day STI tests for workers. If a performer contracts gonorrhoea or chlamydia they are sent home with pills until it clears up. Infections such as herpes are not screened.

"Herpes comes with the job. Everyone gets it," says a former adult actor Derrick Burts. The bisexual performer worked in the industry for a few months at the age of 24. In 2010, he tested positive for HIV. "Testing is a broken system. It does not protect the performer; it only notifies the performer of what they have," he says. He was infected on a gay set where performers generally wear condoms for anal sex and HIV-positive men are permitted to work.

Burts claims adult actors feel powerless. Conditions on heterosexual sets are significantly worse, with producers refusing to work with performers who insist on condoms, he says. The Aids Healthcare Foundation says since 2004 there have been 10 cases of HIV and more than 4,000 incidences of gonorrhoea and chlamydia in the adult industry.

The boundary between the LA porn industry and the city's sex trade is extremely porous, with many performers also working as escorts. If workers are tested every 30 days they can catch an infection in their private lives and spread the disease on adult movie sets for a month before it is detected. The rights campaigner and former porn performer Shelley Lubben was a prostitute when she was recruited in a strip club. "Like most porn stars, I wanted to be a Hollywood actress," she recalls. Few, if any, have ever made the crossover to mainstream acting.

The website for her Pink Cross Foundation exhibits a morbid gallery of death: stars, she says, who were lost prematurely from drug overdoses, Aids, suicide or murder. She has counted 89 deaths, including 39 suicides, 10 Aids fatalities and five murders.

LA porn was legalised in 1988 and – to its champions – it represents a triumph for liberalism. "I'm an artist, educator and philosopher, and sex is my subject," says veteran porn star Nina Hartley. She has caught infections, which made her feel "annoyed", but she rationalises it with "cooks risk cuts and burns, construction workers risk breaking bones".

Pornographic producers fear sales will nosedive if their stars are sheathed. "The viewing public is condom-phobic," says producer-director Stevie Glasser. But the adult entertainment business has seen its revenues steadily diminish as the internet takes over. Glasser believes the industry is so opposed to rubber that it will uproot and relocate somewhere with less stringent laws.

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