By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Dr. Peter Kerndt is hoppin’ mad.
Even over the phone it is clear that L.A. County’s epidemiologist and point man for HIV is pacing back and forth, his voice revving louder and tone sharpening, his words firing faster as he zeroes in on the porn moguls who call the shots in the nation’s multibillion-dollar sex industry.
The question that lit Kerndt’s fuse simply pondered whether AIM HealthCare Foundation’s rapid detection and quarantining of porn performers after two of them tested positive for HIV wasn’t proof the industry’s screening system was working.
“No! No! No, it’s not working, and that is what everyone seems to be missing,” Kerndt said. “Yes, monitoring is necessary. No, it is not sufficient. You discover something you otherwise might not — but it is after the fact. Look, had condoms been used, transmission of the virus would likely not have occurred.”
During the past two weeks commercial pornography in Los Angeles has been brought to a jarring halt by the positive HIV test results of two performers. While sadly jolting, it is hardly an epidemic amid a fluid performer pool that sometimes numbers more than a thousand people.
But saying the words “HIV positive” in porn is like shouting “shark” at a crowded beach.
The momentary panic that gripped a professionally incestuous DNA pool has now dissipated into a rancorous debate over how the performers became infected, when they became infected, who knew they were infected (and when) and what’s going to happen now?
Blogs that cover the industry are rife with divergent speculation and acrimony, with one well-known director jumping in to post a surreal statement asserting HIV does not cause AIDS and the infections were nothing to worry about.
But the question of why these two performers were infected seems to be getting lost amid the bickering.
“It is pure, simple greed. There is enough money in this multibillion-dollar industry for the manufacturers to reinvest some of it and help create a legitimate trade,” Kerndt said. “But they don’t because they are operating on the same mentality as the industrial barons who sent miners down into the shafts without methane detectors.”
Such high-voltage analogies fall flat with some of the industry’s heaviest hitters. The president of one of porn’s largest manufacturer-distributors, who spoke on the condition that he not be named, contrasted the HIV infections in porn with viral spread in the general population.
“Everyone is watching to see what happens. It’s a very fluid situation and we’re honoring the quarantine and waiting for the test results to clear,” he said. “We are honestly looking out for the health and well-being of the performers.”
Yet to Kerndt, who has been at the forefront of fighting the virus in L.A. since 1987, porn’s dirtiest little secret seems to be its most obvious flaw: The hard bottom line of cold profits trumps the health and safety of the performers who have sex for a living.
“There is no guild in this industry. There is no insurance offered to performers. There is no industry-wide support or protection for them on a host of issues,” Kerndt said. “The industry feeds off of a talent pool that lacks the options and the maturity to say ‘no.’”
Porn sage Bill Margold, who jumped from being a county probation officer into Triple-X more than three decades ago (when he proudly notes it was still very illegal), likes to say that the industry’s performers are its most valuable currency, its “gold.”
They are also, he sadly admits, its meat. Raw, increasingly fresh and ultimately considered expendable by the studios.
“The real tragedy is that the talent is weaker in the industry today than they were during the outbreak in 1998, even weaker than they were a decade ago,” Margold said. “It’s finally to the point now where maybe even a deaf, dumb and blind government may come in and try to force us to use condoms.”
Yet perhaps even more than outright government censorship, the suggestion that the porn industry should adopt a mandatory use of condoms strikes a chill deep into the very core — and cash box — of the business owners.
Consider that in 1998 and 1999, when HIV hit more than a half dozen porn performers, heated debate roiled the industry and calls for mandatory condom use spiked. Heavyweight porn studio chiefs like former VCA owner Russ Hampshire threatened to punish smaller fish who dared to go bareback, and even rogue filmmakers like Max Hardcore, whose signature act is brutally unprotected anal sex, paused to consider “putting a jimmy coat on.”
But such safe-sex flirtations in the industry were short-lived, with some producers decrying latex as a firewall blocking the fertile fields of fantasy: which is what the porn consuming public demands.
Kerndt is skeptical of artistic-freedom claims in the face of potentially fatal infections. “They hide behind fantasy, they hide behind ‘free speech,’” he said. “But porn can be produced in a manner that isn’t so risky without sacrificing eroticism.”
Sharon Mitchell offers a rueful laugh when she is reminded of those fleeting calls five years ago for wrapping porn in a protective rubber sheath.
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