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Bareback Riding

Photo by Sophie Olmsted

Cheerful wouldn’t be the word to describe how porn star Tony Montana looks as he comes bouncing through the door at Leisure Time Entertainment’s compound in Van Nuys. No, the man looks downright happy. Sporting a leather biker jacket emblazoned with the American flag, gray jeans, a turtleneck and tennis shoes, Montana extends a hand and a big smile to the reporter.

"You might say I’m feeling pretty positive," he offers with a devil-may-care chuckle. His upbeat attitude was once something of a trademark for him in the skin industry, where porn critics quickly dubbed him a "hardcore Ricky Ricardo," (thus his film I Love Juicy), though more likely for his thick Latin accent than for a Desi Arnaz wit. He plied his career diligently, pumping his way through hundreds — if not thousands — of blue movies for the past two decades.

For a guy who, as he likes to say, "was paid to get laid," a perpetual smile might not be too surprising on most days.

But it seems a little odd on this winter morning, considering that Montana recently tested positive for HIV, abruptly ending his career as a performer and sending another virus-laced shock wave through the industry.

While industry health-care workers say they quickly detected and contained Montana’s infection before it spread through the talent ranks, it served notice that the porno world cannot dodge this viral bullet indefinitely.

Montana’s infection hits the industry just as the memory of the last outbreak, which saw at least five performers infected with HIV in late 1997 and early ’98, seemed to be finally fading over the horizon. Indeed, the high-voltage debates that ripped through the adult-entertainment world over performers and models using condoms had ebbed in the face of a strict reliance on monthly HIV testing.

His diagnosis also strikes when the adult-entertainment industry is reaching a zenith in this country that must make Ed Meese cringe, with more than 10,000 new porn videos washing across the nation just last year alone.

With the explosion of digital technologies, porn has expanded its lucrative product into DVD and Web markets. The San Fernando Valley remains porn’s ground zero, with the industry employing thousands of people in the Valley and thousands more across Los Angeles County.

Just last week in Las Vegas, hundreds of players in the industry — from young performers to salty old producers — gathered at the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) to celebrate what is porn’s headiest go-go era since the late 1970s.

They looked like carnal stockbrokers cheering a bubble that seemingly won’t burst. But that’s just wishful thinking, even if the band is merrily playing on.

Following the last outbreak in ’97-’98, a quarantine list and a rigorous testing campaign seemed to clear the breadth of the talent pool — offering edgy directors a green light to stage even greater spectacles of debauchery.

Unprotected sex, or "bare back" videos as they are often called in the industry, was once again the name of the game. Bizarre rituals such as bukkake videos, which feature as many as 80 men ejaculating one after another into a woman’s face while she holds a bowl underneath her chin, pushed the limits even further.

"Not too many people were really thinking about it anymore," Montana says, his grin shrinking slightly. "Hey, everyone was getting tested." Montana says he maintained a fairly busy performance schedule throughout the year, working about three days a week and submitting to the industry-required monthly HIV tests.

In early October, Montana received a phone call from Sharon Mitchell, an industry veteran who directs the nonprofit Adult Industry Medical (AIM) Healthcare Foundation, which coordinates HIV testing for much of the talent.

"Sharon calls me up and says, ‘Listen, you have to come back in. You have a false positive,’" Montana says, recalling that he wasn’t too concerned at the initial news. "I know stuff like that can happen once in a great while, so I go back and they took a bunch of blood from me, and everyone was really nice and telling me not to worry about it."

When the additional tests confirmed the worst, Montana says he just rolled with the punch.

"I was sitting in [porn agent] Jim South’s office when the news came in that it was definitely positive. It was just a weird feeling . . . but it wasn’t like I hit the floor or suffered great depression," he says. "I’ve never been one to take things too hard, but at the same time I just sort of sat there in a daze and thought, wow, out of all the people, it had to be me. But I guess thatlife."

In this case it is a matter of both life and death, for both Montana and the adult-video industry.

For Montana, he must now adjust to living with a deadly disease that still carries a powerful social stigma in many circles, including the often-cannibalistic porn world. Ironically, Montana is currently living with Laurie Holmes, the widow of porn legend John Holmes, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1988. Montana says that Holmes, who has tested negative for the virus, has helped him get through much of the turbulence so far.

Yet once he tested positive (and a talent-quarantine list was established by Mitchell at AIM), it took only a matter of days for Montana to understand just how fast the porn world can turn on and eat its own.

While he escaped the personal animus that was targeted toward HIV-positive porn performer Marc Wallice last year, Montana learned that he had plenty of fair-weather friends and employers.

(Wallice has been accused repeatedly and publicly by many in the industry of allegedly using forged negative HIV tests to continue working after he became infected. In fact, in an interview with the L.A. Weekly shortly after his infection became public, Wallice said that he had changed the dates on his tests by a few days so he could keep working after it expired, but denied that he doctored the actual test results.)

Montana’s winds of fortune faded fast. "Basically, the calls just stopped. People wouldn’t return my calls, and when they did call it was to nervously ask me where I think I might have got it," he says. "I have no idea where I contracted it, nor do I care to speculate. The odds of what can happen ended up happening to me . . . It’s a crap shoot and I lost. It’s one of those things."

Aside from the help he received from AIM and a few close friends at Leisure Time Entertainment, Montana was all but abandoned overnight.

On Internet gossip-column sites, a deluge of bitter speculation followed the announcement of his test results, with other porn performers and "industry insiders" asserting that Montana was gay, bisexual, a drug user and (evidently thrown in for good measure) abusive to his lovers.

A compendium of porn stars published several years back gushed, "In most of his gang bang movie appearances, Tony is often the first one in and the last one out . . . what more can one ask from an adult film stud?" Apparently, to go away quickly and quietly if he gets sick.

"Ultimately the industry only cares about how much money they can make off you," he says. "I spent 20 years in this business and I could die tomorrow and they couldn’t give a shit."

Of course, there are people who care, and there are a few silver linings to be found.

Executives at Leisure Time Entertainment say they are planning to release a new "educational" video featuring Montana and other HIV-positive performers as a nod to the fact that HIV does not spell the end of sex for those who are infected. While it would not be the first time an HIV-infected performer came back to work in porn (Brooke Ashley appeared in a bukkake tape well after her status was known, though there is no actual intercourse in bukkake tapes), it would be the first time a major company targeted the HIV population with a specific tape that promotes the fact that the performers have HIV.

Mitchell, at AIM, who spent years as a performer herself before becoming a state-certified HIV counselor, notes that the clinic was able to gauge the effectiveness of its test-track-notify-contain contingency plan. The bottom line is, it worked.

"Thank God it did," she says, noting that the clinic had generated a genealogy of performers who had worked with Montana (and then the performers who had worked with them) and was faxing out quarantine lists within six hours of confirmation of the lab results.

Like a rapid reaction force, Mitchell says AIM, which she founded in March 1998 in response to the HIV outbreak, demonstrated that the partner-notification strategy is the answer to containing the virus in the adult-video industry.

In Montana’s case, Mitchell says, AIM traced his performances back through 10 weeks, identifying approximately 30 people who had sexual contact with him. Each of those performers was required to clear two rounds of PCR (polymerase chain reaction) DNA testing before being allowed to work again. The PCR/DNA test is considered one of the most effective tests developed to date to detect HIV.

"Within 10 days we had cleared everyone," she says, noting that there was some criticism regarding the scope of AIM’s quarantine list, evidently because one or two performers named on the list should not have been. But Mitchell says it’s better to err on the side of caution. "I’d rather make a public apology than a mistake that leads to the transmission of the virus."

Yet it is clear there are weak links in the testing protocol the industry has established for itself. For one, testing is not centralized (though Mitchell is pushing for it). thus some performers test at other clinics, which may have different notification policies. Since time is a critical factor in preventing the spread, a delay of even a day could be deadly.

Dr. Eric Daar, director of the Infectious Diseases, AIDS and Immune Disorder Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, is blunt in his assessment of relying on testing alone.

"I think that PCR testing is reassuring — it is a good test — but I would not say they don’t have anything to worry about," he says. "They are clearly playing the odds with this technology. A PCR test is good until the person has sex again. So my first question is, what is the industry doing between the three weeks performers are getting tested?"

Daar says that while PCR tests are accurate, it is wishful thinking to rely solely upon them.

"We believe the ‘window period’ [the time in which the person is infected but not yet testing positive] to show a positive on a PCR test is about a week, but who can say for sure?" he asks. "There are clearly some people who will not test positive right away. That could be a big problem in the [porn] industry."

More worrisome, Daar says, is that one infected performer who works through the three weeks between tests — believing he or she is negative — could potentially be at a very high risk for transmission.

"If they just miss one guy who has been infected, if he becomes infected between tests, there is a high likelihood he’s going to be an efficient transmitter," Daar says, noting, "We could see the highest level of viral load in the first three weeks of infection, higher than end-stage AIDS."

Even with the threat of a deadly virus spreading through the industry, Mitchell notes, her clinic has come under some fire for its testing practices, yet she sees little choice if the industry is to survive and avoid government intervention.

"Do we have the authority to do this? No, no one does," she says, hinting that that’s been part of the problem. "There are no standards, there are no Cal-OSHA rules to abide by and inspectors to enforce the laws. We’re doing this to help. We are a legitimate resource."

Yet as Montana focuses on maintaining his health and income — he has started a drug regimen through the AIDS Healthcare Foundation and found full-time work as a welder — the question of what more can be done to make the industry safer for performers continues to loom.

The industry seems to be caught in a now-familiar cycle, one that sees the calls for mandatory condom use rise with each reported infection, then fade as time goes by. And the steady supply of new female performers proves willing to rely simply on PCR/DNA testing.

Dr. Peter Kerndt, director of the county’s HIV Epidemiology Program, says Montana’s infection highlighted the benefits of AIM’s testing strategy, as well as the risks performers run by relying on testing alone.

"What I think was really significant is there was another infection, but an outbreak was averted," he says. "That’s a true measure of success for a screening program." The speed with which AIM was able to track and notify performers, including one who was on location in Europe, may well have prevented a disaster, Kerndt says.

"If [Montana] would have had sexual contacts even a week after he tested positive, he may well have been much more contagious," he says. "So time is of the essence."

Yet Kerndt warns that to rely on screening alone increases the risks of an occasional infection or worse.

"You will always have a window period with tests, and thus you will always have risks," he says. "And those risks are not negligible."

Daar, at Cedars, goes even further by noting that PCR tests may not always detect an infected person. "The issue is, can you say that a negative PCR test rules out infection? I’m not so sure you can."

Kerndt says that by developing widespread condom use among performers the industry would cut the risk of transmission dramatically.

"Screening can do a lot, but it can never reduce it to zero," he says. "If they can bring themselves to use condoms, that would be a big step in the right direction."

But the word condom evokes a powerful reaction in porn, much like another c -word: censorship. And to some producers, mandatory condom use would be tantamount to censorship.

Yet most agree that ultimately it’s all about money. There is a widespread perception that hardcore videos do not sell well if they feature condom use.

"The condom-only movement petered out when they found out their videos tanked in Europe," Mitchell says. "The few big companies can afford to take those financial hits. Everyone else can not."

Montana agrees, noting the companies that rely on mail order and foreign sales — both large, profitable markets — look at condoms as the kiss of death.

"I’ll be the unpopular but honest one here. For cable companies condoms are fine, but for everyone else, forget it," he says.

Michael Kovacs, vice president of operations at Leisure Time Entertainment, says that condoms in porn are a stark dose of reality in a business that thrives on selling fantasies.

"The fact is that most people don’t even use condoms in their personal lives," he says. "If you ask a lot of performers, they don’t want to wear them either. And the Europeans don’t want to hear it at all. So the goal has to be to stay as safe as you can under the business conditions you have to exist in."

Daar says porn performers should not be lulled into a state of false security based on PCR testing. "People can be easily convinced, even those more sophisticated than porn performers, that everything will be okay if they test negative on a PCR test," he says. "I’ve even seen this in the medical community. They want to believe they are safe, but the fact is a lot happens after exposure."

AIM tracks how many performers passing through its doors state they are "condom only" on the set. The number is currently about 18 percent, Mitchell says. It’s no secret that performers who will work without condoms simply get more work.

Mitchell says the argument that condoms detract from the eroticism of videos — and thus the sales — is disingenuous. "The condoms we have available today are so thin and transparent that a guy wearing one looks like he just has a well-lubed penis," she says. "So no, I don’t buy their arguments at all."

Those arguments will undoubtedly continue to flare, even as other potentially serious health risks confront the industry. Mitchell is quick to note that AIM is now testing for hepatitis and offers a full range of other services, including STD screening and drug and alcohol counseling.

Barring another, large-scale outbreak, it seems likely that porn will continue to avoid government action while continuing to swap body fluids and break more sales records.

As Montana walks out into the crisp winter air, even he seems a little unfazed by it all. He notes that his viral load has dropped and his T cells are bouncing up.

"I have no regrets," he says sincerely, his eyes squinting as he ponders what he just said. "I think what it really means is I won’t be able to get laid as often as I used to."


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