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Porn Defends the Money Shot

Ava Jay
PHOTO BY STEVE APPLEFORD

It's the staple of porn and an element of Americana so pervasive that it has become a term to describe any crescendo in pop culture, from a game-winning basket by Kobe Bryant to an emphatic punch line by Sarah Palin.

More than 20 years ago Jeff Koons made his soon-to-be wife, porn star La Cicciolina, the star of his explicit Made in Heaven series of huge photo portraits, which, in part, glorified and immortalized the money shot, giving it a place even in the world of haute art.

Almost everything in adult video leads up to the final "pop," as those in the business call the visual release of semen. But most of the rest of the time is spent setting up shots and adjusting body parts for the perfect lead-up. Behind the scenes, it actually can be tedious to witness. And there's no fast-forward.

Watching Star Wars XXX: A Porn Parody (due for an Oct. 10 release) being made this summer was certainly anticlimactic. Billed as the most expensive adult film ever, its production was as professional and deliberate as any big-budget Hollywood project: Take after take, flubbed lines, megaphone instructions to the cast, minutes if not hours of breaks to set up shots, makeup, wardrobe, extras walking around in stormtrooper costumes.

Even a furry Chewbacca look-alike paced the set — a stuffy warehouse just west of the Los Angeles River downtown — letting out the occasional, wistful growl.

And Princess Leia. Oh, Princess Leia — played by Vivid Entertainment's newest contract star, Allie Haze. If not for Haze strutting around the set, her hair in trademark buns, her obscene curves visible beneath a sheer white gown, it all would have been an absolute bore.

In the last few years, the rise of free online porn — content-rich sites that tease viewers to subscribe for more — and pay-site juggernauts like Brazzers have put the L.A.-based adult-video industry against the ropes. Its answer, in part, has been the high-dollar parody, designed to attract ComicCon nerds, science fiction fans and other pop culture aficionados who must collect everything within their target oeuvre.

On the eve of the 40th anniversary of porn's introduction to the mainstream via Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, it might be too little, too late.

"That's the main reason for the success of my movies — because I went after a different demographic," Star Wars XXX director Axel Braun tells the Weekly on set. "I'm not going after fans of porn; I'm going after fans of the original source material."

Braun's films, in partnership with Vivid, the industry's largest studio, have been blockbusters at a time when — as with mainstream studios, record labels and newspapers — online consumption is draining profits. Porn parodies (Elvis XXX, Spider-Man XXX) are a rare bright spot in an industry that has seen its bottom line rocked.

Filmmaker and industry activist Michael Whiteacre says porn star unemployment is high, with performers "working a lot less and getting paid a lot less. The money is just not there for these girls."

And so many adult actors, particularly the women, are devolving to work as "escorts," a kinder term for prostitutes. Former performer Gina Rodriguez says that if the girls last one year in porn movies — most last only three to six months — they get hooked on the relatively big money and gravitate toward prostitution when the film producers seek fresh new faces and bodies.

"It's a money trap," Rodriguez says. "They take in the 18-, 19-year-olds, and within a year they'll be into escorting."

In the past, a porn star taking money for off-camera work might not be a big deal. But the straight-porn biz is under attack for its general refusal to use condoms — even on uber-mainstream sets like Star Wars XXX, where producers say prophylactics are optional, but nobody uses them. Porn leaders insist that once-a-month testing of performers keeps the L.A.-based pool of workers safe from the likes of HIV.

But when straight-porn actors take side gigs as prostitutes to make a living, having sex with strangers off-set, that changes everything. They're quietly going outside the safe pool. Some are almost assuredly not using condoms, then returning to local porn sets — 200 porn productions pull permits every month in the City of Los Angeles alone — without a word.

The L.A.-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) is on a mission to get state and local authorities to enforce condoms on set. On the surface, it's not a bad idea, especially if porn stars freelance as hookers.

But here's the key stumbling block: That would also mean the end of the industry's bread and butter — the sacred money shot, shooting semen and all. Industry leaders are fighting tooth and nail against condoms. Even a relatively mainstream filmmaker like Braun says condoms would push production out of state because the mostly male viewers just don't want to see films where a key component is sheathed in latex.

 

"We're selling a fantasy," he says, adding later: "Think about it. If you make something illegal that has so much demand, you're going to send it underground. You send it underground, you're going to have people not getting tested anymore.

"I don't think it's the right approach."

AIDS Healthcare Foundation seized on news in August of another HIV scare in porn. After a performer in Miami had an initial positive test from a medical clinic for the virus that causes AIDS, a weeklong shutdown of porn production from coast to coast in early September ensued, affecting scores of major and minor productions.

Luckily for the titans of this industry, it turned out to be a false positive. They got back to work, but not before accusing AIDS Healthcare Foundation and its leader, Michael Weinstein, of being overzealous in their attacks against the porn industry and its wholesomely named lobbying group, the Free Speech Coalition.

Weinstein accused the industry of "a full-scale cover-up" in its reaction to the HIV scare, noting that it took nearly a week for the public to find out whether the unnamed porn actor actually was positive and that "the results of any confirmatory tests should already be available" before that.

Because Free Speech Coalition took the lead in publicly explaining the Miami case, Weinstein criticized the group, telling reporters it "is not qualified to investigate a public health outbreak of this kind." However, FSC's leaders dismiss his criticism.

Free Speech Coalition and the porn company that employed the male performer, Manwin, both called for Weinstein to "retract" his allegations. It has been, to be sure, a war of words.

Porn's leaders seem to march in lockstep in accusing AHF and Weinstein of having a profit motive: Many of them allege the health care group wants to take over testing for porn, wants a potentially lucrative contract for inspecting sets, and even wants to get into the highly competitive business of producing condoms — which it would sell to the adult-video business.

"This is about money," says filmmaker Whiteacre.

Weinstein retorts: "We're not interested in doing testing for the porn industry. We already have our own brand of condoms, which we give out for free."

AHF bills itself as "the nation's largest provider of HIV/AIDS medical care," and it had assets of $18 million in 2010. Condoms and porn first appeared on its map in 2004, when a Los Angeles performer named Darren James contracted HIV, apparently during a trip to Brazil, where he worked and exposed 12 female performers to the possibility of HIV-positive status.

Ironically, back then, some of the bigger producers like Vivid, which focused on softer-core pay-per-view sales at major hotel chains, were condom-mandatory companies by choice, so condoms were used for everything but oral sex. But tastes got raunchier, even in otherwise buttoned-up hotels that cater to business travelers, and the condoms came off for good.After the 2004 outbreak (at least three women who worked with James after he returned to L.A. from Brazil tested positive for HIV), AHF took an official stance in favor of mandatory condoms. In 2009 the health care group started to lobby actively for the rule.

That's when the group discovered that using condoms during porn shoots was already required under federal law — albeit a law everyone had ignored.

Senior officials at the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal-OSHA) say that its interpretation of federal law prohibiting employees from being exposed to blood-borne pathogens (blood, semen and the like) means that condoms are indeed required on set.

And so, after AIDS Healthcare Foundation began filing complaints against companies like Larry Flynt's Hustler video empire, carting boxes of DVDs depicting condom-free sex to the offices of Cal-OSHA, the workplace-safety division started levying fines on a piecemeal basis.

Flynt's company was hit last March with $14,000 worth of fines for failing to require its actors to use condoms. The multimillion-dollar enterprise didn't even feel the tiny sting. Flynt practically yawned, declaring he wouldn't require condoms at Hustler productions.

Cal-OSHA officials admit to L.A. Weekly that resources for enforcing the federal blood-borne pathogens law are scarce during this era of multibillion-dollar state deficits. Deborah Gold, Cal-OSHA senior safety engineer, said late last year, "We realize that strong, consistent enforcement is imperative to our program. We're doing what we can within our resources."

Cal-OSHA lead counsel Amy Martin refuted that stance in a recent interview. She says the state is actively investigating possible on-set violations but reveals that the state is focused on reacting to complaints — not on digging up problems through surprise checks. The lack of "resources has not prevented us from opening inspections based on complaints," she says.

 

AHF has pleaded with the City of Los Angeles and the L.A. County Department of Public Health to come down on productions that don't require condoms. A memo from the office of City Attorney Carmen Trutanich in April indicated that condom use was required under L.A.'s permitting process, noting, "California Code of Regulations Section 5193 [requires] employees exposed to blood-borne pathogens to wear protective gear. In the event any terms of the permit are violated during the permitted activity, LAPD has the discretion to revoke the permit."

But that's not happening, even as more and more porn actors in Southern California turn to prostitution, dragging unknown pathogens into the acting pool, thanks to the recession and the severe economic hit from free online porn.

Trutanich's office informed the City Council that "it's doubtful" Los Angeles can "actively enforce" condom use on set. It seems that lack of resources is to blame: Imagine the Los Angeles Police Department acting as prophylactic police. County health chief Jonathan Fielding said the same — that regulating the adult industry's workplaces is a state duty.

The industry has argued that the blood-borne pathogen rule doesn't apply to it, that it was intended to cover medical clinics, and that requiring such possible "protective gear" as latex gloves, goggles and face masks on set would be absurd — but state officials say that's not what the law requires.

"The idea they would consider applying a rule created for medical clinics and emergency rooms to an adult production — it's hard to choose from the variety of insulting words: asinine, mindless, inappropriate," says attorney Jeffrey Douglas, chair of FSC's board of directors. "If it were in effect, dental dams would be mandatory and everybody would have to wear rubber gloves. Everyone would have to be more closely protected than a dentist working on your mouth."

Some porn insiders also note that mixed martial arts fighters (of the Ultimate Fighting Championship variety) are often exposed to blood during bouts that are sanctioned by the state of California.

Again, the state responds that its investigators focus on complaints, not on proactively trying to unearth exposure to pathogens. Cal-OSHA's Martin says that if the agency received complaints about blood exposure in "the octagon" — the eight-sided enclosure where UFC competitors fight — the state agency would investigate and issue citations where necessary.

So far, the industry's major straight-porn producers (gay porn largely employs condoms for anal sex but often allows the money shot in other cases) have ignored the federal mandate. Cal-OSHA, at the behest of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, has been working on a specific rule that would cover adult video in California — specifically mentioning condoms and the industry instead of relying on federal law that might or might not have been intended for medical facilities.

The new rule could be taken up by Cal-OSHA's standards board by the end of 2011 — and that will set off a fury in the already hammered porn industry. Nobody knows if it will contain fines significantly bigger than the $14,000 fine on Flynt, which he laughed off.

Cal-OSHA attorney Martin tells the Weekly there's no way to know if the proposed new rule, designed to force mandatory condom use squarely upon adult-video makers, would actually change the way the business behaves.

"I don't know," she says, pausing. "Hopefully they'll comply with the law."

At a June meeting to discuss the proposed rule in an auditorium at a state building in downtown L.A., about 70 performers showed up, mostly to protest. You've never seen such tight jeans and structurally sound body parts in a Caltrans facility.

During the hearing a female performer stood up and said, "You guys are discussing what I need to do with my own body."

It's a point frequently argued by some of the women of porn: This is a privacy issue, just like the right to abortion. "I don't know how they can tell us what I can and can't put in my body," Haze says while on the set of Star Wars XXX. "It's a choice."

At summer's Adultcon convention downtown, porn star Trinity St. Clair was wearing a schoolgirl uniform, inspiring a gray-haired man to say, "She looks barely old enough," before he posed for a picture with St. Clair. But talk turned more serious when she said, "We get to decide what we want to do as women. It's kind of like abortion and those rights."

Perhaps the most interesting argument against using condoms in porn movies comes from Roger Jon Diamond, a Santa Monica attorney who has been involved for many years in defending strip clubs and adult businesses. He cites freedom of speech.

"I would say such a rule would interfere with the First Amendment right of the producer and director to create a product," he says. "I don't think the state has the authority to do that. It would be a public health issue versus a freedom-of-expression issue. If it interfered with the artistic nature of the movie, I think there would be a First Amendment argument. But, in terms of politics, I don't think the industry wants to take on this battle."

 

It would take serious time, dollars and legal might for the adult biz to fight for its right to the money shot as a form of artistic expression. But some in the industry are gung-ho. Mandatory condoms, says porn star and activist Nina Hartley, would be "prior restraint on speech."

The death of John Holmes (the inspiration for Mark Wahlberg's character in Boogie Nights) in 1988 was attributed to AIDS, and many blamed his "crossover" work in gay film and his alleged drug use.

Denial is a river that overflows in the industry of smut, and Holmes was seen by many performers as a victim of his own lifestyle choices. It wasn't until 1993, when another HIV outbreak hit the industry, that porn began to think seriously about how to confront the virus and other STDs, says William Margold, an industry veteran and gadfly who has worked as a writer, actor and filmmaker since the early 1970s.

In 1998 industry insider and former porn star Sharon Mitchell launched the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation (AIM), a nonprofit where performers could get tested and treated. By the next decade, it was the epicenter of the industry's official testing protocol. Performers working for major production companies such as Vivid, Evil Angel and even the more online-focused Manwin are tested monthly and must show proof of negative HIV results when they arrive on set.

In recent years AIM even began posting the results of porn stars' tests on a restricted website, which producers could check to see if an actor was good to perform.

That all changed last spring, when a website called PornWikiLeaks put online, for the world to see, performers' medical records, apparently culled from AIM's database and sometimes matched with addresses that are federally required to ensure movie performers aren't underage.

At about the same time, AIDS Healthcare Foundation was filing complaints against the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation as part of its mission to get condoms required in porn. In AHF's view, testing service AIM was the new enabler in the industry's denial about condoms.

On one front, AHF alleged that AIM was violating performers' federal privacy rights by making their test results available online to producers; on another it said AIM wasn't properly registered as a clinic, which was true.

Legal action by AHF ultimately toppled AIM last May, when the organization closed its doors. The Free Speech Coalition stepped in with a replacement system called the Adult Production Health and Safety Service, which promised to honor privacy while administering the once-a-month testing protocol.

The industry argues that its testing system works by quickly alerting it to new HIV cases, leading to shutdowns of production, preventing HIV from spreading on set.

Of the 10 HIV cases in the porn industry that both the AHF and the Free Speech Coalition agree have cropped up since 2005, the industry says nearly all were contracted off-set, the implication being that many of the original virus carriers didn't work in the industry. FSC chair Douglas says, "In all of the tens of thousands of unprotected sex acts [since 2005], there is only one documented occasion where someone transmitted HIV on the set. That's a regret. It should never have happened."

STD rates for performers are "much lower" than those of the general population, says FSC executive director Diane Duke. Such numbers are hard to calculate, however, because porn's population of workers is transient and changes by the month, a fact Johns Hopkins M.D. Lawrence S. Mayer noted in an industry-commissioned report that debunks studies claiming high STD rates in adult video, which he called "without basis in science."

One of the industry's more unsavory arguments against using condoms is that some of its HIV cases occurred when male straight-porn actors engaged in unprotected "crossover" work in gay porn, or had relations with gay men in their personal lives.

In 2004, when James contracted HIV after his visit to South America, Ron Jeremy suggested with a metaphorical wink to this author that there are a lot of beautiful women in Brazil, "and some of them have dicks."

Derrick Burts, the performer who tested HIV-positive in 2010, was quickly outed by industry insiders as not only a crossover actor — he did both gay and straight porn — but also as a prostitute whose "escort" services were advertised on gay site Rentboy.

 

"I do believe that there should be strict rules for crossover," porn star Shay Fox tells the Weekly. "That's where the problem is."

A former porn star who did not want her name used says that many who work in adult video believe "HIV is hard to get." And, she added, "It really is."

The subtext among some straight actors is that it's hard to get — unless you're gay.

At a summer press conference, AHF's Weinstein called criticism of crossover performers "just code" for gay bashing. He told the Weekly, "There's a myriad amount of dangers" for all performers "and the reality is you can get tested today and get infected tomorrow."

Indeed, some porn insiders admit that run-of-the-mill STDs are common — so much so that outbreaks are sometimes "covered up with makeup so it doesn't show up on camera," says former performer Gina Rodriguez.

The industry's testing system "is a joke," she says. "Think about it. This is the truth. If I took my test 29 days ago, I'm OK to work with you because I have a valid test."

The "dirty secret" of porn isn't "crossover," says Weinstein. It's taking escorting jobs, or what some in the business call "making appearances" with fans such as Charlie Sheen. (Sheen seemed to have no problem tracking down some of his favorite adult performers during his famous meltdown last winter.)

"I said 50 percent of the women in porn were 'escorting' back in the late '90s," says adult filmmaker Whiteacre. "The number is certainly higher today."

Escorting is porn without the lights and cameras but definitely with the action. Whether it's safe is a question for its practitioners. Some experts say, ironically or not, condoms usually are required by the individual women themselves for such off-set activity.

"Even if the girls are using condoms when they're escorting, it's doubtful they're going to be kept totally clean," says former performer Rodriguez. "There's a lot of contact there."

Some of the biggest names in the business, such as Charmane Star and Sativa Rose, can easily be found offering private meet-ups — by the hour — on some of L.A.'s classified-ad sites. It's not clear if someone is just capitalizing on the monikers of famous porn stars or if such ads are for real. Neither of those advertisers responded to our email requests for comment.

One porn star, Adora Cash, openly advertises on her own site that she's an "adult film star, escort, domina" and "webcam fetishist."

And a performer who quit the business last year and is now a full-time escort told the Weekly that prostitution is so widespread that "most of the female porn stars are escorts."

"Most of all the girls I know that are porn stars I met on set — they all escort, all of them," she adds. "These performers are going out and being irresponsible in their own private sex lives."

An uneasy compromise may be the answer. Condoms for anal and vaginal sex are on the table at Cal-OSHA, as officials there draw up the new rule to cover porn. AHF's Weinstein says he won't demand the use of condoms for oral sex. It's a compromise, he says, that is "a reasonable accommodation" for both sides.

And that fine-tuning would save the "money shot" because blow jobs wouldn't violate the OSHA rule under development. "There would not be acceptance of condoms for oral sex," Weinstein acknowledges.

Free Speech Coalition chairman Douglas, a powerful voice in the industry, says, "I'm very much a 'never say never' person. I'm interested in a good-faith effort" toward compromise.

Yet FSC executive director Duke warns, "I don't think the industry will budge" by agreeing to the compromise plan coming before Cal-OSHA.

Larry Flynt and Vivid CEO Steven Hirsch, for example, continue to resist the use of on-set condoms for any reason, and Hirsch threatens to leave Los Angeles if restrictions come to pass. "It's a possibility we will be shooting outside California" if the condom rule passes, Hirsch tells the Weekly.

The adult-business news site XBIZ conducted a poll over the summer asking industry movers and shakers if they would leave California should condoms become specifically mandatory: More than 60 percent said yes. "I think that it's very possible that an exodus would happen on some level," says XBIZ managing editor Dan Miller.

Weinstein is among many who think the threat to leave Porn Valley is a bluff. Although porn productions are common in Florida and Nevada, and New Hampshire recognized freedom-of-expression protection for porn in 2008, California is the only state where making adult video is widely protected. "That's true," says adult-industry lawyer Diamond — thanks to a 1988 state Supreme Court case, California v. Freeman, which found that prostitution could be tolerated in cases where pornographic imagery was being produced.

 

"There's only one state where [porn] is not considered prostitution," says Weinstein — California. "I think if the industry tried to pick up stakes and go, there they would have difficulty. They can't exist as an above-ground industry anywhere else but California."

"They're not going anywhere," agrees porn veteran Margold. "We have been blessed with the Freeman decision."

Attorney Douglas of FSC says the threat to leave is real, though, noting that much production has already gone to Florida, where online juggernaut Manwin has a large presence, and to Nevada, home of the brothel.

"The adult industry is incredibly mobile," he says, "and there's production everywhere. This is a huge amount of money and commerce and employment that would be driven out due to the threat of bad regulation."

A springtime party at R Lounge in Studio City is billed as a chance to meet porn stars, and it is. The high rollers driving up to the red carpet in German cars have to pay a cover charge. The women, of course, get in free. And for the most part you can smell them before they even enter the doors of this modern, minimalist club.

A cloud of marijuana smoke precedes a trio of performers in $10 minidresses and Lucite stripper shoes. They can barely keep their clothes on as a dozen photogs from websites you've never heard of go wild.

One woman flashes her breasts, another turns around and exposes the back of her thong, and when the performers plop onto a low-slung couch there's no need for that wiggling wardrobe dance familiar to any woman who has worn a short skirt. Panty shots are part of the deal.

The other side of the often dull and technical nature of on-set porn is the "lifestyle" beyond the set. While many female performers view men as "walking wallets," as Margold puts it, they also sometimes genuinely embrace the party and the chance at a side-door entrance to stardom.

Jenna Jameson is perhaps the ultimate porn success, a woman who never did the kind of "gonzo" films that give performers STDs, an entrepreneur who ultimately produced and distributed her own product. Sasha Gray, who quit the industry earlier this year, has crossed over into indie film (The Girlfriend Experience) and cable (Entourage). The new girls want to be Jenna and Sasha.

Many female porn stars have taken to social media to brag about their cars, their designer handbags, the celebrities they get to meet and the crazy parties they attend. There's plenty of hope among the new talent, even if the jobs are more scarce than they've been in a generation.

Tom Byron, a legendary performer, is thoughtful, honest and reflective when the Weekly catches him between takes on the set of Star Wars XXX. He's been around the industry long enough — nearly 30 years — to remember the days before testing, which he called "scary."

"Should we probably use condoms?" he asks. "Yes. Do people want to see it? No."

Indeed, the biggest problem for porn is the silent majority: the viewer, the connoisseur, the guy with his thumb on the fast-forward button. Like spectators at a Roman gladiator battle, they want porn to show them the money.

Margold, who has watched the industry progress since Linda Lovelace discovered the fictional clitoris in her throat in 1972, is very much pro condom. In fact, he thinks performers should be tested for intravenous drug use and that new performers should be at least 21.

But, he argues, the consumer's carnal desires are too powerful for even the state of California's workplace police to overcome.

He delivers the money quote, the bottom line:

"We're gotten off to, by society, with its left hand," he says, "and then denied with its right hand. The very people who jack off to us don't give a damn about us, and probably won't."


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