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.
“I’ve seen them switch to condoms for six months, maybe less, and then they go back to unprotected sex because they see HIV as a fad, something that comes and goes,” she said. “Denial is the backbone of this industry.”
Mitchell, a performer from the heady “golden days” of porn in the 1970s who went on to earn a doctorate in human sexuality and launched AIM before the outbreak in 1998, was instrumental in establishing the HIV testing system the industry relies upon today.
Along with Margold, who has doggedly remained an unflinching advocate for performers with his support group Protecting Adult Welfare, the pair sound like hard-boiled realists in a world of profit-fueled fantasy.
To Kerndt’s protests that testing is not enough, Mitchell replies that without AIM’s screening system the two performers who tested positive, and the other performers they had sex with, would probably still be working on sets. Kerndt acknowledges, “Without her we’d have nothing in terms of testing. She has helped bring the industry halfway there.”
Instead of waiting for the industry to have an epiphany on condoms, both Mitchell and Margold fight for smaller victories.
Mitchell wants to see an end to radical, circus-like sex acts such as “double anals” (two penises, one rectum and a lot of torn tissue), which make the warning “unsafe” seem like the understatement of the year.
Margold continues to push the industry to raise its minimum age for performers to 21, arguing that teens in the business are more likely to be bamboozled or pressured into making a reckless decision. He also advocates the establishment of a performers guild.
But Mitchell, Margold and their scattered band of like-minded cohorts who fight for an industry that’s more responsive to the health of performers may as well be plugging the holes in the dike with their fingers, at least as far as Kerndt is concerned.
“This industry’s chiefs do quite well when it comes to keeping underage performers out, when it’s their own ass that’s on the legal line,” Kerndt said. “What’s amazing is the lack of public outrage over these infections. That’s what I don’t get. There’s more of an uproar if a horse or a dog is mistreated in a Hollywood movie. The big mainstream studios have to run statements at the end of the credits noting that no animal was mistreated in the making of the movie. In porn, no one seems to care what happened to the performers.”