After waging a six-year battle against Southern California's multibillion-dollar porn industry with no end in sight, Michael Weinstein, the outspoken, hard-charging founder of the Los Angeles–based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, is getting ready for another rumble.
“AHF doesn't give up on an issue,” Weinstein says, “and we're not going to give up on this.”
The “issue” focuses on one thing: condoms in straight-porn films. Weinstein wants every male porn actor to wear them during sex scenes with women. He also wants the state of California and Los Angeles County to mandate condom use in the adult-film business. Weinstein says he's more focused on regulations for the straight-porn industry since most gay-porn film studios already have a “condom-only” policy.
“There's no other workplace where people routinely get diseases and no one does anything about it,” he says.
Adult-film honchos hate the AIDS activist's condom plan. “If AIDS Healthcare is successful,” says Steven Hirsch, founder of Vivid Entertainment, a leading porn studio based in L.A., “they will drive the industry out of California.” Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who represents a big geographic region that includes companies like Vivid, is hesitant about a countywide condom mandate, saying it would be difficult to enforce.
But Weinstein vows to appeal a recent court decision that ruled against the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, still hoping to force the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health into writing a regulation that would make L.A., a key producer of the world's porn, a “condom-only” town.
Adult-film studio bosses, facing falling revenues due to a staggering proliferation of cheaply produced online porn sites that are stealing the industry's paying audience, are taking Weinstein's condom crusade seriously. “He really believes in his cause,” Hirsch says, “but it's misguided. We're concerned anytime there's a threat to our business.”
Weinstein, a longtime proponent of using condoms to promote safe sex, says the porn industry has been on his radar since 2004. That year, porn star Darren James tested positive for HIV and infected three actresses before he was notified of his status by the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation, an L.A.-based testing clinic created by the porn industry. Adult-film studios shut down for a month, and James became the center of a nationwide controversy.
After the dust settled, Weinstein and AIDS Healthcare Foundation, one of the nation's leading HIV/AIDS advocacy organizations, were still anxious.
“We were concerned about how the [testing] system was set up and the fact that condoms weren't used,” says Weinstein.
In the six years since then, Weinstein and his staffers have lobbied state legislators, including Mark Leno of San Francisco, and Paul Koretz and John Perez of L.A., to sponsor a bill to mandate condom use on porn-movie sets in California. He also tried to pressure Supervisor Yaroslavsky to prod the county's Department of Public Health to create a workplace rule that would make condoms mandatory for male porn stars. And Weinstein publicly clashed with the porn industry. “The industry is saying they're going to run to Florida,” he says, “and I want them to know we'll follow them wherever they go.”
Weinstein's lobbying efforts went nowhere. State politicians, in particular, he says, wouldn't touch the issue. Then, last June, a female porn actress tested positive for HIV. The Los Angeles Times reported that L.A. County health officials had found at least 16 additional “unpublicized” HIV cases involving adult-film performers since the 2004 revelations, but county health officials later said they could make no firm connection between the unpublicized HIV cases and any adult-film performers.** Weinstein stepped up his pro-condom campaign.
“It's out of control,” says Weinstein, who believes the porn industry's threat to move out of California is an empty one, and that performers need to be better protected.
In July, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation sued L.A. County in an effort to compel its Department of Public Health to mandate condom use. In November, Weinstein met with Yaroslavsky and county Public Health Director Jonathan Fielding. In December, however, Superior Court Judge David Yaffe dismissed AHF's lawsuit, saying county health officials have broad discretion over how they do their job. As for the meeting with Yaroslavsky and Fielding, Weinstein says they promised a “plan of action,” but adds that he never heard back. Yaroslavsky disputes that, saying his staff contacted Weinstein.
“We're trying to figure out a way to make it happen,” the L.A. County supervisor says. “I'm sympathetic to it.”
However, Yaroslavsky notes that there are “difficulties” in mandating condoms for porn performers. The greatest problem, he says, is finding an effective way to enforce such a rule when there are many “small-time, underground” porn filmmakers who are nearly impossible to find and to check up on during filming. Yaroslavsky says it would be unfair to require major porn studios to follow a condom rule while lesser-known porn producers would escape the rules.
“The question is, how do we most effectively address this issue,” says Yaroslavsky, who believes a statewide law, not a county rule, would best produce a level playing field for the adult-film business in California.
“The county is not the preferred tool,” he adds.
Weinstein is less than pleased with Yaroslavsky. The AIDS activist says the supervisor “hasn't done anything, he hasn't said a word, and I don't think he should get away with it.” Weinstein also says that Yaroslavsky's push for a state law is “just another way of passing the buck.”
When asked about Weinstein's comments, Yaroslavsky says, “I feel Michael's passion. He's a very effective advocate. Michael wants to make a statement, and he wants to make an example of somebody.”
Nor does the on-camera porn talent seem grateful. Porn star Evan Stone, who's been in the business for 10 years, says, “This is how communism starts. They first get into your bedroom. Where will it stop?”
Mark Kulkis, president of Kick Ass Pictures, a top L.A. porn studio, charges that Weinstein is “out for headlines for himself,” adding that condom regulations would drive porn filmmakers “underground” and “out of state.”
Porn with condoms “just doesn't sell,” says Kulkis, a 14-year veteran of the industry. “You can't argue with the economics of the situation.”
Vivid Entertainment founder Hirsch says that when his studio went “condom-only,” between 1998 and 2006, it saw a 10 to 20 percent drop in revenues. “It's been proven your sales will decline if you shoot films with condoms,” he says. Hirsch adds that Vivid switched to “condom-optional” in 2006, when testing for sexually transmitted diseases improved and performers came to him saying they no longer wanted to use condoms.
And female porn star Noname Jane, who has also been working in the industry for 10 years, argues that condoms cause health problems for women whom “outsiders” like Weinstein don't fully understand.
“Condoms are good if you're doing a nice, romantic sex scene because [viewers] don't see” the condom, explains Jane. “But most porn that's shot is 'gonzo porn,' when the guy really pounds away. When you're getting pounded like that, no amount of lube stops the friction burn. And you tend to get more infections when your vagina is damaged.”
Porn star Stone also says he experiences friction burn and condoms rolling down or breaking. Stone and Jane say they feel safe under the porn industry's current policy that mandates performers be tested by the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation every 30 days for sexually transmitted diseases. Without a clean bill of health, actors and actresses can't work. But AIM has been criticized by state and county health officials for not cooperating with their investigations.
Weinstein remains unpersuaded and plans to move forward with an appeal of AIDS Healthcare Foundation's failed lawsuit against the county as soon as the legal paperwork is in order.
“Self-regulation hasn't worked well for banks or any U.S. industry,” Weinstein contends.
Hirsch, who founded Vivid 25 years ago, insists Weinstein's plan is unfair to California studios. “If the entire world mandated condoms, it would be a level playing field.”
**Correction: The original version of this story repeated the L.A. Times information that 16 cases of AIDS had been linked to adult-film performers. However, county officials later said they could not verify such a link.
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at email@example.com.