(a version of this story cross-posted on Fleshbot)
If it were a boxing match (and it is) the media savvy and attention-hungry AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) would have won the round; in a week that not only saw HIV-positive (former?) adult performer Derrick Burts deliver several blows to the administrative competence of Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation (AIM), the porn industry’s de facto STD testing clinic, the next day its Sherman Oaks facility was temporarily shut down by the Los Angeles County Department of Health over administrative issues.
But first Mr. Burts. The fresh-faced 24-year-old began his porn career in June, performed in both straight and gay scenes as either Cameron Reid or Derek Chambers, respectively, and learned from AIM that he had tested positive for HIV in September.
This put into motion a familiar series of events: AHF accused AIM of falling down on the job, demanded the County of Los Angeles shutter the facility, and called for the mandatory employment of protective devices like condoms and dental dams on porn sets.
Paraphrase: How many porn performers have to get HIV—or worse—before the adult industry buckles down and buttons up?
“We don’t want to shut down the adult industry,” said AHF president Michael Weinstein at Wednesday’s press conference. “We just want it to be safer.”
AIM responded that it had followed all procedures required by law and that the situation was being managed.
Paraphrase: Leave us alone. The adult industry can take care of itself. Why else would we call it “adult”?
Further, the clinic suggested that Burts, then identified only as “Patient Zeta,” had likely contracted the disease in his private life and not on a porn set.
At least not on a straight porn set. Burts is adamant that he didn’t catch HIV in his private life—he says his girlfriend tested negative—but thinks he may have contracted the disease on a Florida gay porn set.
In the short adult industry quarantine and work stoppage that followed the September incident (word leaked on October 11), AIM defended itself against AHF’s media onslaught, responding to charges from the LA Times and local NPR affiliates. AHF successfully commandeered media attention with steady press releases.
“I think this all feels like a giant pissing contest with a side of blame game,” says performer Kristina Rose. “I just hope whoever takes ‘control’ over our testing actually cares about the people getting tested and not just the money involved.”
If the adult industry has as much money as is claimed, why does it not have a team of high-priced lobbyists and media spinners to advance its case, rather than respond to volleys lobbed from outside? Why is Vivid’s Steve Hirsch mainstream media’s sole porn contact?
It has something to do with the naturally defensive posture of the adult industry, a business barely a generation away from being legal and still an easy target for politicians and law enforcement; despite porn existing in every home and hotel room with cable television or Internet access, no public figure wants to be caught defending it.
So the porn industry, while it has a country full of people willing to consume its product, has few friends.
But having few friends breeds a certain lack of accountability.
At Burts’ AHF-sponsored press conference appearance, he spoke of AIM operatives warning him not to talk with the media, hanging up on him when he called for information about his diagnosis, and failing to provide him with promised documentation.
And, though it is my belief that Burts was coached according to AHF’s agenda, I have no reason to doubt that what he said about AIM was true; while I don’t think they dropped the ball medically or legally, it is fully within the realm of possibility that an institution used to running a fiefdom out of the public spotlight freezes when cornered.
I was not there to verify Burts being hung up on, but I believe it. Similarly I am inclined to believe the Follow the Money charge levied against AHF by the Free Speech Coalition, an adult industry trade group.
Why does AHF and Weinstein have it in for AIM? The Free Speech Coalition points to the AHF’s series of what it calls “nuisance” lawsuits and suggests that AHF itself wants to be the STD testing facility for the porn business, ready to deploy a team of grant writers to make it possible.
Porn performer Justin Long may have been overpassionate at the expense of his rent money when he commented to the LA Weekly, “Damn AHF .. I have already vowed as a performer that I WILL REFUSE TO WORK w/ any talent that shows up with a test from AHF or the County of Los Angeles, because neither of these entities should be profiting from their witch hunt of AIM !!!”
Down to a skeleton staff of true believers, trade publication AVN has come out swinging against AHF. In pieces by Mark Kernes and Tom Hymes, AVN seemed to breathe a sigh of relief when Burts didn’t necessarily seem to blame the straight porn industry for his HIV-positive status, even linking to Burts’ gay escort ad.
AVN has also scoffed at the lack of communication between the County and State that would shut down a clinic just for having slightly varying business names on its license applications.
This charge resonates with anyone who had to deal with anything from parking tickets to taxes to a marriage license in Los Angeles County, but AVN fails to address the fact that AIM’s license itself was incorrect, that it was identified legally as a physician and not a clinic, and that it had inadequate transfer procedures for medical emergencies.
While AIM is now dealing with that red tape, and while we can believe that nearby bureaucrats might be lighting fires under AIM prejudicially because of AHF’s relentless pressure, it is also within reason to suggest that, even under months of scrutiny, AIM still saw fit to not get its act together, that everything would blow over.
While AIM’s right to draw blood from its own facility has been temporarily restricted, it still has numerous affiliated “draw” locations that feed the asset that is of greatest value to adult producers and talent: its comprehensive database.
“It will be a huge hassle to check tests from several different testing centers,” said one producer this weekend. “Luckily we still have a few weeks of a window where the AIM tests are still good.”
Because AIM is the go-to testing facility, all performers in a production are in AIM’s system, and producers can not only check an actor’s “clean” status but can also, if need be, check on the stats of performers that actor has worked with. AIM’s ability to cross-reference at an industry-wide level are the direct result of its being the only game in town, largely with unqualified support from AVN.
Well, almost the only game in town.
While everyone is concerned with AIM’s woes, a paycheck is a paycheck and performers need to know their alternatives.
“I’ll go to Talent Testing Services if I have to,” says performer Misty Stone. “AIM makes everything more convenient and everyone knows me there, but if AIM is shut down I can’t just stop working.”
TTS is a Miami-based testing facility (next to California, porn is most often shot in Florida with numerous websites headquartered there) with a satellite in Northridge.
Kristina Rose isn’t sure AIM will be the last traditionally “adult” testing center shut down.
“At this point nothing shocks me,” she says. “I had just retested (at AIM) before they closed, so I’m good for now.”
Male performer Brian Street Team has a similar story. “While I think it’s going to blow over, I got tested last Wednesday, the day before AIM was closed,” he says, “so for now Talent Testing is the big alternative.”
AHF has also been successful in lobbying LA City Councilor Bill Rosendahl to introduce a motion to require City Attorney Carmen Trutanich to outline plans for the Council to make film permitting for adult shoots dependent on condom use.
Can the adult industry outmaneuver something like:
The producers of adult films are required by California Code of Regulations Title 8, Section 5903 et seq. to employ barrier protection, including without limitation condoms, to shield performers from contact with potentially infectious material during the production of adult films
…simply by relying on Free Speech and an adult’s right to choose for himself?
“Adults are so pathetic sometimes,” says Rose.
If the battle between AHF and AIM doesn’t blow over, if AHF is successful in not only permanently shutting down AIM (and even getting LA City Councilors talking about restricting film permits to porn shoots)
On the set of a porn parody this weekend, production staff discussed what might happen if AHF succeeds in mandating condom use in the adult industry.
“We could always go to Vegas or Florida,” the director said.
“Isn’t it illegal there, too?” the stills photographer said.
“Yes, but it’s accepted there,” the director said.