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Porn, Poverty, Public Health and the Pursuit of Happiness

For many, it is hard to have open conversations about vaginas, penises, and anuses, especially when ‘beavers,’ ‘one-eyed snakes’ and ‘poop-chutes’ play bump in the [supposed] night. Even when we talk about “them” bumping in the night, many of us create euphemisms to get around the discomfort of talking about sex.  So you can imagine when vaginas, penises, and anuses are filmed and paid to go “bump in that [supposed] night,” what kind of uproar is made against the porn industry.

Although pornography is legal and has more than its fair share of enthusiasts, its detractors paint it as an industry that produces violence against women and acts as fodder to the sexually dysfunctional.  Whether you see it as a mega-industry providing a valuable service or a destroyer of the moral fiber of societies, it is an industry that sells us an imagined image of healthy sexually-active individuals.  Are porn actors healthy people, making well-informed decisions, or are they the blamed – possibly vulnerable – victims who willingly participate in an on-camera Russian roulette that we know sex to be?

Tiger Tyson, a black gay porn star, shows that some porn stars are willing participants in the Russian roulette nature of sex:

Tiger Tyson

It was just me tired of me getting fucked over by smaller companies paying you for a little bit of shit when you were actually out there doing dirt, shit believe it or not…I am not gonna give the porn business a bad name and everything, but there is a lot of bad shit in porn business. I was one of those fortunate [ones] I didn’t get caught up in drugs. Drugs didn’t kill me.  I didn’t catch AIDS.

It is clear that Tiger was aware that he had dodged some major bullets (read: pitfalls) of his chosen profession.  Moreover, he has been able to create a lucrative empire out of his porn career, but what happens when the trigger is squeezed and the chamber of the gun is loaded?

Darren James

Darren James, 40-year old heterosexual porn star, contracted HIV in 2004, allegedly during a performance in Brazil with adult performer Bianca Biaggi.  In April 2004, according to the New York Times, the California porn industry came to a halt for either one or two month(s). The halt was because a couple of weeks after Mr. James was found to be HIV positive, one of his female co-stars, Lara Roxx, was also found to be HIV positive. During the halt of the California Porn Industry, all of the performers who had worked with Darren in the last month before his positive test or performers who had sex with other performers who had been in scenes with him, were asked to go to Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation (AIM), a clinic set up to serve performers in the industry. Unfortunately by the end of the testing period, two other female adult performers had become HIV positive.

In 2010, Derrick Burts, a 24-year old gay and straight porn actor, said “I was in the [porn] industry for one month and I came down with Chlamydia, Gonorrhea and Herpes.”

His words are sobering and alarmingly disruptive to the imagined-image of the healthy, sexually desirable bodies featured in mainstream adult films.   Moreover, a 2006 study conducted among porn actors found the following:

of approximately 1500 people tested between January 2003 and March 2005, approximately 8.4 percent had at least one disease. Nearly 48.1 percent tested positive for Chlamydia, and 23.6 percent for gonorrhea. During this period, approximately 976 individuals were reported with 1153 positive test results. Males comprised 33%, females 67%, whites 13%, African Americans 6.6%, Hispanics 2.4%, unknown race/ethnicity 76.6% and 40% were between 20 and 24 years of age. Of the 1153 positive test results 722 (62.6 %) were Chlamydia, 355 (30.8 %) were gonorrhea and 126 (10.9 %) were Chlamydia and gonorrhea co-infections.

Such patterns, as suggested by these findings, not only give credence to Derrick’s allegation, but project an image of a revolving door of multiple sexually transmitted infections for new and old performers alike, particularly for those porn actors working in LA.   Although the stories of James, Roxx, and Burts are troubling, there are clearly some safe guards (e.g., monthly test at a centralized location AIM) and policies (e.g., test results are to be shown before filming a scene) in place for mainstream porn actors, but are they enough? What about gay male performers of color and those with start-up porn companies like Flavaworks or Cocodorm?

In Chicago in 2005 and 2006, the Chicago Department of Public Health had been investigating a string of seemingly related HIV and Syphilis cases and their connection to Flavaworks and the company’s employees. The trail of infections lead to a northside Chicago apartment building where many of the Cocodorm performers worked. The results of the investigation revealed:

a dense sexual network of 47 persons and documented syphilis and HIV infections associated with the Internet pornography business. Exposure histories and incubation periods were consistent with transmission of syphilis and HIV within the sexual network. Of the 19 individuals who were identified as employees of the business, the median age was 23 years (age range 19-35) and all were African-American males. Of the 19 men involved with the business, nine (47%) were infected with HIV, and nine (47%) were with syphilis. Six (32%) men were co-infected with syphilis and HIV. In total, 10 cases of syphilis and 13 cases of HIV infection were identified in this large sexual network.

Where is the AIM like organization set up for these young black porn actors in Chicago? Where were standard HIV and other STI screenings? Where was the concern by the owner, Philip Bleicher, about the health of his employees? Where was  Occupational Safety Health Association (OHSA), an agency that establishes the rules that govern the adult film industry and protects the rights of the performer?

What makes one risk life and limb?  Could it be these would be victims were actually conscious participants and well-versed in the risks that plagued their line of work? Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any interviews with the young men of the CoCoDorms/Flava-works. I did, however, manage to find an interview with a porn star about 2004 HIV outbreak in California.  Maybe his interview can serve as a proxy for answering some of the questions I posed.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=–W4y6-FTg0

In this clip, we are introduced to Julian St. Jox, a heterosexual porn actor.  He talks about being quarantined as one of the many performers who had some connection with Darren James.  More importantly, St. Jox says at a minute 1:23:

They won’t let people do what they need to let people do which is choose for themselves if they want to use a condom or not, and uh unfortunately we have to pay our bills, or get another job. [At a minute 2:11 he says,] it really is a big-big family that we deal with. Unfortunately our fathers who take care of us don’t feel as wonderful about us, cause we are kids in this family, and the people who own the companies and make the decisions are the fathers and mothers of this particular family, and if they cared about their children a little more maybe we would be alright.

It is safe to assume that the “they” he is talking about are the company owners, and that he might choose to wear a condom if he didn’t have to make the choice between having a well paying job or unemployment.

Aaron James

Hidden in how St. Jox, a heterosexual porn star, jokes about his 60 days to reflect. He implies he has very little to no skills that would allow him to make the same amount of money. According to Aaron—“gay for pay”—James, gay porn stars can make about $1000-3000 per scene.  In the clip, Aaron talks about growing up with less than most. This lack of resources persisted throughout his life and at school he couldn’t afford to eat and pay for books.   Among the performers of Flava-work, there is mention that some actors were reportedly runaways and that some came from homeless situations. The powerful incentive of money and, for many performers, being burdened with insufficient credentials, hardships and low to no skill-sets creates a readily understandable nexus for them to seek out legalized fast-cash methods (e.g., stripping, porn, and etc).  If this implication is true, then we see the power that porn companies have over porn actors. The question is do “they” exercise with this power the proper responsibility for these performers’ health? Regardless of skill-sets and the monetary incentives, the performers make the choice to risk their health, right? My question still is why?

The answer, like Kitt said in Pretty Woman, is “Cinder-fucking-ella!” It is the pursuit of Happiness (i.e., the American Dream). The belief that one can go from rags to riches; that one’s ascent no matter how undesirably legal, can still yield one with a certain level of respect and regard for “being bout somethin.” Regardless of the bodies littering the streets, the disease statistics, and the industry burn out rates, folks are driven forward because there’s a chance for success and wealth.