Los Angeles has become the nation's first city to require male adult film actors to wear condoms. The city council's new ordinance has riled the region's billion-dollar-plus porn industry. Filmmakers are warning that the measure will harm the local economy and threaten the health of industry performers.
Condoms are now required on all film shoots that receive a city permit, but the law does not apply to adult films shot in studios. Those don't require city permitting in the first place. But a proposed ballot measure in November looks to extend the law throughout the county.
"You really can't argue that people who go to work at a job ought to be putting their health at risk," says Michael Weinstein, president of the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation. The group is responsible for the city law and is trying to extend the measure countywide.
"We put a thing at the conclusion of a film saying that no animal was hurt in the making of this film," Weinstein says. "I mean, we can't say that about these films when it comes to people, real life people."
People like Darren James, a well-known former adult film performer. In 2004, his life and career crashed down around him.
"I was going to just try to put myself back in school and save my money and get out, and the worst thing happened: I contracted HIV," James says. "Basically, I got a phone call right before the weekend. From what I remember, and, uh ... it was just devastating. I was numb because I figured, what? Chlamydia? Now I've got HIV."
James, now 47, was at the center of a highly publicized HIV outbreak that shut down the adult film industry based in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley for a month. Three female actors who performed with him were also found to be HIV-positive.
"If you're working, you're going to get something eventually, that amount of exposure," James says. "And a lot of people tell you they never got nothing. That's a bunch of BS."
But the executive director of the Free Speech Coalition, the trade association for the adult entertainment industry, says the law will actually hurt performers more than it will help.
Diane Duke points out that the rate of sexually transmitted diseases is lower among the industry's sex workers than among populations with similar demographics. Duke says that's due largely to stringent testing protocols the industry adopted after the 2004 outbreak involving James.
"What we have in place works," Duke says, noting there has been no transmission of HIV within the industry since the testing changes.
"Undermining the self-regulation that we've imposed and that the industry goes by rigidly is unfortunate," she says. "And by mandating condoms and trying to regulate from outside, I think it's only going to hurt our performers."
Duke says mainstream adult film producers require all actors to undergo STD testing every 28 days. The results are registered in a database and that determines whether a performer is eligible to be called for work.
"We'll be looking at possibly diminishing the protocols that are in place," Duke says. "Some folks might choose to say 'screw it' and go underground."
Or leave the San Fernando Valley altogether, taking with them about 1,500 performers and an estimated billion-dollar-plus porn economy. Duke says consumers don't want to buy films in which condoms are used. But Weinstein of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation says that's not true.
"I don't think that people are going to be so horrified by that little piece of latex that they're not going to be willing to purchase these films," he says.
Weinstein says his group has collected half the signatures it needs to qualify the L.A. County measure for the fall ballot.