(Pictured, front l-r: Rob Romoni, Chris Steele, Adam Russo, Trent Pace, Derrick Burts, Brian Chase; rear, Mark Roy McGrath)
WEST LOS ANGELES—The UCLA Reproductive Health Interest Group (RHIG), together with Queers for Public Health and Law Students for Reproductive Justice, held their third meeting on "Condom Use in the Adult Film Industry," this time targeting the gay portion of the industry. The meeting, which drew a standing-room-only crowd, took place in the Dean's Conference Room at the UCLA School of Public Health.
Moderated by RHIG members Adam Cohen and Karin Hilton, with participation also by former member Mark Roy McGrath, the panel members included veteran directors/producers/performers Chris Steele and Rob Romoni of Jet Set Men Productions; producer/performer Adam Russo, who said he'd been in the industry for approximately a year and a half; former performer (and Doctor of Theology) Trent Pace, who performed under the name Trent Austin; Derrick Burts, the now-HIV-positive performer who worked briefly in straight porn before making gay movies; and AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) attorney Brian Chase.
Cohen introduced the panel, noting that he had been involved in several of the meetings held by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) to discuss AHF's petition to put a specific condom requirement for adult movie producers in the state health code.
"During one of the more heated discussions at one of the meetings," Cohen said, "I recently heard an individual say, 'Where are the performers? Why weren't their voices heard? What about their thoughts and experiences? Do they want condoms [or] do they feel safe?' ... So I've invited members of the community to speak about their thoughts, their experiences, so the purpose of this panel is to have their voices heard."
But while five of the six panelists here were current or former performers in gay porn, the RHIG's previous panel on straight porn, held on November 18, 2010, featured just one current straight performer, Mr. Marcus, and one former performer, Pink Cross Foundation founder Shelley Lubben, a veteran of approximately 17 movies in the early '90s and a staunch proponent of mandatory condom use.
Hilton began the forum by asking the panelists to give short statements about their experiences with using condoms while shooting movies, but made the mistake of asking Chase, who's never acted in porn, to begin.
A hearty laugh ensued, but Chase rose to the occasion nonetheless, giving an overview of the government's views on obscenity, and displaying one of the earliest gay publications targeted by the U.S. Postal Service as obscene: A magazine simply titled "One," which didn't contain even a single nude picture, much less hardcore sex.
Noting that the government takes a dim view of porn, and that most states would consider shooting a porn movie to be akin to pandering prostitution, Chase stated that the industry has been "under seige from the government since it started," and that the constant attempts at government repression has "generated an industry full of rebels," though he lauded the industry with its ongoing fight for free sexual expression for helping gay culture flourish.
"The gay rights movement could not have existed without these first decisons saying that stuff with gay content in it is not per se obscene," he explained. "This was incredibly important, because it allowed gay newsletters and gay magazines to flourish and thrive. But I think that having an industry that has a bunch of rebels in it also sometimes produces bad results, like folks who don't want to comply with pretty reasonable workplace safety regulations to prevent things like STDs... The solution is universal condom use."
Several of the other speakers reminded the audience about how the gay community reacted upon first learning, in the early '80s, of the new disease, HIV, which was striking many of their members. However, while most stated that they always used condoms on the set, some admitted that they weren't that careful in their personal lives. Most of the panelists were also dismayed at the current rise of gay "bareback" videos, which they felt were at least partly a result of poor sex education among young performers, both gay and straight.
"You're not going to stop the sex industry," Russo declared. "People love to see sex, they want to see sex. You're not going to stop the bareback; they want to see it. I just think, if somebody's going to engage in it, they need to know all the risks that are associated with it."
"I was working with a lot of young performers," Pace added, "and a lot of young performers who are getting into it are extremely naïve about things, and one of the things I learned quickly was that there is no education system out there, even if it's the basics of chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis—those are the basics that should be passed on in high school. These people aren't learning it. There is no requirement across the country for people to be educated about STDs."
"The gay porn industry was hit hardest during the '80s," he continued. "There were a lot of gay performers that we no longer have around. One of the things about watching any of the movies we call 'pre-condom classics' are that you can watch, and half the cast is no longer alive. Even to this day, you can still look back at films from ten years ago and see that there are performers that aren't around anymore, and that's with medication, with treatment... As I was told by a member of the Department of Public Health, it's very hard to sell a person getting a blowjob with a condom on, even though it's safe. Nobody will buy it. And the straight industry did the same thing with sex. That's not how straight people want to view their sex on TV. They want to see it either the way they can't have it or—the way they can't have it."
But while at least one panel member came out in favor, not only of testing gay performers for HIV and other STDs, but of sharing such information with fellow cast members—"Is it up to the agent to tell him?" Romoni asked. "Is it up to the director to tell him? Are they telling them? I think they should. I think that's the honorable thing to do... There should be nothing hidden, ever."—there was no mention of the straight side of the industry's excellent record when it comes to HIV infection. Though Burts described his own infection as an "HIV outbreak," in fact, only he was infected on a gay condom-only set (though rumors continue to circulate that he may have acquired his infection while escorting), and among hetero performers, the last actual "outbreak," which resulted in just three infections by HIV-positive actor Darren James, was in 2004.
"I think testing should be mandated, and the condoms," Burts said. "And the same with the straight side. They've been saying for months that their system works, that testing is good enough, you know, and that condoms shouldn't—they're fine. You know, you look at Steve Hirsch, Larry Flynt, all these big shots, they don't want condoms on set. Why? Because it hurts their paychecks."
Perhaps the best-known panel member was Steele, who got his first HIV test in 1987, and who freely admitted, "I don't like the taste of condoms."
"No one will ever use a condom for oral sex, and that's just the way it is," he continued, apparently unaware that requiring condoms for blowjobs was a major topic of discussion at the Cal/OSHA meetings. "Because there is perfection and then there's life, and in life, nothing is going to be perfect and everything is going to be difficult, and there are going to be challenges, and you have to make a personal choice... The truth is that oral sex without a condom is still bareback sex. There's no way to say that that's not the case, because you're not wearing a condom whenever you have oral sex."
"Testing isn't perfect, either," he added. "Just like using condoms in porn is not perfect, because I hear the argument all the time, 'Oh, but Jan [his real name], just because you're using condoms, what about rimming? You're not using a dental dam. You know, back in '87, they wanted us to put Saran Wrap on people's buttholes if we were going to rim them, so I can imagine trying to explain that to your partner: 'Could you bend over and let me slap some Saran Wrap on your ass so I can lick it?' It's not very realistic. It's true; that makes sense; you're not going to get an STD because you're going to lick the Saran Wrap. I don't like the taste of plastic."
However, during the Q&A that followed the speakers' presentations, it was revealed that the testing that most of the panelists were referring to was the so-called "rapid tests," which only detect the antibodies produced by HIV infection, and which can take up to six months to show up positive. Steele, who has required STD testing of all Jet Set Men performers since last October, said that he would be satisfied with either the antibody or the PCR-DNA test, which all straight performers get, having learned the hard way in 1998 that the antibody test was virtually useless for preventing infection among active straight performers.
"It's not very realistic, I've got to say," Steele said of the blood borne pathogen safety requirements which have been approved by Cal/OSHA. "If you're going to these Cal/OSHA meetings, I want you to consider that these 20-year-old boys that are walking around on a porn studio with a raging hard-on, that just pulled it out of somebody and they have a condom on, they are going to take that condom off and throw it on the floor. I don't know what to tell you but it's going to happen. And having tweezers and masks and all of these things that are in the Cal/OSHA handbook, like Saran Wrap on the butthole, it would work but it's not realistic... I can assure you that the straight side will never, ever do it, no matter what laws are passed. They will say, 'Fine; if California doesn't want us to do it, we will go somewhere else and do it,' because that is their business and that is their way of thinking and that's what they're used to; that's what they know. And anyway, good luck if you're here to change them. We're not here to change them. We're doing what we're doing and we hope we lead by example."
Hilton then opened up the floor for questions, and one of the most intelligent was asked first.
"The idea of the adult entertainment industry is, you're selling fantasy," the questioner stated. "My question is, how do you work with the adult film industry to slowly change that fantasy, to slowly get viewers—us—used to the idea of seeing a condom, so it isn't so offensive?"
No one really had an answer for that, though Chase suggested that it would be possible to use post-production editing to essentially erase condoms from view, and others had previously stated that a greater emphasis on comprehensive sex education among the young would likely change that generation's views on condoms.
The questions on various porn-related subjects continued for about 45 minutes, but in the end, it appeared that the group was no closer to a solution to the issue of mandating condoms in porn than when they started.
The next Cal/OSHA to discuss this issue will take place on June 7 in downtown Los Angeles, so adult industry members and supporters should mark their calendars now and plan to attend, at least in part so no one can legitimately ask, "Why weren't their voices heard?"
CORRECTION: The original version of this article identified Trent Pace as having a Doctor of Divinity degree; it is in fact a Doctor of Theology degree.