A quarter century after the Sexual Revolution made its big screen debut, HIV has finally hit the porn industry hard. MARK CROMER wonders if the party is finally over?
[This article was first published as an LA Weekly cover story and also appeared in major alternative weekly newspapers around the nation and in MAX in France.]
“Leave us alone and we will destroy ourselves.”
-Bill Margold, testifying to the Meese Commission, 1985
On the TV screen, sweating, entangled bodies heave and thrust before a backdrop of blue tinsel. The cameras bob and weave with no particular point and the lighting shifts without warning as three or four women service a parade of men. They approach in waves, looking for an opening, some finding one, others waiting in line, masturbating like pale human oil rigs. The women seem barely interested; occasionally one will giggle. It’s rote copulation: one, two, three, next.
Now and then the director’s voice is heard in the background, giving instructions. “Put a condom on” is not one of them.
This is Fluff Whores, one of two videos made out of extra footage from The World’s Biggest Anal Gang Bang, shot earlier this year and released a few months ago by Chatsworth-based Midnight Video. The tape hit the X-rated racks just as the adult video industry was hit by its most serious crisis since porn entered the mainstream with Deep Throat.
Since January, five performers – one male and four females – have tested positive for HIV, the worst outbreak yet in the heterosexual side of the industry. At least two of the infected performers appear in Fluff Whores.
Brooke Ashley is one of them. The 25-year-old Asian-American believes it was on that shoot that she was infected, during unprotected anal sex. Marc Wallice, a veteran male performer who was one of her partners, has also tested positive for the virus.
Production manager Randy Munee, whose job it was to check the HIV-test results that performers are supposed to bring with them to the set, recalls that “the producer let Wallice work without proper paperwork. Wallice had a Xerox so bad . . . it looked like a Xerox of a Xerox. I told him that it didn’t fly with me.” Munee also maintains he never saw Ashley’s test results at all.
“I was known as an anal girl. I was a girl they called for D.P.’s [double penetration],” says Ashley, who lives alone in a Los Angeles apartment. (Her 7-year-old son lives with her father back home in Kansas City.) Over the past six years, Ashley has made lots of porn videos and lots of money – in one month late last year, she estimates, she came close to raking in $20,000. She spent it just as fast. “I worked a lot and I did well for myself. But when you make that kind of money, you don’t think it’s ever going to end. I used coke and speed and I don’t deny it, but I never used needle drugs. Part of the hard part of this business is dealing with how fast you are going. You need to cope. You get depressed.”
Though she has required her partners to wear condoms before, Ashley says that on Fluff Whores, “I was going on faith that no one would shoot with forged documents. I had known Marc for years, so I didn’t make him wear one. I was going on good faith.”
The party is over for her, and she doesn’t have much to show for it. “This business has been a part of my life for so long it’s like a part of my family. I was practically a kid when I got into this,” she says, near tears. “But I never put anything away on the side. I have no retirement, no savings. Nothing.”
That Midnight Video decided to release Fluff Whores in the wake of the AIDS outbreak has her seething.
“I can’t believe they are releasing this video,” she says, noting that the company duplicated and shipped the video after her test results, and Wallice’s, were known. “They know what I’m going through, and they don’t care.”
“Yeah, I heard she’s got AIDS or something, or HIV, whatever,” says Midnight Video general manager Karl Sorvino, pointing out that his company did not shoot the video, but merely acquired it for sale. “It doesn’t mean anything that she has AIDS. Look, this chick took 50 guys in the ass in one video! This is a surprise? If anyone was going to get it, it was Brooke. Now she’s raising a big stink, but no one cares. The video was shot – of course it’s going to be released.”
Cash Markman winces when he hears these comments repeated – and, as director of Fluff Whores and The World’s Biggest Anal Gang Bang, perhaps he should. A scriptwriter-turned-director who usually works with bigger budgets and actual plots, he seems slightly embarrassed about his participation.
“That’s the only gangbang I’ve done, and I am not trying to pass the buck, but I had to do it,” he says, sounding remarkably like a man who’s passing the buck. “I was obligated contractually.” The scene was the producer’s idea, Markman swears. Though the plan was to find 50 men to have anal sex with Ashley, Markman estimates about 40 finally performed, and recalls that Ashley did, in fact, ask some of the men to put condoms on and declined to work with a few others – who were promptly told to leave the set. (Ashley has claimed that “it was in the contract that I could only have half the guys wear condoms.”)
“I don’t think we had any internal pop shots in that one,” says Markman. “But it’s completely possible that she got HIV on the set. The timing seems right. On the other hand, if you smoke five packs of cigarettes a day for 10 years, can you really pinpoint the day you got lung cancer?”
Markman says his bad feeling about the shoot only grew worse when Munee told him some of the men were presenting HIV test results that had been photo-copied. “He told me [the producer] was going to get into trouble,” Markman recalls. “He should have been demanding originals. I wanted to walk off the set. I probably should have.”
The rash of positive test results has hit at a time when the industry is bigger than ever, generating close to $3 billion in annual revenues and employing thousands of people in and around Los Angeles, up to 400 of them performers. (Adult Video News estimates that last year 250 production companies released more than 8,000 new X-rated video titles.) It also comes at a time when porn is being creatively defined by the work of a handful of rogue directors such as Paul Little, a.k.a. Max Hardcore, and Rob Black, who produce some of the most hard-edged, bizarre and unpleasant sex scenes imaginable.
Fluff Whores is an example of the plotless, budgetless and sexually heatless “one-day wonder” video phenomenon that overtook the skin industry in the late 1980s, an era when serious adult filmmakers were poached almost out of existence by wannabes armed with camcorders and a couple of grand to spend. No longer aspiring to arouse the consumer with lush, creatively explicit erotica, much of the porn produced today is shock-oriented, a freak show – there are videos that involve surgical tools, women taking on 50 or 100 or 300 men in “no holes barred” sequences. All that’s missing is the carnival barker inviting one to “Step right up and get a closer look!”
Against this mad backdrop comes the HIV outbreak, touching off a heated debate within the industry. Some directors are calling for mandatory condom use, others want it optional, and a few don’t want condoms at all. Most straight performers would prefer to use condoms, as most gay performers already do, but up until now, most of the production companies have balked at letting the talent suit up before diving in.
“Watching people use condoms in porn is like watching the Raiders play touch football,” remarks one industry insider. “It’s not what people want to see.”
HIV has come remarkably late to the heterosexual porn industry. Aside from the legendary John Holmes, who was felled by pneumonia brought on by AIDS in 1988, and John “Buttman” Stagliano, who tested positive last year, there have until now been only a few scattered cases of confirmed infections.
Holmes’ widow, Laurie, who performed in porn videos under the name Misty Dawn, says she saw the writing on the wall a long time ago, as her husband lay dying in his Sepulveda hospital bed. “I tried to warn everyone and they wouldn’t listen,” she says. “They were trying to say AIDS wasn’t in the industry, and I’m like, ‘No, no, no!’ They kept saying John contracted the virus outside of the industry, that he was a junkie and he was gay and all this stuff that simply wasn’t true. They were just lies to protect the industry.”
The current crisis, which sparked an industry quarantine of dozens of L.A. performers, has strained an already tumultuous business. With each new positive test result, meetings are held between producers, directors and performers, where strategy is discussed and, more often than not, fingers are pointed. Everyone seems to be on the record in favor of “protecting the talent,” yet consensus on just how to accomplish that task in this small, tight-knit business has yet to be reached.
Two main camps have emerged: those companies and directors who are willing to let performers use condoms – now seemingly in the majority – and those companies and directors who opt to rely instead on the most advanced virus-testing procedures, plus “personal responsibility.” Not surprisingly, the divide is somewhat along class lines, with the better-established, more “respectable” companies declaring unequivocally for condoms. And while big-name contract stars have some say in what kind of sex they have and with whom, the lower ranks are filled with newcomers willing to do whatever they’re asked in order to get inside. At the same time, says Mark Kulkis, former director of public relations for the Chatsworth-based Legend Video, “Some of these bigger companies are using scare tactics on the talent, telling them they won’t hire them at all if they work in videos without a condom.”
Jeff Steward, Legend’s general manager, is one of the more vocal critics of mandatory condom use in adult videos. “The companies that are going condom-only are doing it for the wrong reasons. They are just trying to be P.C. And it won’t work anyway, because they’ll do a sex scene, pull the condom off and then come in the woman’s mouth. Or they come in a glass and have her drink it. How’s that safe sex?”
Bud Lee, a veteran porn director who frequently shoots big-budget productions for Playboy and other large adult-entertainment companies, contends that “if you make a hot product with beautiful, great sex, people won’t give a damn whether or not there’s a condom in it. It’s when you make a shit production for $15,000, shot in one day by a clueless director and a set manager who couldn’t stage a dog fight, that you have to use the excuse of being filthier and nastier in order to sell your product.”
Legend’s Steward would seem to agree: “If you look at our titles, if you cut out the sex, you’re left with about five minutes of nothing,” he says, but adds, “Look, if I rent a porn video, I don’t want to see condoms. Porn is fantasyland. Who wants porn that is politically correct? A movie that relies on sex will sink with a condom.”
“We owe it to the public to stop the ruse that [porn] is just fantasy,” counters Lee. “Gays don’t see unprotected sex as fantasy, they see it as watching death on the screen.”
The wild cards in the controversy remain directors like Paul Little and Rob Black, who have never been much for marching to a party line, or indeed getting anywhere near it. A 40-year-old former UPI photographer, Little came to L.A. in the early 1990s to produce videos that represent the very antithesis of safe sex: In one signature scene, the director himself ejaculates into the anus of his partner, who then pushes the semen back out into another woman’s open mouth.
“What I think constitutes good porno can simply be put like this: Porn should be a little over the top,” he explains, slouching behind a large desk in his office at the Chateau du Max, his three-story, 5,600-square-foot mansion in the foothills of Altadena. “My philosophy is that it’s not that shocking or newsworthy that a girl dressed like a whore lets you fuck her up the ass. Good porno is when you have a girl in the picture who looks sexy but innocent. When a little girl like that takes it up the ass, now that’s a story! That a has compelling human interest to it!”
To be sure, as the sole male in most of his tapes, Little also puts himself at risk, though given the statistics of female-to-male transmission of HIV, at considerably less risk than his sex partners. He remains ambivalent as to what he will do now. In the course of an interview, he indicates at one point that he’s going to begin using condoms, then says he doesn’t want to make any “rash decisions,” preferring to “take it on a case-by-case basis.” He notes that he usually works with “fresh girls” with whom he feels safer having sex than with veteran actresses who have been “used up.”
Still, he admits, “It’s never going to be business as usual again. Them days are over. People are starting to fall like bowling pins, if you’ll pardon the analogy, so people are really taking it seriously now. As far as how it’s going to change the industry, it’s going to have a profound impact. Though not so much that the consumer is really going to notice. There is still going to be the same activity going on in the tapes, with the exception that condoms are going to be used in quite a few videos. And I think that is good, because it helps set the tone for people watching the videos.”
In the Sherman Oaks offices of Protecting Adult Welfare (PAW), a sort of XXX crisis center just down the hall from Jim South’s World Modeling Talent Agency – the very center of San Fernando Valley smut – former porn star Sharon Mitchell (Joy, The Load Warriors) greets many of the performers who come in by their real first names, giving them hugs and pecks on the cheek as if they were visiting family. And in a way, this is her family – however dysfunctional it might be.
Known among skin-flick fans for her wiry frame and New York City streetwise sexuality, Mitchell, 46, quit performing for a stint behind the camera, then finally left the business after a “crazy fan” tried to kill her. Now clean and sober after a 16-year addiction to heroin, Mitchell continues to work closely with the adult industry. Certified by the California Association of Drug and Alcohol Educators, she is the in-house counselor for the PAW-created Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation (AIM). While she clearly sees the dark side of the business, she has made her peace with porn and her past.
“I won’t turn my back on the industry. That’s where I came from. It no longer works for me, but it does work for others,” Mitchell explains. “Truthfully, I might have just said, ‘Fuck it.’ I mean, I had a lot of core issues with this business, but I really couldn’t do it. There are so many other women and men who need to know the life experience I’ve had here, and that’s what I bring to this office.”
While she may seem at times more big sister than professional therapist, she has tracked the progress of HIV in porn first-hand. When performer Tricia Devereaux first tested positive in January, it was Mitchell who charted the genealogy of her sexual relations in an effort to stem the spread of the virus. Using Devereaux’s day journal, which identified every performer she had worked with and when, Mitchell cross-indexed that information with the industry’s records on test results. Performers who might have been exposed to the virus were quickly placed on an industry quarantine, and anyone who had not cleared a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) DNA test, the most accurate test currently available, was required by PAW to test negative twice in order to be cleared for work again.
“With Tricia’s genealogy, I started with about 75 people who may have been exposed,” Mitchell says, recalling how she and Bill Margold – a former porn agent, current director, sometime performer and, as the self-styled “St. Francis of Assisi of X,” the founder of PAW – burned the midnight oil, poring over records and working the phones. “We went one by one. We looked for everyone who’d DNA’d out. Who had current test results and who didn’t? And everyone was considered high risk, whether or not they wore a condom.
“By the second generation of the genealogy, we were dealing with such a scare, because we were dealing with multiple partners over a period of time, when [Devereaux] was only using the ELISA test,” Mitchell says. (The ELISA, or enzyme-linked immunosuppresent assay, is considered less accurate than the PCR test because it tests only for antibodies to the virus, which can take up to six months to develop.) “I had to contact relatives, loved ones and pregnant mothers in an effort to get them in here and get them to take DNA tests.” She felt something like a Western Union messenger delivering death notices during World War II.
Yet if Mitchell and Margold thought they would receive substantial assistance from the industry, they were wrong. “We did not have help from the manufacturers,” Mitchell says. “It was pretty much the talent who came forward and helped us with the genealogy. The manufacturers don’t like to know the reality that Bill and I bring to the world. Their attitude was ‘Fix it! Do whatever you have to do, but just fix it!'”
Their experience on the Devereaux case, tracing the potential path of the virus, meant that when Brooke Ashley tested positive, they were able to more quickly establish the dimensions of the quarantine. In porn, the rules of confidentiality that traditionally govern how medical professionals and counselors handle test results don’t apply, can’t apply. “In this industry, if you have been exposed to the virus, the rules get turned upside down. We do what we have to do to save lives,” Mitchell says. “If someone has been exposed and they are on a set, I have to call over there and say, ‘Excuse me, this is Mitch. Can I speak with so and so?’ In one instance, I made enough phone calls that four or five sets were shut down across the Southland in one day. We have to do it that way, and people understand.”
Each time it began to seem as if the virus might have been contained, and that it was safe for performers to venture back under the bright lights, another performer tested positive: Devereaux in January, Brooke Ashley in March, a Hungarian performer named Caroline in April, Marc Wallice later that month, Kimberly Jade in May. A sixth performer, initially identified by AIM as positive, has since tested negative elsewhere and been cleared to return to work.
The potential for HIV to cut a deadly swath through the industry’s small pool of talent was instantly clear. In a matter of months, the virus had come close to doing to porn what its opponents had long failed to do: put it out of business. “If it continues to spread in the business,” says Ashley, “this will give the government the perfect opportunity to step in and say, ‘Enough is enough,’ and either shut the industry down as a health hazard or seriously regulate it.” At one point this spring, most of the performers in town were under orders not to work – at least until their tests came back clean.
Marc Wallice, whose 17-year body of work includes Anal Savage, Anal Anarchy and The Creasemaster, among more than a thousand other films and videos, has become the target of accusations that he is “patient zero” – the performer who brought the virus into the business. He says his PCR test results were disclosed to him in late April during a conference call with Sharon Mitchell and several others. This week, in a telephone interview, Wallice alternately raged against his accusers and whispered his devotion to the industry.
“I was trying to hang on, and all of a sudden I started hearing these wild things – that I was using needles, that I was doing gay outcall, that I had known I was HIV positive for years,” he says. “What about all the directors who are fucking the girls in the bathrooms on the set? Where are their tests? There are so many holes in this case.”
Wallice contends that there was no problem with the test result he provided on the set of Fluff Whores. “I gave the P.A. my original, he made a photocopy of it and gave it back to me. I showed him the original. I always had original tests on the sets. If I did have a fake test, where is it? Show it to me.”
As to his possible infection from intravenous drug use, he says he only briefly experimented with needles years ago. “I was hanging out with a couple of other female performers, and they were shooting junk. I was smoking coke, but I dabbled in it a little with them.”
Shortly after Mitchell announced his HIV status at an April 30 industry meeting, Wallice dropped out of sight. For three weeks, he shuttled between three motels, scoring and smoking coke – to the tune of about $2,000 a week. “In the back of my mind I was probably hoping I would just pass out and not wake up,” he says. “Not because I am guilty of anything, but because I wanted the pain to stop.”
He was eventually sketching on coke with two women he had met at one of the motels and – in the paranoid belief that they were setting him up for a robbery – had the desk clerk call the cops. Wallice was immediately busted for possession of cocaine. “I was tweaked. My brain was gone. It’s all sort of a blur now.”
Looking back over his career, Wallice is stunned by the wreckage.
“I was at the top of my game. I was finally doing what I had dreamed of doing, which was to be making movies instead of just performing in them,” he says, his voice starting to crack. “Now I have gone from making $6,000 a month to getting $500 a month from unemployment. Thank God I have a mother who loves me.”
Sharon Mitchell and Bill Margold reject any assertion that Wallice – or any other performer – can be defined as “patient zero.” “Remember, Marc worked with Tricia [Devereaux], and he could have gotten it from her,” says Mitchell. “People keep telling me it’s unlikely she gave it to him, but goddamn it, we don’t know.” The likelihood of ever knowing for certain is slim, she continues, because it’s difficult to get the whole truth out of people about their private lives – even porn stars. “I can tell you, as a counselor, that people come in here and disclose information to us bit by bit,” she says. “But really, no one tells us everything. There’s still a lot of denial.”
Ferd Eggan, AIDS coordinator for the city of Los Angeles – who during the ’70s was himself directing porn films with titles such as Straight Banana – agrees that it’s difficult, as a result of their usually chaotic private lives, to trace the source of transmission among porn stars. “To rely simply on testing, even if it is PCR DNA, is to allow your performers to be infected,” he says. Though he is the city’s point man on the disease, Eggan says the industry has not called him about the recent outbreak. “Oddly enough, they don’t consult with me on these matters.”
Indeed, what has most characterized the industry’s response to the threat of AIDS is its determination to deal with the situation – or not deal with it – within the “family.” This becomes clear back at the PAW office, when porn talent agent Jim South wanders into a room where Margold is talking with a reporter.
“You’re talking with a reporter about AIDS in the industry?” he asks incredulously. “And you think this will help?”
“We can’t deny that it’s happening,” Margold replies. “That definitely won’t help.”
“Sure,” South says, and stomps out of the room.
Margold looks at the reporter. “There’s a lot of disagreement about this issue.”
For a man who has spent three decades enthusiastically preaching and practicing what he likes to call the “Gospel of X,” Margold now seems oddly weary. Drained. The band may be playing on, but the tune now seems to be “Taps.”
“Finally, after all these years, I realize that recess is over in the playpen of the damned,” he says, repeating what has now become his catch phrase. “We either have to accept our responsibility or we are finished.”