Prompted by reports that at least three sex film actresses have tested positive for HIV since the beginning of the year, many of the largest sex video producers have formed a pact to require the use of condoms on screen--a move the industry has avoided since the AIDS outbreak began.
The decision came at a hastily called summit of industry executives earlier this month, as rumors swirled and actors and actresses threatened to walk off sets.
Several of the biggest studios in the business--including Vivid Video, Wicked Pictures, VCA and distributor GVA, which together account for a sizable percentage of all U.S. sex films--agreed to the change.
An estimated 70% of the $2.5-billion-a-year sex film and video industry is located in the San Fernando Valley, including a few dozen large firms and hundreds of tiny operations. Nationwide, they turned out some 7,000 titles in 1997, according to Adult Video News, a trade journal of the industry.
The condom requirement bucks a long-held maxim in the industry that customers don't want to see condoms on screen.
"There will be no exceptions here," said David Schlesinger, a spokesman for Van Nuys-based Vivid, widely regarded as the most prominent producer of sexually oriented films and videos. "This is permanent--until AIDS is gone."
Although most of the established gay sex filmmakers have required condom use on their sets for several years, producers of heterosexual works have resisted, relying in recent years primarily on monthly HIV tests for performers, despite a number of scares and AIDS-related deaths.
A handful of the most popular actresses, many of whom have become producers or diversified into online sex enterprises, have gained enough clout to refuse to perform unless condoms were used, performers said. But the overwhelming majority of scenes have still been shot without condoms, and the decision marks a sea change in the way things will be done, at least at some companies, industry sources agreed.
What remains to be seen is whether the condom requirement by the biggest players will prompt other firms to follow suit, or instead increase audience demand for the products of numerous smaller firms that are certain to continue filming without condoms.
"We're hoping that everyone will sort of fall in line sooner or later," said Gloria Leonard, president of an industry group known as the Free Speech Coalition. "But we're sensible enough to know that this will not be the law of the land."
"I'm hoping that the talent will band together and look out for themselves and each other," refusing to work on non-condom shoots, said a woman known as Shane, a former performer and now the head of her own Granada Hills-based production company.
"I don't think we've ever had a better idea," said Shane, whose company, Shane Enterprises, decided to make condom-only videos earlier this spring and is promoting its latest release with a grinning, animated condom giving the thumbs-up sign.
Industry sources give several versions of when the latest HIV outbreak began and how many actresses were infected--either three or four. But many in the industry agreed on the names of the actresses involved, and said they had firsthand knowledge that some of them had received positive HIV test results.
But all agreed that by early this month, the combination of truth, rumor and fear had grown to the point that performers were threatening to walk off sets, shooting schedules were becoming compromised, and producers were increasingly worried.
The Free Speech Coalition and industry leaders called an impromptu meeting at a San Fernando Valley hotel April 20. And after much discussion, a consensus was reached: The time had come to mandate the use of condoms.
Along with mandatory HIV testing, this would be the sex industry equivalent of "seat belts and air bags," said Coalition Executive Director Jeffrey J. Douglas.
Dyanna Lauren, one of Vivid's star actresses, has always insisted that her on-screen partners--with the exception of current boyfriends--wear condoms. Nonetheless, she and other actresses heralded the decision as not only good for performers but also as socially responsible.
"By incorporating these things, we're making a statement to the public: 'Hey, it's OK to use condoms," said Lauren in a telephone interview from New Jersey, where she is currently touring as a stripper. "I think it's good for everybody."
People inside the industry and out have been arguing since the mid-1980s that sex film actors should be wearing condoms and practicing the safest of sex, both for their own protection and to promote sexual hygiene to their public.
In addition to several well-publicized deaths from AIDS--including John Holmes, inspiration for the hit movie "Boogie Nights,' in 1988--there has been a series of HIV scares. In 1993, a European actress performed after testing positive for HIV, according to many in the industry, prompting a wave of panic.