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Cover Story

See No Evil

In California's Unregulated Porn Film Industry, an Alarming Number of Performers Are Infected With HIV and Other Sexually Transmitted Diseases. And Nobody Seems to Care.

January 12, 2003|P.J. Huffstutter | Times staff writer P.J. Huffstutter last wrote for the magazine about the rise of Vivid Video Inc., the nation's leading porn producer.

During production of the 1997 movie "Mimic," American Humane Assn. representatives wandered through the Los Angeles set, ensuring that a herd of cockroaches was well taken care of. Licensed animal handlers were to follow state and federal anti-cruelty laws designed to protect the insects, which had been trained to swirl around actress Mira Sorvino's feet. The roaches had to be fed at a certain time. They could only work a few hours each day. They could not be harmed.

At the same time, in studios in the San Fernando Valley, scores of other actors and actresses were working on movies. They put in long hours, commonly without meal breaks. They often worked without clean toilets, toilet paper, soap or water. More importantly, they were exposed to a host of infectious, and sometimes fatal, diseases.

These performers were making heterosexual adult films for an industry that in California is entirely legal, and utterly unregulated. Its producers take in several billion dollars annually from cable television programming, videos and Internet sites watched by a public whose appetite seems insatiable. They pay taxes, lobby in Sacramento and contribute to political campaigns.

Yet actors and actresses are discouraged from wearing prophylactics during filming because porn producers believe the public wants to see unprotected sex. So adult porn stars commonly engage in sexual acts with scores of partners, and then return each evening to their private lives--dating or having relationships with people across Southern California.

In the words of former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, when told about the lack of oversight of the adult film industry: ''These folks are a reservoir. They don't just have sex with one another. They have sex with regular people outside their business--doctors, lawyers, teachers, your next-door neighbor."

But California regulators and political officials don't believe the public is worried about protecting the porn stars themselves--despite the enormous popularity of the films they produce. As David Gurley, staff attorney for the California Labor Commissioner's office, says: "Porn stars--people think they're not worth the time. The public sees these people as disposable."

Told of those remarks, and similar ones by other California officials, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop said: "That's ridiculous. That's the same thing we heard about the gay community back in the early days of AIDS." Koop was an early crusader in the fight against the disease.

Koop and others note that in Nevada, legal brothels are subject to stringent state oversight--and the spread of sexually transmitted disease in that industry has been reduced to trace amounts. In California, the adult film business, which has expanded to include the most risque forms of sex widely referred to as Triple X, is remarkably similar in scope to Nevada's legalized prostitution in terms of the number of people employed and the nature of the job. Yet the only monitoring in Triple X is a form of modest self-regulation by some companies that request health tests before performers go on camera. But even that practice is neither widespread nor tightly monitored. "The fact that no one's watching this industry is shocking," Koop says. "How many people have to be infected with an STD before someone does something?"

Actress Anne Marie Ballowe is a former porn star who flourished in the burgeoning business. She was born in Taegu City, S. Korea, the daughter of a U.S. serviceman and a South Korean woman. The family moved to the United States, where her parents soon divorced. Her mother gave her to her father, who was living in a small Missouri town, when Ballowe was 7. She says she was raped by schoolmates at age 16. The following year she ran away to Los Angeles with dreams of a better life.

She found it. Sort of.

Ballowe became famous, paid thousands of dollars to grin for the camera, prance beneath the hot lights--and have sex with strangers. For years she enjoyed the perks of her job, shuttling around town in limousines, attending hot Hollywood parties, dating famous athletes and rock 'n' roll gods. During her seven years in the business, she starred in scores of Triple-X films.

Legal and medical records show she walked away from the business in 1998 with chlamydia, which could make her sterile; cytomegalovirus, which could eventually make her blind; hepatitis C, which has damaged her liver; and HIV, which could cause AIDS and probably kill her. According to medical records, her liver is too damaged--in part because of the hepatitis--to allow her to take the anti-viral drugs that could delay the onset of AIDS.

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