As health officials struggle to get producers of pornographic movies to require their actors to use condoms, AIDS activists and some producers of films aimed at gay men say the rest of the industry could learn from their experience.
Starting in the late 1980s, widespread AIDS deaths among actors and outcries by healthcare advocates prompted gay-porn companies to voluntarily adopt safe sex as an industry standard. Since then, condom use has been the norm in gay adult films.
Roughly half of the actors in gay pornographic films are HIV positive, health officials estimate, but that reflects the population the actors are drawn from, not the practices on the films, according to producers and AIDS activists.
"For them to say 'The sky is falling, the sky is falling!' Well, it's not the case," Ged Kenslea of the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation said, referring to the producers who oppose condom use. "There may be an adjustment period, both culturally and from a business model, but in no way, shape or form should safer sex be the death knell to the industry."
But gay-film producers, a couple of whom met with county health officials Tuesday, concede that their experience points to another lesson as well: A consensus in favor of condom use is hard to maintain.
A small number of producers, catering to customers who eroticize risk, have begun to produce so-called "bareback" videos that feature actors without condoms. Industry insiders say this market -- though still a niche -- is growing in popularity.
Acknowledging the infiltration and influence of such movies in the gay porn business, Titan Media, one of the largest producers of gay porn, recently announced it would not hire actors who have had unprotected sex in film appearances. The announcement was applauded by AIDS activists and public health officials, but provoked debate on gay websites.
Titan officials, who said such a restriction had always been the company's policy, went public after noticing a trend in the backgrounds of actors who sought work with the company.
"We were getting a lot of younger models who were starting to apply to work for us and finding in the interview process that they had done bareback videos," said Titan Vice President Keith Webb.
"There is an upsurge of taking 18-, 19-, 20- and 21-year-olds and making unprotected-sex movies, which to me is horrifying, absolutely horrifying."
Financially, the company never has suffered for its condom-only policy, he added. "We are the No. 1 in sales of gay studios in the U.S.," he said.
Continuing, Webb said he thought the company was "one of the most profitable. We've shown that profit and protection can go hand in hand.
"Just like in most gay men's real lives, we assume everybody is HIV positive and take action accordingly," he said.
By contrast, Hot Desert Knights also assumes its actors are HIV-positive and therefore is unrepentant about making films without condoms, said Bill Gardner, a co-owner of the company, which is based in Palm Springs. Although Gardner does not inquire about the HIV status of the actors he hires, or require HIV testing, the company warns each actor in writing about the risks he will be taking.
"We tell them they must assume that everyone in the video that they work with is HIV-positive," Gardner said. "They're adults, and adults have the absolute right to have the kind of sex they want to have, as long as there is consent."
On occasion, when an actor volunteers that he is HIV-negative, Gardner has refused to hire him. "We don't want the moral responsibility of this person contracting HIV," Gardner said.
Thomas Bjorn, president of San Diego-based Puppy Productions, which specializes in films showing sex without condoms, estimates that 30% of his actors are HIV-positive.
On his sets, he tries to match up actors with similar HIV status -- based on what the performers tell him.
For pornographers to be preaching sexual health through condom use, he said, is at best misleading.
"In reality, what is safe sex? It's abstinence," said Bjorn. "If someone says I'm promoting [unsafe sex], I would ask them to watch TV."
Although Los Angeles County health officials have been urging adult film producers to adopt safe sex on screen for almost a year, two HIV infections among porn actors came to light last week and spurred the department to file a formal complaint with the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The county is seeking an investigation and, ultimately, enforcement of workplace safety regulations that would require porn actors to wear condoms.
The pornography industry is heavily concentrated in Los Angeles, particularly in the San Fernando Valley, although production of gay-themed films is dispersed across the state.
Cal/OSHA has six months to complete its investigation, which is confidential, said spokeswoman Susan Gard.