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Health Officials Concerned About Extreme Sex Acts in Porn

In the wake of the industry's recent HIV scare, doctors and others warn that stunts are putting performers at greater risk.

June 10, 2004|Caitlin Liu and Lisa Richardson | Times Staff Writers

Now that porn companies are shooting movies again, rebounding after a hiatus during the recent HIV outbreak, health advocates and others are concerned that depictions of increasingly extreme sex acts may be putting performers at greater risk.

Like pop culture and its burgeoning stable of gross-out humor and freaky reality shows, the porn world, too, has been experiencing a surge in fare showcasing unusual behavior.

Think Fear Factor or X Games -- of the triple-X variety.

But sex stunts can cause injuries, making performers more susceptible to disease, experts say. The risk is heightened by the continued aversion in the sex-film industry to the use of condoms and other safe-sex practices.

The three actresses diagnosed with HIV during the recent outbreak are believed to have been infected while engaging in one type of high-risk act: unprotected anal sex concurrently with two men -- one of whom was later discovered to be HIV-positive.

That stunt is symptomatic of a genre that has grown increasingly bizarre and circus-like.

The potential health hazards are exacerbated by movie shoots that sometimes require contact lasting hours at a time, said Dr. Peter Kerndt, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services' sexually transmitted disease control unit.

"You're filming and saying 'Let's get this right, let's do it again.' It's prolonged well beyond what would be a normal intimate sexual act," said Kerndt. The result can "facilitate the infection after exposure," he said.

When it comes to HIV transmission, anal intercourse -- which has become so prevalent in porn that the industry now considers it standard fare -- is the riskiest form of intimate contact, studies have shown.

Filmmakers began churning out more extreme sex content a few years ago, reflecting trends in mainstream television, video games and other media. Producers and directors say they are driven by similar market forces: Shock entertainment is cheaper to make than feature fare.

In recent years, the industry has also been inundated with newcomers because the cost of entry for a producer is virtually nil. Thanks to the Internet, anyone with a video camera and a website can shoot and distribute a sex movie.

The quest for profits has led producers to slash production budgets. Feature films with story lines -- the kind that require a script, memorized dialogue, more time to shoot and more money to make -- have shrunk to a small share of the marketplace, insiders say. These days, most sex movies are what people in the industry call gonzo or "wall-to-wall" -- sex-only, without any plot, made in less than a day.

Having an outlandish theme is one way to jockey for the attention of customers.

"In the adult world, the more extreme, the more it sells," said Mickey Bee, a sex-film producer and distributor. "If we do something really disgusting, it'll sell better than boy-meets-girl."

The X-rated industry may be a victim of its own success. Nudity is now commonplace in popular cinema. Explicit topics have become part of everyday television.

So much of the genre has been usurped by mainstream culture that little remains as forbidden fruit.

"Even Britney Spears ... in her dance movements, the photographs of her are borrowing from the repertoire of porn sex," said professor Constance Penley, director of the Center for Film, Television and New Media of UC Santa Barbara, who teaches a course on pornography.

What are those in the porno business to do, but explore the next frontier of taboo?

"We do live in a society that constantly strives to outdo the competition," said Jeff Mullen, president of All Media Play, which represents several sex-film companies. "Who is the person next to you to decide whether or not that is acceptable or not acceptable? That gets back to 1st Amendment issues."

Others lament that much of porn these days isn't even erotic anymore, and decry such films as a race to the bottom.

"The industry has devolved ... a devolution back into this primordial ooze," said Bill Margold, an industry veteran for more than 30 years, who now serves as a counselor at Protecting Adult Welfare, a nonprofit support group for performers.

"It's like 'Fear Factor' gone X," he said.

"Nine times out of 10, I'm called upon to shoot a freak show," added James DiGiorgio, a longtime director and cameraman.

"It's garbage. I can't even believe people buy it. What does that say about the consumer?"

A small but increasing number of the extreme movies being produced depict actresses in physically brutalized states and have "crossed into that genre of really misogynistic" productions, said Mike South, a producer and director in Atlanta.

"The real product is for all the men who know what it's like constantly to see an attractive woman who turns them down when he tries to hit on them," said Luke Ford, author of two books on pornography.

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