Porn, Poverty, Public Health and the Pursuit of Happiness

For many, it is hard to have open conversations about vaginas, penises, and anuses, especially when ‘beavers,’ ‘one-eyed snakes’ and ‘poop-chutes’ play bump in the [supposed] night. Even when we talk about “them” bumping in the night, many of us create euphemisms to get around the discomfort of talking about sex.  So you can imagine when vaginas, penises, and anuses are filmed and paid to go “bump in that [supposed] night,” what kind of uproar is made against the porn industry.

Although pornography is legal and has more than its fair share of enthusiasts, its detractors paint it as an industry that produces violence against women and acts as fodder to the sexually dysfunctional.  Whether you see it as a mega-industry providing a valuable service or a destroyer of the moral fiber of societies, it is an industry that sells us an imagined image of healthy sexually-active individuals.  Are porn actors healthy people, making well-informed decisions, or are they the blamed – possibly vulnerable – victims who willingly participate in an on-camera Russian roulette that we know sex to be?

Tiger Tyson, a black gay porn star, shows that some porn stars are willing participants in the Russian roulette nature of sex:

Tiger Tyson

It was just me tired of me getting fucked over by smaller companies paying you for a little bit of shit when you were actually out there doing dirt, shit believe it or not…I am not gonna give the porn business a bad name and everything, but there is a lot of bad shit in porn business. I was one of those fortunate [ones] I didn’t get caught up in drugs. Drugs didn’t kill me.  I didn’t catch AIDS.

It is clear that Tiger was aware that he had dodged some major bullets (read: pitfalls) of his chosen profession.  Moreover, he has been able to create a lucrative empire out of his porn career, but what happens when the trigger is squeezed and the chamber of the gun is loaded?

Darren James

Darren James, 40-year old heterosexual porn star, contracted HIV in 2004, allegedly during a performance in Brazil with adult performer Bianca Biaggi.  In April 2004, according to the New York Times, the California porn industry came to a halt for either one or two month(s). The halt was because a couple of weeks after Mr. James was found to be HIV positive, one of his female co-stars, Lara Roxx, was also found to be HIV positive. During the halt of the California Porn Industry, all of the performers who had worked with Darren in the last month before his positive test or performers who had sex with other performers who had been in scenes with him, were asked to go to Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation (AIM), a clinic set up to serve performers in the industry. Unfortunately by the end of the testing period, two other female adult performers had become HIV positive.

In 2010, Derrick Burts, a 24-year old gay and straight porn actor, said “I was in the [porn] industry for one month and I came down with Chlamydia, Gonorrhea and Herpes.”

His words are sobering and alarmingly disruptive to the imagined-image of the healthy, sexually desirable bodies featured in mainstream adult films.   Moreover, a 2006 study conducted among porn actors found the following:

of approximately 1500 people tested between January 2003 and March 2005, approximately 8.4 percent had at least one disease. Nearly 48.1 percent tested positive for Chlamydia, and 23.6 percent for gonorrhea. During this period, approximately 976 individuals were reported with 1153 positive test results. Males comprised 33%, females 67%, whites 13%, African Americans 6.6%, Hispanics 2.4%, unknown race/ethnicity 76.6% and 40% were between 20 and 24 years of age. Of the 1153 positive test results 722 (62.6 %) were Chlamydia, 355 (30.8 %) were gonorrhea and 126 (10.9 %) were Chlamydia and gonorrhea co-infections.

Such patterns, as suggested by these findings, not only give credence to Derrick’s allegation, but project an image of a revolving door of multiple sexually transmitted infections for new and old performers alike, particularly for those porn actors working in LA.   Although the stories of James, Roxx, and Burts are troubling, there are clearly some safe guards (e.g., monthly test at a centralized location AIM) and policies (e.g., test results are to be shown before filming a scene) in place for mainstream porn actors, but are they enough? What about gay male performers of color and those with start-up porn companies like Flavaworks or Cocodorm?

In Chicago in 2005 and 2006, the Chicago Department of Public Health had been investigating a string of seemingly related HIV and Syphilis cases and their connection to Flavaworks and the company’s employees. The trail of infections lead to a northside Chicago apartment building where many of the Cocodorm performers worked. The results of the investigation revealed:

a dense sexual network of 47 persons and documented syphilis and HIV infections associated with the Internet pornography business. Exposure histories and incubation periods were consistent with transmission of syphilis and HIV within the sexual network. Of the 19 individuals who were identified as employees of the business, the median age was 23 years (age range 19-35) and all were African-American males. Of the 19 men involved with the business, nine (47%) were infected with HIV, and nine (47%) were with syphilis. Six (32%) men were co-infected with syphilis and HIV. In total, 10 cases of syphilis and 13 cases of HIV infection were identified in this large sexual network.

Where is the AIM like organization set up for these young black porn actors in Chicago? Where were standard HIV and other STI screenings? Where was the concern by the owner, Philip Bleicher, about the health of his employees? Where was  Occupational Safety Health Association (OHSA), an agency that establishes the rules that govern the adult film industry and protects the rights of the performer?

What makes one risk life and limb?  Could it be these would be victims were actually conscious participants and well-versed in the risks that plagued their line of work? Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any interviews with the young men of the CoCoDorms/Flava-works. I did, however, manage to find an interview with a porn star about 2004 HIV outbreak in California.  Maybe his interview can serve as a proxy for answering some of the questions I posed.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=–W4y6-FTg0

In this clip, we are introduced to Julian St. Jox, a heterosexual porn actor.  He talks about being quarantined as one of the many performers who had some connection with Darren James.  More importantly, St. Jox says at a minute 1:23:

They won’t let people do what they need to let people do which is choose for themselves if they want to use a condom or not, and uh unfortunately we have to pay our bills, or get another job. [At a minute 2:11 he says,] it really is a big-big family that we deal with. Unfortunately our fathers who take care of us don’t feel as wonderful about us, cause we are kids in this family, and the people who own the companies and make the decisions are the fathers and mothers of this particular family, and if they cared about their children a little more maybe we would be alright.

It is safe to assume that the “they” he is talking about are the company owners, and that he might choose to wear a condom if he didn’t have to make the choice between having a well paying job or unemployment.

Aaron James

Hidden in how St. Jox, a heterosexual porn star, jokes about his 60 days to reflect. He implies he has very little to no skills that would allow him to make the same amount of money. According to Aaron—“gay for pay”—James, gay porn stars can make about $1000-3000 per scene.  In the clip, Aaron talks about growing up with less than most. This lack of resources persisted throughout his life and at school he couldn’t afford to eat and pay for books.   Among the performers of Flava-work, there is mention that some actors were reportedly runaways and that some came from homeless situations. The powerful incentive of money and, for many performers, being burdened with insufficient credentials, hardships and low to no skill-sets creates a readily understandable nexus for them to seek out legalized fast-cash methods (e.g., stripping, porn, and etc).  If this implication is true, then we see the power that porn companies have over porn actors. The question is do “they” exercise with this power the proper responsibility for these performers’ health? Regardless of skill-sets and the monetary incentives, the performers make the choice to risk their health, right? My question still is why?

The answer, like Kitt said in Pretty Woman, is “Cinder-fucking-ella!” It is the pursuit of Happiness (i.e., the American Dream). The belief that one can go from rags to riches; that one’s ascent no matter how undesirably legal, can still yield one with a certain level of respect and regard for “being bout somethin.” Regardless of the bodies littering the streets, the disease statistics, and the industry burn out rates, folks are driven forward because there’s a chance for success and wealth.

  • Michael

    Good work, man… but with the decentralization and DIY-porn that is now typical and the rather extreme sexual behavior that is now de rigeur in porn (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/01/hard-core/8327/1/), I think the mainstream porn studios come out looking pretty good.

    The idea of becoming a porn star being the contemporary equivalent of the pursuit of happiness might have worked in TransAmerica, but I don’t know if it is anything but seedy and pathetic in real life.

  • Michael

    Good work, man… but with the decentralization and DIY-porn that is now typical and the rather extreme sexual behavior that is now de rigeur in porn (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/01/hard-core/8327/1/), I think the mainstream porn studios come out looking pretty good.

    The idea of becoming a porn star being the contemporary equivalent of the pursuit of happiness might have worked in TransAmerica, but I don’t know if it is anything but seedy and pathetic in real life.

  • Rafer

    Interesting reading. Would be curious to see the rates of infections of porn vs. reg society.

  • Rafer

    Interesting reading. Would be curious to see the rates of infections of porn vs. reg society.

  • Morgansen

    A quick rant in-between errands: I like porn mainly for two reasons: 1) it allows for the safe and boundaried exploration of sexual fantasies; and 2) I can control it in my settings: rewind, fast forward, pause and even play in slow motion. I have obviously purchased movies starring some black man performing black mandingo hood dude realness to a T! Having said this,
    here is what gets lost for me: HIV and impoverished (if in fact they are) black men in porn interrupts the experience, the fantasy.
    When the Coco Dorm scandal broke, I wondered aloud who is responsible for public health? All members of the public or only the people who have the ability and responsibility to permit and revoke licenses?
    The gross oversimplification of this issue is this: Black men are more valuable in our society when we are performing stereotypical blackness. Frankly, the audience for bareback porn and blk/ltn men fucking each other raw is not small and will not shrink in my view.
    Are we asking too much?
    If consenting adults (including the 22 year olds) decide to forego HIV/STD screenings, fuck raw through window periods, perform in condomless films because they make more $ who should stop them? Should customers such as myself refuse to spend money because the company doesn’t require HIV or viral load testing? Who is responsible for public health?
    My final thought, the psychology of pornography (including both actor and audience should be considered in response to those porn sites/movies/companies that pose a public matter concern. Again, I like porn. I try not to consider all the stories of the actors “what got him into doing this?” because some of the innate puritanical madness escapes…

  • Morgansen

    A quick rant in-between errands: I like porn mainly for two reasons: 1) it allows for the safe and boundaried exploration of sexual fantasies; and 2) I can control it in my settings: rewind, fast forward, pause and even play in slow motion. I have obviously purchased movies starring some black man performing black mandingo hood dude realness to a T! Having said this,
    here is what gets lost for me: HIV and impoverished (if in fact they are) black men in porn interrupts the experience, the fantasy.
    When the Coco Dorm scandal broke, I wondered aloud who is responsible for public health? All members of the public or only the people who have the ability and responsibility to permit and revoke licenses?
    The gross oversimplification of this issue is this: Black men are more valuable in our society when we are performing stereotypical blackness. Frankly, the audience for bareback porn and blk/ltn men fucking each other raw is not small and will not shrink in my view.
    Are we asking too much?
    If consenting adults (including the 22 year olds) decide to forego HIV/STD screenings, fuck raw through window periods, perform in condomless films because they make more $ who should stop them? Should customers such as myself refuse to spend money because the company doesn’t require HIV or viral load testing? Who is responsible for public health?
    My final thought, the psychology of pornography (including both actor and audience should be considered in response to those porn sites/movies/companies that pose a public matter concern. Again, I like porn. I try not to consider all the stories of the actors “what got him into doing this?” because some of the innate puritanical madness escapes…

  • Michael

    There may be a large audience for bareback porn, especially including Black and Latin men, but it seems to me that doesn’t mean that individuals or private corporations should get rich off of fulfulling that, if it entails putting performers’ health at risk. Actually, what the “mainstream” porn industy does seems like a pretty good system (not failsafe, but pretty good) and I would wonder the answer to commenter 2’s question… I have a feeling that the rates are not that divergent, limiting the “porn” sample to mainstream studios and not fly-by-night operations.

  • Michael

    There may be a large audience for bareback porn, especially including Black and Latin men, but it seems to me that doesn’t mean that individuals or private corporations should get rich off of fulfulling that, if it entails putting performers’ health at risk. Actually, what the “mainstream” porn industy does seems like a pretty good system (not failsafe, but pretty good) and I would wonder the answer to commenter 2’s question… I have a feeling that the rates are not that divergent, limiting the “porn” sample to mainstream studios and not fly-by-night operations.

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  • Justin

    Hi Michael,
    I agree in some ways that there is a decentralization happening we can look at the fact that around the world there are more porn industries coming online (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_pornographic_movie_studios). We can look at the fact that adult film industry aren’t able to sale as many dvds (and dare I even say cassettes), because of the internet PORN CONSUMPTION numbers (http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-fi-ct-porn10-2009aug10,0,3356050.story). However, I would argue that because of this same decentralization; it has the adverse impact on adult film industry and the porn actors. As Adult Film industry revenues continue to be hit, it has the impact of porn actors across the tiered porn industries to be paid less per scene and the act. Thus, people are working more and taking higher STI risky sex to maintain their normal pay-range, which could be a perfect storm for infections.
    For instance Derrick Burts works at a mainstream company in porn valley, San Fernado Valley, and he in his first month contracted Gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and Herpes. Doesn’t sound pretty good to me, because these diseases have consequences like Gonorrhea or Chlamydia can cause sterilization in women.
    To the Do It Yourself (DIY) Porn, given that a lot of folks are so deeply unattractive, I doubt that it could ever truly replace attractive men and women adult performers (JUST SAYING). From that Atlantic article, I cringed the hardest when the author talked about her getting it on with a close male friend and he asked to do anal because it was the only way to make her feel awkward. I had to pull out my copy of Andrea Dworkin!

  • Justin

    Hi Michael,
    I agree in some ways that there is a decentralization happening we can look at the fact that around the world there are more porn industries coming online (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_pornographic_movie_studios). We can look at the fact that adult film industry aren’t able to sale as many dvds (and dare I even say cassettes), because of the internet PORN CONSUMPTION numbers (http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-fi-ct-porn10-2009aug10,0,3356050.story). However, I would argue that because of this same decentralization; it has the adverse impact on adult film industry and the porn actors. As Adult Film industry revenues continue to be hit, it has the impact of porn actors across the tiered porn industries to be paid less per scene and the act. Thus, people are working more and taking higher STI risky sex to maintain their normal pay-range, which could be a perfect storm for infections.
    For instance Derrick Burts works at a mainstream company in porn valley, San Fernado Valley, and he in his first month contracted Gonorrhea, Chlamydia, and Herpes. Doesn’t sound pretty good to me, because these diseases have consequences like Gonorrhea or Chlamydia can cause sterilization in women.
    To the Do It Yourself (DIY) Porn, given that a lot of folks are so deeply unattractive, I doubt that it could ever truly replace attractive men and women adult performers (JUST SAYING). From that Atlantic article, I cringed the hardest when the author talked about her getting it on with a close male friend and he asked to do anal because it was the only way to make her feel awkward. I had to pull out my copy of Andrea Dworkin!

  • ErnestnSF

    The post is very interesting to me as it deals with one of my pet subjects ie. the shared responsibility to keep the next generation safe that exists between private business and public health and community leaders. Together they have the power to establish community norms that promote well being and good physical and mental health for young black men.

    Gay Men of African Descent is circulating an HIV testing palm card in NYC of a well known, gay, black, adult entertainer. The tag line is “taking care of my sexy”. On the card he promotes knowing ones HIV status, getting testing for STIs for self knowledge but also because protecting his “sexy” is clearly his business income and therefore it is essential that he protect is business assets.
    Porn or adult entertainment is a multi-billion dollar industry and if it is over populated with young men and women who need and want familial relationships they should be disabused that they can and should seek that in a business environment. Businesses are NOT families and contrary to any rhetoric, the bottom line rules the decisions in most cases. If you are going to survive the industry you need a clear foundation in your own self worth and an understanding of what you want out of the experience. It may well be that public health oriented community-based orgs that sit in areas where adult entertainment is being produced should create programs that support these young people in decision-making, job training, education re-entry, and self love. Our society continues to devalue young, gay men of color especially. We can do things that mitigate those messages and provide alternative solutions for beautiful boys than renting their bodies.

    Finally, I remain concerned that our the gay community has established a community norm that values raw sex. Why in the midst of a health crisis that is still centered in gay life would business men and women do things to promote unprotected sex in fantasy videos and venues that everyone knows are frequently used by young and old alike as training and technical assistance tools and facilities. We have the power to change our community norms to value whatever we choose. What will it take to retool our thinking about what is and is not acceptable? That is a question I am very interested in exploring.

  • ErnestnSF

    The post is very interesting to me as it deals with one of my pet subjects ie. the shared responsibility to keep the next generation safe that exists between private business and public health and community leaders. Together they have the power to establish community norms that promote well being and good physical and mental health for young black men.

    Gay Men of African Descent is circulating an HIV testing palm card in NYC of a well known, gay, black, adult entertainer. The tag line is “taking care of my sexy”. On the card he promotes knowing ones HIV status, getting testing for STIs for self knowledge but also because protecting his “sexy” is clearly his business income and therefore it is essential that he protect is business assets.
    Porn or adult entertainment is a multi-billion dollar industry and if it is over populated with young men and women who need and want familial relationships they should be disabused that they can and should seek that in a business environment. Businesses are NOT families and contrary to any rhetoric, the bottom line rules the decisions in most cases. If you are going to survive the industry you need a clear foundation in your own self worth and an understanding of what you want out of the experience. It may well be that public health oriented community-based orgs that sit in areas where adult entertainment is being produced should create programs that support these young people in decision-making, job training, education re-entry, and self love. Our society continues to devalue young, gay men of color especially. We can do things that mitigate those messages and provide alternative solutions for beautiful boys than renting their bodies.

    Finally, I remain concerned that our the gay community has established a community norm that values raw sex. Why in the midst of a health crisis that is still centered in gay life would business men and women do things to promote unprotected sex in fantasy videos and venues that everyone knows are frequently used by young and old alike as training and technical assistance tools and facilities. We have the power to change our community norms to value whatever we choose. What will it take to retool our thinking about what is and is not acceptable? That is a question I am very interested in exploring.

  • This is a very informative article. Kudos to the writer that did this

  • This is a very informative article. Kudos to the writer that did this

  • Justin L. Hill

    Hi Rafer,

    There are some loosely related studies that try to compare the rates of infections between the general public and the porn actors. The limitation to these kinds of comparisons is that American adult porn stars are small finite body of people. So to make it more accurate we would have to tap into the international adult film. In a case like Darren James’ infection, we see the significance of looking at the differences between countries’ adult film industry’s regulations and rules.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYA8MtvJgKw In the Youtube clip, you find some healthful statistics about the comparison between the general public and the adult film industry.

    http://blogs.ocweekly.com/navelgazing/a-clockwork-orange/angelina-armani-darren-james-p/
    http://www.villagevoice.com/2007-09-04/columns/danger-on-the-set/

  • Justin L. Hill

    Hi Rafer,

    There are some loosely related studies that try to compare the rates of infections between the general public and the porn actors. The limitation to these kinds of comparisons is that American adult porn stars are small finite body of people. So to make it more accurate we would have to tap into the international adult film. In a case like Darren James’ infection, we see the significance of looking at the differences between countries’ adult film industry’s regulations and rules.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FYA8MtvJgKw In the Youtube clip, you find some healthful statistics about the comparison between the general public and the adult film industry.

    http://blogs.ocweekly.com/navelgazing/a-clockwork-orange/angelina-armani-darren-james-p/
    http://www.villagevoice.com/2007-09-04/columns/danger-on-the-set/

  • Justin L. Hill

    Hi Morgansen,
    I am ambivalent about decrying all porn. I think as a rational and productive adult; you and I are entitled to our fixs we need/desire (that are legal).
    I think Andrea Dworkin was right about the role of women in porn and how it bridges for some male, female, or trans- viewers the space between women as equal to women being objects. Moreover in straight porn there is a lack of condom use, whereas in gay porn, there is a high rate of condom use. However, I think that porn as a legal fast-cash method does provide opportunity for women and men to climb that economic ladder albeit in a dangerous way.
    In terms of gay porn, I think there are some racial issues, but do the racial issues only come up in interracial scenes? I agree wholeheartedly that black men in porn (whether gay, bi or straight) are only valued for the length or girth they can bring to bear, but isn’t that the same reason viewers watch them. Even more disturbing and telling, isn’t that how we evaluate each other?
    To your question as to whose responsibility, it is a shared responsibility if you ask me. If the majority consumers moved on condoms, the industry (both gay and straight) would follow suit. I think we all have to face-down deep-seated desires that would allow us to shirk off the responsibility we should feel for each other as black men and human beings. Now does that mean you should stop watching not necessarily, but it might mean starting the black and latino adult film clinic for those performers who do care but can’t access AIM services.

  • Justin L. Hill

    Hi Morgansen,
    I am ambivalent about decrying all porn. I think as a rational and productive adult; you and I are entitled to our fixs we need/desire (that are legal).
    I think Andrea Dworkin was right about the role of women in porn and how it bridges for some male, female, or trans- viewers the space between women as equal to women being objects. Moreover in straight porn there is a lack of condom use, whereas in gay porn, there is a high rate of condom use. However, I think that porn as a legal fast-cash method does provide opportunity for women and men to climb that economic ladder albeit in a dangerous way.
    In terms of gay porn, I think there are some racial issues, but do the racial issues only come up in interracial scenes? I agree wholeheartedly that black men in porn (whether gay, bi or straight) are only valued for the length or girth they can bring to bear, but isn’t that the same reason viewers watch them. Even more disturbing and telling, isn’t that how we evaluate each other?
    To your question as to whose responsibility, it is a shared responsibility if you ask me. If the majority consumers moved on condoms, the industry (both gay and straight) would follow suit. I think we all have to face-down deep-seated desires that would allow us to shirk off the responsibility we should feel for each other as black men and human beings. Now does that mean you should stop watching not necessarily, but it might mean starting the black and latino adult film clinic for those performers who do care but can’t access AIM services.

  • Justin L. Hill

    Hi Ernest,

    You said everything I wanted to say in a far more concise and eloquent manner. I concur and echo what you said about the young men and women who are looking for familial relationships in a multi-billion dollar industry. When I found that clip of St.Jox speaking I was struck by his disillusioned humor in the face adversity and potential health risks.
    I like the leaflets idea! What if the community could organize a panel (web-broadcasted) of the biggest name in porn and have them swear to answer questions about STI and porn. How they do (or don’t) protect their “sexy.” In addition, maybe leaflets that say “Jiovonni protects his ‘sexy’ because he doesn’t want Herpes (herpes picture) cuz that aint sexy!” Darren James protect his ‘sexy’ because he doesn’t want (a picture of co-infections or anything else) to complicate his health.” Things like that might be able to start the wedge point for us to pivot away from prolific infection rates and not useful norms.
    Are there special funding being made available to black aids organizations to revitalize their efforts to reach the different black communities?

  • Justin L. Hill

    Hi Ernest,

    You said everything I wanted to say in a far more concise and eloquent manner. I concur and echo what you said about the young men and women who are looking for familial relationships in a multi-billion dollar industry. When I found that clip of St.Jox speaking I was struck by his disillusioned humor in the face adversity and potential health risks.
    I like the leaflets idea! What if the community could organize a panel (web-broadcasted) of the biggest name in porn and have them swear to answer questions about STI and porn. How they do (or don’t) protect their “sexy.” In addition, maybe leaflets that say “Jiovonni protects his ‘sexy’ because he doesn’t want Herpes (herpes picture) cuz that aint sexy!” Darren James protect his ‘sexy’ because he doesn’t want (a picture of co-infections or anything else) to complicate his health.” Things like that might be able to start the wedge point for us to pivot away from prolific infection rates and not useful norms.
    Are there special funding being made available to black aids organizations to revitalize their efforts to reach the different black communities?

  • Justin L. Hill

    Hi daseekah,

    THank you for the compliment! I am glad you enjoyed my work.

  • Justin L. Hill

    Hi daseekah,

    THank you for the compliment! I am glad you enjoyed my work.