No one suspected what was going on in the upper level units of a residential building on Chicago's North side. But for years, with just a credit card and a computer connected to the World Wide Web, anyone from anywhere could log in and watch.
The place was known as the CocoDorm. At any given time, there were between six and eight young Black and Latino men (age 18-24 on average) who lived there. Each young man signed a contract that was valid for 30 days and that could be extended upon a mutual agreement between himself and the proprietor -- an older Caucasian man. Under this contract, the young men were required to perform sexual acts with each other and alone, at least three times a day, every day. There were video cameras strategically placed in just about every room of the house that captured the action, transmitting it to paid subscribers via the Internet.
The "Dorm," as it was called, was a product of Flavaworks Productions. Flavaworks also produced a host of other pornographic websites, films, and print publications that mostly featured young Black and Latino men.
I first encountered the company in the spring of 2004, when I was tasked with selling ads to be placed in the program book of the "Aware Affair," TPAN's annual gala. It was by accident. Really!
I had assembled a team of unorthodox social workers who also possessed capitalist mentalities -- meaning we understood that effective social work requires adequate finances. With $10,000 in ad sales as our collective aim, we didn't discriminate in any way when soliciting businesses for sponsorship. Ironically, Flavaworks was one of the targets on my list to call. Imagine that!
I communicated with a young Black man who identified himself as both the office and "Dorm" manager. He was pleasantly friendly and professional, so we hit it off instantly. Not only did he secure for us the largest ad sponsorship available, but he also sent, for our viewing pleasure, a boatload of samples of the videos produced from the Dorm. I have no problem admitting that I watched them. I cannot, however, speak for anyone else on the team.
It just so happened that at the same time we were searching for young Black men to serve as community outreach workers for an HIV/STI prevention campaign that we were developing. While doing outreach at a local club on a Friday night, I recognized one of the young men from the videos waiting in line at the club. Someone suggested that it would be a really interesting and sexy twist to have a "porn star" representing a safer sex campaign. We all agreed and felt that this guy would be perfect.
We approached him about the idea and he said that he was interested. We got him into the club for free and talked to him for roughly an hour or so regarding the specifics of the project. We also informed him that there would be little or no money involved. Surprisingly enough, he was still interested.
As I got to know him better and began watching more of the freebies that I had been given, several red flags were raised. I observed that a great deal of the sex that the men were engaged in, including our new safer-sex poster boy, was not safe. At all! In a very candid conversation following a fallout that he had with Flavaworks' owner, our poster boy revealed to us some interesting things about the company and its operations.
He told us that they had absolutely no structure or plan in place to ensure that the health of the young men they hired was not compromised. He mentioned that condom use during sexual acts between the "models" was considered optional and that, for the most part, condoms were unavailable and rarely used. He also informed us that screening for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STI's) did not occur at any time during a "model's" contracted stay or video shoot.
We called the "dorm manager" (who I learned later was also a model from time to time) and shared with him what we had learned. He confirmed that what we were told was the truth. We offered him and the other models free condoms and HIV counseling and testing, as well as discounted screenings for other STI's. He immediately accepted the offer and made it mandatory for all of the current and incoming models. The owner also invited our staff in for some no-holds-barred conversations with the guys about the importance of HIV and STI screening, as well as to offer suggestions for strategies on ways to minimize their risks.
Though TPAN exists primarily to provide social support services to people living with HIV and AIDS, we also share space with a community-based clinic that is operated through Access Community Health Network. Access functions as a full-service medical clinic, specializing in both HIV and STI screening and treatment.
Several members of the TPAN staff, including myself, worked closely (or as closely as technically possible given privacy and confidentiality regulations) with the staff at Access and the people at Flavaworks, for nearly two years. The relationship proved to be an extremely challenging one, due to inconsistent follow-up and a high rate of turnover on their part. We were, however, incredibly dedicated to making it work. Specifically, we were committed to establishing genuine, trust-based relationships with the young and incredibly naive models from the Dorm.
It was an opportunity that I believe each of us genuinely valued and continue to learn from, even today. Because of it, we were able to engage numerous members of an incredibly vulnerable population -- young Black men who have sex with men -- regarding issues around self-worth, self-love, and the need to protect themselves and their fellow brothers (and, in some cases, sisters) from HIV and other STI's.
We were extremely conscious to do it in such a way that did not judge or look down upon the way these young men had chosen to earn their living. We understood that for many of them this wasn't a choice, really. This was a matter of economic survival.
Many of them sought employment through the Dorm as an alternative to survival on the streets -- which would look like drug pushing and other criminal activity. Some, admittedly, did it for the fun and the "fame." Most had no other place to go because they had been disassociated from their families and their loved ones because of their sexuality. For whatever reason and from whatever background, these young Black and Latino men came from all over the country to Chicago, to become a CocoBoy.
Our job, then, was to help them to understand that if they wanted to continue to be marketable and successful within the pornography industry, that there were some things they needed to do, or not do, to make it so. We were also charged with connecting them to other professional resources that could serve as alternatives to working as a "CocoBoy," if they were interested.
Many of them, we learned, were interested and became genuinely engaged with our team and in our services. As a result, we were able to uncover an alarming prevalence of HIV and STI's among them (and other young Black and Latino men as well -- as the models were allowed to bring other men whom they met at clubs or on the street back to the Dorm and, if their guest agreed and signed a release, their sexual encounter would be broadcast on the CocoDorm website as a bonus). In fact, it was discovered that 47% of the men associated with Flavaworks who tested were found to be HIV-positive -- comparable to a five-city CDC study which discovered 46% of its African American participants to be HIV-positive -- and an equal number infected with syphilis.
We were also informed by several of the young men that models were paid extra money to engage in sexual activities that were considered to be of a "riskier" nature. A group of them, in fact, had been paid extra to drink the ejaculate of several other young men from a bowl. Others were offered $500 or more to have raw anal sex with young men who many in the house (including the office and Dorm manager at the time) claim that the owner knew were HIV-positive. These accusations, combined with the rising number of new HIV/STI infections among men connected to the Dorm, left officials at Access with no option except to report what they were seeing and hearing to the Chicago Department of Public Health. A formal investigation into the inner workings of Flavaworks, Inc. was officially underway.
Realizing that his company was under the radar of public health officials, the owner called me personally and asked what I thought he should do. It was clear to me that he had no intention of shutting the operation down, so I recommended that he hire a professionally trained health consultant/coordinator to ensure from this point on a) these young men were aware of the risks that they were assuming, b) they understood how to minimize such risks, and c) they could be tested and treated for anything that they may have brought in to or picked up from the Dorm.
He agreed to my suggestion, but never followed up on it here in Chicago. Within the next couple of weeks, he packed up the entire operation and relocated to Miami, Florida, just as city officials issued a "cease and desist" order on the company. Apparently, Flavaworks had neglected to secure the proper licenses to operate such a business here in Chicago, and for this reason the city was able to simply shut it down.
The media storm that followed was intense. Not only was Flavaworks linked to an alarming rate of HIV and STI infection, but there were allegations that the operation had been funded by a fraudulent charity established by its owner. It was also reported that a sizeable pay-for-play operation was being run from the Dorm, where "customers" could rent any of the Cocoboys for a sizeable fee.
While we did not collectively follow Flavaworks after it relocated to Miami (mainly because we did not have the capacity to do so), we have maintained relationships with several of the former models who stayed behind. Many of them still visit the clinic at Access regularly for HIV/STI screening and treatment.
They are all incredibly beautiful and interesting young men. Some have gone on to do other, more productive things with their lives -- like returning to school or starting their own businesses. Others have chosen to ride out the porn wave and see just how far it will take them. Whatever they have decided, they at least have knowledge of what they need to do to do it safely and responsibly, and to take care of themselves so that they can be around to do it for as long as they choose to.
As for Flavaworks, Inc., when neighbors in the Miami residential community became outraged that an organized sex operation was taking place in their front yard, they mobilized, protested, and demanded action. In May, Miami city officials issued a "cease and desist" order on the company -- curtailing its operations, for now.
But will it ever really end? Won't Flavaworks just re-surface as another sex-pushing pimp machine with a new face and a new name? It's as simple as supply and demand, really. I wonder, in fact, how many other companies just like it already exist? I could probably name several. I probably own a couple of their videos.
Ultimately, the people who are hurt most by such operations are the misguided (or unguided) vulnerable young Black and Latino men who get caught up in a profession that is unnecessarily harmful for them. How will our community-based organizations advocate on behalf of these men? What kinds of services do we have in place to empower them to care enough about their own well-being and that of their partners to faithfully practice necessary precautions?
So many questions ... so many questions.