With So-Called HIV 'Super-Spreader' Case, Are Both AHF and the Porn Film Industry Responsible?

Matt Ebert
Matt Ebert

Three decades ago, I was living in NYC. I was eighteen, and I was co-habituating with a gay porn star named David Connors. He was hung, star of The Biggest One I Ever Saw. And when we walked down Christopher Street, every passerby eyed his bulge -- his cock was a magnet stroking the iron filings from men's eyes.

David made one last film while I was with him: One, Two, Three. The production of this film in the mid-eighties destroyed the company that created it.

Its reputation was ruined because it was rumored to have known that David was sick and to have paid players to have sex with him anyway, at a time when our community's majority was just coming to the conclusion that sex had something to do with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. There was a lot of cocaine involved in the production, and the drugs fueled the filmmakers, who took incredible risks with their cast. Not long after the shooting stopped David Connors died, very quickly.

One would hope that in the thirty years since that film's debut performers would be safe from the industry's bottom line, but that isn't the case. With everything we know about protection, prevention, counseling and treatment for HIV, the health of the industry's self-employed workers in 2016 should be a lot better than it is.

It Had Gotten Better

The odd thing is, for over a decade in California it was better: The porn industry had a proven, sex-positive and healthy public strategy to fight sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Statistics bore out the success of its methodology, as during that time there was no incidence of HIV transmission.

Porn is one industry in which zero HIV transmission is a reasonable goal. Since you "construct" the risk, and you know when transmission is likely, the possibility for innovative prevention is exponential.

The industry once fought against transmission. But these days, too many producers have excuses for failed safety standards, and the industry is caving to the enemy: AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) CEO Michael Weinstein and his shrill inquisition on prevention policy. And he's a serious threat.

Weinstein's War

Michael Weinstein supports condom laws, and for a decade he's poured millions into the fight to force condoms on players. He worked tirelessly to discredit and close AIM, a health clinic that once served industry performers, and his current prevention policy demands are crippling an industry that employs over ten thousand workers every year.

AHF sponsored L.A. County's Measure B, which requires players to wear condoms, and Weinstein is responsible for the California Safer Sex in the Adult Film Industry Act, which tried to make this a statewide requirement.

AHF would say otherwise, but Weinstein is arguably the worst thing to happen to the health and welfare of the porn industry since the arrival of HIV/AIDS. His tactics have forced the industry to migrate, and migration has consequences.

AHF chirps in a recent press release: "[C]ondom use is -- and very much remains -- required in all adult films made in CA." This was in response to Cal-OSHA fining actor James Deen and his production company $78K for condom and safety violations. Weinstein has been using AHF's gigantic legal fund to battle the porn industry and reform Cal-OSHA workplace safety standards. By Weinstein's own admission, the money AHF has spent on litigation and the fight to mandate condoms in porn could have provided health care services for over a thousand HIV-positive people. Michael Weinstein will waste a generation to prove he's right even when he's wrong.

AHF's prevention page still ignores pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) -- further indication, if you needed any, that Weinstein and AHF should be immediately disqualified from participating in any public discourse about how to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Weinstein will ignore the science to his peril, and the porn industry should seize on this. It should seize on the fact that workplace transmission was virtually non-existent in the decade before he drove the industry out of California.

Where Is the Porn Industry's Prevention Innovation?

The porn industry still sees little-to-no HIV workplace transmission in any given year; it is safe to say that sex workers in pornographic films are at no higher risk than anyone else of contracting an STI such as HIV. So why is AHF spending millions imposing condoms-in-porn laws when black men who have sex with men and transgender women nationwide are facing HIV transmission rates many times higher than sex workers in film?

The porn industry should be taking an innovative approach to HIV prevention. Instead, they created Free Speech Coalition, which fights condom use in porn. It's also moved the studios and backdrops to Las Vegas, where safety laws, if enacted, are even less likely to be enforced.

Witness the rise of the "super-spreader." When porn moved to Nevada, so did HIV. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a routine case of HIV transmission, with one caveat: For the first time in over a decade the incident occurred on a gay porn set. This seems almost purposefully crafted to support AHF's thankless position on condom laws and almost certainly to have been driven by Weinstein's obsession with porn -- an obsession that brought subpoenas to three HIV-testing facilities in California in a dangerous violation of patients' right to privacy.

If you marginalize a group and push them away from health care the way AHF and Michael Weinstein have pushed sex workers by closing the clinics that served them, it is likely to face a higher risk of infection. The Nevada migration is a direct result of Weinstein's driving the industry east, and the industry's willingness to cut its losses. AHF will play bad cop, the industry will swap onus for profit and employees will be left with the "super-spreader" spectre.

AHF generates nearly a billion dollars in revenue from HIV/AIDS services worldwide, much of which comes from its pharmacy business. Weinstein believes his reward for success in the boardroom should be a right to confer public health policy in California statewide. But Weinstein should be disqualified from this due to his PrEP denialism alone.

The New Basics of HIV Prevention

These days, Weinstein isn't arguing for increased PrEP, post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) and treatment as prevention (TasP) -- the new basics of HIV prevention. Instead, he's demanding goggles, dental dams and condoms, and losing the battle.

A young HIV activist friend with the group ACT UP described Weinstein this way: "Michael Weinstein is the Mbeki of HIV prevention." He is referring to the former President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, whose denial of HIV caused 365,000 additional deaths from AIDS.

He added, "One has to wonder how many gay men have become infected with HIV because of AHF's multi-million dollar scheme to obfuscate and oppose the single most rigorously researched and effective HIV-prevention intervention ever developed."

My activist friend stands among a chorus of people denouncing Michael Weinstein and AHF for their stance on PrEP. Weinstein's denial of Truvada (tenofovir/FTC) demands attention. He has no place shaping public health policy, and state voters should reject outright any proposed initiative from AHF. Scientifically speaking, Weinstein's vigorous lobbying against PrEP is the equivalent of an anti-vaxxer spear-chucking California's anti-whooping cough initiative.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans have died of AIDS since David Connors' death. But today we know that PrEP prevents HIV transmission in a healthy body and that TASP reduces the infection until it's virtually impossible to spread. And we know too that PEP, taken right after unprotected sex, can avert infection. That anyone seroconverts on set today is a direct result of an exodus from a land of the known to a desert of ignorance.

Weinstein is playing with fire in Mbeki's bone-yard, and AHF should remove this threat to public health before he destroys another life. Barring this, a full court press to disqualify his many attempts to shape health policy is the job of every gay activist and the porn industry. But the industry has to do better if it plans to survive -- the science and data are in its favor. Today, the industry's strategy is less apparent, and that has to change if it wants to remain viable in California. Porn remains an excellent place to get the science of prevention right. Unfortunately, what we're seeing, in large part due to AHF, is the destruction of best practices.