When the definitive history of that great American pastime
pornography is penned, an entire chapter will be devoted to 1998.
That was the year HIV took a wrecking ball to the wall of denial
erected around the men and women who populate and copulate in
California's San Fernando Valley -- the Hollywood of hetero humping.
It's a big business but a small world. The 250 studios in this
smoggy suburban LA valley produce the majority of the 9,000 straight
X-rated titles -- with sales of $3.5 billion -- released annually in
the United States. Everybody knows everybody and every body;
acquaintances are, by definition, lovers. The industry's stable of
400 or so performers makes up a kind of small-pond ecosystem, where
a single harmful microorganism, once introduced, can threaten all
For 16 years HIV cast few shadows on these fast-buck fuck-fests.
However quickly the virus panicked gay porndom -- popularizing
condom use by the late '80s -- it was business as usual in the
straight studios. The epidemic intervened rarely, most notably when
John Holmes, the super-endowed bad-boy star of 2,274 porn films,
tested positive in 1985 and died of AIDS three years later.
A careless set of precautions prevailed. The industry took the
most cursory steps to protect its "talent" by relying only on ELISAs
(enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay, the standard HIV antibody test)
for each actor every 30 to 90 days. Performers were issued "clean"
health certificates, routinely photocopied to keep on file with each
shoot. Some studios allowed condoms, but the common view that
rubbers smother the lusty flames of video sex, coupled with stiff
competition from rubberless Europeans, kept the majority of actors
"We played 24 hours a day, and the bell of responsibility never
rang," says Bill Margold, a 27-year industry veteran turned producer
and the founder of Protecting Adult Welfare (PAW), a triple-X crisis
center. "We were aware HIV was out there, lurking, only we didn't
think it could happen to us. People just didn't think of themselves
as at risk."
Then came 1998, and first one, then three, then five infections.
"It'll be known as the year that recess was over in the playpen of
the damned," Margold says. "People got really freaked out."
The freakout commenced in January, when Tricia Devereaux, 23, a
fresh-faced, bright-eyed Midwesterner, tested positive. Devereaux
(she asked to be identified only by her porn name) was the canary in
the carnal coal mine. Next it was reported that 25-year-old Brooke
Ashley -- who starred, with 50 men, in The World's Greatest Anal
Gang Bang -- tested positive. In April, long-timer Marc Wallice,
who had some 1,500 titles under his belt, including Anal Anarchy,
Anal Savage and The Creasemaster, got the bad news, as
did single-name Euro-newcomer Caroline, of Lewd Conduct, Part
1 fame. May brought word to veteran Kimberly Jade.
Tricia Devereaux, 23, has the cheerleader's wholesomeness
that many men crave, even in their porn. Her most memorable starring
role was likely A Day in the Life of a Prostitute, though
fans also cite Gregory Dark's Shocking Truths, Part I. What
was a nice girl like Devereaux doing in a place like the Valley? In
late 1995, when Devereaux was a college student in Ohio, stripping
at a local club to support herself and her then-husband, some
visiting industry people invited her to Los Angeles. She did six
movies in one weekend while also cramming for midterms. Over the
next six months she flew out six more times, all expenses paid, made
dozens of films and earned as much as $1,000 for each half-day
scene. "My career took off, but not outrageously," she says. "I'm
not one of your major stars, but people know my name."
Getting infected "devastated me," Devereaux says. "I feel bitter
and betrayed." She had been routinely assured by producers that the
established method of weeding out HIV positive actors was effective
protection. Like everyone else, she took her ELISAs. "I was hoping
beyond hope that it was anything but HIV," she says. Word of her
infection spread like wildfire. "The clinic called my agent, and the
agency knew before I did," she says. "I had to stop answering my
phone that weekend because of all the calls. My ex-fiance [a porn
director] knew in two hours." A second test confirmed it.
During her short career, Devereaux kept meticulous records "of
everything I did, in every scene, in every movie, with every
person." It was a habit of professionalism rather than a premonition
of danger. "There's this whole personal-fan-club thing," she says.
"It's almost a stalker mentality. Guys at conventions come up and
say, 'You did this and this in that scene with so-and-so.' I needed
to know as much about myself as those guys did!"
Devereaux's books fascinated Sharon Mitchell, locally famous as the
industry's leader in the AIDS fight. "The attitude in this business
toward HIV has always been ghastly," Mitchell, 41, says. "The denial
is preposterous. We have high-risk categories the CDC never even
heard of, like men sharing needles to inject erection drugs into
their penises." She adds, "That was before Viagra, of course." The
porn star-turned-HIV counselor saw the records as a "genealogy" of
Devereaux's possible exposures to HIV. Poring over them with
Margold, Mitchell worked round-the-clock to contact Devereaux's 75
on-screen sex partners and urged them to get tested. The crisis
canceled the usual rules of HIV confidentiality. Companies' shoots
were briefly shut down, and actors were quarantined until cleared as
negative. As Mitchell and Margold learned of each performer's
positive test result, they played connect the dots. "The genealogies
we did were stellar," Mitchell says. "We reached a point where we
could do one in under six hours. It was an incredible collective
effort, and one that I have poured my life into."
Devereaux's genealogy pointed Mitchell directly toward Marc
Wallice. Devereaux had worked with him twice in the fall of 1997,
and had never worked with the other three women who tested positive;
she also says she never shot up drugs and had sex with only one man
outside the industry, who's HIV negative.
Soon an industry backlash dubbed Wallice "Patient Zero," and
rumors flew that he used needles or did gay outcalls; that he had
known he was positive for a year, and forged negative test results.
But Mitchell dismisses the gossip as irrelevant, and Devereaux
herself refuses to cast blame: "I wanted to be able to tell
everyone, 'Hey, I got this outside the business. You don't need to
worry.'" Many in the industry were only too eager to encourage this
view. "They were too scared to admit it was coming from within our
circle," she says. "Many still don't want to believe it was from
Marc. They realize 'I could have gotten it from him too.'"
Marc Wallice is long and lanky, a soft-spoken, hard-luck kind of
guy, who started in porn 17 years ago, when Tricia Devereaux was in
kindergarten. "It was great back then," says Wallice, 39. "We felt
like rebels. Every time you went to work it was like going to a
little party with family and friends, and getting paid, too. A day
at the beach."
Wallice says that the threat of HIV occurred to most straight
actors only when testing began in 1990. "It was just something you
shrugged off," he recalls. "You figured, 'It'll never be me.' And
when everyone tested negative at first, we thought, 'All right! It
doesn't affect us.'"
But last March, Mitchell came knocking on his door. "I had no
clue," he says. "I was very surprised when those girls came up
positive. I was linked to them sexually, so I had to have tests
done," he says. "All the rumors about me knowing I was positive are
ridiculous. I'd worked with 10 girls a month and got ELISAs every
Wallice got tested, and then vanished from sight. "I didn't want
to know. I spent six weeks saying, 'Fuck everybody,' checked into a
hotel and spent every penny on cocaine," he says. "I went through
$6,000. I had fun. I ignored everything, like it wasn't happening."
But when he came down, "I said, 'Oh man, I'm fucking HIV positive.
Life is over as I know it.' I'd been making lots of money. To have
that shut down with nothing to do and nowhere to go was beyond
In April 1998, while Wallice was hiding from his ELISA, industry
leaders called an emergency meeting at the Sportsmen's Lodge, on
Ventura Boulevard, in the heart of the Valley. More than 300 people
-- triple-X producers, directors, actors, distributors, video-store
owners -- packed a ballroom usually reserved for weddings and bar
mitzvahs to talk about sex, death and latex. With grim resolve,
Sharon Mitchell announced that Wallice had tested positive. "I
hadn't had a face-to-face disclosure with him yet, but I had
hundreds of people at risk," she says. "I had no choice."
After hours of debate, a consensus emerged. Despite grumblings
over the presumed financial downside, 13 of the producers, including
those from the biggest studios such as VCA Productions, Video Team,
Afro-Centric Productions and Vivid Video agreed to better protection
for their talent. They instituted new condom-only policies for anal
and vaginal intercourse as well as mandatory PCR (polymerase chain
reaction) tests, which detect HIV DNA in the blood, have a shorter
window period and are more accurate than ELISAs.
Soon after the Sportsmen's Lodge powwow, Mitchell founded the
nonprofit Adult Industry Medical Healthcare (AIM) to offer
AIDS-related care, support and education as well as to track rates
of infection. "We formed an agency in an outbreak," she says. "The
talent in this industry has always been viewed as expendable. AIM
can't motivate people, but it can give them information to help save
their lives. Sure, a little compliance from producers and
manufacturers would help."
Mitchell began meeting with doctors to set up PCR testing of all
actors. "When you're working with 40 people a month, an ELISA test
every six months just doesn't cut it," she says. "Imagine the number
of people potentially exposed in six months." PCR tests are now
given monthly, and any two consecutive negatives are considered OK
to work. Actors get certificates with raised seals for authenticity,
no photocopies. "We call it 'No feel, no deal,'" says Bill Margold.
Anyone testing positive is prohibited from performing in a sex
scene. "In the straight industry, a positive test result means an
actor is out of the business," says Mitchell. "Companies offered the
actors who tested positive other jobs in the industry. We do look
after our own, but not as damn good as we could."
This is a sentiment Jeffrey Laurence, MD, director of AIDS
research at New York Hospital, would agree with. He dismisses the
use of PCRs sans latex for prevention as "ridiculous. The way that
PCR is done, the virus has a window of opportunity of seven to 10
days. A PCR every 30 days may be marginally better than an ELISA,
but the only effective prevention is a condom."
Mitchell acknowledges these limitations. "We know the holes. But
without PCR, it's amazing how many people would be exposed," she
says. "Each time someone takes a PCR test at AIM, they sign a
partner-notification release. I get written permission so I can do a
genealogy. We're way into the solution." In fact, since May 1998 no
new industry infections have been reported.
Whether mandatory monthly PCRs will protect the sexual ecology of
this unique culture remains to be seen. But one thing is certain:
The weaker the condom code, the worse the chances. According to
insiders like former porn star Nina Hartley, now a producer-director
of "condom positive" X-rated movies, about 30 percent of studios
require latex, while "half the producers don't encourage condom use,
but they accept it. About 20 percent say, 'No condom' -- but they're
the basement companies." Mitchell calls them "the little guys who
get girls right off the bus," and adds, "Those are the ones that
drive me crazy."
Safe Sex 101 has been a considerable success, according to
Mitchell. "Since last year's outbreak, the industry has changed
tremendously," she says. "The environment has become aware. The
girls want to partake in their health care." Hartley agrees,
pointing out that the community has incorporated latex in a spirit
of pride, if not solidarity. "They now realize, 'This is the pool
I'm in. If I'm going to stay in it, I'm going to have to deal,'' she
say. "For men, it's become a sign of studliness to be versatile
enough to wear condoms. It's like, 'I can fuck and use a condom and
still keep my dick hard.'" For women, who have more to fear, it's
more complicated. "Women have to learn to stand up and say, 'No
condom, no scene.' For some, just being told they're allowed to is
all they need."
Although women performers may not be mobilizing as a political
force, they increasingly recognize their position in the industry.
As Mark Kearns, an editor at Adult Video News, the LA-based
trade monthly, says, "Ultimately, women have the power because they
sell the project. They might be able to ignore the crew, camera and
lights. But who can ignore the fact that you might be getting a
The millions of men who watch porn, for one. While no polls have
been taken, the prevailing view is that straight men like their
small-screen sex skin to skin. "They don't want to watch the NFL
play touch football," says PAW condom crusader Bill Margold. "It's
supposed to be a vicarious thrill -- sex without a net. The net they
can get at home."
There's no net at studios like Legend and Extreme, where condoms
are banned (though PCR testing is required). "The companies going
condom-only are just trying to be P.C. And it won't work," says
Legend's Jeff Steward. "A movie that relies on sex will sink with a
While this assumption is apparently supported by the fact that
over the past year, the number of latex-only companies has fallen
from 13 to nine, condom converts such as Russell Hampshire, owner of
powerhouse VCA Productions, say that their sales have not been
Whether this success will be undermined by no-rubber companies'
efforts to capitalize on their competitors' caution is a question.
JM Productions' ads in the trade press, for example, feature a
cartoon man strangling a life-size condom, with the tagline "No
Fucking Condoms!!!" And Extreme runs an ad touting itself as "The
Bareback Vigilante: We Never Use Condoms."
Many in the industry, not least the actors, publicly bad-mouth
this anti-rubber rhetoric. It is especially galling to Tricia
Devereaux. "I obviously wish I'd never gotten infected," she says.
"If other performers would learn from it, it would mean something.
But when I see these companies bragging that they don't use condoms,
it disgusts me."
Yet Mitchell warns against any rush to judgment. She says that
Extreme, which has an account at AIM, not only tests its actors
every 14 days (as opposed to the standard 30) but is one of the few
companies that covers the $85 PCR fee for its talent. "They don't
want to be accused of someone blindly walking into the high-risk
situations they put people in," she says. "It's not like a girl gets
hired and gets badgered into not using a condom. These companies are
clear about it. They're being as responsible as they can,
considering." And to the many cynics who dismiss the porn industry
as a machine of exploitation devoid of responsibility and
self-respect, Mitchell says: "We're in the middle of a transition
here. It's like when we went from organized crime to paying taxes.
If we got through that, we can get through a little health care."
Others are less confident. "For condom-only policies across the
board, it'll take more infections to turn up," says Wallice, who has
found editing and other off-camera work in the industry. "HIV was
big for a moment, and now it's back to normal. No one is scared."
Devereaux adds: "A few friends quit for a while because they were
shaken up, but most went back. That's a pattern when there's an HIV
scare. Or people start using condoms, then migrate back to no
But not Devereaux. She has said goodbye to all that. "Firemen and
policemen don't go to funerals because it reminds them that they
could die in the line of duty," she says of her role as the
industry's wakeup call. "I thought people wouldn't want to even look
at me because I'd remind them of what could happen to them." For
Devereaux "it was time to leave LA."
That meant coming home, to family, friends and a small Midwestern
town -- where she keeps her HIV status a secret. "This small town
would crucify her," says Devereaux's mother, who minces no words
when the subject turns to porn. "I love my daughter, but I hate
Tricia Devereaux. We always told her to get the hell out of the porn
business. She wouldn't have HIV if she had." Even Devereaux's
brother initially hinted that she might not be welcome in his house.
"I was heartbroken," she says. "But he changed his mind real quick
after seeing me -- I was still his little sister." Few people
outside her family know. Devereaux had to rely on the Internet to
find a doctor, and has never visited the local hospital's HIV
But only a woman intent on coming out of hiding would pose on the
cover of POZ. "As far as I know, there is no place in this
town that has access to POZ," Devereaux says. "I'm not
planning on staying here anyway. I'll either go to grad school or,
if I'm shunned out of my community, move back to LA. I could do
extra work, obviously in mainstream movies." But the small screen
still seems to hold the most allure for Devereaux, who wants to have
children one day. "Did you see the storyline on Chicago Hope
with the HIV positive woman who wants to have a baby?" she asks
excitedly. "I was like, 'This is so cool!' I guess if I was lucky
enough to get a soap opera part or something, I'd be incredibly