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Mounting HIV cases have porn industry questioning its own trade group

Actors perform on the set of a pornographic movie in Los Angeles.
Gabriel Bouys | AFP | Getty Images
Actors perform on the set of a pornographic movie in Los Angeles.

With a third Los Angeles-area porn performer confirmed as HIV positive, and reports of a fourth having the virus, the very trade group that is supposed to speak for the industry has increasingly found itself under fire from within adult entertainment.

The Free Speech Coalition, an adult entertainment industry organization, has been the primary source of information to the rest of the world about the infections—and has set, lifted and reset moratoriums on film shooting. But the FSC's handling of the health care crisis has widened a schism that was already forming within the industry about its effectiveness and the level of support it provides.

At issue, in many minds, is the speed in which the first moratorium was lifted. Within one week of the first diagnosis, the coalition issued an all-clear to studios. Six days later, another case was reported—and the group did not call for a halt to shooting. The second shutdown came when a third performer announced on Sept. 6 that she had been infected. That shutdown remains in place now.

But some within the industry say the all-clear was premature given the health considerations at hand, and they question the coalition's motivations.

"It concerned me greatly when they said everyone is fine," said Scott Taylor, president of production company New Sensations. "I don't want by circumstance to be party to something that might put somebody at risk. ... I had conversations with others within the industry, and I felt that there was pressure. We had agents telling us 'it will be over by Friday.' "

Diane Duke, the coalition's executive director, denies there was any outside influence on the decision.

(Read more: HIV strikes again—what does it mean for the porn industry?)

"There wasn't any pressure," she said. "That was not a factor in this at all. ... If anything, I get messages that [studios and agents] want to be as safe as possible."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the immune system typically takes two to eight weeks to make antibodies against the AIDS virus, which is what most HIV tests look for.

Duke said the industry uses another type of HIV test—called an RNA test—which looks for the virus itself. The CDC says RNA tests can detect infection within 10 to 15 days of exposure. Just as there can be false positives in testing, though, so there can be false negatives.

"A negative result does not necessarily mean that you don't have HIV," said the CDC's Salina Smith. "That's because of the window period—the period after you may have been exposed to HIV but before a test can detect it. ...There isn't any absolute evidence to indicate how long after infection a person becomes infectious. However, it's important to note that it's possible to transmit HIV to others during any stage of the infection."

Shutting down production

Duke said the shortness of the first moratorium was tied to the fact that Cameron Bay, the first performer to be infected in the latest cases, had not been on set for more that two weeks when her diagnosis came in. Typically, when a performer tests positive for HIV, industry protocol calls for all of his or her co-stars within the past two weeks to be tested. (Currently, porn stars are screened every two weeks for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases at a cost of $175 per screening. The performers pay that expense out of pocket.)

Duke said the coalition went back a full month and retested every performer who worked with Bay as a precaution. All tests, she says, came back negative.

(Read more: Jobs letdown: Was it all about the porn shutdown?)

Addressing studio concerns on the short length of the moratorium, she noted: "I completely understand why they would feel that way. But in the past, you didn't have that two-week period where the performer did not work. The window period had already been satisfied by the time the infection was detected."

There was no moratorium after the second HIV case, she said, because the performer in question did not cooperate with the coalition.

Duke said that all performers who have worked with the third HIV-infected porn star (who has not yet come forward publicly) have since tested negative for the disease, but the shooting moratorium remains in place so that the group's board of five doctors can "do some additional investigative work to make sure any possibility of future exposure and contact has been considered."

A fourth case?

Arunas Klupsas | Photolibrary | Getty Images

Whether that extended shutdown has anything to do with reports that a fourth performer has HIV is uncertain. The AIDS Healthcare Federation, the nonprofit organization behind the mandatory condom measure that passed in Los Angeles County last November, has reported that a fourth HIV-positive adult film performer came to the group looking for information. The coalition, however, said that none of its testing facilities has encountered a fourth case.

"It is extremely likely," Duke said, "that this situation is more posturing for AHF's political agenda."

(More on the porn industry from CNBC: Inside the 2013 Adult Entertainment Expo)

Technically, it's not the coalition itself that makes the call for a moratorium in shooting. That falls on the shoulders of the Performer Availability Screening Service, a coalition-run service that provides the industry with a database listing the availability of performers.

That service, which was formerly called the Adult Production Health & Safety Services, rose after the industry's last HIV scare in 2011. A previous service, the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation (AIM), was forced to close down and file bankruptcy after a privacy suit challenged its handling of medical records.

Cost of a shutdown

Globally, porn is a $97 billion industry, according to Kassia Wosick, assistant professor of sociology at New Mexico State University, who has studied adult entertainment for more than 10 years. At present, between $10 billion and $12 billion of that comes from the United States. Revenue from traditional porn films has been shrinking, though, due to piracy and an abundance of free content on the Internet.

(Read more: Inside the business of porn)

The industry as a whole last halted filming for 10 days in August 2012, when a performer was diagnosed with syphilis. That performer was sentenced to jail for knowingly exposing co-stars to the disease.

HIV scares have resulted in industry shutdowns in 2011 (over what turned out to be a false positive) and 2010 (when a true HIV positive result was returned).

While the industry is under significant financial pressure due to piracy and the rise of "amateur" websites, insiders say the short shutdown should not have a noticeable effect on revenue at major studios. And even if the industry were to shut down again following the third positive test, it still wouldn't be a significant financial drain.

Big players typically have a large stockpile of films awaiting release and can ride out a shutdown. The industry shoots roughly 20,000 scenes per year. Bigger companies tend to produce four or five films per month—with costs reaching up to $300,000—allowing them to stockpile releases.

"The producers will be able to recoup this," said Duke. "They will lose money, but this won't destroy them."

Who is the FSC?

Founded in 1991, the coalition has worked to block the passage of censorship and obscenity laws that affect the industry. It played a key role in overturning provisions of the Child Pornography Prevention Act. Those provisions defined films with adults acting as minors engaging in actual or simulated sexual acts as falling within the definition of child pornography, something that could, conceivably, have included Hollywood films such as "Dirty Dancing" and "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

Most recently, though, it has been at the forefront of the fight around mandatory condom use in Los Angeles and California. For most of that fight, the industry has stood fairly united, declaring that government had no right to mandate condom usage.

The slew of recent confirmed HIV cases, though, has caused some to rethink their positions.

"This has caused a rift between performers," said porn star Chanel Preston. "Whereas before most [performers] were on the same side as far as condoms, now they're more divided. ... As [performers], we really do care about our health and safety, and we are concerned."

Preston said she's neutral on the issue, though she notes that condoms break in shoots and, therefore, can never be 100 percent effective.

Critics of the coalition accuse it of a conflict of interest when it comes to health testing since it largely represents the porn studios, rather than performers.

"What is the FSC doing being involved in testing anyway?" asked porn blogger Mike South. "Testing should be done by an absolutely independent third party."

(Read more: No porn please, we're British)

Others in the industry who support the coalition acknowledge this point, but note that the lobbying group stepped up when AIM collapsed to ensure that a screening service survived.

"I think there could be conflicts of interest being both a lobbying organization for producers and running the testing," said Mark Spiegler, an agent for performers. "However, to be fair, there used to be an organization that did the testing (AIM) and when they went out of business, for the sake of the talent, someone had to step in, since no one else would. ... No one else has the interest or resources to do it. To be honest, it's a thankless job, because whenever anything happens, fingers get pointed at them, when I think in general they are trying to help the industry."

—By Chris Morris, for CNBC.

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