AIM is Shuttered, and I’m Confused

People, I just don’t know what to do with myself about AIM Healthcare being shut down. I’m confused and I’m kind of heartbroken and I’m scared. I haven’t written about it yet because I don’t really know what to think about any of it. One never does in these situations. For a while I was pretty convinced that condoms should be mandatory in porn and someone should be enforcing this rule. Then I did more research and learned that condoms aren’t necessarily the best answer and could, in many ways, cause more harm than good in the porn industry (if testing was phased out in favor of condoms in the straight industry, you’d have HIV-positive performers more able to perform, and then if the condom broke or a cumshot went awry, you could have more transmission, etc, etc). So then I felt pretty strongly that condoms shouldn’t be mandatory.

But then Patient Zeta tested positive in October and everyone went batshit because he was a gay and straight performer, and the idea was that the gay side of the industry doesn’t test enough and he’d gotten infected over there and brought into the straight side of the industry, and then everyone was all down on crossover performers, which I found upsetting, because, Christ, don’t men who have sex with men and women (and, Wolf Hudson, wink wink, other genders, too) already get enough crap from our society? The last thing a gay-and-straight porn performer needs is more people heaping criticism on his behavior.

And then, of course, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, who have been clamoring for the AIM clinic to be shut down for, like, ever, got all up in arms again and started freaking out that condoms must be mandatory for everyone all the time and the whole debate started up again about whether mandatory testing is good enough, and I got all confused again. I mean, frankly, I just want porn performers, and sex workers of all stripes, to have some kind of protection. Yes, they work in a high-risk industry. Yes, some of the things they do cross lines between legality and illegality. Yes, it’s a fraught issue. But, also, yes, the sex industry will never go away and it will never cease to cater to a greater demand than almost any other industry on the planet, except perhaps for food and medicine. So can’t we please just calm down about it and, rather than bickering and pumping our fists about whether this or that is better for who or what, start with a basic tenant of respect for the people who work in this industry? These people who work very hard and risk very much to make the rest of us happy? Can we just agree that what these people are doing is not only unavoidable but actually important, and start up a new dialogue with that as the basis for discussions?

…and then, oh, then! Last week, Patient Zeta, aka Derrick Burts, aka the straight “Cameron Reid” and the gay “Derek Chambers,” who’d been anonymously bickered over for months, revealed his identity, and the fact that he had sided with AHF and their anti-testing, pro-condom agenda. He spoke out to the press, recorded and interview with the LA Times, pissed off a lot of people, and drew the concern of many others. His story was heartbreaking: he’d apparently contracted HIV on the set of a porn shoot but was not given any information about which set or which performer; his life and career were basically ruined in one fell swoop; AIM didn’t follow up with him or fulfill their promises to find him treatment; and then they announced to the world that he’d contracted the infection from someone in his private life rather than on set, as they’d told him he had. He was disillusioned, confused, and infected with HIV. He’d been assured the testing system was safe, he says, but he’d contracted chlamydia, gonorrhea, and herpes in the past and was now convinced that condoms were the only way to go. The poor guy! He made a case for the education of adult performers about the risks they take, and for condom mandatory shoots. I couldn’t really argue with his point of view, but I wasn’t sure if he was right, either.

Once again, my brain was thrown into a series of ever-more-confused spasms. Maybe AIM testing isn’t the answer after all! But then, if he really did contract HIV from a porn performer, then that performer had to be over on the gay side of the industry because test results would have prevented him (ostensibly, him) from performing on the straight side, so condom use in preference over testing can’t always protect people, either. (Let it be known that I’m aware most gay porn performers are also tested regularly; it’s just that, from everything I’ve heard, they’re not required to show their test results before performing in a gay scene like they’d be in a straight scene.) (Also, I’m once again reminded that the whole queer sector of the porn community is being left out, but they just don’t have the numbers yet to enter into this discussion as a separate entity.) Oh, god, it’s such a risky business, maybe we should just shut it down! Well, no. Not at all. But my brain allowed itself to have a few seconds of pondering that hypothesis before realizing it was A) absurd and B) totally against everything I stand for.

But… THEN! Dear god, it just won’t end. The day after most of the media picked up on Derrick Burts’s defense of AHF and condom-mandatory shooting, AIM Healthcare’s clinic in Sherman Oaks was shuttered due to an issue “with their paperwork” that just happened to be brought to light at that particular time. County health officials say the closing has nothing to do with Burts’s speaking out against the clinic, but… I mean. Come on. AHF has been screeching at the authorities for years that something needs to be done, despite numerous defeats in courts that show utter disdain for the topic and a healthy appreciation for the industry’s ability to police its own disease rates. Cal-OSHA has, it seems, been getting more and more interested in the topic, unlike the court system, as AHF’s continued efforts to shut down the AIM clinic on every imaginable pretense have brought more media attention to the lax enforcement of health and safety regulations on porn sets. And suddenly, the day after the most recent mainstream straight porn performer in history to contract HIV sides, publicly and with much media coverage, with AHF, the industry’s most-trusted and most-comprehensive testing center gets shut down?

Could this possibly be a coincidence? Public health director for Los Angeles County, Jonathan Fielding, told reporters, with a typical paucity of concern, that performers could get their testing done at county clinics, which should be safe and confidential enough for their needs. Obviously, he has no interest or insight into the safety and confidentiality that sex workers, who get treated with scorn and contempt by the likes of him and most of the rest of the country, not to mention county health practitioners at publicly-funded clinics, require. And as far as what’s to be done about the database that AIM maintains to help broadcast people’s STD status for easy access before shoots, Fielding says, “You’ll have to ask them. Our feeling has been that that is not sufficient to fully protect the performers. They need to use condoms so that these workers will not be put in a position where they are exposed to potentially life-threatening diseases.” Very insightful, Mr. Fielding. With the emotion and depth of understanding your preceding comment belies, it’s easy to tell you care deeply about the health of the people your office is there to protect. Christ.

So now here we are. I still don’t know what to think, but I do think that AIM being shut down “because of paperwork” is bullshit. According to Burts, and other performers I’ve spoken to, AIM isn’t always the most competent or professional clinic in the whole world, but as it’s one of very few in America that caters specifically to the needs of the often condescended to and trampled underfoot–the visible and invisible sex workers of America–it’s got to be one of the most friendly and understanding. As far as I can tell, this whole hullabaloo over condoms vs. no-condoms, testing vs. not-testing, paperwork vs. bad press, is nothing but confusion and puffed-up windbaggery being tossed around by a bunch of people who have no understanding of the sex industry, and even less respect for the people involved. (From the ridiculous catfights that have been going between AHF and AIM for a while now, I frankly think that the AHF people have a personal grudge against Sharon Mitchell at AIM and are willing to do whatever it takes to take her out.) This is a structure of logic and reasoning and litigation and maybe-legislation based upon a foundation of sniffling condescension and raised eyebrows, not a concern for the safety of an industry that will, no matter how much you test it or shrink-wrap it or legislate against it or punish it or ignore it, never go away. And it shouldn’t. What should go away is the way that so many people think they’re entitled to look down on sex workers, then slink off into their basements to masturbate to free porn they haven’t even paid anyone for making. What should go away is the culture of “we’ll report on it because it has the words ‘porn’ and ‘HIV’ in it, but not because anyone gives a shit about the people involved” that the media has nurtured. What should go away is the prudery so many of us aspire to while grabbing the “porn/HIV” headlines off the newsstands to tut-tut over.

How will we ever know what’s good for a group of people until we stop tut-tutting and head-shaking and eyebrow-raising, and start listening to them? There is a vast sea of sex workers out there who want a fair shake at a career that doesn’t get sniffled at. They want their health, and they want a healthcare system that doesn’t look down on them for their “risky behavior”; after all, how many times do you think teamsters get told by their doctors that they should really leave the union to pursue a less “risky” line of work when they break their fingers in machinery? Sex workers are out there and they need representation, health care, and respect. Not this bullshit “paperwork” issue, not county health clinics that can’t communicate their test results quickly and efficiently to studios, and certainly not the rest of us arguing about “what’s best for them,” as if they’re a bunch of five year olds. The one thing that this country is proud of in its sex trade is that sex workers aren’t a bunch of five year olds. They’re not, and they’re actually a pretty interesting, intelligent, outspoken, and beautiful bunch of people. Maybe we should start asking them what works and go from there.

And so what now? Will porn production be shut down temporarily? Will the AIM clinic reopen? According to their website, draw stations and result pickups are still operational, and the main clinic in Sherman Oaks will be back up and running shortly, but I can’t imagine there won’t be another blow waiting in the wing to be dealt them. I guess we’ll just wait and see…

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