Friday, November 16 , 2018, 3:01 am | Fair 48º

 
 
 

Mark Cromer: Behind the Latex Curtain of L.A.‘s Condom War

Call it the hot button issue you haven’t heard of: With just days left before the presidential election, unbeknown to most voters across the country (and probably here in Los Angeles County as well) the ballots cast on Tuesday could affect the future of commercial pornography as we know it.

If voters approve Measure B — its formal title is the legislative mouthful of “County of Los Angeles Safer Sex in the Adult Film Industry Act” — then adult film producers would be required to apply for a permit from the county’s Department of Public Health — one that would restrict them to producing only “safer sex” scenes replete with condoms, dental dams and, one would assume, make verboten the proverbial “money shot.”

In other words, it would be the end of porn as we’ve known it. Or not.

Taken at the face value, the debate over the measure is either about providing actors in the adult film industry minimal protection from sexually transmitted diseases (and proponents of the measure claim that animals in mainstream Hollywood films are afforded more protection than porn performers), or it’s about protecting artistic freedom and individual choice from the heavy hand of costly government intrusion.

But whether you are for one side or the other — or none of the above — the debate has brought to light the resilient profitability of the industry, its deep roots in Southern California’s economy and culture, and its increasing global reach.

Despite declarations that the industry’s local production and distribution base, which by some estimates employs more than 10,000 people across the region, will be devastated as porn manufacturers simply move away to more hospitable environs, perhaps the most compelling indicator that the kingpins of porn don’t really believe their own predictions of doom is the relatively flaccid campaign the industry has mounted against the measure.

Judging from campaign contribution reports, the multibillion-dollar porn industry has ponied up less than a half-million bucks to fend off the mandatory wetsuit measure, with some of the best-known titans of titillation refusing to put much skin in this game. Larry Flynt Productions Inc., which just purchased the publicly traded New Frontier Media Inc. for $33 million two weeks ago, wrote a $10,000 check to the No On Government Waste Committee, which is spearheading the industry’s response to the measure. (Note: This writer was a contributing writer and staff editor for Flynt throughout the 1990s into the mid-2000s, and co-developed Flynt’s original video series that was the genesis of Hustler Video in 1998.)

If the serious players in Porn Valley truly felt threatened, one might assume they would muster a multimillion-dollar war chest and march off to battle much in the way Playboy’s Hugh Hefner, Penthouse’s Bob Guccione and Hustler’s Flynt did in the face of Attorney General Edwin Meese’s assault on the industry during the Reagan administration.

Funding sources for the opposition to Measure B came under more scrutiny Friday as the AIDS Healthcare Foundation filed a formal complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging that foreign corporate executives are financing opposition to the measure, which would be a violation of federal election laws. The Los Angeles-based foundation wrote the mandatory condom measure and is largely financing its campaign for passage.

According to the complaint filed by AHF, the Luxembourg-based tech-porn conglomerate Manwin, which has pumped $150,000 into opposing the ballot measure, is run by CEO Fabian Thylmann from Belgium and Germany and CFO Andrew Link from Montreal. Although the company initially provided its campaign contributions to the No on Measure B from its Manwin USA division, a Delaware corporation that first materialized in July 2011, campaign funding disclosures released this week it was revealed that Manwin’s first $75,000 was reattributed to a Cyprus-based company called Froytal Services LTD.

Calling it a “clerical error,” the No on Measure B campaign then returned the entire $75,000 to Froytal, according to the funding disclosure forms, and then received a new $150,000 contribution from Manwin USA.

Kate Miller, the director of communications for Manwin’s North American operations, said Thylmann runs the global company and that he “absolutely” personally approved funding the opposition to Measure B. Miller described Thylmann’s opposition to the measure as not anti-condom but rather pro-freedom of expression.

“We haven’t made an official statement yet,” she said. “But we’re not hiding anything.”

Miller declined to identify any of Manwin USA’s executive management staff in Los Angeles or anywhere else in the United States, and she did not respond to requests for comment about the FEC complaint.

However the AHF’s claim of campaign law violations shakes out, and whatever the outcome of the voters’ decision Tuesday, if there is a sense of déjà vu to all of this it’s because we have indeed been down this road before.

In the summer of 1998, I wrote the LA Weekly cover story “The Last Ride,” a story that chronicled the impact of the first major outbreak of HIV in the porn industry and what it could portend for the other side of Hollywood that was still basking in the golden twilight of the Clinton administration.

While the death of iconic swordsman John Holmes from AIDS a decade earlier had made international headlines, it had not, in fact, presaged the spread of the virus throughout the industry as many had expected — and some brimstone-breathing preachers undoubtedly had hoped.

It would take another 10 years before that viral bomb truly detonated in the adult film industry, when a single male performer is believed to have infected at least four female performers, the fallout from which cast a dark cloud of introspection over the business.

“It’s never going to be business as usual again,” director/performer and porn provocateur Paul Little mused at the time. “Them days are over.”

Known to millions through his onscreen character Max Hardcore, Little almost single-handedly rebranded the industry to something far more extreme, a place as potentially dirty and dangerous as the human imagination allows.

But the 1998 outbreak gave even Little pause for thought.

“People are starting to fall like bowling pins, if you’ll pardon the analogy, so people are really taking it seriously now,” he said. “As far as how it’s going to change the industry, it’s going to have a profound impact. ... There is still going to be the same activity going on in the tapes, with the exception that condoms are going to be used in quite a few videos.”

It was the politically correct sound bite of the moment and even Max Hardcore was paying it lip service.

Now, 15 years down the road, the reality of what Americans want to see offered on their menu of prurient interests has proven an acid bath to even the best intentions of the most altruistic elements in the commercial pornography industry.

Money talks and safer sex in porn walks.

With months if not weeks after the outbreak had been contained, the soul searching that had gripped the industry that summer dissipated and the frontlines of performers’ health and safety were again left almost entirely to a strict HIV/STD testing regimen. Condoms essentially sat like unused party favors while Little was finally hauled off to federal prison on an obscenity beef and the rest of the industry continued to fracture into a million little pieces on the Internet, its accelerating rush into the fertile but dark reaches of the human condition unabated.

And so here we are in the fall of 2012, with a national electorate dramatically split between starkly competing visions for the nation. But tracking polls aren’t necessary to see the trend lines that are illuminated in the face of red and blue America behind closed doors each night.

We want those human bowling pins that Little referred to set up again and again for our viewing pleasure.

— Mark Cromer is a Los Angeles journalist. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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