Butts: That's a wrap!

As the porn industry reels from an HIV scare, "gonzo" king Seymore Butts announces a condom-only policy. He tells Salon why.


Scott Lamb
April 23, 2004 2:10AM (UTC)

In the week since reports broke that two adult performers -- Darren James and Lara Roxx -- had tested positive for HIV, the $10 billion a year porn industry has come to a near-total standstill. The Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation called for a 60-day stoppage of filming, to allow time to put together a list of about 60 performers possibly exposed and then test them for the virus. Along with that has come a lot of finger-pointing and even calls for possible industry regulation, or "condom police."

The porn industry began voluntary HIV testing in 1998, with the last major outbreak in 1999, when actor Tony Montana tested positive. But while regular testing has become a part of the industry, wearing condoms has not, and even in the middle of the current scare some production companies oppose the ban on shooting and the idea that condoms should be required.

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Seymore Butts, aka Adam Glasser, is not one of them. On Monday, he announced that he would now require all the performers in his movies to wear condoms. The statement is particularly noteworthy because Butts, the star of his own Showtime reality TV show, "Family Business," is the biggest name in gonzo porn,, a huge part of the porn business, which employs a vérité style that tries hard to seem spontaneous. (It has gotten him into trouble: In 2001 he was charged with misdemeanor obscenity for a fisting scene from "Tampa Tushy Fest," but the charge was later dropped.) Butts has never worked with James or Roxx, but says he's determined not to have someone who works for him become infected. He's just not sure how he's going to incorporate a new prop into his shoots -- condoms have made only rare appearances in the Butts' oeuvre.

Salon spoke to Butts by phone from Los Angeles.

Will this outbreak change the way the industry works?

I thought it might, but with people coming out and saying that it's going to just be business as usual, I don't know. Are the talent united in the sense that they want changes? Yes. I've heard of people wanting more testing, but then you're still relying on people's honesty. Even with the testing, no matter what you do, there's going to be a risk, because there's a lapse between getting [HIV] and the tests picking it up.

You have to remember, there is no union. There are industry organizations, but there is no governing body -- there is nobody that is that influential. Talent is a very nomadic type of group. A lot of people come into the industry, make some quick money, and then they're gone and no one sees them again.

The truth is that we've done such a good job that some people have been lured into a false sense of security. Since 1989, we've averaged about 50,000 sexual contacts per year. That's 750,000 sexual contacts with less than 15 documented cases of HIV. That's more than pretty good. We're a mostly self-regulated group.

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But with this, it shows how close a network we are. One guy's test came up positive, and now there are 65 people who have been quarantined.

I've heard a lot of people saying that they'll go elsewhere -- to another state, or another country. To me that just doesn't seem to be a great solution. Some other state isn't just going to let some group come in and start shooting thousands of sex scenes, without getting involved.

Are performers scared? Is there a lot of suspicion about working with other people right now?

I think they're confused. They don't know what they want and don't know how to go about getting what they want. There are meetings being held, but they're not being well-publicized. It's not an organized effort yet. There are still nine to 12 people that are waiting for results, and if even one comes back positive, the [quarantine] list would grow up to 120 people or more. We're still waiting to see what will happen next.

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Do you feel you're taking a big risk in requiring condoms in your movies?

Look, the big risk is that I'm risking losing a lot of sales. But I'm minimizing the danger to the performers I work with, so it isn't really a question. I think that, generally, I'm at less risk than someone else in the gonzo world. I have a little bit more of a mainstream audience than the average gonzo producer, thanks to my name being well-known and through the cable show. Because of that I think I have a less demanding gonzo audience -- I have couples and I have a lot of women. I don't think to the couples and women it will make much of a difference whether people in my movies are wearing condoms or not.

So, I'd like to think that I'm taking less of a risk than others would be, but the other side of the coin is not taking the risk and just going on with business as usual. I couldn't do that. I need to be able to sleep at night.

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Why is it thought in the industry that condoms don't work in gonzo?

If you compare the appeal of non-condom to condom, you're gonna find most people will generally prefer the non-condom, because of the fantasy.

Gonzo is all about reality, and condoms are a reality for most people -- I just need to find a way to make them hot. They don't need them to necessarily dominate the action, but I need to find a way to keep the heat in the scene.

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You can compare our work to stuntmen in Hollywood: When you see a stuntman flying through the air, you don't want to see the cables there that are holding him up or protecting him. The reality is, though, that the cable is there, because the guy is taking every reliable precaution. I don't know if I'm going to try to hide the cable -- if I'm going to try to hide the condoms -- but I'm going to have to be creative.

Vivid and Wicked are the only companies that have a condom-only policy. The only ones. If one particularly hot girl comes in, she can say she'll only work with a condom, but that's not true for everyone. Most companies will say they're condom optional, and then not follow through -- it's up to the producer. If I get an e-mail from an agent telling me about some girl, and if she's something special, then she can say what she'll do. Most producers will not listen to someone who isn't well-known.

What do you think of performers who say they won't use condoms?

From the male perspective, I can see why they would say that, because from a guy's perspective, it interferes with their work. I don't understand why someone would say that from a woman's perspective. There are still risks involved -- just because I'm putting a condom on a guy doesn't mean I'm not going to ask a girl to give a guy a rim job.

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It seems like this couldn't have come at a worse time, politically.

I would have to agree with that assessment. Right now the Bush administration, Ashcroft, the Department of Justice, they've declared war on pornography as well as drugs, Iraq and abortion.

Needless to say, this is more fodder for that right-wing political machine that it feels it needs to legislate the morality of America. The rumor right now is that from 49 to 57 companies are under investigation, and they're not only going after so-called pornographers, but cable providers as well.

Their strategy is to drain us of money and put us out of business that way. It's very expensive to fight the government. Maybe it's a lot of pomp and circumstance coming from them, because it's election time, and they want their religious-minded constituents to see that something is happening, something is being done.

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The question is, do they have the time and money to dedicate to this, and is that what the American public wants? I know that a very small, very vocal percentage might, but they don't speak for everyone.

What has been the reaction to your announcement from others within the industry?

I've heard everything from "Congratulations!" and "Bravo, I'm going out to spend a hundred dollars on your products!" to "You idiot, you've just made the biggest mistake of your life!" and "I didn't think there was a way to make your movies any more boring, but you've just done it."

Mostly, the other companies are jumping for joy, because they think no one will want to buy this. I think they're sadly mistaken and think time will show that. I've had calls from male performers who have decided they will only wear condoms now, interested in working with me.

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How is this handled in the gay porn community?

They basically assume that everyone has it and put condoms on everyone, but don't do testing. I'd want to have testing and have people wear condoms.

Have you chosen not to work with people before because you suspect they might be sick?

If I think someone's using, or comes in all sketchy, yeah, I don't work with them. And if you don't want to wear a condom, who cares -- you do what you're asked to do.

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Supposedly, if you work in a brothel in Las Vegas, you are required to use a condom. If you're competing in the National Football League, you have to wear a helmet. The closest comparison to porn right now is this: It would be similar to NHL players who won't wear facemasks, because it's still optional. It's a macho kind of thing. I don't see machismo behind this, but it's that same kind of choice being made.

And their personal choices are affecting other people. If you could rely 100 percent on honesty and integrity, that'd be great. But someone is going to get into a money jam, someone's going to budget into a situation where they're not thinking, they're going to get into a situation where they're not paying rent or not eating and will work when they know they shouldn't be.

I'm in it to make a living, to provide entertainment, to open up lines of communication, but not to have anyone who works for me die.

What do you think of the media's coverage of the outbreak and your announcement?

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Oh come on. The Drudge Report has, top story, "HIV outbreak!" I think it's natural, it's the nature of the media of today. Porn is a buzzword, HIV is a buzzword -- put them together, you've got a double buzzword. The media likes a double buzz.


Scott Lamb

Scott Lamb is a senior editor at BuzzFeed.com.

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