On April 12, an actor named Darren James tested positive for HIV. Though he had tested negative just three weeks earlier, James had apparently contracted the virus while in Brazil. He then transmitted it to an actress named Lara Roxx, who in turn had exposed three actors who perform under the names Maxxx, Mark Anthony, and Tyler Knight. By April 20, a list of 51 actors and actresses who might have been exposed to HIV had been released. They were all pornographic-film stars. They all suddenly had reason to worry.
Amazingly enough, this kind of outbreak doesn't happen all that often in the heterosexual adult-film industry. Under a policy that's been in place for several years and is honored by most major producers of adult films, actors and actresses are tested every 30 days, and must produce proof that they're free of disease before filming can begin. Before James' diagnosis, there hadn't been a major outbreak in six years, and when the news broke, people in the industry sought the aid of a woman named Sharon Mitchell.
Mitchell -- having tested James and gotten the positive result -- sprang into action. She swiftly tracked the progress of the virus from Brazil, where James had been for a movie shoot, to the United States. She kept the offices of her organization, the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Foundation (AIM), open late to counsel distraught actors. She posted what AIM calls their ''quarantine list'' on its website. And then, with the backing of Adult Video News (AVN), the industry's primary information source, she did the unthinkable: She called for a 60-day halt to all production in the Los Angeles area, where the business is largely based. Mitchell estimates that 80 percent of all the local producer-distributors complied -- including giants Vivid Video, Wicked, and Hustler. Their doing so was a testament to their collective respect for Mitchell, a 46-year-old former porn star and onetime drug addict-turned-Ph.D. and public-health expert. Sharon Mitchell, it turns out, is not only the consummate survivor and understanding mother hen to a taboo industry -- she holds the power to shut down a multibillion-dollar business.
''Because of Mitch'' -- the nickname everyone seems to use for her -- ''people in the porn industry probably know more about STDs and HIV than your local doctor,'' says AVN publisher Tim Connelly.
It's been, to say the least, an unusual career path for someone who started out as a nice girl from rural New Jersey. Bored with life on the family farm, she left home at age 17 and moved to New York's freewheeling East Village. Mitchell did some acting and modeling and dance training. Married quickly. Divorced almost as fast. And one day her agent -- a legit guy -- asked her if she was interested in doing a pornographic film on the side.
''I mean, I was a kid. I was rebellious. And I liked it,'' Mitchell says now. Her eyes are tired and her voice is strained, but she has an easy smile on her lips as she sits in her San Fernando Valley offices. A white lab coat covers her sparkly golden dress. ''You gotta understand: Back then they shot on Panavision and you had to maybe have sex with one of your friends once in a three-week period. The rest of it was acting.''