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Sex, Death, and Social Media at the Annual Porn Awards

Five female porn stars have died within the past three months. At the AVN Awards, there was a strange mix of acknowledgment and carrying on with business as usual.

Kevin EG Perry

Evil Angel models wearing commemorative August Ames T-shirts at the AVN Awards. Photos: Evil Angel 

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Sometime after the talking-head segment on how to make an award-winning anal scene, but before the stage invasion that led Lil Wayne to declare he'd "died and gone to heaven," this year the AVN Awards—known as the "Oscars of porn"—spent a few minutes facing the reality and finality of death.

The ceremony, which was held on Saturday night at the Hard Rock Casino in Las Vegas, is not usually an arena that grapples with mortality. This time was different. When Greg Lansky, the creator of adult studios Tushy, Vixen, and Blacked Studios, collected his Director of the Year award, he said only a quick thank you before inviting the producer, Kevin Moore, to speak in his place. Moore’s wife, porn star August Ames, took her own life on December 5, 2017, at the age of 23.

"I’m uncomfortable being up here," said Moore, a producer for the studio Evil Angel. "I’m uncomfortable with the applause because, quite frankly, I don’t deserve it. I failed her. I failed her family. And I’ve got to live with that. But failure is no longer an option. There can never be another AVN Awards show that has a memorial full of young women ever again."

Moore was referring not just to his wife, but also to Shyla Stylez, Olivia Nova, and Yurizan Beltran, who each died within the last three months. When a fifth young woman, 23-year-old Olivia Lua, died in rehab on January 18, Moore tweeted: "This has become a crisis."

Moore used his speech to announce the launch of the August Project, in memory of his wife, which he said will be a "support system tailored for the performers in this industry." He also hit back at those who criticized his wife online, receiving a standing ovation from many in the audience when he said: "It’s your body. It’s your choice. No agent, no producer, no company, and certainly not social media decides what you do with your body."

Many have implicated social media in Ames's death. On December 3, she had become the victim of widespread cyberbullying after tweeting: "Whichever (lady) performer is replacing me tomorrow for @EroticaXNews, you're shooting with a guy who has shot gay porn, just to let cha know. BS is all I can say… Do agents really not care about who they're representing?... I do my homework for my body."

This tweet opened up a wound within the industry. On one side were those who believe performers should always have an absolute say over who they have sex with. On the other side were those who believe Ames's position—that men who also have sex with men are a "higher risk" for HIV and other STIs when compared to men who only shoot straight porn—perpetuates a homophobic myth about gay men.

The angry responses to her tweet came from both inside and outside the industry.

In a blog posted less than a week after Ames's death, Moore wrote: "I write this to make it crystal clear: Bullying took her life." He went on to single out two individuals. The most high-profile was the porn star Jessica Drake, who had tweeted in support of her LGBTQ co-stars: "Performers, by all means, fuck who you want to fuck... but if you're eliminating folks based on the fact they may have done gay or crossover work, your logic is seriously flawed."

Moore also named Jaxton Wheeler, a performer who identifies as pansexual, who had tweeted at Ames on December 5: "The world is awaiting your apology or for you to swallow a cyanide pill. Either or we'll take it." Unknown to Wheeler, by that point, August was likely already dead. She sent her last tweet at exactly midnight on December 4, writing simply: "Fuck y’all."


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While there is no clear link between the five recent deaths—some were suicides, some were drug-related, some are yet to have a cause of death confirmed—their proximity has raised serious questions for the industry about whether it is living up to its duty of care for its young and vulnerable female performers.

Yet, aside from Moore’s speech, the AVN Awards continued with business as usual. Markus Dupree won Male Performer of the Year before launching into an entertaining, rambling victory speech, while Female Performer of the Year, Angela White, was the night’s big success story, taking home 14 awards.

The AVN Awards come at the climax of the four-day AVN Adult Entertainment Expo, a trade show that is roughly equivalent to a live-action version of being stuck in a pop-up porn ad loop. It involves so much inter-performer commingling that many people go home with what some have coined "AVN flu." Highlights of this year’s event included Alana Evans—who’s recently been in the headlines for saying she turned down a threesome with Donald Trump and Stormy Daniels—kicking a man dressed as Trump in the groin in front of the Cams.com booth. "I'm sure a lot of people want to see Donald kicked in the balls," Evans told me afterward, laughing, "so they just got to live through my feet."

Beneath all the hedonistic excess, though, there was another current flowing. August Ames tribute T-shirts, 1,000 of which were paid for and distributed by Moore, were worn widely during the week by fans and performers alike. Some bore the slogan "Never Forget," while others read, in reference to her last tweet: "Fuck Y’all."

Tasha Reign Photo courtesy of iWantEmpire

In private conversations, many performers expressed concern about the damaging effect that needing to be prominent on social media in order to maintain their fan following was having on their mental health. In the wake of the recent deaths, Tasha Reign—a porn star who has worked in the industry for eight years and is the chairperson of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee—told me she felt a "heavy shadow already over our industry. Around my co-workers, there’s a solemn, sad feeling."

Reign explained that performers in the industry—particularly female performers—often feel "alone and othered" because of the abuse they face both on social media and when trying to access ordinary services like banks, housing, and healthcare. "It doesn’t matter whether you’re a streetwalker, an escort, or a person who makes legal adult pornography on film, the way that the world and America specifically treat us is horrific," she says. "You can say horrible things about 'whores' and these 'disgusting pieces of scum' that are porn stars. There is no other group of people that society would allow for that to occur, but for some fucked-up reason, it happens in our business."

Reign supports the idea of introducing a mandatory introductory program for young women coming into the industry, and raising the age of entry from 18 to 21, but acknowledges that it can be difficult to know how anyone will respond to the stigma attached to their profession. "I don’t know how to tell the young girls who contact me over email that, yes, I love my job, and I like what I do, and it’s a huge part of my identity, but, no, I don’t recommend that you do it because I don’t know about your mental stability," she said.

Mike Stabile from the Free Speech Coalition agrees that discrimination is a major factor in adult performers not accessing healthcare, and suggests that the situation is analogous to the one often faced by LGBTQ people during the past century. "If you went to a mental health professional and said, 'I’m really struggling with depression,' they’d say, 'Well, it’s because you’re gay, and until you fix that sickness we’re not going to do anything else,'" he said. "When you talk to sex workers, that’s the struggle they face when trying to talk about depression, or addiction issues, or even a broken leg. The doctor says, 'There’s no way you could be happy in this profession.' I think that dissuades people from seeking help."

Vixen models wearing commemorative August Ames T-shirts. Photo courtesy of Vixen

Kevin Moore has said that he hopes to use the August Project to open up access to mental healthcare for adult performers, telling the AVN audience that it will be "a resource, so if any of you find yourself on the edge of a cliff, help is a phone call away."

That is a specific issue for the industry, but there is also a broader one which implicates all of us. The porn industry is a carnival mirror, exaggerating our features but also reflecting us back to ourselves at our most—literally and metaphorically—naked. The bullying of female performers, the rush to publicly shame them, and the mental damage they sustain attempting to maintain a flawless social media façade is likewise a warped reflection of the dangers lurking in the wider online world, particularly for women.

"I think everyone on their social media wants to look like they’re successful, beautiful, and are having a good time in life," the porn star Riley Reyes told me in the lounge behind the Expo’s iWantEmpire booth. "Everyone curates their social media to make themselves appear as happy as possible, and I think in this industry, where we’re curating not just for our peers, but also for our fans, there’s additional pressure to make everything look perfect."

She continued: "One of the only positive things that has come out of these recent tragic events is that people are opening up more about their mental health struggles, and being able to admit in front of their peers and their fans that their lives are not perfect. Everyone needs support sometimes because no one's life is perfect."

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