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‘Last Days of August’: New Podcast Probes Porn-Industry Suicide

Jon Ronson’s new podcast delves into the 2017 death of August Ames, which sent shockwaves through the adult industry

Adult Film Star August Ames photographed on set for Rolling Stone in 2016

Photograph by Lindsey Byrnes

At the end of 2017, adult film actress August Ames had just been nominated for the third year in a row for Female Performer of the Year at the Adult Video News Awards. She had achieved a level of fame and longevity that is increasingly rare for porn performers in a constantly changing industry. On December 4th, after making some controversial statements on Twitter regarding her choice not to work with “crossover talent” — male performers who had previously appeared in gay porn — Ames experienced intense online backlash. Suddenly, she was at the center of heated debates with no simple answers, with the rights of women’s bodily autonomy positioned against the rights of the LGBT community to speak out about HIV discrimination.

On December 5th, 2017, Ames took her own life. Her shocking death galvanized months of mainstream media discussions on homophobia, online call-out culture, and sex workers’ access to mental health care. Was Ames perpetuating harmful stereotypes about the “risks” of sex with men who had sex with men? Did the porn community go too far in piling on her for a few off-the-cuff remarks? Did cyberbullying drive her to suicide?

A year later, journalist Jon Ronson — whose work has previously investigated both social media mob mentality and the nuances of modern life working in porn — is attempting to resolve some of these questions with a new Audible exclusive podcast, The Last Days of August. Working closely with producer Lina Misitzis, he explores the circumstances contributing to Ames’ tragic death at the age of 23.

Jon Ronson: The Last Days of August
Courtesy Audible

The Last Days of August works as a hybrid of Ronson’s first longform audio piece about the adult industry, The Butterfly Effect, and You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, his popular book about online social punishment. It unfolds with the tense narrative of a true-crime podcast, with Ronson and Misitzis’ anxieties about the project’s sensitive nature as a meta-emotional thread. They speak extensively with Ames’ husband Kevin Moore, her brother James and members of her community, including Wicked Pictures contract star Jessica Drake, whose tweets about the crossover controversy also made her the subject of much online vitriol this past year.

One advantage of longform audio nonfiction about pornographers is that it allows an often misrepresented and misunderstood group to truly speak in their own voices. As a result, they come across as utterly human, with their own hypocrisies, moral convictions and regrets. This narrative of the life and death of a complicated young woman from Nova Scotia is most gut-wrenching in the places where the stories of her colleagues and loved ones don’t quite add up.

While there are some moments where Ronson leans too hard on shallow analysis — a dismissive “daddy issues” stereotype doesn’t offer any meaningful insight into its subjects — Last Days overall has a careful and intellectually flexible curiosity about a highly misunderstood industry.

Rolling Stone spoke with Ronson and Misitzis about stigma, depression and how Ames’ entire life was reduced to one infamous tweet.

It seems that the original focus of The Last Days of August was on the Twitter controversy August was involved in right before she died. Where do you both stand on the central tension of the crossover performer controversy?

Jon Ronson: I certainly feel that the LGBT community has the right to be upset by what August had tweeted. I feel that some people went too far. Twitter has the terrible habit of defining people by a snippet of their life. August’s entire life became about that one tweet. That’s clearly wrong. Courtrooms have sentencing hearings for a reason, because it’s incredibly important to hear the context for why people behave the way that they did, what is going on in their lives. Twitter tends not to care about wider context.

Lina Misitzis: For many people, Jessica Drake’s entire life is right now defined by what she tweeted, which is illogical, which projects a ton onto Jessica, when what she tweeted really was quite innocuous. We say that throughout the series. Jessica wasn’t responding directly to August, but she was responding to the stigma of HIV being more rampant in the gay porn community. She was attempting to be educational and inclusive. She too now had been defined by not just the tweet but by the way tweet was villainized.

JR: The temptation is for people to pick sides. “Are you pro-August or are you pro-Jessica?”

LM: Those sides were created after August died, but Jessica wasn’t not on August’s side. I think Jessica was trying to speak to miseducation. Even if August had all of the knowledge in the world about likelihood of contracting STDs, Kevin is correct to say that she has the right to turn down a scene with anyone she wants to.

JR: People have to have freedom to have sex with whoever they want to have sex with.

After spending time covering this subject, do either of you have ideas for what could instigate positive change in the mental health of the porn community?

JR: Something that August said to Holly [on Holly Randall Unfiltered podcast in September 2017] about how hard it was for her to find a therapist who has any qualifications to deal with people in the adult industry; it’s quite startling given that the San Fernando Valley has so many adult performers. You’d think there would be therapists who would specialize in that. That would certainly help. Just bringing stories to the surface in humane ways. I think we do that in The Last Days of August. I think that helps.

There’s that moment in The Butterfly Effect where [porn star] Maci May said that she used to use Twitter to vent about how she wasn’t getting any work and how she’s getting depressed and isolated. Then these [porn] producers in the industry took her to one side, and said, “You can’t do that. You’re supposed to be a brand. You’re supposed to be this kind of fantasy figure.” I wish we lived in a world where people could be a little bit more un-self-conscious on Twitter about their issues and forget about being on brand. That’s what Twitter was in the early days. Then, just like a George Orwell novel, before our eyes it’s turned into something that’s harder and colder. I think that’s a shame.

LM: I was speaking with somebody in the industry recently who was pointing out that, to them, it seems like a weakness to acknowledge mental health issues and ask for help on social media. The impression that I got is that for some there is great pride taken in being able to maintain your brand and your reputation and have your house in order — even when it’s not, keeping that private. I don’t think that’s porn people’s fault. I think that that has everything to do with how we consume porn, that creates this need to polish up your image. I wish that we were able to humanize them better so that they are able to speak out more easily about these problems.

There’s an episode of Last Days where the porn veteran Lisa Ann accuses Jon of bringing more shameful attention to death and infighting within an industry that already struggles against stigma. Jon then really opens up to the listener with his own anxieties about whether Lisa Ann is right. I’m wondering how you both feel about those concerns now that the podcast is completed and about to be released?

JR: That was so much at the forefront of my mind the whole time we were making the show. I think we made the show as thoughtful and kind and empathetic as we possibly could. We say several times in the show that August’s story isn’t representative of the industry. It’s a true story, but it isn’t a story that should be stigmatizing to the industry.

I’ve always remembered what [porn performer and writer] Conner Habib said when we were doing The Butterfly Effect, that you will find whatever story you want to find in the adult industry. That’s true. Butterfly Effect is upbeat, yet August’s story is melancholy. I just think it’s so important that one doesn’t erase the other because all of those stories are true. Obviously, I think if anybody hears The Last Days of August and thinks of it stigmatizing to the industry, I think they’re coming with their own biases. Anybody listening to the story in a completely open hearted way will see that August’s story is very sad, but that’s not true of the industry in general.

LM: Yeah, I mean, the truth is that I have great anxiety about what’s going to happen when the show comes out. I know we both stand by the work. Every single sentence that we put in it was so intentionally placed. I’m nervous about pull quote culture. I’m nervous about bits being pushed to the forefront as being representative when the show was really meant to be considered as a whole product.

JR: As much as I would love to control the baggage that people bring to my stories, I can’t. What’s left is believing that I feel proud of the work that we’ve done.

What advantages have you found in using the medium of longform podcast journalism over writing a book or article, particularly in covering the porn industry?

JR: Obviously when somebody takes their lives, they do it for a multitude of very complicated reasons. We had stumbled into a story where what we had to do was figure out the truth of why August died. We look at the huge things and the very small, subtle, nuanced, psychological things that contributed to her death. I can hope that people can see the humanness of that. That Kevin is a complicated and messy person, but that’s true of so many of us. I think our main allegiance in all of this was with August and our second allegiance with everybody else. I think we’ve achieved it, and I hope people will see it that way.

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