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Death of a Porn Star

When August Ames killed herself following controversy on Twitter, it revealed a schism between the gay and straight communities in the porn industry

Death of a Porn Star - August Ames Suicide Cyberbullying

August Ames died last week after becoming embroiled in controversy on Twitter.

Lindsey Byrnes for Rolling Stone

Popular porn star August Ames took her own life last week after finding herself in the middle of a controversy over cyberbullying and homophobia.

In her four years working the adult film industry, the 23-year-old had performed in over 270 scenes for major studios, amassing over 600,000 Twitter followers. In 2015, Ames (real name Mercedes Grabowski)  was nominated for Best New Starlet at the Adult Video News awards – known as the Oscars of porn – and had been nominated for Female Performer of the year for the upcoming 2018 AVNs. According to the Ventura County Medical Examiner’s office, the Nova Scotia native was found in her California home. Ventura County authorities confirmed that Ames died from asphyxia due to hanging.

Ames’ husband, Evil Angel producer Kevin Moore, 43, asked for privacy in a statement to AVN, stating, “She meant the world to me.” Hundreds of colleagues and fans expressed their grief online, calling her “the most kind-hearted person ever” and “a beautiful light.”

So why are some of Ames’ friends publicly accusing fellow porn stars of driving her to suicide?

On December 3rd, a few days before her death, Ames tweeted the following:

“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”

The concern Ames expressed in this tweet refers to what is known in the adult industry as “crossover performers,” i.e. cisgender males who perform on camera with both cis women and other cis men, or with trans women. (Trans men are mostly left out of the crossover classification, as are cis women who perform with other cis women). Some performers and agencies share the view expressed in Ames’ tweet, that crossover talent is “higher risk” for STIs than straight male talent. Others see this standard as homophobic, as well as a flawed rubric for measuring safety.

Ames quickly became a lightning rod for people in and outside of the industry to express their views on this ongoing controversy, with a variety of tactics.

The following day, Wicked Pictures contract star Jessica Drake tweeted: “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.” Drake went on to point out that discriminating against someone based on their identity or history is not a more reliable form of protection than testing, barriers or PreP, but it does contribute to harmful stigmas.

According to the Free Speech Coalition – the national trade association for the adult entertainment industry – every company shooting “straight” content requires all models to update their STI tests through Performer Availability Screening Services (PASS) in order to be considered “available” for work. Performers in the straight genre (defined by heterosexual sex as well as, counterintuitively, girl-on-girl sex) must follow PASS protocol every 14 days. Some companies allow models to choose on a scene-by-scene basis whether they would like to also use condoms, while others, like Wicked Pictures, require condoms for every shoot in addition to testing. Some companies shooting male-on-male content do not require PASS testing, but they do require condoms.

“I have worked with crossover performers, gay performers, and trans performers,” Drake added. “If this puts me on your ‘no’ list, i didn’t want to do scenes with you to begin with.”

Drake, who has been in the industry since the late 1990s, has long been known for her support of the LGBTQ community. She is also one of the 19 women to accuse Donald Trump of sexual misconduct on the record. Drake pointed out later in a statement that she did not mention August by name, that she has expressed similar opinions on crossover discrimination before, and that she still holds those views.

At the other end of the civility spectrum, porn star Jaxton Wheeler, a cis man who identifies as pansexual, tweeted at Ames on December 5th: “The world is awaiting your apology or for you to swallow a cyanide pill. Either or we’ll take it.”

Ames doubled down on her opinion on safety as well as her right to work with and have sex with whomever she choses. Her final tweet on December 4th was “fuck y’all.” Her body was found on December 5th.

When news of Ames’ death broke, many who had been privy to the debate rolling out during Ames’ final days concluded this was what drove her to suicide.

Industry icon Jenna Jameson, who made derisive statements earlier this year about transgender Playboy Playmate Ines Rau, told The Blast, “I am so disappointed in some of the people in the adult industry. I am also shocked and dismayed at a few FEMALES that attacked and helped fan the fire against my friend August. Her blood is on their hands.”

Drake responded in several statements on Twitter, saying, “I saw someone talking about the crossover argument in my timeline and decided to post my thoughts with no harm or malice intended to August.” In a statement to Rolling Stone, Drake said that, “[My Tweets] represents the facts, as well as the way I feel. I am choosing not to make any further statements at this time out of respect for August, her family, and her friends.”

“I do not support cyberbullying to a point where someone would take their own damn life,” Wheeler told Newsweek. “I made a horrible comment in my way of trying to say we just wanted an apology…. I feel like the shittiest person in the world.” (Wheeler did not respond to RS‘s for request for comment via Twitter direct message.)

According to many who work in the adult entertainment industry, “crossover” double standards come up all the time, a holdover from an era when less was known about curtailing the spread of HIV.

August Ames in January 2016. Photograph by Roger Kisby/Redux

“I don’t believe that August was homophobic. I believe that she was made to fear due to a spread of misinformation,” says Michael Vegas, a bisexual cis male star who performed on camera with Ames. Vegas says he has experienced “attacks” and been sent home last minute from straight shoots when agents or models find out he has previously performed in gay scenes. He suspects that some agents foster this “fear mongering” to redirect business to the male models they represent.

While “bullying drove her to suicide” makes for a tidy story, Ames’ mental health struggles did not come out of nowhere. Earlier this year, Ames was a guest on Holly Randall Unfiltered, a podcast by and about porn stars. Ames opened up to Randall about her history of depression and bipolar disorder, as well as the struggles she’d faced attempting to find a sex-work conscious therapist.

“As sex workers, we present a fantasy version of ourselves for public consumption,” says Tori Lux, a porn star and professional dominatrix. “We often don’t discuss our mental health issues, as doing so can potentially harm our livelihood by disrupting the element of fantasy we work so hard to cultivate.”

Cis-male performer Will Havoc, who is considered crossover because he shoots with both cis and trans women, says that he was offended by Ames’ statement and others like it. “There are so many untold off-camera encounters that many porn performers have with untested civilians, gay, straight or otherwise. So, there is a huge amount of hypocrisy involved when someone ‘won’t shoot with crossover performers,’ whether or not they realize it.”

Trans performer Stefanie Special says that she sees the effect of “disease-ridden” stereotypes in her side of the industry, and echoes Vegas’ comments about some agents spreading misinformation that working with crossovers is bad for a performer’s health or brand. “Any performer has the right to deny to work with anyone they want to,” she says. “However just know that if someone is going to be on your porn set with you as your co-performer, they must undergo the same exact test as you in order to be there.”

Special’s observation casts light on the misconception at the center of the crossover stereotype: that the way to protect oneself from contracting HIV or other diseases is to refrain from having sex with a certain kind of person. Ames’ tweet struck a nerve because it represents a flippant association between queer sex and disease, an association that the LGBTQ community has been fighting for 40 years.

“At the center of this issue is the rift that exists between the straight and gay populations of the industry,” explains Mia Li, president of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee (APAC). “The fear of the unknown lives of other performers is unfairly linked to the gay and trans population of performers. This is why we have access to the same testing system.”

Although the Free Speech Coalition and APAC are trying to create community and support, even successful stars like August can feel helpless.

“Since the tragedy of August Ames’s death, I’ve seen an outpouring of performers tweeting about their mental health issues to raise awareness,” says Lee, noting that performers have said they’re suffering from depression, anxiety, addiction and PTSD. “Stigma, fear, and trauma are inherited through generations and we need to combat that with education, nonviolent communication, and open mindedness. We need to not give into the reductive volatility of online communication often fueled by outsiders and see each other are the nuanced individuals we are.”

In This Article: Death, LGBT, Pornography, Suicide

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