How August Ames' Suicide Is Changing the Porn Industry

Three months after her death, mental-health resources are becoming more available – but the underlying issues remain

Stacks of August Ames t-shirts this year at the AVNs. Credit: Roger Kisby for Rolling Stone

It's been over three months since the suicide of porn performer August Ames, and her husband, porn producer and director Kevin Moore, is bothered by what he feels is a lack of support from his colleagues. The tragedy of Ames' death has been compounded by a tangled controversy involving online shaming, HIV stigma and mental health resources, and Moore worries that his wife is going to be forgotten.

"The business side doesn't want to acknowledge it because it's not sexy," Moore tells Rolling Stone. "The industry wants to stick its head in the sand and just hope it all goes away."

Back in December, Ames had tweeted that she would not have sex on camera with a male performer who had previously worked in gay porn, known in the industry as a "crossover performer." Her statement incited a heated debate over homophobia and HIV risk-based discrimination that spread from Twitter to mainstream media coverage. Two days later, Ventura County authorities announced that Ames hanged herself.

When news of Ames' suicide broke, the scisms grew deeper. Moore believes that cyberbullying pushed her into despair. Some argued for the right of performers to decide who they have sex with, while others believed that prejudice could be criticized without compromising the right to body autonomy.

Mortality in the adult industry continued to get more than the usual amount of media attention when four more young porn stars – Shyla Stylez, Olivia Nova, Yurizan Beltran, and Olivia Lua – died within the three months leading up to the 35th annual Adult Entertainment Expo and Adult Video News Awards, the industry's biggest convention. Some of these women were struggling with drug abuse, others with mental health issues; but their deaths marked a disturbing trend that many within the industry are still working to address.

So, when the AEE/AVNs rolled around last January, the industry was still dealing with its grief. Thanks to 1,000 free t-shirts baring an Dios de los Muertos-style illustration of Ames – distributed by Evil Angel, the studio where Moore works – her smirking face was omnipresent, looking out over the crowd of fans and starlets. Porn conventions are typically celebrations of fantasy, pleasure, and living in the moment; so these memorial shirts struck an unusually solemn chord.

That dissonance was particularly draining for those who were still in mourning. "She was a very outwardly happy person," says porn performer Abella Danger, a close friend of Ames. Danger's Twitter avatar is still an image of the two of them kissing on set, Danger's hands cradling Ames' head. "It was such a huge shock that someone that was so happy could be in so much pain."

The board members of the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee were committed to increasing their outreach at the AEE as well as on social media. If there is truth to Moore's claim of industry-wide apathy, APAC is trying to fight it. They are in the process of compiling a database of sex worker-friendly therapists, OBGYNs, attorneys and even accountants – all who promise they view porn as a "valid form of employment" and that they're not trying to "save" their clients from sex work. According to Riley Reyes – an adult performer and producer and the vice president of APAC – requests from businesses to be included in the list has more than doubled.

APAC isn't the only group that's working to help improve porn's much-needed resources. Moore has plans to establish The August Project, a suicide prevention hotline staffed with people who understand the unique emotional issues facing adult performers. "We're either a real business that takes care of our [performers], or we are the very thing the outside world thinks we are," he says.

Even with these positive efforts, some within the industry are concerned that not enough attention is being paid to the issue that caused the initial tension: the perception that a sexual history involving gay men makes an individual higher risk for contracting and spreading HIV.

"Despite the fact that the gay and straight shoots use the same testing protocol, there is still a fear surrounding crossover performers,'" says Michael Vegas, who has performed for both gay and straight films.

That testing protocol is known as Performer Availability Scheduling Services (PASS). Administered by the Free Speech Coalition (FSC, the national trade association for the adult entertainment industry), PASS is a standardized STI testing system.

Regardless of a performer's personal or professional history, they should be showing up to every film shoot – in the gay, straight and trans genres – with a clear PASS test, which can be viewed by their colleagues in a secure database.

Mike Stabile, the director of communications for FSC, explains that the crossover stigma originated in the 1980s during the height of the AIDS epidemic, when early outbreaks of HIV among porn performers were linked to crossover performers. According to the FSC, the last transmission of HIV on a testing-regulated set was in 2004, tied to a performer named Darren James who had previously performed on an unregulated set.

"Despite the fact that no HIV has been passed on a PASS set in over a decade, old fears about homosexuality continue to haunt the industry," says Reyes. "A lot of performers don't know that the HIV tests we use (in PASS) detect the virus much faster than the ones used at most clinics. (PASS) will detect HIV within around 9 to 14 days of infection, as opposed to the several months you have to wait on for antigen test to be reliable."

"A woman has her right to do with her body as she sees fit," argues Moore. "Even if that's somehow not PC."

Advocates like Reyes and Stabile agree that the decentralized nature of the porn industry – where almost all performers are independent contractors – contributes to a lack of harm reduction based education about sexual health.

"​Rather than assessing risk by stigmatizing a person, we live in an era where science says that performers can manage their risk of getting or transmitting HIV by taking HIV medications to prevent transmission or taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to prevent HIV acquisition," says Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, the Deputy Commissioner for the Division of Disease Control at the New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene.

"The PASS system was designed so that performers would be protected no matter what they do, on-set or off, " explains Stabile. "The only thing that matters is that they have tested clear of any STIs, including HIV, within the two-week window where transmission could occur. It's been a tremendously effective system."

However, there are those who insist that it doesn't matter why a performer doesn't want to have sex with a fellow performer. "If someone's elbows are too pointy, they don't have to work with them," argues Moore. "A woman has her right to do with her body as she sees fit. Even if that's somehow not PC."

"Any performer should have the right to refuse a scene partner, for any reason," says Stabile. "You can disagree with their rationale, but you have to respect their decision…. At the same time, no sex worker wants to be regarded as a health threat."

Jessica Drake, a pornographer who frequently works with LGBTQ-identified performers, was one of the strongest voices in support of comprehensive education during the crossover debate preceding Ames' suicide. Although she did not tweet directly to Ames, she later came under intense scrutiny from Moore, who accused her on a blog of causing "irreparable harm by using her followers and stature in an attempt to silence and bully a young, impressionable woman."

Drake says she has since received a barrage of online messages saying she cyberbullied Ames, including "weeks of death threats and boycotts." She considered stepping down as host of XBIZ, another industry award show held in January, but she says, "I didn't want to step down and prove the things that Kevin said on his blog were true."

"This is the first time I've ever been fearful," Drake says about appearing onstage at XBIZ and on the floor at the AEE convention. "I had an extra bodyguard who would not let me out of his sight."

"I've always tried to use my platform to do good. I've always tried to educate people," she says. "I don't how it got massive amounts of people saying I was responsible for a girl's suicide."

"I wasn't bullying her," Drake insists. She recites one of those tweets from memory: "Performers, by all means, fuck who you want to fuck," she says. "But if you're eliminating folks based on the fact they they may have done gay or crossover work, your logic is seriously flawed."

A performer's status as crossover is not as high-risk as plenty of other potential off-set behavior, she points out. A male performer who identifies as straight could be sharing intravenous drugs, having unprotected sex with anyone of any gender, or engaging in other high-risk activities in his personal life. "I know there are male performers in our industry who get booked [for straight porn,]" Drake says. "Girls work with them because they think they're straight... and off camera they're doing all kinds of stuff. We have to protect ourselves accordingly, with testing, condoms and PrEP."

Although she avoided the red carpet because she felt unsafe, Drake did appear at the AVN awards ceremony in a gown resembling a brightly-colored butterfly. The night remained mostly upbeat, as pornographers managed to put their differences aside for a night of cocktails and raunchy anal sex jokes.

The love for Ames was on display during the AVN show. She had been nominated for Female Performer of the Year, and as her image appeared onscreen, the crowd roared with appreciation. When Angela White was ultimately awarded the title, she began with a tribute to her former colleague. "To August, who tragically could not be here tonight," she said, "I am proud to have been nominated alongside you."

Later on, Greg Lansky, a prominent producer, won Director of the Year. After accepting the award, he invited Moore onstage to speak.

"I'm uncomfortable being up here, because I failed [August] and I've gotta live with that," Moore proclaimed in a prepared speech. "But failure is no longer an option. There can never be another AVN award show that has a memorial [for] young women ever again."