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Porn Industry problems Artwork MW v02Artboard 1 co
Composite by Marianne Wilson

Porn actresses are dying – why?

Porn Industry problems Artwork MW v02Artboard 1 co

It's clear that we need to be having a wider conversation about the safety of women who perform in porn, but not in the way you might think

On January 21 it was confirmed that 23-year-old Olivia Lua, a porn actress, had died in a West Hollywood rehab centre. Just a week before, on January 7, another porn actress, 20-year-old Olivia Nova, was found dead in Las Vegas. Three other porn actresses passed away at the end of 2017 – Yuri Luv, 31, August Ames, 23, and Shyla Stylez, 35. Five women have died in just three months.

The circumstances around each woman's untimely death were different. Lua's agency LA Direct Models said in a statement to porn industry website XBiz that friends and family believe a toxic combination of prescription drugs and recreational drugs or alcohol may have caused her to overdose. Lua, they said, had been facing “personal challenges” that had seen her in residential rehab for nearly three months. She had been “hoping to make a return to work in the early part of this year” before winding up in rehab again.

For Nova, also represented by LA Direct Models, it was confirmed last week that she died after contracting sepsis from a “severe urinary tract infection that spread to her kidney”. According to the NHS website, UTIs are often caused by having sex and “having frequent sex increases the chances of getting a kidney infection”. It may be stating the obvious, but while British couples generally have sex once to twice a week, porn performers tend to have more sex than average. In YouTube series ‘Ask a Pornstar’, one performer revealed she had shot as many as nine scenes in a day.

Like Lua, Yuri Luv also died of a suspected drug overdose, with pills reportedly found near her bed. August Ames, meanwhile, committed suicide at the beginning of December, after facing a torrent of abuse on social media for saying that she wouldn't shoot with male performers who had done gay porn. A toxicology report released yesterday found that she had anti-depressants, cocaine and marijuana in her system when she took her own life. Shyla Stylez died in her sleep at her mother's home in Calgary, Canada, in November (her cause of death has yet to be confirmed).

Academic Rosie Hodson – currently studying towards a PhD in pornography – warns against making generalisations about the deaths, saying it does performers a “disservice” to define them simply by their careers in porn and is a gross oversimplification to connect all of their deaths directly to their work in pornography. They are individuals, as unique as any other set of women in a vast industry that employs thousands.

However, without descending into conspiracy theories, it's clear that we need to be having a wider conversation about the safety of women who perform in porn.

This is one that's already happening within the industry. At the most recent porn convention, the AVN Awards, in Las Vegas two weeks ago (known as the Oscars of the porn world) August Ames’ husband Kevin Moore said: “There can never be another AVN Awards show that has a memorial full of young women ever again”. He announced the setup of The August Project, a new support system which will be tailored for performers in the industry, “a resource, so if any of you find yourself on the edge of a cliff, help is a phone call away”. He added: “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.”

Thanks to the explicitly sexual nature of their work, in a patriarchal society, it's clear porn performers bear a heavy burden of stigma. As an under-researched medium, there are few studies that prove the point, but the 2012 documentary After Porn Ends did a good job in illustrating some of the struggles even very successful performers can have in reclaiming their lives outside of the industry. One woman described losing her job as a realtor after being recognised for her previous porn work. The book Coming Out Like a Porn Star, edited by genderqueer porn performer Jiz Lee, collated the stories of their porn peers and painted a similar picture of stigma.

“The real issue is that we consider porn and people who perform in it as culturally and morally worthless and disposable so when we hear about stuff like this people think it's their fault for getting involved in the industry” – Vex Ashley

While researching the feminist arguments for and against porn, you quickly come to realise that there are two main strands of thought. In one corner sit anti-porn feminists like Gail Dines, Julie Bindel and Gloria Steinem, and in the other are the pro-sex feminists, like Hodson, Susie Bright, Buck Angel and Mireille Miller-Young. One of the first anti-porn activists, Andrea Dworkin, wrote in Woman Hating in 1974, that “any violation of a woman's body can become sex for men; this is the essential truth of pornography”, while journalist Ellen Willis challenged that view in 1979, asking, “Is there any objective criterion for healthy or satisfying sex, and if so what is it?”

The same conversation around porn has been dragging on since and the industry itself has thrived, albeit dampened more recently by the emergence of the internet and all-powerful tube sites like PornHub, which have made life difficult for sex industry performers and creators but more accessible for consumers. To this day, anti-porn feminists essentially believe that consent to BDSM, dominant-submissive sex, consumption of porn or sex work is due to centuries of patriarchal brainwashing. An article from feminaust explains that they believe women’s consent to sex acts within this context is “nullified”, and sex within porn is often regarded by these anti-porn feminists as rape.

Ana Lopes, co-founder of the International Union of Sex Workers, told the Guardian that this view of porn has been unhelpful: “That has not changed the conditions under which women perform sex work,” she said. “It has done nothing to improve their lives. On the contrary, they (anti-porn feminists) have been a huge barrier to sex workers' empowerment and self-organisation… The women's movement is one of the most obvious allies – but if feminists are busy protesting against prostitution and pornography as a concept, it is clear that sex workers cannot count on their help.”

Vex Ashley, a performer and the founder of avant-garde porn site Four Chambers, falls firmly into the pro-sex camp. Like Hodson, she points out that “correlation isn’t necessarily causation” in the cases of the deaths, but that it had shocked the whole community. “The community feels lost together and it can mean that when one person dies, it can snowball a little bit and have a knock-on effect,” she says. “But as far as I’m aware these aren’t people who knew each other or who spent a lot of time together, or who even really worked in similar places. The industry is much more diverse and complex than we ever give it credit for.” 

“The real issue is that we consider porn and people who perform in it as culturally and morally worthless and disposable so when we hear about stuff like this people go ‘of course, of course, that would happen, it’s your fault for getting involved in that kind of industry’. The blame is placed squarely on the performers instead of examining what can change and what can make the work better for the people who are doing it. What we really need to do is work to minimise the stigma of working in porn.”

It’s true that the wider dialogue around porn performers is still horrendously sexist. The recent revelations about Trump’s alleged affair with adult actress Stormy Daniels proved as much: she has been “shamed” far more than he has. On the same note, Hodson says: “What is more likely to cause damage is the lack of support and stigma that workers in the pornography industry face that isn't present for other sectors. The way in which pornography as a form of work is treated is perhaps more to blame than the industry itself. Society, through its aversion to addressing sexuality, creates and allows misinformation about sex to flourish.”

Pointing out that there’s very little financial security considering the “societal burden” you’re inheriting through starting a career in porn, Ashley says that the rise of free tube sites has meant that performer wages and welfare are suffering. “You have to shoot more in order to meet your budget, or take whatever the offers are as you’re just lucky to be getting paid.”

Meanwhile, Ashley herself takes pains to make sure the performers she works with are treated in a way that she herself would like to be treated on set. “I’m not going to pretend my porn is ethical for everyone, but I just try to make porn that feels morally correct for me,” she says. “I prioritise performer wages, performer collaboration, and some kind of ownership over the content which goes out.” This keeps performers somewhat safer than in other areas of the industry; crucially they have a lot of control over their image and what they're happy to do and not do, plus they get a fair paycheck.

“To this day, anti-porn feminists essentially believe that consent to BDSM, dominant-submissive sex, consumption of porn or sex work is due to centuries of patriarchal brainwashing”

But there are some dissenting voices who argue that porn can never be safe, or ethical. Gail Dines is a hardline anti-porn activist and author of Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality, who has been working to shut down the industry for 30 years. Sarah Ditum, a writer for the New Statesmansays that anti-porn feminism “recognises a link between the propaganda of sexual violence and its practice, and stopping porn is understood to be essential in ending the rapes, killings and torture that men practice against women... they believe that lives are at stake”.

It’s an understanding of the issue that could be argued to be simplistic and tinged by a brand of feminism which, through stigmatism, offers more harm than help to women in the short term.

But no wonder, then, that Dines was “unsurprised” to hear of the death of Olivia Lua. Despite the increased focus on women in porn in recent months, she says there are many deaths that “go unnoticed and unmentioned”. When asked if she could think of any other women who had died she said it was “impossible to keep track” as the average woman only survives in the industry for a period of three months. To be clear, there is no evidence of unreported deaths and industry insiders have spoken about it being a close-knit, supportive community. Dines says she collects most of her data on the industry by attending porn conventions (such as the one which happened in Las Vegas last week), but that in recent years women have been less likely to speak to her.

Regarding drug addiction in the industry (linked to the deaths of three of the women), she says she was “told by one woman who works in the industry that there are doctors on set handing out opioids so that women can get through the porn shoot”. She went on: “I know for a fact that if I had to do what they have to do, I would need a lot of opioids. When you think of the violence being done to your body and it being filmed, you need something to dissociate. It's rampant in the porn industry.” While there is evidence to suggest that some porn stars have struggled with addiction, there are lots of industries where that is the case. Dines’ statements on drug use have not been corroborated and fall into a more general attitude of women in porn being regarded as “damaged goods”.

A 2012 study in the Journal of Sex Research, which surveyed 177 female performers, challenged the “damaged goods” outlook and found, for instance, that they were not any more likely to have experienced childhood sexual abuse than anyone else. When it comes to mental health, it’s been reported that the stigma around the profession tends to discourage performers from seeking treatment if they do struggle with depression or related illnesses – rather than people with mental illnesses being more likely to go into the profession from the get-go.

Hodson says that there have been some studies (Griffith et al., 2013) which suggest that industry workers may have “higher than average scores on some mental wellbeing characteristics such as self-esteem, social support and positive feelings”, while EJ Dickson, writing for Men’s Health, says that there is actually a specialised industry around sex worker's mental health and that the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project (SWOP) provides a network of service providers who are deemed sex worker-friendly, as does the Adult Performer Advocacy Committee, thanks to a lack of mainstream acceptance.

The thread of condescension which runs throughout Dines’ work doesn't help matters. Women in porn don't know what they're doing and the sex they have is rape, she says, because there is a lack of “informed consent”. She believes that women enter the industry without necessarily knowing what they will be expected to do (in an article for Unilad Dines described “three men, one with his penis in your mouth sideways, one in your vagina, one in your anus, your two hands are jerking off two other guys, so you’ve got five guys surrounding you, your being rammed with viagra-strength penises, and then they ejaculate all over your face”, as an example) and are only partaking in a porn video rather than consenting, because of that. This doesn’t seem to be the case.

There are certainly issues to do with consent and the treatment of women in the ‘mainstream’ porn industry (in 2016 a group of adult female performers brought allegations of rape and abuse against pornstar James Deen, for example). But while the physical brutality enacted upon women in some scenes is sickening, there is mixed evidence as to whether violence against women is rife within the industry. As well as her habit of picking and choosing facts that support her cause with little definitive evidence to back them up, where Dines’ argument starts to disintegrate is in the fact that she completely denies agency to the women who decide to watch, or work in porn. She says feminist porn cannot exist from a structural point of view, and that you cannot trust someone within the industry to tell you the truth about their experiences, point blank, and that once they have quit, they always talk about it negatively.

“You keep going higher with what you’re willing to do, but not due to pressure from the pornography companies” – Jay Rose

Jaye Rose, a former adult actress and feminist, is one of many who bucks this alleged trend. She says always felt in control of what she did within the boundaries of the professional industry. “The only pressure would be from fans and what you put on yourself,” she says. “You keep going higher with what you’re willing to do, but not due to pressure from the companies.” She left the industry because of the social media-led lifestyle that means you are “constantly accessible”. To be relentlessly subject to surveillance and hyper-communication is a painful burden unique to the social media age of pornography which certainly doesn't seem to be making life easier for its stars.

The husband of deceased performer August Ames claims that this was a contributing factor in her death, stating that online “bullying took her life”. Ames faced controversy over her 2017 tweet in which she warned a fellow performer over shooting with a ‘crossover’ gay porn performer.

Rose says that via social media, “you open yourself up to so much more ridicule and criticism, and a lot of people find that really hard to deal with. It’s not something that you consider when you go into the industry. You never think about how much feedback you’ll get. I guess that can have a massive effect on your personal life, and (whether you might) take your own life.” Rose says she felt almost “obliged” or “indebted” to her online supporters. “If you already have a lot of insecurities about certain aspects of your life, to then expose yourself so much, I think people can pick up on those insecurities and push you into things.”

Not all of Dines’ work around pornography needs to be dismissed for us to recognise that the overarching anti-porn message is questionable. She rightly points out, for instance, that women of colour are paid less than white performers, and carry the “dual subordination” of their blackness and womanhood. But, as Ashley says, “Porn, like every other media that we produce under a patriarchal capitalist society often holds a mirror to what that society values. Society isn’t misogynistic or racist because of porn. That’s true of all media we consume and produce. The issue is that porn has been considered to be worthless, so it’s not been critiqued and held up in the same way that other types of media have.”

Hodson highlights that there is “outstanding work” being done by people within the industry: “activism both about pornography itself and regarding wider issues of sexual freedom, stigma and consent”. Industry groups have protested in the UK against obscenity laws by ‘face-sitting’ outside parliament and out in California groups worked toward the successful rejection of Proposition 60 in 2016, which would have meant all porn performers had to wear condoms. Paying for porn, seeking out pornography from original content creators, and shunning the use of tube sites is are also simple actions we can all take that will hopefully have a trickle-down effect – and mean that fewer women working in the industry struggle with health problems without adequate help.

Just like any other type of media, the hope is that if porn becomes less stigmatised, the industry will be better able to take some responsibility for the negative tropes it reproduces. It may be a mirror to society, but like any other form of entertainment, there is a duty of care and the most surefire way in which we can move forward into a place where women in porn are protected is by listening to people in the industry – rather than wholly condemning it.

Five women dead in three months is an alarming number. But it looks like it’s not porn itself that may have contributed toward their deaths, but rather the world’s view of an industry that’s consumed voraciously, but in secret. The shadowy world of porn and the stigma attached to those who work in it makes it harder for its performers to seek help when they need it, and that needs to change.