Shaming

05.22.14

A College Student’s Death Is Now a Talking Point About Porn

Bullying or the ‘pressure of porn’? Everyone’s trying to add their own narrative to explain the 19-year-old’s suicide, which came weeks after her first amateur adult video went live.

The great indignity of Alyssa Funke’s 19-year-old life is not that she performed in a pornographic video, or that she was harassed by her former classmates. It is that two competing media narratives have tried to cast her life in black-and-white and claim her alleged suicide as a way to prove a point.

It’s been more than a month since Funke reportedly shot herself with a 12-gauge shotgun at Big Carnelian Lake in Minnesota on April 16. Other than two brief articles in the student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls (where she was freshman), her death went largely unnoticed. Initially, it was one of the 1,100 annual college suicides that never make national, or sometimes even local, headlines. Funke would have been remembered as a pretty freshman or a straight-A student by friends and probably forgotten by most.

Except Funke made an appearance on CastingCouch-X, a website that bills its performers as “fresh faces and new amateur girls who are trying to enter the XXX porno business.” Under the name “Stella Ann,” she filmed a scene for the site at the age of 18. In the video, she is dressed in white shorts and a tan shirt with a purse across her chest. She first chats about doing gymnastics, track, and soccer in high school while managing the wrestling team. She is then asked by a man off-camera how many men she’s had sex with and whether she’s ever performed oral sex on a woman. She then proceeds to have sex on camera. This video reportedly went live in March, and a little more than a month later she was dead.

Considering the relatively short timeframe, it’s easy—too easy—to draw the conclusion that Funke’s foray into pornography led to her death. This week, Fox 9, the network’s Minneapolis-St. Paul affiliate, aired a report on Funke’s death titled “The Pressure of Porn.” There is no mention of suicide’s frightening prevalence on college campuses or that it is the second-leading cause of death of Americans ages 18 to 24.

Instead, Funke’s death was co-opted in a moralistic, slipshod investigation that doesn’t even get her date of death correct. (While the report claims she killed herself April 14, her last tweet is from April 15.) Funke is depicted as a “young, impressionable woman” who didn’t understand the “unforeseen consequences” of entering the world of porn and “having sex with a total stranger”—listen to the news report for the narrator’s ominous emphasis on “stranger.”

Fox 9 appears to be on a crusade to prove that porn is a denigrating career choice with lethal ramifications. The investigation makes a point of showing that Funke is a “dramatic contrast” to Miriam Weeks, the well-known Duke porn star better known as Belle Knox. Funke’s alleged suicide is used to dismiss Knox’s claim that she feels “empowered” by porn. Fox 9 also cites social worker Joy Friedman, who alleges Funke was lying when she said on the CastingCouch-X video that she had a normal childhood. “I bet if we had to go back and pull back the layers of what happened for her, I imagine we’d find something dysfunctional in her past,” Friedman states without any factual basis. The report closes with a quote from Friedman blaming pornography for Funke’s death: “The fact is: If this is such a glamorous, OK job/lifestyle/career, why’d she kill herself?”

Unsurprisingly, a number of media outlets were outraged by this investigation and denounced Fox 9 for blaming Funke’s death on her porn career.  However, they in turn co-opted Funke’s death as proof of the evils of slut-shaming and marginalizing sex workers.

In both of these lines of arguments, Funke is boiled down to a talking point in a culture battle over pornography and sex work rather than treated as a real person.

Both Jezebel and BroBible argued that the online harassment that Funke reportedly faced from her former classmates at Minnesota’s Stillwater Area High School contributed to her demise.

This reporting, too, is slipshod. The articles uncover no new examples of harassment. Instead, they cite the two or three tweets and Facebook posts mentioned in the original Fox 9 report. These included calling Funke a “thot,” which reportedly means “slut.” The other comment cited over and over again—“Nothing brings a school together like a porn star who graduated last year. I guess you could say news spreads fast here at Stillwater hahah”—doesn’t actually seem quite like an insult. Absent are police or medical reports to back their claims that cyberbullying or harassment led to Funke’s alleged suicide.

Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan writes that there is an “obvious correlation between the harassment Funke faced and her suicide,” but it really isn’t obvious. In the days before Funke’s suicide, she tweeted only positive things about her life and career. “Pornstar status” with an OK-sign emoticon and “FAMOUS for dayzzzzzzz” were her last two tweets. If anything, they suggest that Funke was feeling upbeat, rather than beaten down by her critics.

Just as easy as it is to use Funke’s death as a way to chastise the adult-film industry, it can be used as proof of the dangers of cyberbullying and the problems with stigmatizing sex workers. In both of these lines of arguments, Funke is boiled down to a talking point in a culture battle over pornography and sex work rather than treated as a real person.

Lost in the two opposing framings of Funke are the reports that her family stated that she suffered from bouts of depression. Yet even this information is not sufficient for explaining her death. We have no idea what Funke was feeling when she decided to turn the shotgun on herself.

“It’s very difficult to determine what is going on internally with any person. Even the closest family, friends, and roommates may not know what they are going through in their feelings,” said Irene Hyler, a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital-Cornell Weil Medical Center. Hyler discourages the media from “Monday-morning quarterbacking” on suicides because it’s “something we cannot really know about completely or maybe never will know about completely.”

Minnesota’s Washington County Sheriff’s Office is looking into Funke’s death. Officials there have declined to comment while the investigation proceeds. Even after it is closed, we will not know all the reasons why a beautiful, smart woman died at a tragically young age. What is certain is that speculating and making Funke into a mere piece of evidence for a larger battle over porn does a disservice to her life.