opinion

TRAGEDY

The Mysterious Death of a Cyberbullied Porn Star

August Ames, 23, was found dead, hanging in a park after she was attacked by an online lynch mob. Her death should be a lesson to all those in the adult industry—and beyond.

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Frolicking down the stairs, with barely any make-up on and wearing pajamas, August Ames looks to all the world like a girl coming down to break out the goodies Santa left under the tree. At one point, she pauses to playfully moon the camera, smiling at the camera like Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks. She is 23 years old, ebullient and full of life—a far cry from the stereotype of the “troubled porn star.”

Nominated for multiple awards, including the coveted AVN Female Performer of the Year, Ames should be planning her red carpet attire for the 2018 AVN Awards in January—it is, after all, the Oscars of porn. Instead her family, friends, and fans are mourning the loss of her life.

Days after Ames (birth name: Mercedes Grabowski) suffered the wrath of cyberbullies, she was found dead in a public park hanging from a rope. According to the medical examiner, her body was found at 3:45 a.m. and her cause of death was asphyxiation from hanging. Though a suicide note apologizing to her family was reportedly discovered, it did not mention the cyberbullying many have blamed for her suicide. Ames, according to adult industry sources, had also been battling depression.

“I want my sister’s death to be recognized as a serious issue—bullying is not OK,” her brother James told The Sun. “It cost me my baby sister’s life. I will do what I can to be a voice for Mercedes but right now my family and I need to be left alone to grieve—we have lost a loved one.”

On Dec. 3, Ames voiced an opinion that up until recently had been a fairly standard one in the adult industry: She didn’t feel comfortable working with a “crossover,” or a male performer who works on both the gay and straight sides of porn (in industry lingo, girl/girl scenes aren’t considered “gay”).

“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? #ladirect I do my homework for my body,” she tweeted.

For expressing her opinion and openly warning uninformed performers without pointing out the person she refused to work with, Ames accidentally found herself on the wrong end of a social media lynch mob. Accused of being homophobic and bullied by people both in and out of the industry, she tried to set the record straight: 

“NOT homophobic. Most girls don’t shoot with guys who have shot gay porn, for safety. That’s just how it is with me. I’m not putting my body at risk, i don’t know what they do in their private lives.”

Some took what she wrote personally and reacted emotionally, typing away at their social media feeds before pondering what their goals were or how their words might impact another person. Several people called for Ames to commit suicide, including gay porn star Jaxton Wheeler. Sickened by this suggestion, veteran performer Alana Evans came to Ames’ defense, tweeting: “So this piece of shit yesterday told August to swallow a cyanide pill. Is this how the gay industry behaves when we say we don’t want your crossover dick? Guess so. He should be liable for her death!”

For calling Wheeler out, Evans was then attacked by internet trolls. It was a domino effect: Instead of learning from Ames’ suicide, people were quick to react, pointing fingers and accusing each other of being the bully while becoming just that. “People are hurt and angry. They were calling me stupid and telling me I can’t read but I’m supposed to be the bully?” Evans tells The Daily Beast. “If someone tells me they feel bullied, I take that seriously and apologize.”

HIV transmission is a matter of great concern in the adult industry—particularly for those who engage in male-on-male sex. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its first major report on HIV transmission among male adult film performers. In the fall of 2014, one 25-year-old man, whom the study referred to as Victim A, had tested negative for HIV within the 14-day testing window (the Performer Availability Screening Services, which maintains a database of STI test results for adult performers, mandates HIV testing within 14 days of filming), but then contracted HIV from a non-work partner, and, after engaging in bareback sex with 17 other men without knowing his positive status—including 12 performers—managed to spread the virus, threatening a potential industry-wide outbreak.

“The performer, having tested negative by nucleic acid amplification test within the preceding 14 days, and unaware of his very recent HIV infection, infected another performer and a non-work-related partner,” the report said.

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As The Daily Beast reported at the time, “none of the performers with whom the patient worked, nor any of his non-work sexual contacts, were on Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis for HIV, also known as PrEP, a medication (Truvada) that, when used as directed, can decrease risk of HIV infection by up to 90 percent.”

Back in the day, fans couldn’t reach us like this. Someone might get into a fight at a convention or cause drama on set, but you didn’t have to deal with strangers in your life on a day-to-day basis like this.
Porn Star Alana Evans

“Condom use provides additional protection from HIV and sexually transmitted infections… Performers and all persons at risk for HIV infection in their professional and personal lives should discuss the use of PrEP with their medical providers,” explained the report.

People who get into the adult industry certainly deviate from the norm—some more than others. It takes a special type of person to shed their inhibitions and clothes for money; to use the body as a tool, sharing that intimate vulnerability not just with another person but for all the world to see, over and over again. There’s this illusion of strength and power but what most of the industry keeps secret is how fragile we really are.

The first year in porn is the toughest, the most critical. That’s when you hear how pale, fat, and lazy you are. At least that’s what I was told. Photographers have the sharpest tongues. They’d insult me and demand that I pose in just the right way: Smile, don’t smile, suck in your cheeks they’re too fat, don’t lean over that way you have a fat belly, suck that in too. The criticism certainly led to a few eating disorders, and an unlimited monthly tanning membership (one day I might even have to pay the price of skin cancer). After a while I toughened up—to a degree. Having dealt with the directors’ and photographers’ criticisms, reading hate mail from fans wasn’t all that bad, even when they referred to me as a “disgusting whore” and wished for me “to get AIDS and die.” Of course, this was all in the early 2000s before social media took off, so I was able to ease into handling that level of vitriol.

Whether it’s hate mail or hate tweets, porn stars are verbally assaulted every day, and not everyone can just “get used to it.” For some, it confirms their deepest, darkest insecurities; a battering ram to one’s soul that is virtually impossible to ignore.

“Back in the day, fans couldn’t reach us like this. Someone might get into a fight at a convention or cause drama on set, but you didn’t have to deal with strangers in your life on a day-to-day basis like this,” says Evans.

One of the problems is that it isn’t just strangers but industry insiders who tend to jump on the blame-bandwagon, throwing their notoriety at issues without thinking about responsibility or impact. Ames was particularly well-liked in the adult industry, and the views she expressed on Twitter in the days before she died did not seem malicious. Those same views were all but universal in the industry when she entered about four years ago. I’ve known agents who would spend time watching gay porn just to catalogue the performers’ tattoos so they could compare them to the guys doing “straight” porn under an alternate name. Not long ago, many agents worked to keep their girls from working with crossovers.

It was only by accident that Ames found herself on the wrong side of a fast-evolving social issue regarding views on gender and sexuality, expressing an opinion that had until very recently been standard among industry performers but is now frowned upon by a growing minority. Yet some very respected industry veterans failed to acknowledge this, instead calling for a need to be more open-minded.

On Dec. 4, industry heavyweight (and Donald Trump accuser) Jessica Drake responded to the social media firestorm with an equality-for-all message consistent with the brand she promotes, writing:

“Performers, by all means, fuck who you want to fuck...but if you’re eliminating folks based on the fact they they may have done gay or crossover work, your logic is seriously flawed. reality is, WE DON’T KNOW who does what with whom when there are no cameras,” she tweeted.

Much like Ames, Drake didn’t mean to become the center of a societal issue regarding LGBTQ porn performers but accidentally wound up on the wrong side of the bullying issue by expressing views seemingly on the right side of a cultural shift. Since then, she’s posted several explanations to clear the air before going silent on Twitter for the first time in years:

“i just can’t contribute to the noise any more today. i will say it one last time. i am ashamed, saddened, and heartbroken if any opinion i posted in any way contributed to August’s death. please stop all the blaming and fighting. it doesn’t bring her back,” Drake wrote. 

Whatever forces compelled Ames to take her own life, the lesson from all of this seems to be that social media witch hunts are not the answer, and, when presented with a potentially problematic online point of view, the best approach is to not get too wrapped up in the heat of the moment, try to be kind/constructive, and apply some good old-fashioned common sense.