Five young women in porn have died within a few months – it’s time for a change

Five young women in porn have died within a few months – it’s time for a change

The pornography industry is no stranger to misconceptions. But the recent deaths of five young women in recent months – August Ames, Olivia Lua, Olivia Nova, Yuri Luv and Shyla Stylez – have served to reignite debates regarding working conditions and the treatment of performers.

At the recent AVN Awards, often referred to as the Oscars of the adult video industry, performer and husband to Ames, Kevin Moore, declared: “There can never be another AVN Awards show that has a memorial full of young women ever again.” Not all of the causes of death have been made public, though questions have been raised about some of the women’s mental health.

Given the narratives that surround the industry, it would be easy to fall into the trap of suggesting that these women suffered as a result of the cruel and degrading conditions working in porn involves, as suggested by some commentators, such as Julie Bindel. But to do so is to ignore the realities of the industry as told by the workers themselves and to talk about porn in a manner removed from wider discussions on workplace rights, gender and culture. This tendency also prevents us from engaging in a wider conversation about mental health, sex work and stigma. And this is key to understanding the circumstances surrounding each death.

You don’t need to look far into discussions on the pornography industry to see it being decried as a hellhole of torture and abuse, particularly for its female performers. But rarely are such claims backed up by industry workers themselves. This is not to say that the industry is a utopia free of sexual harassment, but that such behaviour is an exception rather than the rule. Meanwhile, recent reports from Hollywood have shown that work-related sexual assault is hardly limited to sex work alone.

Mental health

At the same time, more than one in four of us will experience mental health difficulties over the course of each year. We see stories regarding mental health in relation to other professions frequently, from NHS staff to university academics. When workers in other professions raise concerns about their mental health, they tend to be greeted with empathy and support. Unlike workers within porn, they are rarely shut down by being told they shouldn’t be working in that industry in the first place.

Where the pornography industry differs from these other sectors of work is in the stigma faced by those working within it. As with any other form of sex work, pornography is considered to be an “other” in society, and it is industry workers who bear the brunt of this stigmatisation.

They are seen as “damaged goods”, “dirty”, or responsible for the denigration of society – though there is no evidence to suggest that any of this is true, and some suggesting the opposite. They must fight against the idea that pornography labour is not “real work”. In recent years, the increasing accessibility of their online selves through social media has provided ample opportunities for connecting with fans and promoting their work – as well as for online abuse, harassment and trolling. This creates even more opportunities for this stigma to flourish, as well as for it to be confronted.

It is not the working conditions in the industry that are most likely to cause damage. Instead, it is the stigma and lack of support that workers in the pornography industry face – something that isn’t a problem for those working in other sectors. By applying the label of “porn star” to each of the women who have died, we close down a conversation about mental health, under the idea that porn is different, a scapegoat. In doing so, we avoid the difficult task of allowing the industry to be part of an equally difficult discussion on a wider societal level.

So what can we do?

We must consider porn like any other industry and work to reduce the stigma surrounding it, alongside other forms of sex work. Workers in the pornography industry are just as entitled to employment rights and protections as those in all other forms of labour, and to consider pornography professionals as less deserving or less capable of having these demands met is therefore “the worst kind of abuse”, as performer Jiz Lee and media studies expert Rebecca Sullivan show.

We also need to engage with performers and other professionals in the industry by supporting their work and listening to their voices with regards to industry conditions and how we can work to make it better.

And finally, we must accept that porn is porn, but also look beyond the baggage of that label towards the social dynamics at play when discussing mental health, workplace rights and sex work. In doing so, we can build an environment where pornography professionals are not dismissed and their valid contributions towards wider social issues can be recognised. That would certainly be a fitting tribute for the women whose lives have been lost.