Jon Ronson, the British journalist best known for writing a recent book about online bullying, is launching a Serial-esque podcast about the death of porn performer August Ames. The 23-year-old performer committed suicide in December of last year following a social media controversy.
Shortly before her death, Ames wrote on Twitter, “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... I do my homework for my body.” The implication seeming to be that men who perform in gay porn represent a higher STI transmission risk. Many within the industry took offense at the suggestion, which some saw as homophobic, and which tapped into a long-standing and contentious debate over so-called “cross-over” male performers, who work in both gay and straight porn.
The performer Jessica Drake also weighed in, tweeting, without mentioning Ames, “performers, by all means, fuck who you want to fuck…but if you’re eliminating folks based on the fact they may have done gay or crossover work, your logic is seriously flawed.” She emphasized the many options for protecting oneself—from condoms to STI testing to PrEP. In the wake of Ames’ death, her husband, porn producer Kevin Moore, released a statement blaming Twitter bullying for her suicide, specifically calling out Drake—as well as porn star Jaxton Wheeler, who tweeted at Ames, “The world is awaiting your apology or for you to swallow a cyanide pill. Either or we’ll take it.”
The trailer for the podcast (which can be heard here) does quick, and haunting, work of summarizing this background information. There is sad piano music, as well as a clip of Ames’ charming, snorting laugh. Moore is heard saying, “She couldn’t look away from that phone and I would constantly be like, ‘Lets get away from this.’” He explains that she left the house, saying she was going to tan and work out, but never returned. Moore says, “I lost the woman I love to a bunch of people’s stupid opinions on social media.”
Cut to Drake, who seems, quite unfairly, to be highlighted as the villain here. She’s heard talking to Ronson in cryptic terms about, as the trailer puts it, “her suspicions about August’s husband,” all while nearly sobbing. “I’ve become this really weird container of knowledge and people are coming to me and they’re telling me things about him and her and their relationship and so much stuff and I feel like someone needs to say it but I can’t say it because I’m the fucking asshole in the situation,” she says. Drake adds, barely choking out the words: “Somebody has to help me.”
But at what point does an investigation of bullying turn into its own form of bullying?
That isn’t the only thing about the trailer that makes me a bit queasy. Perhaps it’s the idea of turning an investigation of a suicide into a serialized drama. Or maybe it’s the whiff of opportunism here, given that Ronson wrote So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, a book about the impact of social media mobs on folks like Justine Sacco (she of the infamous “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” tweet). It’s true that Ames’ husband has blamed her death on social media—but it’s also true that Ames, according to an interview she gave before her death, suffered from of depression and bipolar disorder. Not mentioned in the trailer: Ames was one of five porn performers to die within three months—in two cases a drug overdose was suspected, and some reportedly struggled with mental health issues.
On Twitter, Ronson seemed to be attempting to offer a corrective to the trailer, writing of the podcast, which premieres in January, “It ISN’T about how twitter bullying resulted in her death. It’s about whether that’s true, plus a lot more.” Maybe, hopefully, the podcast will give serious airtime to the issues of mental health and substance abuse within the industry—but those subjects aren’t hooked to a compelling personality-driven thesis, and they don’t make for a buzzy trailer.